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Media Availability with Secretary Gates Following visit with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
April 23, 2009

SEC. GATES:  Good morning. 

 

                Had a great morning out here.  I actually haven't given a press conference with that kind of a background since my first visit to Baghdad -- (chuckles) -- December 2006. 

 

                But -- now this has been a great visit, great opportunity to visit and talk with these Marines who are -- part of their unit is already deployed, and the remainder will be deploying in the next couple of weeks, over the next few weeks; an opportunity to watch their training in going after IEDs, in taking care of each other, in terms of medical care, and other aspects of getting ready to go.

 

                They are incredibly impressive, and I was -- really welcomed the opportunity to thank each and every one of them for their service. 

 

                I'd also like to thank the local communities for all their support to Camp Lejeune and the families of those men and women in uniform who are deployed.  Without that kind of local support, this all would be a lot more difficult.

 

                I would just say one more thing before taking your questions, and that is that this visit and spending some time with these Marines who are about to deploy simply reminds me of one of the basic themes of what I'm trying to do in the fiscal year '10 budget.  One dollar of pork in our budget is a dollar I can't spend to support these Marines.  One dollar spent on capabilities we don't need is a dollar that I can't spend in getting ready for future threats.  One dollar spent for equipment excess to our military requirements is a dollar that I can't use to help protect the American people.

 

                And so I'm hoping that the Congress will take a careful look at this budget and the changes that we're trying to make, in no small part to provide the necessary support for these men and women who are about to go into combat.

 

                So with that, I'll take some questions.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, can you confirm for us reports coming out of Iraq that the head of the Islamic State of Iraq has been captured in Baghdad?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I just heard actually from Geoff that that story was out there.  I have no confirmation of it at this point.  I literally heard about it five minutes ago.

 

                STAFF:  Anybody else?  We don't have much time, so don't be bashful.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Ed?

 

                Q     With this deployment to Afghanistan, how does the strategy in Afghanistan become affected by what's going on in Pakistan at this moment?  There are now reports the Taliban has moved beyond the Swat Valley, grave concern being expressed yesterday by the secretary of State.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm -- my hope is that there will be an increasing recognition on the part of the Pakistani government that the Taliban in Pakistan are in fact an existential threat to the democratic government of that country.  I think that some of the leaders certainly understand that, but it is important that they not only recognize it but take the appropriate actions to deal with it.

 

                The stability and longevity of democratic government in Pakistan is central to the efforts of the coalition in Afghanistan, and it is also central to our future partnership with the government in Islamabad.  We want to support them.  We want to be helpful in any way we can.  But it is important that they recognize the real threats to their country.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, we haven't spoken with you since the release of the Justice Department memoranda on harsh interrogation techniques.  Given your experience as director of Central Intelligence and now, were you among those who advocated for their release?  And now that they're out, what is your view of the calls in Congress for an investigation or for some sort of independent truth panel?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, my view in the discussions of all of this -- first of all, I deferred to the Justice Department on the extent of the redactions in the documents.  I was in no position to make that evaluation or that judgment. 

 

                The things that I was most concerned about was, first and foremost, the protection of the CIA officers who were involved in the interrogations and who performed their duties in accordance with the legal guidance that they had been given by the Justice Department.  And I wanted to make sure -- I felt very strongly the importance that they be protected, and against all different kinds of possible prosecutions. 

 

                I also was quite concerned, as you might expect, with the potential backlash in the Middle East and in the theaters where we're involved in conflict, and that it might have a negative impact on our troops.

 

                All that said, you know, we just had a significant investigation release by the Senate Armed Services Committee.  There are a number of suits that we're dealing with for detainee photographs and so on.  And so there is a certain inevitability, I believe, that much of this will eventually come out; much has already come out.  And therefore, I was focused principally on the potential impact on the CIA professionals and on our own military forces.

 

                Q     Secretary Gates, we're from Italy, and we'd like to know what kind of support and cooperation you're going to ask Europe in the coming months for Afghanistan.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, the -- there have been -- there has been a lot of discussion of that at the meeting at the Hague and at the NATO summit.  I think that, if I'm not mistaken, Italy has volunteered to send a significant contingent of Carabinieri to do training. 

 

                This is actually something that I had proposed at a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Krakow some weeks ago.  One of the real needs in Afghanistan is for, in effect, paramilitary police training, and it seemed to me that the Carabinieri and the gendarmerie and the Guardia Seville and others in Europe could make a real contribution there.  So we're very grateful for that, and I think that the Italian government, if I'm not mistaken, has also indicated a willingness to send some additional troops in the period leading up to the elections in August.

 

                What we continue to be interested in from all of our allies and partners is additional civilian capacity, people who are agronomists, veterinarians, who know how to put in water supplies, educators, accountants, lawyers and so on.  And obviously anyone who can contribute there is welcome.

 

                (Cross talk.) 

 

                Q     A lot of the Marines that you spoke with today and saw and a lot more here, in Camp Lejeune, are on their fourth and fifth deployment.  What do you think about that? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, one of the things -- well, first of all, because they're on their fourth or fifth deployment, this is the most battle-hardened force the United States has probably ever had in its history. 

 

                It's also important to remember that every single one of these young men and women are volunteers.  And in fact, one battalion commander here told me that he knew of a unit that was being assigned to Okinawa, and something like 200 Marines decided not to re-enlist.  The unit's orders were changed.  And the unit was shifted to Afghanistan.  And something like 180 of the 200 came back and re-enlisted. 

 

                So I think these men and women want to be in the fight.  Frankly for months, General Conway has been telling me that the Marines in Anbar province, in Iraq, are frankly bored and want to get into the fight.  And that certainly was the impression that I got this morning. 

 

                By the same token, we're trying, by increasing the end-strength of the Marine Corps, by more than 10 percent, by 27,000, and with the drawdowns in Iraq -- our hope certainly is perhaps beginning, toward the end of this year or into next, to begin to lengthen the time at home for all of these units. 

 

                Q     Are you concerned at all about their mental well-being? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that we are monitoring that very carefully.  We've put a lot of new procedures in place.  There's a lot more sensitivity to the potential impact of repeated deployments.  And frankly the effort, to look out for each other, in the psychological as well as the physical realm, now is -- not only starts with Marine to Marine and soldier to soldier, buddies taking care of buddies, but then NCOs and then officers, and then the processes that they go through, when they either -- prior to when they deploy and when they come back. 

 

                Q     Secretary Gates, on the release of the recent interrogation memos, do you expect that to impair at all this unit or any other units going over to fight terrorism, moving forward? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I certainly hope not.  I mean, I think, that's kind of an unanswerable question.  We don't know how -- we talked -- there was realization, in the discussions, that some of these disclosures could be used by al Qaeda and our adversaries. 

 

                But as I say, there are -- there are a lot of other documents coming out, including the leak of the International Red Cross -- Committee of the Red Cross with some pretty graphic information as well.  So I think pretending that we could hold all of this and keep it all a secret even if we wanted to I think was probably unrealistic.  So we'll just have to deal with it.

 

                STAFF:  Just a couple more now.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah.

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- saw that Marines here are training to learn how to fight, but they're also receiving training from USAID to do humanitarian work.  Are you at concerned about the balance of that mission that soldiers and Marines have to do when they go overseas?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No.  In fact, one of the messages that I had for the Marines when I had the opportunity to talk to a group of them is the importance of making sure that the Afghan people know that we are there as their friends and their allies, and that we are there to help make their lives better as well as to protect ourselves and them from the Taliban and these other extremist groups.

 

                I am concerned about the -- there have been some stories in the press the last few days -- I am concerned that we will not get the civilian surge into Afghanistan as quickly as we are getting troops into Afghanistan.  And therefore, I've raised the possibility of whether we could provide a bridge, using our Reserve component -- not calling any units up but rather perhaps asking for volunteers who have specific skill sets along the lines of the ones that I just described a few minutes ago -- veterinarians, agronomists, accountants and so on -- who might serve as a bridge; getting them out there quickly and then bringing them back when their civilian replacements are hired and gotten into the theater.

 

                I just think we have a finite amount of time to show that we're going to make progress in Afghanistan.  And I just don't want to see any delays, whether it's on our military side or whether it's on the civilian side.

 

                Q     What will victory in Afghanistan look like?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think victory in Afghanistan will be represented by -- it will look, in -- I suspect, in many respects, like success in Iraq, and that will be the Afghan national security forces increasingly taking responsibility for the security of their own people, both the police and the army, as we then move from a direct combat role, which we're very heavily engaged in right now, more into a support role and then eventually being able, as we are in Iraq, to draw down and leave.

 

                Q     Is it too soon to put a time on it?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Absolutely.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Is it fair to say, despite your reservations, that you supported the release of those memos?  And I also wanted to ask you about benchmarks for Afghanistan and what you see as being some of the key benchmarks.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think -- you know, I think that the White House and the president have been pretty clear that this was a very difficult decision for all the reasons that I just described.

 

                And I think all of us wrestled with it for quite some time, in terms of where we were on it.  As I say, my own view was shaped by the fact that I regarded the information about a lot of these things coming out as inevitable.  And therefore, how do we try and manage it in the best possible way?

 

                Q     On the benchmarks for Afghanistan, I note that Michelle Flournoy spoke of devising those.  What do you see as some of the key benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, you know, frankly, I haven't been involved in the drafting of them, so I'm not quite sure where they are.  But I think it clearly has to do with if we authorize 134 or more thousand Afghan National Army, are they meeting the recruiting standards?  Are they meeting the goals that we -- that they have set, in terms of how fast they build up the army?  Same thing with the police.

 

                I would say getting the civilian support out there, and perhaps actions against -- against the narcotics networks that help fund the Taliban -- I think all of those things -- those kinds of things need to be part of the measures of effectiveness.

 

                STAFF:  Okay.  Thank you all.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Thank you all.

 

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