SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. And thank you all for joining me. It's good to be back in Kandahar.
This trip was originally intended to be a farewell tour. Instead, because President-elect Obama has asked me to stay on as secretary of Defense, it is an opportunity first and foremost to thank in person the brave men and women stationed here and wish them well this holiday season.
It is also an opportunity to meet with General McKiernan and the RC South commanders to discuss where we are in Afghanistan and where we need to be going in the new year.
There is no doubt that the challenges facing Afghanistan are great, especially here in the south, where violence is fueled by extremists and a thriving drug trade, and good governance and business development are threatened by crime and corruption.
Despite this, I believe the alliance is up to the task of helping Afghanistan. We are all here, dozens of nations and hundreds of NGOs, to help the Afghan people and government in their struggle for peace and prosperity. This is, after all, their country, their fight and their future.
I would extend my condolences to those killed in yesterday's tragic accident. Much has been done to improve coordination with the Afghan government and its security forces, but clearly, more remains to be done. That will be a focus in the coming year as this mission expands significantly with more resources and troops from the international community.
Our purpose is to assist the proud Afghan people as they secure their own country and their own destiny. To that end, we will help them rapidly expand the size and capability of the Afghan security forces and support them in extending good governance and development to all of the country, especially the south.
This nation has seen too much war in these last decades. Only together can we defeat the enemies of Afghanistan and secure the lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan deserve.
STAFF: Let's alternate questions if we can. Let's start with a member of the Afghan press.
Q First of all, we would like to welcome you to Afghanistan.
It's a pleasure to have you here. My question -- with the new elect government of Barack Obama, what are the intentions of the United States of America -- intentions in terms of the foreign policy in Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: The president-elect has been very explicit throughout the campaign and since the election that he believes that waging this fight in Afghanistan is a high priority and he would like to see more resources devoted to this fight, including more troops. So I think that you will see a continuing American commitment to defeating the enemies of the Afghan people during the administration of the president-elect.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you -- you've met with General McKiernan today. Can you say whether you gave him any specific commitments for troops and timelines?
And he mentioned to us a little earlier that he believes that there will be a sustained -- a need for a sustained level of troops in Afghanistan for the next three or four years. What is your assessment of that?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I'd be the last to disagree with the commander on the ground in terms of his assessment of the -- of the need. I also happen to agree with him, that this is -- this is a long fight. And I think we are in it until we are successful, along with the Afghan people.
What was the first part of your question?
Q Any specific commitments that you made to him?
SEC. GATES: I didn't make any more commitments beyond what have already been made. We will have -- again, the final decisions haven't come to me, but beyond January, we are hopeful that we will be able to send an additional two combat -- brigade combat teams by late spring.
I think an important element of General McKiernan's request is the enablers, particularly combat aviation, to be helpful. And so we'll be working all of those requirements in Washington as well.
STAFF: Member of the Afghan press?
Q (Through interpreter.) In terms of civilian casualties lately, we've seen that notice that there was an air strike in Zabul. Apparently a few police officers were killed and local civilians were injured.
And also likewise in Pashmul lately, in Kandahar City, where there was a wedding party, an airstrike happened. Many local civilians were hurt.
What are the measures taken or there's always a claim that there'll be a constant change of tactics in terms of targeting enemy on war in terror and defeating the enemies of Afghanistan. And what are the new tactics that you have -- you guys have actually proposed -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, whenever there are innocent civilian casualties, we are deeply regretful and apologetic about that. I don't think that any military in history has ever worked harder to avoid innocent casualties than the United States and our partners and allies here in Afghanistan.
General McKiernan has set out directives in terms of the kinds of operations that take place, to take extra measures to avoid innocent civilian casualties. We are looking at specific operations to -- and willing to forego operations if it appears there is a greater risk of civilian casualties.
At the same time, we know that the Taliban and other violent extremists do not hesitate to put innocent civilians in harm's way. They mingle among them and hold them hostage until ISAF or others come after them. And this is all too often the circumstances in which there are innocent civilian casualties. But it is the Taliban that has put them at risk, not us.
That said, we will continue to work very hard to avoid these casualties. The accident that happened yesterday that I referred to, or just in the last couple of days, is under investigation. And as I indicated in my prepared remarks, we can -- need to continue working on close coordination with the Afghan security forces.
Q Mr. Secretary, given that it will be a long fight, is it realistic to expect that there will be some 50,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next three or four years?
SEC. GATES: Well, as you all have heard me say before, I gave up predicting the future a long time ago. But I do believe that there will be a requirement for a sustained commitment here for some protracted period of time. How many years that is and how many troops that is, I think nobody knows at this point.
STAFFER: How about from the international press? Any Canadians here?
Q Canadian Television. The current mission for the Canadian soldiers here is set to end in two years.
Do you think it would help if Canada were to remain beyond that?
SEC. GATES: Well, the countries that have partnered with the United States and Afghanistan, here in RC South, have made an extraordinary commitment. And proportionately none have worked harder or sacrificed more than the Canadians. They have been outstanding partners for us. And all I can tell you is, as has been the case for a very long time, the longer we can have Canadian soldiers as our partners, the better it is.
Q (Remarks to be interpreted.)
INTERPRETER: The question is about the border policy at the moment. It's always been claimed by the international community and the coalition forces that insurgents do actually cross the border from Iran and Afghanistan.
Are there currently any measures taken into rather than defeating or fighting the enemies internally in all the provinces? Or are there measures being taken of there being leaderships of military, on the border areas, i.e., establishing checkpoints or regular patrols or more troops in that area? What are the measures being taken at the moment?
SEC. GATES: Well, there is some infiltration from Iran. But I think it pales by comparison with the eastern border and the Afghan-Pakistani border. As I say, we have evidence of some people coming across that border.
I think most of the focus right now is on establishing the border coordination points and working trilaterally with the Afghan government, the Pakistani government and the American government, in seeing how we can work together to cut down the infiltration coming in from Pakistan.
Q On the whole, do you believe the insurgency here is strengthening, weakening or staying about the same?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would, I would take my cue from the Dutch commander here in RC South. His view is that the situation is not getting worse in RC South. It's just different. And they are facing different tactics and they are responding to these tactics.
I think that if I could put words in his mouth, I would say he believes that the Afghan security forces and their international partners are holding their own in RC South. But I think everybody would agree that holding your own isn't good enough.
STAFF: (Off mike.)
That's the last one.
Q (Inaudible) -- please. It's not a political question, Secretary. We're making a British program for our soldiers here in Afghanistan from Holland, and for their families. Could you say something to the camera for the Dutch soldiers and for the family at home, a greeting for Christmas?
SEC. GATES: Well, the Dutch soldiers have performed with great bravery and with considerable sacrifice here in RC South. They are a strong partner. We welcome having them here, and we wish them and their families the merriest of holidays.
Q Thank you, sir.
SEC. GATES: Thank you all.
(C) COPYRIGHT 2008, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1000 VERMONT AVE. NW; 5TH FLOOR; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.
UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALLREMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT
AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL CARINA NYBERG AT 202-347-1400.