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Secretary of Defense Gates Interview on All Things Considered NPR

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
March 10, 2009

ROBERT SIEGEL: We start this hour with an interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. I spoke with him earlier today at the Pentagon about Iraq and mostly about Afghanistan.


MICHELE NORRIS: More U.S. troops are bound for Afghanistan. Vice-President Biden today asked the NATO allies to provide more help, and President Obama has said it's possible the U.S.might reach out to some elements of the Taliban. Those facts raised questions about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.


SIEGEL: Is the mission still to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban or is it to gain a strong enough position to cut a reasonable deal with the reasonable elements of the Taliban?


GATES: Well the specific mission is clearly one of the subjects under review by the administration right now and I think we have to wait until that's done to have real clarity on that. But I would say that at a minimum the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against the democratically elected government in Afghanistan and thus turning Afghanistan potentially again into a haven for al Qaeda and other extremist groups.


SIEGEL: Is it realistic to count on NATO committing any more combat troops to Afghanistan or is that ultimately going to be a U.S. role?


GATES: I think that they are committing additional troops to provide security for the election. I'm not sure that they'll be there for a prolonged period of time, but they certainly would be there through the August elections. I'll leave it to them to make the announcements but I think others -- that they are going to send more troops. You know, the allies have sent all the troops that they have committed to send. It hasn't been that they have failed to follow through on their commitments. It's that the need is greater than the commitments that have been made to this point.  And so we would like more help, but I would say that really where we need the help is on the civilian side, whether it's agricultural specialists or people who can help with governance, economic development and so on.


SIEGEL: Just like you to elaborate on a phrase that you used in Senate testimony when you dismissed the idea of transforming Afghanistan, an extremely poor country, into some kind of central Asian Valhalla – your phrase. One interpretation of that is, "look, so long as they don't harbor terrorists, or they don't harbor people that menace other countries, so be it. They may remain tribal, they may remain misogynist, they may remain not very democratic, that's OK with us."


GATES: What I was really referring to was that we need to have goals at least in the near to mid term that are achievable and where there are some benchmarks where we can measure whether we are actually making progress and getting to a better place in Afghanistan in terms of security, in terms of credibility of the government and so on. How are we doing in our partnership with the Afghans, both the government and the people. So really what I was trying to differentiate was goals that are 10 or 20 or 30 years in the future in terms of a completely democratic, corruption free, fully economically developed ally -


SIEGEL: -- that's the Valhalla you were talking about..


GATES: -- that's the Valhalla, and I think that's a little ways in the distance.


SIEGEL: But it seems very late in the game in Afghanistan to even use the phrases "short term versus mid term gains." Isn't this already the long term?


GATES: Well, we've been there close to, I guess, seven years at this point.  But the reality is that this situation really began to go downhill again about 2005, 2006, as the Taliban began to take advantage of their safe haven on the Pakistani side of the border to begin to re-infiltrate into Afghanistan and create security problems. And we've really just been responding to that.


SIEGEL: So you would see this more as two different acts here, two different phases of the war in Afghanistan: the relatively successful first phase and then the resurgence of the Taliban after that?


GATES: I think that's reasonably fair.


SIEGEL: And Act III is now supposed to commence, at least containing the Taliban or pushing them back?


GATES: Well I don't know whether it's Act III or just the prolongation of Act II, but clearly we all still have our work cut out for us.


SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you about Iraq. In his speech at Camp Lejeune, President Obama said this: "Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iarqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011." And later that day you said we should be prepared to have some very modest sized presence for training and helping them with their new equipment and providing perhaps intelligence support and so on. Do you believe that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and are you and the President on the same page here?


GATES: Well, we certainly are on the same page. The fact is that if there is no new agreement with the Iraqis there will be zero U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of 2011. What I was alluding to is that I think it's at least possible that the Iraqis in 2011 will come and say, "We need some logistical support; we need some intelligence support. Can you provide us some very limited help?" I don't know whether that will happen. That's pure speculation on my part. But the President's statement is absolutely clear and it conforms to our current commitments. And that is according to the agreements we've signed we will have everybody out of Iraq at the end of 2011. And unless something changes that's exactly what will happen.


SIEGEL: And something would have to change on the Iraqi side, their desire to have us stay on?


GATES: I think it would have to be at the Iraqis' initiative. And we would have to determine whether, the President would have to determine whether he wants to do that.


SIEGEL: I want to ask you a little bit about intelligence. In two huge jobs that you've held in Washington, you've encountered the issue of bad intelligence. When you were at CIA, you've been faulted for having not foreseen the collapse of the Soviet Union, having overestimated perhaps their strengths. Here you've been part of the cleanup brigade after Iraq where there were many intelligence misjudgments. Where does this leave you in terms of your thinking about intelligence, about going to war and about the wisdom that we have about the world?


GATES: Well, if intelligence has its flaws, and it does, so does most of the writing about intelligence. As, for example, the fact that the Agency missed the collapse of the Soviet Union -


SIEGEL: You dispute that analysis -


GATES: At length, and I think that the record demonstrates that we were preparing for the collapse of the Soviet Union at least two or three years before it actually happened. But I think that a big part of the issue is how intelligence is used by policymakers. Intelligence - and this has always been a difficult message to convey to intelligence professionals - do a so-so job of predicting the future. They really do a very good job of telling you what's going on right now around the world. But forecasting - the truth of the matter is they're not a lot better than anybody else. And I think policymakers need to understand that.


SIEGEL: Right now, do you think we're getting a good picture of what is happening in Iran, say, the country that many of us are very concerned about?


GATES: Well, obviously some targets are much more difficult than others. Iran is a very difficult target, North Korea is a very difficult target. Cuba has been a very difficult target. I mean, the truth of the matter is, for decades our intelligence hasn't been terrific on some of these places. I think there's a lot of effort to try and make it better. But there's still a lot of uncertainty out there.


SIEGEL: Secretary Gates, thank you very much for talking with us today.


GATES: My pleasure.


Unaired portion of the interview from NPR.org


SIEGEL: There have been debates in Washington for forever over whether we are capable of waging two wars at one time, whether we have a military large enough for that, having inherited this situation when we were at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What's the lesson, is two wars at once perhaps biting off more than we can effectively chew even if we're willing to spend a trillion dollars at it?


GATES: Our military planning for a number of years has - and I would say going back at least 20 years - has been to have the ability to fight two major combat operations simultaneously. One where it would be an aggressive effort and another where you might have to hold for a while and then finish the job. I think one of the central questions that this department will face in the Quadrennial Defense Review, which will begin shortly, is whether that model makes any sense in the 21st century and whether what may have fit in a Cold War environment or an immediately post-Cold War environment really has application to today's world.


SIEGEL: And the experience of the past few years suggests some rethinking is need there in terms of what our doctrines are?


GATES: I think so.


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