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Testimony


Opening Statement on the Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan to the Senate Armed Services Committee

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Mr. Warner. And thank you both for your very kind comments.  I would note that it was 42 years ago a month ago that I first took the oath entering government service.
I want to thank you and the committee for inviting us to give you an update on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I'd like to express at the outset gratitude to this committee and to the Congress for passing legislation to enhance the benefits of the G.I. Bill. The department is very pleased with the outcome, and I can tell you that our men and women in uniform are deeply appreciative.  Of course, this is just one example of the many ways in which you have supported our troops over past years and on behalf of all of them, I thank you.
I would also like to take this occasion, just echoing Senator Inhofe, to encourage the committee to act this week on the nominations of Mike Donnelly to be the secretary of the Air Force and General William Frazier, III to be the service’s vice chief of staff. As you know, the Air Force is undergoing a critical period of transition and renewal, and it's vitally important that the full leadership team is in place and confirmed.
As you know, I visited last week with our troops, commanders, and local partners in both countries.  In Iraq, I was honored to pay tribute to our outgoing commander, General David Petraeus, as well as Ambassador Ryan Crocker to whom I might add I gave the Department of Defense's highest civilian award. Beyond their own brilliant individual performances, the Petraeus-Crocker team was a superb model of military-civilian partnership and one that should be studied and emulated for years to come.
Earlier this month, General Petraeus made his recommendations on the way forward in Iraq.  Separate recommendations were submitted by the commander of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, the commander of Central Command, the service chiefs, and the Chairman. Although each viewed the challenges from a different perspective weighing different factors, all, once again, arrived at similar recommendations.
We’ve already withdrawn the five army brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions and Marine expeditionary unit that were sent to Iraq as part of the surge. The President announced earlier this month that approximately 8,000 troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by February without being replaced.
The withdrawal of approximately 3400 non-combat forces, including aviation personnel, explosive ordinance teams, combat and construction engineers, military police, and logistics support teams began this month, will continue through this fall and winter and be completed in January. In addition, the Marine battalions stationed in Anbar will return in November and another Army brigade combat team will return by early February. The bottom line point is that the draw downs associated with the President's announcements of 8,000 coming down do not wait until January or February but, in fact, have begun.
The continuing drawdown is possible because of the success in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity. Even with fewer troops in Iraq -- U.S. troops in Iraq, the positive trends of the last year have held, and in some cases, steadily continued in the right direction. Our casualties have been greatly reduced even though one is still too many. And overall violence is down more than 80 percent. The recent turnover of Anbar Province to the Iraqi Provincial Control, the 11th of 18 provinces to be turned over, highlights how much the situation has improved.
My submitted testimony has more details on some of the other positive indicators as well as the serious challenges that remain. In short, Iraqi security forces have made great strides. Political progress has been incremental but significant. And other nations of the region are increasingly engaged with Iraq. That said, there are still problems such as the prospect of violation in the lead-up to elections, worrisome reports about sectarian efforts to slow the assimilation of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, Iranian influence, the very real threat that Al Qaida continues to pose, and the possibility that Jaish al Mahdi could return.
Before moving on to Afghanistan, I would like to make a few general comments and put the successes of the past year and a half in some context. 
The President has called our reduction in troop numbers a return on success.  I, of course, agree but would expand on this. The changes on the ground and in our posture are reflective of a fundamental change in the nature of the conflict.  In past testimony, I have cautioned that no matter what you think about the origins of the war in Iraq, we must get the end game there right. I believe we have now entered that end game.  And our decisions today and in the months ahead will be critical to regional stability and our national security interests for years to come.
When I entered this office, the main concern was to halt and reverse the spiraling violence in order to prevent a strategic calamity for the United States and allow the Iraqis to make process on the political, economic, and security fronts. Although we all have criticisms of the Iraqi government, there can be no doubt that the situation is much different and better than it was in early 2007. The situation, however, remains fragile.
Disagreements in our country still exist over the speed of the draw downs and whether we should adhere to hard-and-fast timelines or more flexible time horizons.
I worry that the great progress our troops and the Iraqis have made has the potential to override a measure of caution borne of uncertainty. Our military commanders do not yet believe our gains are necessarily enduring and they believe that there are still many challenges and potential for reversals in the future. The continuing but carefully modulated reductions the president has ordered represent, I believe, not only the right direction but also the right course of action – especially considering planned and unplanned redeployments by some of our coalition partners. The planned reductions are an acceptable risk today, but also provide for unforeseen circumstances in the future. They also preserve a broad range of options for the next commander in chief, who will make his own assessment after taking office in January.
As we proceed deeper into the endgame, I would urge our nation’s leaders to implement strategies that, while reducing our presence in Iraq steadily, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders. I would also urge our leaders to keep in mind that we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways.
Let me shift to Afghanistan. There we are working with the Afghans and coalition partners to counter a classic extremist insurgency fueled by ideology, poppy, poverty, crime, and corruption.
During my recent visit to Afghanistan, I emphasized our commitment to success in that country – a commitment that includes increasing the size of our forces in country as well as the size and capabilities of the Afghan security forces. I also expressed my regret, and the regret of the American people, for the civilians killed and injured in coalition and NATO airstrikes. While no other nation in history has done more to protect the innocent, I pledged that we must, and will do better.
My submitted statement details some positive developments, such as the increased commitment by our international partners on both the military and non-military fronts and the announcement earlier this month to double the size of the Afghan army, which has demonstrated its effectiveness on the battlefield. The statement also outlines in more detail some of the logistical challenges we still face and are working to improve, such as ISAF shortfalls and coordination problems between military forces and civilian elements, particularly the PRTs.
Persistent and increasing violence resulting from an organized insurgency is, of course, our greatest concern. The President has decided to send more troops to Afghanistan in response to resurgent extremism and violence reflecting greater ambition, sophistication, and coordination. 
We did not get to this point overnight, so some historical context is useful. The mission in Afghanistan has evolved over the years since 2002 – in both positive and negative ways. Reported insurgent activities and attacks began increasing steadily, particularly in the spring of 2006. This has been the result of increased insurgent activity, insurgent safe havens in Pakistan, and reduced military pressure on that side of the border, as well as more international and Afghan troops on the battlefield – troops that are increasingly in contact with the enemy.
In response to increased violence and the insurgent activity in 2006, in January of 2007 I extended the deployment of an Army brigade and added another brigade. This last spring, the United States deployed 3,500 Marines. In all, the number of American troops in the country increased from less than 21,000 two years ago to more than 31,000 today. 
At the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April, ISAF Allies and Partners restated their own commitment to Afghanistan. France has added 700 troops in Eastern Afghanistan. This fall, Germany will seek to increase its troop ceiling from 3,500 to 4,500. Poland is also increasing its troops by 400. 
The number of Coalition troops – including NATO troops – has increased from about 20,000 to nearly 31,000. And it appears that this trend will continue – as other allies, such as the United Kingdom, add more troops. 
In Bucharest, in April, the President pledged the United States would send more troops to Afghanistan in 2009. Accordingly, we will increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by deploying a Marine battalion this November and in January an Army brigade combat team – both units that had been slated for Iraq.
As in Iraq, however, additional forces alone will not solve the problem. Security is just one aspect of the campaign, alongside development and governance. We must maintain momentum, keep the international community engaged, and develop the capacity of the Afghan government. The entirety of the NATO alliance, the EU, NGOs, and other groups – our full military and civilian capabilities – must be on the same page and working toward the same goal with the Afghan government. I am still not satisfied with the level of coordination and collaboration among the numerous partners and many moving parts associated with civilian reconstruction and development and building the capacity of the Afghan government. 
We do face committed enemies, which brings me finally to the challenge of the tribal areas of Pakistan. As in Iraq, until the insurgency is deprived of safe-havens, insecurity and violence will persist. We are working with Pakistan in a number of areas, and I do believe that Islamabad appreciates the magnitude of the threat from the tribal areas – particularly considering the uptick in suicide bombings directed at Pakistani targets, most recently the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. During this time of political turmoil in Pakistan, it is especially crucial that we maintain a strong and positive relationship with the government – since any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The War on Terror started in this region. It must end there.
Let me close by again thanking all members of the committee – and the Congress as a whole – for their support for our men and women in uniform. I have noted on a number of occasions how positive the public response has been to those who have volunteered to serve. Our nation’s leaders across the entire political spectrum have led the way in honoring our servicemen and women – not just by providing the funds they need for their mission, but also by publicly declaring their support and their admiration of our troops. I thank you for these sentiments. And I thank you for your leadership during these challenging times.

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