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Press Conference with Secretary Gates During the NATO Defense Ministers Meeting

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
October 23, 2009

                SEC. GATES:  Good afternoon.  I just finished a working session with my NATO colleagues, a meeting where we discussed a range of institutional and operational issues affecting the alliance. 

 

                A major topic this morning was the -- America's plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe.  I reinforced what the president and I said yes -- last month, that the changes proposed will provide for a more capable and flexible missile defense system sooner than was the case under the previous plan, and with a greater capacity to adapt as threats evolve.  While this was not the appropriate occasion for any kind of formal endorsement, I came away with the impression of quite broad allied support for our new approach. 

 

                In this session, we also noted several NATO milestones.  In Kosovo, the Kosovo Security Force has attained initial operating capability, an accomplishment in which NATO played a critical role. 

 

                NATO's new dedicated heavy airlift wing performed its first mission, resupplying Swedish forces in Afghanistan.  And after much effort, the Allied Ground Surveillance program went into effect. 

 

                We also discussed NATO's role in Afghanistan; in particular, reforming ISAF's operational culture, supporting the training mission and improving the ability of ISAF to counter improvised explosive devices.  There'll be a more in-depth discussion of Afghanistan this afternoon, with troop-contributing nations' working lunch, and then again the RC South meeting. 

 

                But I will say that many allies spoke positively about General McChrystal's assessment. 

 

                As you know, the United States government is currently reviewing our strategy and posture for Afghanistan and central Asia.  This NATO ministerial presents an opportunity to consult with allies as part of our review of General McChrystal's assessment and forces request. Other nations have put more than 35,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and their views are important to us as we consider the way ahead.  I assured the allies this morning and will state again this afternoon that the United States has no intention of pulling out of Afghanistan or abandoning our core mission there, a mission we deem critical to our national security and vital national interests. 

 

                The United States continues to appreciate the military and nonmilitary contributions of the international coalition in Afghanistan.  We are especially mindful of and grateful for sacrifices of allied troops who are in the fight and taking casualties in this dangerous and complex effort.  And we pay tribute to all they have achieved and all they have sacrificed. 

 

                With that, I'll take a couple of questions. 

 

                (Tom?) 

 

                Q     A question from The New York Times.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Among those who spoke positively about General McChrystal's assessment, were you among those who have now endorsed counterinsurgency efforts there rather than the narrower counterterrorism mission?   

 

                And with this broad endorsement of General McChrystal's vision, does it require significant contributions of new troops, whether Americans or from the allies, to do the big job of protecting the population and training?   

 

                Thank you.   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, again, this wasn't a session for any kind of formal endorsement.  And I think most ministers were expressing personal opinions of the assessment.   

 

                I would say that first of all, I was in a listening mode.  We are here to consult.  And clearly one of the things that I think the president is expecting from me is to bring back the views of our allies on some of these issues.  They are already making a substantial contribution.   

 

                My only interventions this morning, with respect to counterinsurgency, had to do with the need for a common NATO and ISAF counterinsurgency doctrine and also that we have a more common approach to training, for carrying out counterinsurgency, that there isn't enough shared experience in terms of what works and what doesn't work.   

 

                So that was pretty much the limit of it.  And so you know, as I say, there was -- there was informal conversation about this.  But for this meeting, I'm here mainly in listening mode.   

 

                Q     (Inaudible) -- with El Pais from Spain.   

 

                Secretary -- (inaudible) -- with missile defense, what is the role that you foresee for Russia in the whole system and the new concept that Washington is thinking about?  Thank you. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  One of the great attributes of the phased adaptive approach of our new approach to missile defense is that it is much easier for us to connect our system with the radars and anti-missile capabilities of our allies.  That's also true of Russia.  The reality is, with this new system, it will be much easier to tie it in with Russian capabilities should they choose to join us. 

 

                So, for example, they have a radar in southern Russia that would be a real asset to the overall defense of Europe, particularly from Iranian missiles.  And as I have said for a long time, they -- we would welcome Russia's partnership on this.  This new system would actually make connecting or tying in that Russian radar easier than the previous system. 

 

                Q     (Inaudible) -- from German television.  Mr. Gates, there were reports in the American press that the U.S. thinks about sending another 13,000 troops to Afghanistan.  You have already sent, I think, 21,000 troops this year.  And can you give us an idea whether this figure is correct and whether you think about sending them when you know that (who is ?) president in Afghanistan?  Is there any connection? 

 

                Is there any connection? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  That was an inaccurate story in the American press. The number of 13,000 in addition to the 21,000 was fundamentally a mistake in math and also a failure to recognize that there were a number of troops, something on the order of 7,000 troops, that had been approved to go to Afghanistan by President Bush and that were -- but actually did not arrive in Afghanistan until President Obama was in office.   

 

                President Obama knew that when he made his decision.  The total number of additional forces that we've added under President Obama, trainers, combat forces and enablers altogether is the 21,000. 

 

                Q     Thank you. 

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, Nick Childs from the BBC.  There seems to be general agreement on the need to get the strategy right, and then the need for deliberation on Afghanistan.  But in your listening mode, did you detect any concerns from your colleagues about the length of time that the administration is taking over working out its position on the way forward, and whether there were any concerns perhaps there needed to be a decision soon on this? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  There wasn't a word said about that, not one.  I think that there were a number of comments, however, on the importance of governance in Afghanistan, on improved governance, and on the legitimacy of the government going forward, and the need to deal with the issue of corruption.  But in terms of the -- of the review going on in the United States, there wasn't a word said about that by any of our allies, at least none I heard. 

 

                Q     (Inaudible) -- Slovakia.  

 

                I would like to ask you how did you feel about the support and about the new proposal of the U.S. concerning missile defense in Central Europe from the allies, and especially how did you feel about the support expressed by Slovak Republic?  Thank you.   

 

                SEC. GATES:  I met with -- I met with the Slovak minister of defense and deputy prime minister just a little while ago.  I think that they are supportive of the direction that we're going.  I think that they made reference to a statement that was made yesterday that was based on outdated information, and I think they'll be addressing that -- later today, perhaps.  Leave that up to them.  

 

                But I felt that -- as I mentioned a second ago, that there was quite broad support for the new approach, and interest in, again, extending our hand to the Russians to invite them to partner with us in this. 

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News.  Did you get a sense of what -- how deep and how strong the support would be from the NATO allies in the event that a decision is made that more troops would be needed for Afghanistan?  What is your sense of how much support you might expect, compared to how much you're getting now? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'd -- again, this was not the forum for anyone to express a view of any commitment or anything like that.  As some of you have heard me say, I think that since I've been at this now almost three years and after the NATO summit this last spring, I detected a commitment and an energy on the part of our allies, both in uniform and civilians, in terms of their determination to participate with us in Afghanistan and see this through to a successful conclusion. 

 

                Although this was not the -- although the troop generation conference won't be until next month, there were a number of allies who indicated they were thinking about or were moving toward increasing either their military or their civilian contributions or both.  And I found that very heartening. 

 

                I think we lose sight of the fact that, just as we have doubled the number of Americans in Afghanistan over the last 15 months or so, the reality is, the number of our partner nations, the number of their troops has doubled as well, to almost 38,000 at this point.  So people really have been stepping up to this.  And I think it remains to be seen the -- as the secretary-general made clear, the troop-request part of General McChrystal's overall assessment and resource request is working its way through the NATO chain of command.  It really wasn't discussed today.  It'll be there for a -- at an appropriate time. 

 

                But I just -- I would say -- again, I have felt both over the last number of months but even after this morning's session there seemed to be a renewed determination to see this through. 

 

                Q     Several NATO ministers have said they were -- wanted to wait for the White House strategy decision and the election both, before making their decisions on any commitments. 

 

                But you earlier this week seemed to separate those two items, thinking that the strategy should go forward, regardless of election results; that that's a complicated matter.   

 

                Were you able to share that?  Or have you received any input back, from the ministers here, about whether -- needing to wait for clear leadership, clear credibility, before making any kind of decision forward?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  There really wasn't anything said about that during the meeting.  Again the focus -- we're going to hear from General McChrystal this afternoon.  A lot of -- I think a lot of what people had to say, about Afghanistan, was being put off until the working lunch that is going to be focused on that, when we will also have defense Minister Wardak of Afghanistan and a number of our partner nations in that lunch.  So they really didn't go down that road in the meeting this morning at all.   

 

                Last question.   

 

                Yeah, way in the back.   

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, with the mounting endorsements of General McChrystal's approach from senior U.S. officers, NATO chiefs of defense, and we heard from the secretary-general, from the ministers this morning, is the president still considering a major deviation from broad counterinsurgency in his strategy review?   

 

                And if it is going to be broad counterinsurgency, won't that certainly involve the need for more troops?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, you know, drawing conclusions at this point is vastly premature.  We're looking at a full range of activities.  And our strategy in Afghanistan -- as has been said publicly in Washington and as I've said, we're not pulling out. I think that any reduction is very unlikely.   

 

                The question is, do we have the strategy right, in light of the situation we face?  Does it need refinement in some way; and if it does need some adjustment in light of the events that have taken place over the last number of months, including the election and so on.  And then, what are the implications of that in terms of General McChrystal's resource request? 

 

                As has been said in Washington, I think that the analytical phase is beginning to -- is coming to an end, and that probably over the next two or three weeks we're going to be considering specific options and teeing them up for a decision by the president. 

 

                Thank you all very much.

 

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