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Secretary Robert Gates Interview with CNN

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
May 03, 2009

              Wednesday, April 29, 2009

 

              Q     Secretary Gates, thank you for doing this.

               

                SEC. GATES:  My pleasure.

 

                Q     You have served eight presidents, and so you have, in a sense, watched 800 days, eight periods of the first 100 days.  How do you think this one is distinctive?  What do you think people will look at when they look back at these 100 days?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that what makes them distinctive is the magnitude of the challenges that confronted this president when he took office.  Not only did he have all of the international issues that faced his predecessor – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, piracy and others; North Korea, Iran, so on and so forth – he faced the most dramatic economic downturn in two generations or more in the United States and in the world; and now, as we are all saying, as if all of that wasn’t enough, swine flu.  So I think just the magnitude of the challenges that he faces perhaps is unprecedented among certainly the eight presidents I’ve worked for.

 

                Q    How’s he doing compared to the seven others?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think he’s doing very well.  I think that he is – I think he has taken them on.  I think he’s assembled a good group of people to work with him and to help him.  He listens.  He’s very calm.  He’s very measured, very analytical.  So I think the proof is sort of in, already, based on the polls, the beginning of a return to some confidence that the country is on the right track and the sense that, as difficult as some of these issues are, we’re headed in the right direction, at least.

 

                Q     You’ve heard a lot of Republican criticism that he’s going around the world apologizing about America.  Do you accept that?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I like to remind people that when President George W. Bush came into office, he talked about a more humble America.  And, you know, you go back to Theodore Roosevelt and his line about speaking softly but carrying a big stick.  I think that acknowledging that we have made mistakes is not only factually accurate – I think that it is unusual because so few other governments in the world are willing to admit that, although they make them all the time, and some of them make catastrophic mistakes.

 

                And in speeches myself, I have said that at times we have acted too arrogantly.  And I didn’t feel that I was being apologetic for America.  I just was saying because – I was just saying that that’s the way we are in terms of being willing to recognize our own limitations, and when we make a mistake, to correct it, because I think the next line that I always use is, no other country in the world is so self-critical and is so willing to change course when we feel that we’ve strayed from our values or when we feel like we’ve been too arrogant.

 

                So I think – I have not seen it as an apology tour at all, but rather a change of tone, a more humble America.  But everybody knows we still have the big stick.

 

                Q     Let me ask you about perhaps the most pressing crisis on your plate right now, which is Pakistan.  In your view, has the Pakistani military regained the initiative in Buner and perhaps even in the areas around the Swat Valley, where the Taliban had gained strongholds?

 

                SEC. GATES:  It is my impression from a great distance that they have begun to regain the initiative.  I think that the failure of the agreement in Swat and then the movement into Buner particularly, I think, was a real wake-up call for the Pakistani government.

 

                We and others have been talking with them about how what is happening there in the western frontier area is truly an existential threat to democratic government in Pakistan.  And I think the movement of the Taliban into Buner really got their attention.

 

                I think that the leaders of Pakistan do understand this - President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, General Kiyani and others.  But I think that there’s a need for them to help the rest of Pakistan understand why it’s an existential threat.

 

                Q     But you do think that the leadership gets it?  Because I look at what’s happened, Mr. Secretary.  They have these Taliban forces, insurgency, 60 miles from the capital, 100 miles from the capital.  And what they’ve done so far is move 6,000 troops from the eastern border to the western border out of an army of about a half-million.

 

                This does not strike one as a full-throated response at every level that mobilizes the nation and its defense forces.  Do you think that there is still a way to go for the Pakistani military in terms of focusing on this threat?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think what you have to do is look at it in some historical context.  For 60 years Pakistan has regarded India as its existential threat, as the main enemy.  And its forces are trained to deal with that threat.  That’s where it has the bulk of its army and the bulk of its military capability.

 

                And historically, the far western part of Pakistan has generally been ungoverned.  And the Pakistani governments going back decades would do deals with the tribes and the Pashtuns and would play the tribes against one another, and occasionally, when necessary, use the army to put down a serious challenge.

 

                I think that – and partly it’s because the Punjabis so outnumber the Pashtuns that they’ve always felt that if it really got serious, it was a problem they could take care of.  I think the – that’s why I think the movement of the Taliban so close to Islamabad was a real wake-up call for them.

 

                Now, how long it takes them to build the capabilities, the additional military capabilities and the training that goes into counterinsurgency and so on and to develop the civilian programs that begins to push back in that part of the country, I think, is still a period ahead of us.

 

                But I would just remind that, you know, the first al Qaeda attack on the United States was in 1993.  We really didn’t change much of anything we did until after we were hit on September 11th, 2001.  So al Qaeda was at war with us for eight years, at least eight years, before we acknowledged that we were at war with them as well.  And I think a little bit of the same denial has been going on in Pakistan.  But I think that the recent developments have certainly got their attention.

 

                Q     Do you think they have the counterinsurgency capacity?  Because at some level armies don’t like to fight these kind of wars, as you well know.  What armies like to do is have a big enemy so they can have a big budget and never have to fight a war.  And that is, in effect, what has happened with Pakistan with India, which is they have this big enemy.  It justifies a very large budget for the Pakistani military.  But they don’t actually have to fight, whereas this one, the insurgency, is one which they have to fight.  They could lose.  And so they worry, I think, that they even have the capacity.  Do they have the capacity for real counterinsurgency?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that they are at the beginning of the process of developing that capacity.  But again, to provide some perspective, in 2003, when we went into Iraq, or even in 2001 and ’02, when we went into Afghanistan, our Army didn’t have that capacity either.  We had forgotten everything we learned about counterinsurgency in Vietnam.  And it took us several years to change our tactics and to get ourselves into a position where we could effectively fight a counterinsurgency.

 

                So institutions are slow to change even in the face of a real threat.  And I think that the Pakistanis are beginning to open up to others, to get additional help.  I certainly hope that’s the case.  But I don’t – it’s not something where I would sort of blame the Pakistani army, because we went through the same process ourselves as we confronted a building insurgency in Iraq.

 

                We had to learn all over again how to do this, and we had to acquire the equipment to do it effectively, completely outside the normal Pentagon bureaucracy, for the most part.  So perhaps I have a little more understanding of the challenges that our Pakistani counterparts face than perhaps others.

 

                Q     Well, they’re blaming us.  The Pakistani ambassador wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal in which he says basically that Washington has been reluctant to share critical technology and training, the modern equipment and training for our military.  Basically what they want is helicopters, night-vision goggles, that kind of thing.

 

                Is it true that we have been reluctant to give them some of this equipment and training?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, of the kinds of things that you’ve described, I think that we have been willing to provide all the training and that kind of equipment that we possibly can, as much as they would take.  There has been a reluctance on their part up to now.  They don’t like the idea of a significant American military footprint inside Pakistan.  I understand that.  But we are willing to do pretty much whatever we can to help the Pakistanis in this situation.  I think that we have been willing to do that for quite some time.

 

                Q     Will there be American military advisers in Pakistan now training the Pakistani military in counterinsurgency?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that remains to be seen.  There are some very small number now.  But I think it will depend on how the situation develops and the views of the Pakistani government.  I would just say we are prepared to provide whatever help in developing this counterinsurgency capability to the Pakistanis that we possibly can.  But it’s their country, and they’re sovereign, and we’ll let them dictate the rules.

 

                Q    Let’s move east; Afghanistan.  You’ve said a number of times that no civil war, no conflict, no insurgency is ever really ended without some kind of political reconciliation.  And you’ve talked about the fact that some part of the Taliban, perhaps even the majority of the people fighting, though not the leadership, might be reconcilable.  There are reports that there have been efforts made by American military officers.  Dexter Filkins of The New York Times followed one such reconciliation effort.

 

                What is your sense about how these efforts are going?  How is the effort to in some way draw away parts of the Taliban from the central leadership?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think there are several aspects to it.  First of all, for – based on the information available to us, some considerable proportion of the Taliban essentially do this as a job.  They get paid for it.  And if alternative means of employment can be found, they probably could be fairly easily drawn away.  And there really is no political agenda associated with it at all.

 

                In terms of political reconciliation, first of all, in my view, it has to be on the terms of the Afghan government, that they will have the monopoly on the use of armed force inside the country.  But I think as long as the Taliban think the momentum is with them, that the prospects for political reconciliation are probably not very bright.

 

                If we are successful in restoring significant security, particularly in the south and in the east of the country, I think then, as we are more successful along with our Afghan partners in re-establishing security, then I think the opportunity for political reconciliation will probably grow.

 

                Q     But right now there are no real prospects on hand?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think there may be in some limited areas, but not of consequence as far as I can tell.

 

                Q     You’ve talked about trying to secure the population.  There’s also the effort now to take on the drug cartel, which is effectively run by the Taliban, providing most of the money for their operations.

 

                All of this suggests you’re taking the battle to the enemy.  Should we expect to see higher numbers of casualties in Afghanistan, American casualties, in just the way we did in the early months of the surge, when, for the first time, you took the battle to the enemy?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that’s a prospect we have to be willing to face, particularly in Regional Command South, as our forces go into parts of Afghanistan where there have been no government or coalition forces, ISAF forces, really for the last several years.  So we will be turning over rocks that haven’t been turned over in quite some time.

 

                And so that does raise the prospect of greater casualties, although it will be interesting to see whether the Taliban are prepared to stand and fight or whether, in the face of significant military force, they will just dissipate and then return later.

 

                The key, particularly in the south of Afghanistan, it seems to me, is the ability of the Afghan government, with our help, to hold on to the areas that have been cleared.  It’s very much the same principle as in Iraq.  The people are going to be ambivalent as long as they can’t tell who’s going to win.  They’re going to try and not take sides, because they’re afraid that once we leave, the Taliban will come in and kill them.

 

                And so we have to work with the Afghans to establish an enduring presence in some of these places, perhaps with some of our people, but mostly with Afghan soldiers and Afghan police, to hold these places against the Taliban so the people will have confidence, and then be willing to side with the government in a more enduring way.  That, I think, is the real challenge that we face.

 

                Q     That sounds like an Afghan government that is strong, legitimate, has a lot of capacity to do things like securing local areas.  Some people, as you know – Henry Kissinger argues that this is sort of a bridge too far, that this is probably more than you can achieve in Afghanistan.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think that the priority, at least from the standpoint of the Department of Defense, is the continued growth and increased effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces, both the army and the police.  And we are now looking at a significant increase in the size of the Afghan army, and it is probable that there will be a need to increase the size of the national police force as well.  And I think that those are genuine –

 

                Q     Which is riddled with accusations of corruption.

 

                SEC. GATES:  But I think, under this new minister of interior in Kabul, there have been some real – there has been some real progress in beginning to clean up the national police and make them more effective.  And we also have a program called Focused District Development which takes the police out of villages and districts and retrains them and gives them equipment and gives them new leadership, and so on, that seems to hold promise.  So it’s a work in progress; there’s no doubt about that.  But I think that we have to pay more – we have to continue to try and build the capacity of the Afghan government, work with them in their capabilities.  But I think we also have to focus at the provincial and the district level.

 

                This is where I think development programs and assistance are more likely to actually happen, and for school rooms to be built, for roads to be built, for wells to be dug, and so on and so forth, where the people can actually see government, Afghan government – it may not be the national government, but the provincial government or the district government actually delivering a service and improving the quality of life.

 

                So I think part of the reason that the civilian surge is such an important part of the administration’s new strategy is that it’s this kind of capability at the provincial and the district level, in my view, that really has to be strengthened.  We have to make the provincial reconstruction teams much more robust, with civilian experts, so we can begin to help the Afghans deliver these kinds of services.  I think, at the end of the day, that, plus the increased effectiveness and strength of the army and the police, are really the pathway forward.

 

                Q     You once said that the chief lesson you learned from 40 years in government was the limits of power.  So apply that lesson to Afghanistan today.  What do you think of – what are the limits to what America can do in Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I have been quoted as accurately as saying I have real reservations about significant further commitments of American military – of the American military to Afghanistan, beyond what the president has already approved.  The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops.  They didn’t care about civilian casualties.  And they couldn’t win.  If there’s ever an example that military power alone cannot be successful in Afghanistan, I think it was the Soviet experience.  And I think there’s a lot we can learn from that.  And so I worry – it is absolutely critical that the Afghans believe that this is their war.  It is their war against people who are trying to overthrow their government that they democratically elected.

 

                For all of its flaws and shortcomings, it is theirs.  And they – we must be their partner and their ally.  If we get to the point where the Afghan people see us as occupiers, then we will have lost.  So the way we treat the Afghans, the importance of keeping the Afghans in the lead in many of these activities, the military as well as the civilian, I think is absolutely critical, so that they know – so that these villagers know that it’s their people who are leading this fight.  This isn’t some foreign army coming in there, like all the previous foreign armies, to just occupy them.

 

                Q     But that means that a year from now, six months from now, you are unlikely to approve a request for additional troops in Afghanistan.

 

                SEC. GATES:  I would be a hard sell; there’s no question about it.  And I have not made a secret of that, either publicly or in government meetings.  I think we will have - between the American military commitment and our coalition partners, the ISAF partners, we will have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.  That’s only about 10,000 shy of what the Russians had.  And I think we need to think about that.

 

                My view is it would be a far better investment to focus on building the strength of the Afghan army and the Afghan police, making sure that of the numbers of people we have there, there are adequate trainers so that we can accelerate the growth of those forces.

 

                It’s that combination of a certain level of international support for the Afghan military effort and the growing of the Afghan security forces themselves.  It’s that partnership that I think eventually will be successful in Afghanistan.  As long as – if we try to do it all ourselves, I think it won’t work.

 

                Q    I’m going to take you west to Iraq.  There has been some renewed violence in Iraq.  And some of it does seem to be related to the Sunni community that feels still dispossessed.  There is some controversy about exactly who is spearheading it.  You and Secretary Clinton have talked about al Qaeda remnants.  But Prime Minister Maliki has pointed the finger at former Ba’athists, as he puts it, and used it as a way of explaining why he’s not going to make more concessions to Sunni demands.

 

                Is this core problem, the Shi’a and Sunni political disagreement, going to produce more and more violence as U.S. troops draw down?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I actually think that that kind of sectarian violence – I guess I would say I hope not.  And I actually think it probably will not grow.  I think that they do understand that this is al Qaeda.  This is certainly the view of our commanders, that most of this – most of these high-profile bombings are part of a campaign that was started a few weeks ago by al Qaeda, as we begin to draw down our forces, to both demonstrate – to try and make the point to the Iraqi people that it was this kind of terrorist acts that led us to draw down rather than our success, but also to try – for al Qaeda to try and provoke the kind of sectarian violence that you’re talking about.

 

                This is al Qaeda trying to set Shi’a against Sunni.  Now, regardless of what he says, Prime Minister Maliki also is reaching out to elements of the Sunni community as potential political allies.  And so, you know, the key for us is the Iraqis themselves working these differences out and their problems in a political way.  And so far the record of the past year, year and a half, has been pretty encouraging in terms of the progress that they’ve made.

 

                There’s no question that the roots of democracy are still very shallow in Iraq.  But there’s been a lot of progress.  And I don’t think there are very many Iraqis who want to return to the kind of violence that they saw in 2006.  So I think this is mainly al Qaeda.

 

                I think we do have to watch very carefully, perhaps more importantly, the situation between the Arabs and the Kurds, to make sure that that relationship – that they continue to solve their problems, work through their problems politically.

 

                So, you know, they have a lot of challenges; there’s no question about it.  But I’m really – I’m reasonably optimistic that the gains in terms of solving problems between the sectarian elements will continue to be done politically rather than violently, despite all of al Qaeda’s best efforts.

 

                Q     But you don’t have an oil revenue-sharing law.  You don’t have much resolution over Mosul.  You don’t have much resolution over Kirkuk.  And when I talk to members of the Sunni leadership in Iraq, they tell me that they feel completely excluded from government jobs, from patronage, from all the kind of power-sharing that they were promised.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that the election of the new speaker of the Council of Representatives is an important step forward, as the newly elected provincial councils begin to allocate positions and so on.  We see alliances being made.  So I think that there has been progress in that way.  The Sunnis have taken charge of several of the provinces where they won the elections this time, where they could have won them before, had they not boycotted.  So I think they continue to show progress.

 

                On the oil law, the new speaker of the Council of Representatives has said that’s one of the highest priorities that he has.  I think that Kirkuk - from an Arab-Kurd point of view, Kirkuk is a bigger problem by far than Mosul.  Mosul is really still a security problem from the standpoint of al Qaeda still using it as kind of their last redoubt, if you will.  But, you know, they continue to work these things through.

 

                Q     Two larger questions before we thank you for your time.  President Obama has laid out a vision for a nuclear-free world, a world free of nuclear weapons.  Now, since 1945 there has been no war between a major power, and many people attribute that to nuclear deterrence.  So would a world free of nuclear weapons be more stable without nuclear deterrence?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody does.  I think that it’s – you know, we have had a number of countries forgo nuclear weapons, countries that had nuclear weapons programs who really voluntarily walked away from them – South Africa, Libya, Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil.  So total pessimism with respect to nonproliferation, I think, is unwarranted.  I think that – I have worked – President Obama is the fourth president that I have worked for who has said that he would like to – has said publicly he would like to see an end to nuclear weapons and having a nuclear weapons-free world.  I think that’s a laudable objective.

 

                I think it’s clear to everyone it’s a goal that you have to move toward step by step.  I think that continued nonproliferation efforts, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, another post-START agreement with the Russians in terms of further reducing our stockpile, I think these are all important steps in that direction.  But my guess is it’s a long march.

 

                Q     But if we went to zero and the Chinese went to zero, would the relationship be more stable?  I mean, certainly the U.S.-Soviet case, it seemed as though the fact that we both had nuclear weapons kept the peace.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, you’re asking about a hypothetical world, and I think that’s – we don’t know the answer to that question.  The question is, how do you deal with the technology?  I mean, when you get down to very low numbers of nuclear weapons, and you contemplate going to zero, how do you deal with the reality of that technology being available to almost any country that seeks to pursue it?  And what - what conditions do you put in place, what U.N. verification measures or IAEA verification measures do you put in place, to prevent others from getting that?

 

                So I think this is an important goal for everyone to have in the world, but I think that it's - it's a long road to get there.

 

                Q     Your Defense budget has gathered a huge number of opponents.  There's the contractors, people in Congress, parts of the Services.  Are you going to get through the budget you want, or do you think some significant compromise is inevitable?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that, since the budget isn't even on the Hill yet, I'm not prepared to talk about compromises.  But you know, I think there - I will tell you I have actually been surprised by how limited the criticism has been.  And where - where I have heard criticism, it has come from predictable places.  And I think that there also have been some voices raised, some important voices, in support, including Senator McCain on the Armed Services Committee and others as well, on both sides of the aisle.

 

                So I'm - I'm relatively optimistic, actually.  I think we've presented a very - as one news magazine referred to it, "radically sane" set of a proposals.  They don't represent a cut.  And where we have eliminated one program, we have added to others.  So it's a question of how do we balance our preparations for some future conflict with the capabilities necessary to be successful in the conflicts that we're engaged in today.  And so it's that rebalancing that I'm trying to do.

 

                But at the end of the day, 50 percent of our procurement budget is still for these high-tech modernization programs; about 40 percent for dual-purpose capabilities, such as C-17 cargo planes; and about 10 percent for irregular conflict.  So the notion that I've sort of abandoned looking at future threats is contrary to reality, and I look forward to the opportunity to go to the Hill and make that case.

 

                Q     Final question, Mr. Secretary:  Do you worry - you're a student of history.  Do you worry that we are falling into a kind of imperial trap?  We have the largest defense budget in the world.  We spend more, basically, than the rest of the world put together.  Meanwhile, the Chinese are building this great industrial machine.  We are in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have to deal with Somali pirates.  It does begin to have this image of the British Empire putting out the fires all over the world in somewhat proliferal area as well.  The great industrial/economic challenges are coming up and we're sort of - we're caught by the - the reach of our own power.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, if we are an imperial power, we are a unique one in history in that we are the only one in history that has - is always looking for an exit strategy.

 

                The reality is the United States has global interests, and our defense budget is about the same as the defense budgets or military budgets of every other country in the world put together.  But, as I say, we have global interests, and that defense budget is still less than 4 percent of our gross domestic product.  During the Korean War, it was as high as 9 percent; much higher, obviously, during World War II.  It was 7 (percent) or 8 percent during Vietnam.  So I think, first of all, that the size of the military we have is not a burden on our economy, compared historically to where we've been.

 

                I think that - I think a former Secretary of State put it in a different way than an imperial power.  She said we are an "indispensable power" because the reality is that if you look around the world and the variety of problems that exist, nothing ever gets done without American leadership, at the end of the day.  And I think that's going to continue.  We're going through our economic troubles today.

 

                I think it ties back to the first question you asked me, about, you know, is the president on an apology tour.  Absolutely not.  This is about how the United States exercises global leadership.  And being willing to listen, as well as to talk, is important in that regard.

 

                Q     And we thank you for having talked to us.  Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Thank you.

 

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

 

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