Press Conference with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Following Meeting with President Karzai
SEC. GATES: Thank you very much, Mr. President.
Well, it's been a pleasure to meet and have a conversation with President Karzai. I think he has shown extraordinary leadership and courage in making tough decisions for Afghanistan. I want to thank him for his hospitality and for your leadership, Mr. President.
Earlier I met with Minister Wardak. His work in helping to build the Afghan security forces is very commendable and, in my view, has been very successful. The Afghan army is increasingly taking the lead in combat operations. That force continues to grow in size and strength and confidence. And I met some of those forces at Forward Operating Base Tillman this afternoon and was very impressed, and received a very encouraging report from the American forces up there on performance of their Afghan counterparts.
I clearly had a full schedule today. I met with our commanders and heard their perspective, as well as the NATO commander, heard his views on the situation. Clearly, two of those people, General Richards and General Ikenberry, will soon depart Afghanistan, and both have made an extraordinary contribution here. I'd like to pass along my personal thanks for all they have achieved.
There's been a lot of progress in Afghanistan. For example, under the Taliban government, women were subject to arbitrary rules, roles, rules and punishment. Now 74 women serve in the Afghan Parliament, writing the laws that govern the society. Only 8 percent of Afghans used to have access to some form of health care; today some 80 percent do. So this is an important time to secure the gains of the past and to build on them in the future and continue strengthening this government and this country.
I'm confident that working with the forces of 26 NATO countries, who are here, and more importantly, working side by side with the Afghan people, we will continue to make progress. This is a long-term strategic partnership, and we are committed to it. This is also a period of opportunity. You're helping rebuild a country and a society with roots stretching back to the beginning of human history.
The United States, members of NATO and other allies and the Afghan people understand the importance of success here in Afghanistan. We have had much success. We must build on that and make it endure.
STAFF: Questions? We'll take The Washington Post first.
Q Mr. Secretary, you were at the border today -- you know, visiting base at the border today, officials here say that the number of border incidents in that border area have increased by more than 300 percent since an agreement in September by Pakistan with tribal leaders in North Waziristan.
How can you make any headway to breaking this insurgency without some change in policy by Pakistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, there's no question that there has been a significant increase. I don't know the exact amount, but a significant increase of attacks from across the border, particularly in North and South Waziristan, and it is a problem. By the same token, Pakistan is one of America's strongest allies in the war on terror, and we will continue working with the Pakistanis to see if there's a way that we can begin to reduce the violence coming from that side of the border.
Q At the same time -- Mr. Secretary, at the same time there's an insurgency, obviously, as you know, in Iraq, and a new plan by the administration. But back home there continues to be opposition, skepticism that it will work. And one senior official has said on this trip that Prime Minister al-Maliki is on board with the plan. There are others around him who seem not to be.
How, then, do you convince the American people that this plan will succeed, and once you know it isn't, then what do you do?
SEC. GATES: I think the president said in his speech -- and if not in his speech, then in his press conference -- that he understood the skepticism, and that it would be events on the ground that would persuade people whether or not the strategy with the surge had been successful. And I think that's what we're looking for as well.
And what both I and General Pace said in our testimony at the Senate Armed Services Committee last week was that we expect in certain areas to be able to see whether the Iraqi government is carrying out the commitments that it has made and that are so critical to the success of this strategy, reasonably clear, meaning within, I think, in some areas in the military arena, will the additional forces that they had committed to come into Baghdad appear as scheduled; will they allow us to go in -- allow Iraqi and American security forces to go into all neighborhoods; will they go after all lawbreakers, regardless of where they're located? These things we will be able to tell, I think, within two or three months.
Q Mr. Secretary, you say that Pakistan is a real ally on the war on terror of the United States, and that this is why they have recently -- (inaudible) -- safe haven, in fact, and -- (inaudible) -- region in -- (inaudible). How confident are you on what the Pakistani government is doing? Is it enough? Do they need to do more?
And another thing that, as my colleague said, there has been an increase in the cross-border activities. What does it take? What has gone wrong? What should be done?
SEC. GATES: First of all, I would say is that the day after tomorrow marks the end of my first month in the job. And this is not an area that I have had an opportunity to look into in any depth. I do know the few things that I indicated in the answer I gave to the earlier question; that is Pakistan has been an extraordinarily strong ally of the United States in the war on terror, and that the border area is a problem; that there are more attacks coming across the border, that there are al Qaeda networks operating on the Pakistani side of the border. And these are issues that we clearly will have to pursue with the Pakistani government.
MODERATOR (?): (Would you ?) like to take more questions?
Q Sir --
SEC. GATES: I'll take one.
PRESIDENT KARZAI (?): You'll take one. (Laughter.)
(Inaudible) -- the Afghan press. So --
Q (Inaudible) -- Mr. Secretary, are there any decisions over sending more troops to Afghanistan, as General Eikenberry asked today for more troops -- combat -- so they surge and the Taliban -- (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: As I indicated on the plane on the way to London, I've been concerned, in the short time I have been in this position, to ensure that the success that we've had in Afghanistan together remain a success and not be challenged.
I think it's important for us to take the initiative in dealing with security threats, that we act together on this. And if the commanders in the field believe that more forces are required to do that, then I certainly would be strongly inclined to recommend that to the president.
MODERATOR: Okay. One more question. (Inaudible.)
Q (Through interpreter.) Mr. Secretary, (name inaudible) from Voice of America. The first question was that -- (off mike) -- there have been some high-level U.S. visits to Afghanistan. Is that because of the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or is it some --
PRESIDENT KARZAI: No, that was not the question. (Soft laughter.)
The question was that there are three visits in a month -- in a week to Afghanistan, and this has puzzled the Afghan people as to what's going on. And that was to me.
The second question was to you. That was about the sending of more troops. (Inaudible) -- I'll answer the first question.
(Continues in his own language.)
(In English.) He can translate that. (Laughter.)
INTERPRETER: The visits by high-ranking U.S. officials to Afghanistan has been following his support of the country. And it's positive news for the Afghan people to see that the U.S. stays committed to helping rebuild this nation, and helping Afghans with their move in going forward. And we believe it's all done in a positive spirit of a partner supporting and staying with us and helping us.
SEC. GATES: And in response to the second part of the question, I would simply refer back to my earlier answer and say I believe that we must do what is necessary to sustain the success that we have already attained in Afghanistan.
Q President Karzai, one more question?
We understand that apparently, reportedly a 200, as high as a 300 percent increase in the violence in Afghanistan in the past year; 2006 the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. What explains that, and particularly now, when U.S. intelligence officials are expecting a very violent spring offensive launched by the Taliban?
PRESIDENT KARZAI: Unfortunately, we had last year an increase in attacks on Afghanistan, on the coalition troops, on the Afghan people. With which the -- (inaudible) -- dealt very heavily. We gave them a serious blow. Since then, the attacks have increased, the incidents have increased. The reason behind the -- (inaudible) -- was explained by the Afghan government, and also by the international community, that for the coming spring -- there's talk of a spring offensive. I have continuing confidence that the Afghan people and in terms of partners of us -- the United States, NATO -- are ready to give terrorism a serious blow when they come. And we want them to come and get defeated so that we all can rest and enjoy our lives all over the world.
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