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Media Roundtable With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from Australia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
February 24, 2008
            STAFF: Thank you all for coming. The secretary is prepared to give you guys 30 minutes on the record. We want to make sure everybody gets a question in. So at least initially, I want to alternate between our press and the Australian press. Once we've crossed that, I think then we'll make sure all of our guys get a question in at least.
            All right.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, can you tell us a little bit about what your concerns are regarding the Turkish invasion and their activity in Iraq and whether you think that it's going to destabilize Iraq -- (inaudible)?
            SEC. GATES: First, I think it's important for everybody to bear in mind the importance of the sovereignty of Iraq. The other factor, obviously, is that Turkey has suffered from terrorist attacks from the PKK, and the PKK has killed both Turkish soldiers and civilians. So I think my view is that the first thing that's important is regular dialogue and openness between the Turkish government and the Iraqi government and I would say also the government of Kurdistan in terms of their intentions, their concerns, their plans and their activities and to work with the Iraqi government in trying to deal with this problem.
            In terms of the current operation, I would hope it would be short, that it would be precise and avoid the loss of innocent life and that they leave as quickly as they can accomplish the mission.
            Q     Destabilization?
            SEC. GATES: I don't see it as a threat to Iraq's stability. 
            Q     Can a military operation resolve their problems --
            MR.     : Let me --
            Q     It's just on the same issue and then we'll --
            MR.     : Right in front of me are our Australian guests, many people traveled many miles to make sure they get questions of Secretary Gates. You can have plenty of time you. Do you have a question?.
            Q     Yes, Secretary, I'd like to ask a question, please, about torture and whether, the world would see America's acceptance of methods of torture and the definition of torture has changed as a result of 9/11 and the U.S.'s response to it. And specifically, do you consider waterboarding to be torture?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I'm not going to tread where the attorney general is not prepared to tread. I'm no lawyer. I will tell you that I think that the area for which I am responsible, the Department of Defense, has very clear rules on what is permitted and what is not permitted in terms of interrogation techniques, and they are in the Army field manual. And any techniques not in there are not permitted. Waterboarding is not one of those techniques that is permitted. And so no one in the United States military carries out that kind of activity.
            Q     Can a military operation resolve Turkey's PKK problem?
            SEC. GATES: No, and I think that, you know, all our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows us that while dealing with a terrorist problem does require security operations, it also requires economic and political initiatives. And one of the messages that has been a consistent one from the American government at all levels to the Turkish government is that the kinds of military activities that they have been engaged in should be complemented with initiatives to try and address some of the concerns of those who are reconcilable among the Kurds to win their loyalty to Turkey if they are living in Turkey and to try and eliminate whatever popular base exists that supports the terrorist activities of the PKK. But these economic and political measures are really important, because after a certain point, people become inured to military attacks. And if you don't blend them with these kinds of nonmilitary initiatives, then at a certain point, I think, the military efforts become less and less effective. So I think it needs, just as we are dealing with an Iraq and Afghanistan, it needs a comprehensive approach.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, Greg Sheridan of The Australian.
            Defense trade agreements which Australia and the U.S. have signed, do you have any sense of a timetable for when that will be ratified? Is there a danger of too many things being excluded to make an agreement wholly meaningful? Do you have a sense of where it is in Congress at the moment?
            SEC. GATES: Our people in the department have been in the process of paring down the list of exclusions, of exemptions. We now have a list that is essentially the same as exists for the United Kingdom. And the Congress has asked that both of these treaties be submitted together with their implementing documents. And our hope is the Department of Defense will be turning it over to the State Department for review within a matter of days. It is our hope that it will go to the Congress for ratification perhaps in early March. How long a ratification process takes is really a matter of how quickly the Congress can act on them or will act on them.
            Q     May I speak to Turkey again? Last time this became an issue and Prime Minister Erdogan was in Washington, there was some pretty tough language from the administration on the Kurdish Regional Government not really doing enough to hunt down the PKK on their own. Can you visit that again? Are you satisfied with what KRG's doing up there in terms of, you know, shutting down the operation, both the political arm and the military arm, and hunting down these guys and cooperating with the allies to hunt down PKK?
            SEC. GATES: My sense is that the Kurdish government has become much more active in trying to deal with the PKK problem. So I think that there has -- my impression is that there has been considerable progress in that area.
            Q     (Name inaudible) -- Associated Press.
            With our troops -- (inaudible) -- withdrawing from southern Iraq in mid year, do you have any view about what other assistance Australia could give in Iraq? The government seems to have looked at a number of possibilities including training and civilized assistance with governance.
            SEC. GATES: Actually, there has been a lot of dialogue between the Australian military and General Petraeus in terms of the role that troops that are remaining could perform in a non-combat environment. As you suggest, training is one of them. There are perhaps some other areas in terms of mentoring and so on. But I think that there's a very close dialogue going on with General Petraeus about that right now.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, to return to Turkey, if Kurdish government is improving its posture on this, if progress is being made, why are the Turks again going back across the border? What is lacking, what is needed to make it an incursion?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that, you know, the fact that the Kurdish government is doing more than it has done in the past doesn't mean that the problem is resolved. It's a difficult area. It's a tough area. The Turks have actually had troops on the ground up there in the north on a more-or-less continuing basis for years. And clearly, they have felt that those troops have not been able to complete the mission or to be successful. So they've taken these additional measures, including aircraft and now this ground incursion. So I think, you know, this is a difficult, long-term problem. And in my view, that's why it needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. That just using the military techniques are not going to be sufficient to solve the problem for the Turks.
            Q     What would it take -- if I could follow up quickly -- what would it take on the part of the Kurdish Regional Government and the government of Iraq to allay Turkish concerns to the point where they didn't have to incure?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think Turkish concern will only be allayed when there's a significant diminution in the PKK activity in Turkey, killing Turkish soldiers and civilians. I think that's the source of the concern on the part of the Turks. And frankly, it's a very difficult issue domestically for the Turkish government. The Turkish people, as best I can tell, are really pushing their government to be tougher in dealing with this problem because of the number of deaths that there have been and so on. And so I think everybody has to participate in this together. It's the Turks, it's us, it's the Kurdish Regional Government, it's the Iraqi government. And I go back to what I said earlier. The key thing is close communication and coordination in working these things and a respect for Iraqi sovereignty which includes keeping the Iraqis informed and in a dialogue with them.
            Q     Secretary, John Kerin from the Australian Financial Review.
            I want to ask you about the Joint Strike Fighter project and how that's progressing and when it might seem Australia can sign up to the next stage. And also, would it be any problem in terms of your foreign military styles if, you know, the current government or the new government's talking about possibly canceling the Super Hornet order?
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think that what systems a foreign government buys from the United States or from anyone for that matter is a matter for that government to decide. Each country has to decide what its defense needs are, what it can afford and so on. I think that everything I've been told indicates to me that the Joint Strike Fighter is now pretty much on schedule and is proceeding. I understand that there are something like 14 or so Australian companies that will have a part in the manufacture of the Joint Strike Fighter. So I think that the timetable that we have been talking about is one that probably can be met.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, related to Indonesia, a lot has been made recently about JI as a terrorist threat and the threat is not what it once was. There's been the less-successful operations against JI. But as we've seen al Qaeda rebuild in Pakistan, I'm wondering if you see links between al Qaeda's core and any Indonesian terror cells?
            SEC. GATES: I assume that those contacts have been maintained, but I don't have any sense from the last few weeks or months that there's been a significant increase in those contacts or a particular strengthening of JI.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, you endorsed the notion of a strategic pause after the five BCTs come out. Given that Sadr has now extended his cease-fire, is there an argument to be made that that strategic pause might not be as long as maybe some had thought it ought to be?
            SEC. GATES: Well, since no one has any idea how long the strategic pause ought to be -- (laughter) -- that's kind of a hard question to answer.
            Q     Didn't you say two weeks? (Laughter.)
            SEC. GATES: No, I don't think I did actually. I think that's the kind of thing that we will be looking to General Petraeus' analysis as well as Admiral Fallon's and the chiefs in terms of how long a period of consolidation and evaluation there ought to be and what the next steps are as we proceed.
            Q     But how significant do you think the Sadr declaration is?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that it -- to the degree that it keeps some of his followers from engaging in aggressive actions, violent actions against either Iraqis or coalition forces, it's all to the good. Frankly, I think people are probably relieved that he has been willing to extend this cease-fire unconditionally for six months.
            Let me get a little more coffee.
            That is not a filibuster, we will extend the period for a minute and a half. (Laughter.)
            Q     (Name inaudible) -- Melbourne.
            Can I ask -- (inaudible) -- declaration yesterday spoke about managing strategic threats in the Asia Pacific region. And I'm wondering if you could expand a little bit more about how you see Australia's role in those forums, particularly given that the United States is not part of the East Asia Summit, and how you feel Australia should represent the West, if you like, in the Asia Pacific.
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think, you know, Australia plays a key role here in Asia. And its role in the Pacific islands in places like East Timor and so on is critically important. And you know, we were talking yesterday, some of these smaller places, that nobody pays much attention to when things are going okay, when they go bad can create problems far disproportionate to their size. And so Australia's engagement in these areas and their willingness to work with some of these governments, I think, is very important. 
            There are a variety of forums in Europe and in Asia where different groups of nations come together for different purposes. And frankly, you know, my view of the relationship between Australia and the United States is such that I think we have confidence that in those forums, Australia, in pursuing its own national interests and in what it sees as the interests of the region in terms of security and stability, is at the same time pursuing the kind of issues that we would pursue if we were at the table. So I think that, you know, one of the nice things --
            Q     Are you concerned, though, that you're not at the table?
            SEC. GATES: No, not particularly. I mean, as I say, there are lots of forums in different places. Frankly, if we were a participant in every single one of these groups, none of us would ever be home.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, just back to Turkey, you said that there's a need, a key is to have open and regular dialogue between the Turkish government and the Iraqi government. Are you satisfied that the Turkish government is doing that? Or do they need to do more?
            SEC. GATES: I think that my impression is that there has been contact at high levels about this activity in northern Iraq right now. I think that there can always be improvement in the timeliness and in the depth of the dialogue. I think it can't be just a one-time event. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue, in my opinion.
            Q     Just a follow up, when you said you hoped it would be a short campaign, do you have any kind of an idea what the means when you say short?
            SEC. GATES: The shorter the better.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, on the Raptors, I know you said they can't be sold overseas at the moment, but is in fact entirely unrealistic to imagine that they would ever be sold overseas? Is there any active move by Congress or anyone else to consider this in an active way? And wouldn't you need to redesign to have a whole new Raptor that you could export as opposed to the one you use for yourselves?
            SEC. GATES: First of all, I don't know the answer to the second part of your question, whether there would have to be design changes and so on. And it's an issue, given the importance that our Australian friends attach to it, it's an issue that I intend to pursue when I get back, first of all, in terms of conversations with our own people in the Department of Defense, also with the secretary of State and see what the prospects are and what would be involved if we decided that we needed to go to Congress and get a change in the law.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, as we look ahead to the next two stops, can you give us sort of an idea of what we hope to take away from your visit to Indonesia and India?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think really the principal motive for visiting both Indonesia and India is simply in recognition of the important role that both of these countries are playing. One of the things that has been one of the most significant changes since I came back to government in the interval of 15 years or so has been the significantly improved relationship between the United States and India. And I want to see what we can do to not only strengthen that but perhaps expand it in other ways. 
            Indonesia is a huge Islamic country, democratic, secular. And I think strengthening our relationship with Indonesia is very important, not just in a regional context but, I think, in terms of the role that Indonesia may be able to play more broadly.
            Q    Mr. Secretary, in Turkey, what do you hope to leave behind and take away with you?
            SEC. GATES: Well, the visit to Turkey was planned well before this latest operation. My view has been, and I've felt, frankly, for a long time, that Turkey was one of the most under appreciated members of NATO, particularly during the Cold War. But I think it remains a key country; again, a secular, democratic state that is principally Islamic. And so I think continuing to strengthen our relationship with Turkey, looking for ways that the Turks may be able to be helpful to us in the Middle East, in Central Asia and elsewhere. So I think there are a lot of opportunities for further cooperation with Turkey.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, going back to the situation in northern Iraq, is the United States still sharing intelligence with the Turks? And is it only on this operation? And if it is, what's the rationale for that?
            SEC. GATES: We have -- one of the things that came out of Mr. Erdogan's visit to Washington and his meeting with the president was an agreement to increase intelligence sharing between the United States and Turkey. And we have done that and, as far as I know, it continues.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, could I ask you, please, on Afghanistan and whether do you think the pressure that's been put by the United States and Australia on the NATO countries is going to result in a more positive outcome that you're looking for?
            SEC. GATES: I think that one of the things that is important is persuading the European publics, in particular, that their security is tied directly to developments in Afghanistan. In the speech that I gave in Munich earlier this month, I elaborated the specific terrorist attacks that have taken place in Europe over the last couple of years and the attacks that have been thwarted and the connections between those plotters and al Qaeda, training in the Afghan-Pakistani border area, supply of money and expertise. These attacks are coming out of that region and are focused very much on European targets. And so a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan poses a direct threat to the Europeans. I think the European governments understand this. I think we just all need to do a better job of helping the broader public understand it.
            I think that the efforts to call attention to the need to meet the needs of the NATO commander, as pledged at Riga by the NATO heads of government, I think will have some effect. How much, I don't know. Some countries have indicated that they are thinking about increasing their commitment. Others have extended their commitment. The Dutch have just extended their commitment for another two years. The Dutch parliament approved that. There are some other governments that are thinking about what more they might be able to do, and both on the military side and in terms of providing trainers through these operational mentoring and liaison teams, through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and so on. 
            So I think that the Europeans are taking this seriously. My hope is that the heads of government and Bucharest will issue a statement that essentially says why we are in Afghanistan, what has already been achieved there and what must be done over the next three to five years to be successful in Afghanistan. I think a renewal of that commitment will in and of itself perhaps create a climate in which other countries will do more.
            Q     You've said that the return of the Taliban to power poses a serious threat to European security. Do you think that's a real possibility that that could happen?
            SEC. GATES: No, I don't think so at this point. But it requires staying power on our part. It requires continued success in training the Afghan national army and Afghan national police. I think the only way the Taliban might return to power is, frankly, if everyone just turned their backs on Afghanistan and walked out. As I've said before, we did that to Afghanistan after the Soviets left, and we saw less than four years later the result of that at the World Trade Center in 1993. So the notion that we might turn our backs on this, I think, is the circumstance under which the Taliban might return to power, and I don't think anybody's going to do that.
            This conflict in Afghanistan, in contrast to Iraq, has very broad, bipartisan support in the United States and in the Congress, in particular. So I don't have any worries about any diminution of the American commitment or support. And frankly, I think most of the European governments are in the same place as is the Australian government.
            Q     With respect to Pakistan, is the United States now authorized to strike on suspected terror targets in Pakistan?
            SEC. GATES: I'm not going to get into the specific rules of engagement that we have with the Pakistani government. Obviously, we welcome the successful democratic elections. We're watching to see the coalition that gets put together and how things will proceed. We obviously hope that the new government in Pakistan will be committed to taking on the threat in the northwest frontier.
            Q     What can you say about it?
            SEC. GATES: About?
            Q     I mean, you know, obviously, we'll not get into specifics, but about engaging suspected terror targets, whether it's the United States or --
            SEC. GATES: What I would say is that we are respectful of Pakistani sovereignty. And what we do is in accord with the agreements that we've reached with the Pakistani government.
            STAFF: Let’s see if the Aussies have a few questions guys.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, how would you say the coming campaign season in Afghanistan -- you have a large number of extra troops in the south of country. Is it going to be tough?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that my perception is that the nature of the conflict is changing. And it's kind of kaleidoscopic in my view, that every time you twist the tube it changes a little bit. The Taliban have seen, over the last year and a half or so that they cannot defeat the NATO or our forces in regular kinds of conflict where they bring scores or hundreds of people to bear in a battle. They lose all the time when they do that. And so I think what we are likely to see if more use of terror killings of school teachers, local officials, things like that, the use of IEDs to try and sap the will of coalition partners as well as the Afghans and to bring discredit to the Afghan government because of its seeming inability to bring security to the rural areas. So I think these tactics on the part of the Taliban are going to be evolving and changing and more an avoidance of the kind of set-piece battles, such as we had in Musa Qala and places like that and more of the kind of insurgent activity. And we will have to adjust our tactics accordingly.
            And frankly, we have had military success for the last two years or so. The Taliban occupying no territory in Afghanistan at this point. They have not won any military engagements. The problem is that while we were able the clear the Taliban in certain areas when we have an operation, we don't have enough force to be able to hold some of those areas. It's the same kind of problem we encountered in Iraq. The way to deal with that long term, clearly, is the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police to be able to hold while economic development and provide local security. So it has to be a partnership between ourselves and the Afghans with more and more of the effort gradually shifting to the Afghans.
            So it's a long answer to your question, but I think that we will continue to be militarily successful, but we will have to continue to adjust our tactics, and we have to include in those tactics new efforts in terms of training the Afghan army and police, new efforts in terms of better coordinating the economic development and reconstruction, the civil side of the struggle and in terms of improving governance, particularly in terms of local and provincial leadership. Where we have really good, local leadership, such as in Khost province where the governor is extremely competent and capable, we have been very successful. And so the quality of the Afghan leadership in the local areas as well as in Kabul is very important.
            STAFF: Let's take two last questions.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, when you go back to Washington to talk about the possibility or discuss the possibility of selling the F-22 to Australia, are you also going to look at the possibility of selling the plane to Japan? And if the U.S. sold the F-22 to Japan and Australia, what repercussions or ramifications would that have for those countries' relationship with China?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think, first of all, you know, this conversation has been sparked, obviously, by the comments by our Australian friends yesterday in the press conference. Because we have not had the ability to sell the F-22, to be honest, I haven't delved into all the reasons for that. But the complications would be the question about whether a new design would be required for export and so on. And I just need to go back and get myself better educated on this and, in concert with the secretary of State, decide whether this is a matter that we should pursue with the Congress.
            Q     Can I just follow up? The Japanese made this request a year ago. So if you haven't been briefed on it at that level, does that signal that the department has not taken a very proactive stance on considering the issue with Japan?
            SEC. GATES: I would say that's a fair statement.
            STAFF: A last question, and I prefer it to come from one of our Australian friends.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, can I just ask you, Australia has 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and has changed the nature of them slightly, just lately. How important or effective is the Australian contribution in Afghanistan?
            SEC. GATES: I think that the Australians have made an important contribution. And I think that they have the respect of all of the people who are on the front lines in Afghanistan.
            Q     Can I get one quick follow up on the F-22? How realistic is it to expect the law to be changed?
            SEC. GATES: I don't know the answer to that. That's the kind of thing I have to go back and pursue.
            Q     Thank you.

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