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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a Town Hall Meeting at Forward Operating Base Bastion, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
May 07, 2009
            SEC. GATES: How are you all today? Bill Gates is the really rich one. (Laughter.) I just wanted to take a few minutes. What I'll do here is I've got just a few things I want to say. I'll take a few questions, and then I want to leave time for all of you to come through a line, get an individual photograph, let me thank each one of you individually, and we'll give you a coin.
 
            First of all, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for volunteering to serve -- the Marine Corps, the Air Force, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army. And I want to thank you or tell you also or ask you to thank your families. They've put up with a lot of sacrifice as well while you're over here. And we know how much sacrifice they have to make in order for you to be able to serve. So next time you talk to them or write to them or e-mail them, tell them that I said thanks.
 
            It's because you all are out here that Americans can -- (inaudible) – at night. And I just can't tell you how much I appreciate what you do. I feel a very deep -- personal -- responsibility for each and every one of you. My job, it seems to me, is to get you what you need to be successful in your missions and to do everything possible to get you home safely. And so we've tried to do the best we could with intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, getting the MRAPs out here, we're working on the all-terrain MRAPs, designed just for Afghanistan, but we're getting the rest out here as fast as we can. We've got about 2,500 of them in theater right now and another 2,000 or so to come
 
            Trying to do what we can on the medical side. We sent out 10 additional helicopters and three field hospitals to provide the golden hour here in Afghanistan as we have it in Iraq. We hope we don't need it for any of you, but I want it to be there if it is needed.
 
            And we're trying to do whatever else we can. And one of the reasons for my coming out here, in addition to thanking you, is finding out what else you need and what we can do to try and make you successful to get you home safely.
 
            So with that, thank you. Let me stop and take a few questions. And then we'll get on with the important business. Who's going to be the courageous first one?
 
            Q     (Off mike.) (Inaudible) -- this isn't so much a question, an observation, sir. Our headquarters element-- (inaudible) -- and rather hard pressed for communications gear, sir. (Inaudible) -- on its way.
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think we've got a huge amount of equipment. What I was briefed on once I arrived here is the amount of equipment that's en route to Bastian. And I suspect that a lot of the equipment that's not here yet is in those containers that are coming through right now. I think there's equipment of all kinds for the 2nd Med as they come in. And I think you'll find that a lot of that stuff is on there. But we'll check and find out for sure.
 
            Q     (Inaudible) -- is there any truth to that, or is that just a rumor, sir?
 
            SEC. GATES: I think that's fully in the category of rumor. We won't be putting ground troops in Pakistan. We are hoping for an opportunity to help them with training their forces -- (inaudible) -- in Pakistan. And we just want to partner with them to enable them to carry the fight in the border area, as they have been over the last couple of weeks. So they won't be -- I don't think you have to worry about a mission in Pakistan.
 
            I might just say, in terms of the Marines, I heard a great story when I was at Camp Lejeune a couple of weeks ago. A Marine unit got orders for Okinawa, and 200 Marines --
 
            Q     (Off mike.) (Inaudible) -- I have a question. Are there plans to rebuild the towers at Manhattan? I just wondered that.
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't think they're going to rebuild the towers as they were. I think there is a plan that's been in the works a long time to have a new building there, but it would not look anything like the Trade Towers themselves.
 
            Q     (Off mike.) (Inaudible) -- I was wondering what we've done recently about the security situation with Iran.
 
            SEC. GATES: With Iran? Well, that's a good question. Well, first of all, we try and nail all of them we catch in Afghanistan and Iraq. We've got sanctions in place to try and get those guys to change their behaviors, change their practices. But Iran is a tough nut. And we're working with our partners in the area. I just came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We're working with our partners in the Gulf area to further develop our missile, air and maritime surveillance and defense against the Iranians. We have a significant Naval presence, as you know, in the Gulf. I think we've got plenty of force there to take care of them if they come out.
 
            The real hard problem that, frankly, we haven't solved yet is how you get them to walk away from their nuclear weapons program. And you know, there are a lot of options for dealing with it, but we need a long-term solution. Ultimately, we need to figure out a way to convince them that if they go that route, they'll be less secure rather than more secure because they'll probably set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. So we're working it and trying to deal with the subversive activities they're engaged in, their support of Hezbollah and Hamas. A lot of Americans forget that until 9/11 Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world, so we've still got to keep our eye on those guys and their principal sponsors are Iran.
 
            So it's their surrogates we've got to watch, and it's their own capabilities. But they're going to be a problem for us, I think.
 
            Keep the deployment lengths at seven months for the Marines. And what we're looking at for all the services, but particularly for the Army and the Marine Corps that have been redeployed so many times, is looking at seeing how we can extend the dwell time. There was a time there when Marines were serving seven months on and seven or eight months home and then back again. And it's that dwell time at home that we hope to lengthen. It's one of the reasons why we've worked so hard to expand the end strength of both the Marine Corps and the Army. Both of them have gotten there two years earlier than we expected.
 
            And so I think as we draw down in Iraq, despite the buildup here, we will be in a position, I hope, by later this year to begin lengthening the dwell time at home for everybody. 
 
            But the problem -- you know, historically, the Pakistanis have always seen the Indians as their archenemy. And a good part of that western part of Pakistan has really never been governed very well or had much of a government presence. And they deal with the tribes by making deals or setting them against one another or buying them off or occasionally using the military.
 
            Because there are so many more Punjabis than Pashtuns, they figured if the Pashtuns ever got out of line, they'd just be able to take care of the problem without too much difficulty. What they've discovered, I think, in the last year or so is that those guys in western Pakistan have now become a real threat to the government in Pakistan. And while we've seen over the past few months with the Frontier Corps and the past couple of weeks with the Pakistani army is that they're beginning to go after these guys. And I think, in some respects, the Taliban overreached by trying to take over that Buner district which is only 60 or so miles from Islamabad, the capital. And I think that was a wake-up call for the Pakistani government. And so the action that we've seen over the last couple of weeks has been very encouraging as they've come after these bad guys there in the border area.
 
            Last question? Yes, sir.
 
            Q     (Off mike.) Major Wilson, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion. What's being done to make this a true interagency effort back in the states?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think a central part of the new administration's Afghan-Pakistan strategy is a significant civilian surge. They're looking at adding somewhere around 500 civilians here in Afghanistan, most of whom would be deployed outside of the capital and would be with the provincial reconstruction teams and various other groups to try and get the specialists who know how to dig wells, who know how to build schools, who know how to do accounting, basic things like that at the provincial-district level.
 
            I think that's going to take a little time to get that many people. We have offered to see if, in our Reserve component, there are volunteers who are specialists in those areas -- veterinarians, agronomists, and so on -- to see if they can act as a bridge until the full-time civilians can be hired. But there is clearly an understanding that there is a need for more civilian expertise and that you guys can't do this all by yourselves.
 
            We can clear these areas, but we've got to hold them, and then we've got to build something. And the build part is what the civilians have got to do. And we certainly have supported that. They've got a bunch of money in the supplemental that's just being acted on by the Congress right now. 
 
            But I will tell you, we've had a complaint in the Department of Defense that the rest of the government hasn't been at war.  One of my complaints has been that there have been significant parts of the Department of Defense that haven't been at war. And so we're trying to get all of the Defense Department into the fight and, at the same time, trying to get the rest of the government the resources that they need to get into the fight.
 
            So with that --
 
            (Off mike commentary.)
 
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