Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany
SEC. GATES: I had a good day today; a morning of briefings at European Command. It's the last of the combatant commands. I had wanted to go to their space and be briefed and meet their people, and so it's the last of those that I visited. And talked about the various activities that the command is involved in, and talked a good bit about AFRICOM and standing that up.
As you know, I just visited the hospital at Landstuhl. I greeted a substantial number of patients, many of whom have come in just in the last day or two. I awarded six Purple Hearts. Five of the recipients were conscious. And so it obviously was a very moving experience.
We go on from here to Brussels for the NATO defense ministers formal meeting. The issues -- there are a number of challenges and issues that we'll be talking about. Clearly, fulfilling the commitments that the leaders of the countries made in Riga in a number of areas. Afghanistan, obviously, will be an important topic of conversation. But we'll discuss a full range of things, including NATO organization, the NATO reserve force, missile defense. So there's a very full agenda. And I'll also have several bilateral meetings during the course of it. So it will be a busy day and a half.
I'll stop there and take questions.
Q Mr. Secretary, Mr. Burns, from the State Department, made some fairly strong statements linking Iran to the weapons in Afghanistan and linking actually the government. I'm wondering if you have any further clarity on whether you think anyone in the government is involved? And secondarily, since that is causing an increase in violence, what more do you think you will get from NATO allies, considering you've been pushing for them to meet these commitments for months.
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think it's been a couple of weeks or so since I was asked about the Iranian supply of weapons to Afghanistan. I have seen additional analysis in the interval that makes it pretty clear there's a fairly substantial flow of weapons.
I would say, I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to the effect -- to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities that we're seeing, it is difficult to believe that it's associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it's taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government.
In terms of whether the developments in terms of meeting the unmet needs in Afghanistan in particular, there have been a number of commitments. There were a number of commitments in Singapore in terms of considering PRTs and the operational mentoring themes. I think that several countries have indicated a willingness to either enhance the forces that they have in Afghanistan or keep the forces that are there for a longer period of time.
I think countries are taking this seriously, and so I will continue to press in Brussels.
Q I wanted to follow on the Iran question, but also ask a missile defense second. Can you describe in any way the kind of intelligence you've seen over recent weeks that has brought you to this conclusion?
SEC. GATES: Well, my recollection -- and trying to also protect intelligence sources and methods -- is that it's the weapons themselves and the explosives and so on that have been seized.
Q And on the missile defense question, you'll be seeing your counterpart from Russia in Brussels. Do you have any special comments for him following the proposals made by President Putin at G-8?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that I will certainly underscore our interest in exploring with them President Putin's proposal with respect to the radar in Azerbaijan. After all, I mentioned that possibility when I was in Moscow about data sharing, and if I'm not mistaken, I think, actually, Secretary Rumsfeld raised that possibility three or four years ago in terms of that radar.
So I'm very pleased that President Putin acknowledged that there is merit to missile defense, that Iran does represent a problem that needs to be dealt with in terms of potential missile defense. So I think -- you know, I think there's a basis for having some good conversations.
Q Mr. Secretary, can I ask you about Iraq?
As you know, there was an attack today on the minarets of the mosque at Samarra. How concerned are you that that attack could set off the same sort of sectarian violence that we saw after the last attack on the mosque there?
SEC. GATES: I think we have to be concerned, given the -- what happened 15 months ago after the mosque was bombed the first time. This clearly is or would appear to be yet another effort by al Qaeda to try and prevent political reconciliation in Baghdad, in Iraq; to try and stoke sectarian violence. And my hope is that their intentions are so clear that people will refrain from violence because they understand that al Qaeda is -- that it would just be carrying out what al Qaeda wants and trying to make any further -- trying to make further progress difficult there.
Q Mr. Secretary, the flow of these weapons -- Iranian weapons into Afghanistan -- are they going to the Taliban? Are you seeing any contacts between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Taliban? And what is the analysis as to Iran's motivation?
SEC. GATES: My impression is that the weapons are intended for the Taliban. I don't know that we have seen any evidence of Qods Force in Afghanistan.
Q And motivation?
SEC. GATES: The irony is, the Afghan government and the Iranian government have pretty good relationships. And those of you who were with me in Afghanistan just last week heard President Karzai talk about the importance of good relationships with Iran.
So whether Iran is trying to play both sides of the street, hedge their bets, what their motives are, other than causing trouble for us, I don't know.
Q Getting back to Iraq, with the situation in Samarra, what happened in Samarra and what General Dempsey said about there not being -- that there need to be tens of thousands more, maybe 50,000 more Iraqis -- (off mike) -- is this an example of how much -- how unprepared the Iraqis are? And would you agree with General Dempsey?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that it's -- I haven't read General Dempsey's testimony, but I would suspect that it's really focused on the fact that over the past 15 months we've seen a significant increase in violence in Iraq as al Qaeda and others have tried to stoke the sectarian violence. The need for additional forces -- I mean, these forecasts -- I think it's very important -- these forecasts are not -- in my opinion, are not written in stone. They're estimates on what they expect the need to be -- need will be.
When we were in Afghanistan last week, we were talking about the need for the Afghan army to be larger than perhaps we thought originally would be needed.
So it doesn't surprise me at all that, as we have gone along and as we deal with the security situation that exists in Iraq, that there would be the perception of a need for more Iraqi army and perhaps Iraqi police as well. It seems to me just a realistic assessment, based on the circumstances on the ground.
Q Mr. Secretary, regarding the types of weapons being provided in Afghanistan coming from Iran, are they of the EFP-type level, sophisticated, the type that would give a significant advantage to the Taliban?
SEC. GATES: Well, again, it's been some while since -- or some days since I've read the information, but I think it's pretty much the gamut.
Q Mr. Secretary, how close are you to naming a commander for Africa Command? And what sort of time frame do you anticipate in that process?
SEC. GATES: I think that there will be something quite soon.
Q How about now? (Laughter.)
Q We're ready.
SEC. GATES: That's the president's prerogative.
Q Normally you recommend -- before you've made that process public --
SEC. GATES: Sometimes, not always, not this time. (Laughs.)
Q Mr. Secretary, General Craddock just mentioned, stated that he does not have enough troops here to fulfill the mission in the European Command AOR. In light of those statements, what do you see the troop numbers here for the short term and for the long term?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think, one of the things that the army will have to consider, as it grows by another -- as it grows to 400 -- or 547,000 troops, an increase of about 65,000 over a five-year period, is where those additional brigades will be stationed. And frankly, I think, those decisions haven't been made yet.
But clearly, the needs here in Europe, as well as the basing considerations in the U.S. itself, would have to be taken into account.
Q Mr. Secretary, what do you make of the fact that some months after NATO has taken over full responsibility in Afghanistan, some months after Riga, you're still coming to Brussels with many of the same themes that we saw here a year ago and even before that: need more troops, need better aid coordination, need fewer caveats.
Can the NATO alliance really do this stuff?
SEC. GATES: Sure. And in fact, the NATO alliance, with the Afghans, is doing it. I think that -- you know, when I first went to Afghanistan in January, it was to see if we could somehow galvanize NATO and the Afghan government to try and preempt what was anticipated to be a major spring offensive by the Taliban. It is clear at this point that the spring offensive was NATO's, was ISAF's, not the Taliban’s. And I must tell you that the new ambassador's view, when I got in the car with him in Kabul, was very upbeat about how things are going.
The key for me is we need to sustain this. And there are some unmet needs. But the reality is that the activities that are going on in Afghanistan over this spring, in my opinion, are quite positive both in the security situation and in terms of the number of countries that are stepping up to provide PRTs, OMLTs, and so on, to help the economic reconstruction and development.
So, are there unmet needs? Absolutely. To tell you the truth, it's been my experience, both as a historian and as a policymaker, any time you have generals in the field, they will have unmet needs, and that is an enduring truth. But that has not prevented General McNeill and the Afghans from being successful this spring. And we'll just continue to work at it in terms of meeting some of the unmet needs. The training issue is clearly an important one, principally for the police, not for the Afghan army. About two-thirds of the requirement for trainers is for police trainers. So -- and we need to continue and intensify the efforts on institution building and on economic development and reconstruction.
Q Have you heard of any more commitments over the last several days? I understand there may be some countries who might be --
SEC. GATES: I have, but I think I'd rather let them announce it.
Q On the reconstruction side, Mr. Secretary, there's been a lot of talk about having a more comprehensive approach, a more unified approach. Would you favor the appointment of a senior international official to coordinate all those efforts?
SEC. GATES: Well, one of the things that a number of us have been talking about for some period of time is whether there is an opportunity to better coordinate the international economic assistance, reconstruction and institution building in Kabul, not in terms of some kind of viceroy or somebody even dealing necessarily with the Afghan government, but simply pulling together information from the international community of 42 countries that are making contributions in Afghanistan and seeing if we can coordinate that better.
And I expect that we'll continue that conversation over the next couple of days.
Q While we were traveling overnight, the situation in Gaza deteriorated quite dramatically. Are you aware of any requests for American military help or assistance or advice to help settle that?
SEC. GATES: No.
Q The 15-month tour for soldiers down range has been a big topic, especially for those here. The concern is that they could be extended. How confident are you that those won't be extended? Do they have reason to be worried that that could be possible?
SEC. GATES: One of the reasons that we went to the 15-12 was to ensure that soldiers had a full 12 months at home. My hope is that the next step that we're looking at is returning to 12 and 12, and so I'm going to be a glass half-full person.
Q Thank you.
SEC. GATES: See you on the plane.
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