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Press Conference with Secretary Gates from Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
May 07, 2009

SEC. GATES:  Well, it's a pleasure to be back in Afghanistan. And I'm glad to have had this opportunity to get a firsthand perspective and assessment of the situation here from General McKiernan and our troops.  After meeting with General McKiernan last night, I've had a full day visiting with our soldiers and Marines from both incoming and outgoing units, along with personnel from other troop-contributing nations.  In partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces, they are doing an extraordinary job under difficult and dangerous conditions. 


                This trip has been an opportunity to thank our troops for their service, to see firsthand the work they are doing, to hear about the challenges they face and to make sure they are getting everything they need to be successful. 


                I also emphasized today to our troops the importance of showing respect and courtesy to our friends and hosts, the Afghan people; to be a true partner for them in securing and building and governing  their own country, in defending their democracy and freedom from those who are waging a terrible and ruthless war to deny Afghans that freedom. 


                This was also my first visit since the new administration has come into office and since the launch of President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And I am hopeful that the meetings this week in Washington of the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the United States will produce new solidarity in the fight against violent extremism. 


                We are entering a critical period with the deployment of significantly more American forces, as well as the upcoming Afghan presidential election.  It is important that the Afghan people be able to choose their leaders in a secure environment without terror and intimidation. 


                I will close by reaffirming that the United States, along with our allies and Afghan partners, is committed to doing what is necessary to see that Afghanistan, with a government elected by its people, does not become a haven for terrorists or return to the brutal rule of the Taliban. 


                And with that, I'd be happy to take some questions. 


                Q     Sir? 


                STAFF:  Excuse me.  Is there a member of the Afghan press here? 


                Q     (Inaudible.) 


                SEC. GATES:  I'm getting a lot of interference.  I can't hear. 


                It's the same thing.  Maybe somebody could interpret. 


                STAFF:  Can somebody translate that question? 


                Q     I can translate -- 


                SEC. GATES:  I think it's all the microphones that are interfering with this.  Okay, let's try it again.  


                Q     Thank you.  (Inaudible.) 


                SEC. GATES:  Got nothing. 




                :  (Off mike) -- your position, sir. 


                SEC. GATES:  Please. 


                Q     (Inaudible) -- from Voice of America, sir. 


                (Through interpreter.)  Sir, the question has two part.  The first part is, as we know, the Taliban in Pakistan is advancing, and there's a worry about this to -- if they're going to reach or that -- (inaudible) -- a nuclear weapon in Pakistan.  This is a -- do we have some worry about this?   


                And also, the second part of question is as to -- do we know safe haven in Pakistan impacts our power in Pakistan -- is getting -- advancing every day?  Is United States -- have any policy to attack them inside Pakistan territory? 


                SEC. GATES:  Thank you.  First, I think that the Taliban in Pakistan overreached with their offensive in Buner district, coming within dozens of kilometers of Islamabad.  I think that it has served as a -- an alarm for the Pakistani government that these violent extremists in the western part of Pakistan are a significant danger to the government of Pakistan.   


                And so we have seen, in the last week or two, significant Pakistani military action against these -- against the Taliban in Buner district, and clear recognition that the agreement in Swat has failed.  And so I personally have been very satisfied with the strong response that the Pakistani government and army have taken in response to this, and that there is very little chance of the Taliban in Pakistan achieving a level of success that would give them access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons. 


                With respect to the U.S. -- 


                Q     Hold a minute, sir.  I have to translate.  (They're used to having ?) a translation.  I apologize, sir.  (Translates.)  


                SEC. GATES:  With respect to the second part of your question, I believe that the reaction of the Pakistani army shows their recognition of the danger that exists in the western part of the country, and I do not anticipate at all that there will be American troops going into Pakistan from Afghanistan to deal with this problem.  


                Our goal is to work with the Pakistani army, with the Pakistani government, as they deal with this problem.  And we are willing to do all we can to help. 


                Q     Okay.  (Continues through interpreter.)  Mr. Secretary, as you know, there was an incident in Farah a few days ago which caused dozens of civilian casualties, according to the ICRC.  The allegations are that those were caused by U.S. forces.  What's your response to those allegations? 


                And in particular, there have been some suggestions that the Taliban themselves caused the casualties by putting civilians in houses and then throwing grenades in.  Is that your understanding of what happened? 


                And why not apologize, as you've urged people in the military to do in the past -- apologize quickly, and then move on and compensate? 


                STAFF:  So I think the translation works.  Let's proceed. 


                SEC. GATES:  All right, we'll hope for the best. 


                The -- first of all, I'm well aware of this.  And as I have -- have said many times before, we -- from the United States and our coalition partners -- do everything we possibly can to avoid civilian casualties. 


                Representatives of General McKiernan and the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior have gone to Farah to investigate what happened there.  The information that you cite about Taliban throwing grenades into houses to create civilian casualties and put the blame on the United States is a report I have heard.  But I think we will have to wait -- to wait and see what the results of the investigation are. 


                We regret any -- even one -- Afghan civilian causality -- innocent civilian causality, and we will make whatever amends are necessary.  And I believe that Gen. McKiernan's spokesman, in fact, has already expressed regret about this incident, regardless of who caused it. 


                We all know that the Taliban use civilians casualties, and sometimes create them, to create problems for the United States and our coalition partners.  We will have to wait and see what happened in this -- in this particular case. 


                But I would make one additional point. 


                Since the beginning of this year, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are down 40 percent.  Casualties American, coalition partners, and Afghan security forces are up 75 percent.   


                So I believe that the Afghan government, the Americans and our international partners are doing everything we can to avoid civilian casualties.  And we will continue to do that.   


                Q     (Inaudible.)   


                SEC. GATES:  First of all, I believe, in many instances, the Taliban used civilians as shields.  They mingle with civilians and then attack ISAF partners.  And so while there have been civilian casualties caused by American and our coalition partners' troops, the reality is that in virtually every case, they have been accidental.  Whereas when the Taliban creates civilian casualties, it has been deliberate, as part of their strategy for trying to build an adversarial relationship, between the Afghan people and those who are trying to help the Afghan government.   


                Our technical capabilities provide certain assets, but the reality is this is, at the end of the day, a war on the ground, in rural areas, village by village, block by block.  And very often, modern techniques are very limited in what they can contribute to this fight.  It's one of the reasons why at home I have been seeking additional capabilities for our troops who are here in the fight.  


                As I said, we deeply regret any civilian casualty.  But fundamentally, people need to recognize that exploiting civilian casualties and often causing civilian casualties are a fundamental part of the Taliban strategy.  And it is a measure of the ruthlessness with which they fight. 


                STAFF:  Greg (sp), do you have anything?  Do you have -- okay.   


                Go ahead, Laura. 


                Q     Secretary Gates -- Secretary, Laura Jakes from Associated Press.  You heard a Marine today say he needed more communications equipment.  Is the surge in troops outpacing the equipment and supplies that they need that are coming into country?  And if so, why is that? 


                SEC. GATES:  I -- this is something that I have to look into when I get back to Washington.  I heard this on several occasions today, that the equipment is coming in behind our troops and is not here and available for them when they arrive.  And I intend to look into this and find out what the situation is.  But I did hear it from several of our military folks today.  And it is a considerable concern to me. 


                Q     Is it, perhaps, Iraqi equipment -- (audio break) -- equipment that's still in Iraq? 


                SEC. GATES:  No, it's not an Iraq problem.  It's basically just the magnitude of the -- the amount of equipment that has to be brought in, and frankly, the relatively limited infrastructure in terms of airfields and so on, how you get it into Afghanistan.  It's not extremists’ interference with the lines of communication; I think it's more really a logistical challenge than it is anything else.  And that's what I intend to pursue. 


                STAFF:  (Off mike.) 


                Q     (Through off-mike interpreter.) 


                SEC. GATES:  I think civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however they occur, pose a risk to our efforts here.  What is critical for the success of the Afghan government, and for us as the government's and the Afghan people's partner, is that the Afghan people believe that we are on their side, that we are here to help them win a victory to protect their own freedom, that we respect Afghans and that we are here to protect them, not to hurt them.  And so whenever civilian casualties occur, it tends to undermine that important point, and it is -- and is therefore such a source of great concern. 


                The last time I was here, I made a statement to the Afghan press and television, about our concern about civilian casualties and that our rules of engagement were being changed and being toughened up, to make it less likely that there would be civilian casualties.  I think there is importance in partnering, with the Afghan security forces, so that they are with us when there are operations.   


                So I think that this -- it is a concern.  And it has been a concern for quite some time frankly.  And it doesn't matter that it's part of the Taliban's strategy.  It's what matters in the eyes of the Afghan people.  And so it's so important for us to be seen as their partner and their ally, not as somebody who has come to do them harm.   


                We are here to help the Afghan people.  That partnership, that friendship is absolutely critical to the success of Afghans and our own success here.  And so I think we have to continue to work at this problem.  And even if the Taliban create these casualties or exploit them, we need to figure out a way to minimize them and hopefully make them go away.   


                In terms of the election security, there will be a number of election monitors from around the world.  A number of the coalition partners will be sending additional troops here, to try and provide security for the election.   


                One of the reasons that we are bringing forces into the country, as quickly as possible, from the United States, which is part of the logistical issue, is to provide security, before the elections take place, in the period before and during the elections.    


                So I think that as best I can tell, the circumstances right now seem quite favorable for a reasonably safe and secure election process here in Afghanistan.  We look forward to seeing that go forward.   


                (Cross talk.)   


                Q     Secretary Gates, Chris Lawrence of CNN.   


                You had a chance to speak with a lot of your counternarcotics experts here in Afghanistan.  After speaking with them today and seeing some of the work that they're doing, do you feel that the U.S. mission now is to stamp out the narcotics trade in Afghanistan quickly or to allow some drug trafficking to continue, while the Afghans wean themselves off of that?   


                SEC. GATES:  Well, we have no desire to see the drug traffic continue, and frankly, neither do most Afghans.  Our primary purpose here is not to stamp out the drug trade.  Our primary purpose here is to make sure that Afghanistan does never again become a haven, a safe haven, for violent extremists who would attack the United States or anybody else.  That's our fundamental mission.   


                We're also here to help the Afghan people.  Afghanistan, until 20 or 30 years ago, 30 years ago or so, was a breadbasket.   


                It not only grew enough food to feed itself but to export food.   


                We would like to see that kind of agricultural success return to Afghanistan.  The farmers of Afghanistan will not find that kind of prosperity and that kind of diverse economic success through growing poppies.  You can't feed poppies to your family.  You can't feed poppies to your herd.  When you grow poppies, you have only one customer, and he does not negotiate.  And so it's actually in the best interests of the Afghan people to stamp out this trade. 


                The reality is, in many of the provinces of Afghanistan, good governors and the Afghan people have stamped out the narcotics trade in those provinces.  And most -- in fact, perhaps 95 percent -- of all of the poppy growing in Afghanistan now is in something like seven provinces, most of them in the south, where the Taliban are most prevalent and the most powerful.  So I think that the key to stamping out the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, to begin with, is to defeat the Taliban. 


                STAFF:  We'll take one last question.  (Cross talk.)  Ariana Television.  (Cross talk.) 


                Q     Everyone should have a chance. 


                STAFF:  We don't have time.  I'm sorry.   


                Q     (Inaudible.)   


                STAFF:  Everybody can benefit from these answers. 


                Q     (In one of the local languages.) 


                SEC. GATES:  I'm sorry.  There was interference and I didn't -- what is closing in a week? 


                INTERPRETER:  Sir, updating you on that question, the question was as to the parliament of Afghanistan issue a decree.  One that gives the coalition forces, international force in Afghanistan to legalize their activity.  Otherwise, in one week they will close parliament by itself.  And what is your assessment or reaction? Because -- (inaudible) --  


                (Cross talk.)  Yes, sir.  That's the question.  Is -- 


                SEC. GATES:  The first that I've heard of it, and I would prefer not to answer without knowing the background and having some understanding. 


                Q     One question. 


                Q     One more question -- 


                STAFF:  Sorry.  We're out of time.  


                Q     Last question.  (Cross talk.)  Last question, sir.

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