Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
SEC. GATES: Just a couple of things.
It's been good having the opportunity to visit both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to talk about the challenges that we face out here, most especially with respect to Iran, encouraging both to work with the Iraqi government and integrate Iraq's government back into the regional security organizations and provide diplomatic representation in Baghdad, Arab influence in Baghdad.
Clearly talked about Pakistan and what more we can all do together to strengthen and support the civilian government in Pakistan.
Had a great opportunity here to talk with the folks involved in the mission relating to training the National Guard, providing for the Ministry of National Defense Aviation and the new facility security force and protecting critical infrastructure.
Took a lot of questions, some were very specific, pay and benefits. Some were broader about the future of U.S. forces in Iraq and where we're headed in Afghanistan and so on.
And that brings me to my last point. We're headed off shortly, as you know, to Afghanistan. This is really the second part of the trip in the sense of wanting go out -- and we have a new policy, new strategy, a new ambassador and we have a lot of new troops going into the area and I just want to go out and see for myself how they're doing.
Most of this visit will be spent out in the field. I just want to get a sense from the ground level of what the needs are, what the challenges are, what the solutions and some of the problems are from people that, it's been my experience, are more likely to have the solutions than some of the folks back in Washington.
So I'm looking forward to that trip and will be headed off there shortly.
Q Sir, just to close the loop on the first half of the trip, can you give us an update on any kind of discussions you may have had about the repatriating the Yemini detainees at Gitmo and the Saudi clinics?
SEC. GATES: I did raise with the minister of foreign affairs [sic-Saudi Assistant Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayaf] last night our impression, our positive impression of the repatriation program, the rehabilitation, repatriation program in Saudi Arabia. I think they've probably done as good if not better job of that than almost anybody and explored the possibility of some of the Yemini detainees coming through that system. I think the notion would be if it worked at all it would be those with strong Saudi family connections or strong connections to Saudi Arabia.
Nothing was decided. Nothing specifically was asked. It was more a general conversation about the capability and about the possibility. I didn't ask them to do anything and they didn't volunteer.
Q Did they give you any kind of sense on where the Yemen government is on this?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- I would just say on my own behalf that I think President Salih is reluctant to speak out openly and say that this would be a good idea, in part because he may feel that it reflects an inability in Yemen to handle the problem. So I think he is not likely to speak out.
Q Just to follow up, Mr. Secretary, would the idea be that these people would then live in Saudi Arabia once they had been through the program and been monitored by Saudi authorities?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that's further down the road than we went. It really was about getting them into the program, not getting them out.
Q Sorry to belabor this, but if the Yemini president isn't willing to talk about it publicly, do you -- is that an indication that he might be more willing to consider this on a private matter at this point?
SEC. GATES: Well, I honestly don't know the answer to that.
Q Mr. Secretary, what are the top things on your to-do list that you really want to look at in Afghanistan when you're -- at the troop level?
SEC. GATES: Well, mainly I just want to see how it's going in terms of the new infrastructure to accommodate the additional troops. I want -- you know, I want to ask right at the ground level what do you need out here you're not getting. How are the MRAPs working out here? How are the MRAPs with the new suspension working out here? What kind of numbers do you think you need? Is there other equipment that you need?
I just want to keep the focus. Here we have 21,000 additional troops going in over time. I just want to keep the focus on what I've been talking about for months, and that is what do we need to do to get the equipment and the support to the troops in the field so they can be successful and come home safely.
One of the things I'm going to be checking on -- I took some measures a couple of months ago to try and ensure, with respect to MedEvac, that our troops in Afghanistan had the same golden hour that we have in Iraq. I sent 10 or a dozen additional helicopters out to try and meet that requirement. A new combat aviation brigade is coming in this month and will that meet the need that, on the longer term basis, that the 10 additional helicopters met on the short term basis. We sent out a couple of additional field hospitals.
So I want to find out how that's all worked out. And then, obviously, my favorite subject, talking about ISR. So that sounds like a busy schedule.
Q It does. (Chuckles.)
SEC. GATES: We'll see.
MODERATOR: A couple last ones.
Q Among the Saudis, when you talked in there about the potential sales of new military equipment, did they speak to you specifically about what, including Patriot missiles, to somehow encounter the Iranian threat?
SEC. GATES: Actually we didn't speak about any new weapons systems. In the meeting I had with the leadership, my questions were focused on what's wrong with our FMS program and how can we accelerate it, how can we -- it's not just a problem here in Saudi Arabia, it's a problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, anywhere we want to sell systems. What are the bureaucratic impediments? What are the regulatory, the policy, the bureaucratic obstacles to getting weapons into the hands of our friends and allies far faster than we are able to do now. And I've got some suggestions to go back and work on.
Q On the ISR question --
MODERATOR: This is the last one guys.
Q -- on the ISR question in Afghanistan, what are you going to be looking for there? Are there specific programs or --
SEC. GATES: Well, we put a lot of new stuff in there and there's more to come in under the FY '10 budget. I just want to make sure they're ready for it, that they'll be able to absorb it and use it in an effective way. And what is the skill unmet need.
SEC. GATES: Thank you.
Q Any visibility on the strikes this morning, or I guess last night? There was a couple of scores of civilians killed apparently.
SEC. GATES: I haven't heard of that.
SEC. GATES: Thank you all.
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