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Media Availability with Secretary Gates and Canadian Minister of Defense Peter MacKay

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
November 20, 2009

                 MIN. MACKAY:  Ladies and gentlemen, "mesdames et messieurs" -- (continues in French).  Very honored and pleased to be here in the city of Halifax at the Citadel with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. We've just had an opportunity to sit down, as we have on a number of occasions, and discuss important bilateral issues between Canada and the United States.  

 

                We had a very open and frank exchange, which is typical of previous meetings that I've had with Secretary Gates, both in the United States and at other conferences that we've attended together. And we discussed important issues to both countries and areas of cooperation, whether they be cooperation around the existing relationships in NORAD or NATO, our continued participation and efforts in the Permanent Joint Board of Defense, which is a historic working group that allows for an exchange of information around defense-related and security matters.   

 

                And we talked about the Arctic, our mutual concerns around the changing environment in the Arctic, and focus on security around North America, including the new component part of NORAD, which is the maritime approach.  That's apropos of where we find ourself today. Here in a port city like Halifax, renewed focus on maritime security is something that is of great interest to the United States and to Canada.   

 

                And I expressed my appreciation on behalf of all Canadians for the tremendous support that we've received around the security for the coming 2010 Olympic Games, which will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the other coast.  And that, again, is a symbol of the tremendous working relationship that we've had, the tremendous level of cooperation that we've had on defense and security matters and the economic implications, of course as well, of our relationship.   

 

                So I want to again emphasize how much I appreciate the presence of Secretary Gates, his delegation, and to all of you for attending this bilateral meeting here in Halifax, which is also occurring at the same time as the very first German Marshall Fund security conference here in the city of Halifax, which is well-attended internationally. And Secretary Gates will take part in the opening of that conference later this afternoon.

 

                 

 

                So Bob, over to you. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Thanks, Peter.  I'm really pleased to be here in Halifax, and want to thank you for the beautiful weather.  The -- some while ago, Minister Mackay suggested to me that we have a meeting dedicated to the bilateral issues that we have between us.  It seems like over the past two years or so every meeting we've attended together has been focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan, and it was past time to tend to our -- to our own neighborhood and the issues that we have together.  So I appreciate your suggesting this meeting and our getting together.   

 

                I'm also honored to be the keynoter at the international security forum here in Halifax later this afternoon that Minister Mackay was instrumental in putting together.   

 

                We conferred on a range of shared security challenges on the continent, in the -- in this hemisphere and on the global stage.  We affirmed that NATO is the foundation of the U.S.-Canada defense relationship, and that ensuring this organization is aligned with emerging missions and security threats is important; it needs to evolve as we deal with a more and more sophisticated kind of threat to ourselves. 

 

                And we focused on rejuvenating the Permanent Joint Board on Defence and assigning new tasks to the broad relevant to our defense dialogue.  As Peter indicated, we talked about expanding our dialogue with respect to the Arctic, and also encouraging and broadening Canada's participation in the security realm here in the Western Hemisphere.  Our continued cooperation on these matters can only enhance the safety and security of both our countries. 

 

                Before closing, I would -- I'd just note that last week both the United States -- the United States celebrated Veterans Day and Canada celebrated Remembrance Day, which provided both of us an opportunity to honor the service of our men and women in uniform and also a chance to reflect on the sacrifices of our allies.   

 

                The United States is deeply appreciative and thankful for the skill and the contribution and the dedication of the Canadian troops in Afghanistan.  Their bravery and their sacrifice is recognized by all in the United States.   

 

                And I would just like to thank the people of Halifax for their hospitality.   

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  Thank you. 

 

                Dan, do you want to -- oh, we're going to have a few questions. So -- 

 

                STAFF:  We will now take questions.   

 

                Q     Good morning, gentlemen.  Murray Brewster with the Canadian Press.   

 

                Secretary Gates, could I ask you -- I'm sure you're aware of the controversy regarding the handling of prisoners here in Canada.  I was wondering if the United States has had similar concerns, if you were aware, or when did the United States become aware of any concerns it might have had over the Afghan treatment of prisoners.   

 

                And Minister MacKay, at the same time, I'm wondering if you have any concerns, given the fact that the British did halt their transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities in June, and whether you feel that there are appropriate safeguards in place, given that fact. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I became aware of the issue here in Canada about three hours ago, when I saw the front page of one of your newspapers. And so I have clearly no knowledge of what is involved here, and I just defer to the minister. 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  Thanks.   

 

                Murray, the issue around the handling of detainees by Afghans, as you quite correctly pointed out, has been of concern for some time. Obviously we've been receiving information from various sources, and we do track how other countries -- the British, the United States, the Dutch and others -- have approached this, of handling and turning over detainees.  

 

                The reality is, this is a responsibility of the Afghan authorities that we want to enhance and support.  We've made decisions  in the past, as you're aware, to halt transfer of detainees when credible allegations have come forward.  And what we are there to do is enhance their capabilities. 

 

                And we've invested quite heavily in their justice system -- in the physical correction centers, penal system that they have in place -- the training of prison guards including female prison guards and putting in place better practices, for their handling of detainees.   

 

                And that's what we're there to do, to increase their capacity, so that they can have a better human rights situation and obviously adhere more with international conventions and improve their standards.  That's very much what we're there to do.   

 

                (Remarks in French.)   

 

                Q     Phil Stewart from Reuters.   

 

                For Secretary Gates, President Karzai has talked about taking control of security within his five-year term.  And President Obama has said he does not want to pass the Afghan war off to the next president.   

 

                Is it too soon to start talking about an endgame?  And if not, how do you do that, as other countries including Canada prepare to pull their troops out?   

 

                And to Minister MacKay very briefly, if Canada plans to continue its civilian work, beyond the 2011 withdrawal of troops, how do you plan to maintain that civilian work without a significant security presence?   

 

                Thank you.   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Our goal clearly is to enable the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security.  I think all of us who have troops in Afghanistan look for the day when we can turn over that responsibility and begin bringing our troops home.   

 

                I think that there is a -- there is a common interest here on the part of the Afghans and on the part of the international community to do that. 

 

                I think it's important to point out, though, that, even when the time comes that the security forces may draw down, I think all of these nations intend to be engaged in Afghanistan and in trying to help Afghanistan develop governance and their economy over the long term.  We are not going to do what we did in 1989 and turn our backs on Afghanistan. 

 

                But what we would hope is that, within a reasonable period of time, that we could begin transferring responsibility for security over to the Afghans as they are capable of taking responsibility for it, and begin drawing down our forces.  The exact timing on that will depend, clearly, in substantial measure on the conditions on the ground.  But I think everybody's hope is that it will come sooner rather than later. 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  Firstly, I want to say that, you know, the Canadian forces and the whole-of-government approach -- so our diplomatic efforts, our aid efforts -- will continue unchanged until the year 2011.  So we're almost two years out from that particular point.   

 

                Clearly, to come to your question specifically, we have had discussions with other countries, including the United States, around issues of force protection on certain projects.  I'll give you one example:  the Dahla Dam project, which was protected by a forward operating base that was predominantly Canadians; it's now predominantly Americans.  So there's an example of a -- of a project, an important one that has to do with irrigation in the Arghandab valley, for giving farmers the opportunity to get away from poppy production and into wheat production, where there will be a transfer of the security responsibilities.  And yet the project will continue.   

 

                And for things such as immunization of children, which we're heavily involved in to bring down mortality -- immortality -- mortality rates for children, the school projects, the building of roads and other irrigation and aqueduct systems, there is a means to continue that even without the Canadian military present. 

 

                Now, having said all that, these are important discussions that will continue.   

 

                There's a great deal of anticipation as to the decision that will be taken quite shortly, by the American administration, about troop deployments.   

 

                But in the meantime, we are fully committed, uncaveated, doing our work in Kandahar province as we have thus far, extremely proud, as Secretary Gates has said, of the work that's being done by the men and women in uniform, as part of this NATO-led, U.N.-backed operation, at the invitation of the Afghan government.   

 

                And big challenges remain.  But there is very demonstrable progress that can also be pointed to.  And the quality of life of Afghans has been greatly enhanced, as a result of the unprecedented and courageous efforts of our military and that of our allies.   

 

                Q     Hi.  Allan Woods, Toronto Star newspaper.   

 

                Minister MacKay, there are reports this morning that there will be, contrary to your promises in the House of Commons, no debate, no vote on what shape a role Canadian diplomats, aid workers and soldiers may be playing in Afghanistan after 2011.   

 

                I wonder if you can clarify that or tell me why that is.   

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  I don't know where you're getting that, Al.  I don't know what the source is.   

 

                Q     It's a report -- a report in a newspaper this morning, a published report.   

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  So it must be true.  (Laughs.)   

 

                Q     So that's not your understanding.   

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  No.  That's news to me.   

 

                Q     Okay.   

 

                And Secretary Gates, I wonder if it is sustainable that countries like Canada, the Netherlands simply pull out with the expectation that the U.S. is going to pick up -- pick up the burden.   

 

                Is that sustainable for your -- for your military?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, it is sustainable.   

 

                I mean, we very much recognize the parliamentary processes that go on in these countries.  And the contribution that both Canada and the Netherlands have made has been tremendous.   

 

                It is our expectation that both countries will run through the tape, as it were, in terms of staying in the fight until the -- until the deadlines that they have come upon us.   

 

                But there is complete appreciation and sympathy for the casualties that both countries have suffered.  I think Canada proportionally has suffered more casualties than perhaps any other country in the -- in the alliance.   

 

                And so we know that this is coming for the Dutch in 2010 and for Canada in 2011.   

 

                And General McChrystal is planning appropriately. 

 

                Q     Julian Barnes with the L.A. Times.  Mr. Secretary, how central is Kandahar to the campaign against Taliban?  And do you hope that, in the next year, allies can significantly improve the security there for the people of Afghanistan?   

 

                And, Mr. Minister, is Canada expecting or do you need major reinforcements in Kandahar to improve the security in the next year? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I would say that Kandahar is clearly a critical -- of critical importance in Regional Command South and in Afghanistan. It is, in many respects, the home turf of the Taliban.  We have sent -- some of the Marines that have gone into Afghanistan have gone to Kandahar to work with the Canadians and to work together.  It's clearly important.  There are several other areas of critical importance, but sure, Kandahar's very important. 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  Well, I would certainly agree with that.  Canada has been -- started deploying down in 2005, been in the thick of it, if you will, in Kandahar province and, in particular, around Kandahar city, where you'll find the vast majority of the population in the province. 

 

                As far as your question on the security situation there and Canada's role, we have contracted, if you will, our area of responsibility to focus on protection of the local population.  We've embarked upon a practice of liberating some of the villages and towns within that proximity to Kandahar city, and then holding and building and turning over that security responsibility to Afghan security forces, both police and the army.   

 

                I would note at this time that General McChrystal's report very much puts a stamp of approval on that type of approach, that sort of clear, hold, build and transition into Afghan security responsibility. And so we'll continue to do that.  And I say with great pride that the Canadian forces have been quite successful in that regard. 

 

                They're also working very closely with American forces in particular but our other NATO allies who are deployed into southern Afghanistan in that region, in Kandahar, in particular.  And I believe that's the critical piece.  That is the cornerstone of the conflict. It is the homeland of the Taliban. It's in close proximity to the Pakistan border.  We all know the challenges that still exist there.   

 

                But clearly, the focus is upping that security quotum to the point where the Afghans themselves can take that responsibility and we can move into and transition into the reconstruction and development that is going on simultaneously.  But make no mistake, none of that can happen, none of the good work that's being done by diplomats and aid workers can occur without the security that's being provided by NATO and allied forces. 

 

                Q     But if I could press, are you more likely to be successful in that mission if you were to get more U.S. forces into Kandahar? 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  Well, I would say more forces.  And in fairness, the United States has contributed mightily.  They've been in the leadership role.  But this is an international mission, and I think it's fair to say that there is an expectation that all NATO countries will up their game and look for ways to contribute.  And there are a number of ways in which they can contribute.  But what's needed, frankly, right now is combat soldiers.  And the insurgency has proved very resilient, but protecting people while we build the country and while we build their security capacity is everyone's focus and fixation right now. 

 

                STAFF:  We'll take two more single questions. 

 

                Q     All right.  It's Ross Lord with Global National Television. Mr. MacKay, if Richard Colvin is as unreliable, uncredible, as you suggest he is, how can your government allow him to stay in what is an extremely important position in Washington? 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  Well, again, as you know, Ross, decisions about promotions and placement of civil servants is not a partisan exercise. Those are decisions that are taken internally.  I think there would be outrage if the government simply started hiring and firing based on politics. 

 

                I'm not attacking in any way and I would take umbrage to any suggestion that this is personal against Mr. Colvin.  The discussion  is around evidence that he gave at a parliamentary hearing, which I find, quite frankly, unsustained. 

 

                I don't believe it's credible.  I don't believe it's backed up by fact.  And what we have to deal with in a parliamentary hearing, as we do in a court of law, or another judicial or public inquiry, is evidence that can be substantiated.  That evidence and the suggestion that every single Taliban prisoner that was taken into custody and turned over was tortured is simply not credible and cannot be sustained by facts. 

 

                Q     (In French.) 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  (In French.)   

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, just building on something you mentioned yesterday, understanding that stemming corruption in Afghanistan is probably going to take some time, what kinds of leverage other than troops, which you seem to suggest is probably not as feasible, would be effective in this situation?  And what types of things would you consider would be the most -- the most feasible at this point? 

 

                And Mr. Minister, if you'd like to respond as well. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that actually Secretary Clinton has addressed this during her trip.  The reality is that the international presence in Afghanistan has provided a significant influx of assistance dollars and contracts and so on.  So it seems to me that the place for us to start is to -- is to deal with corruption that may be associated with contracts we're letting or work that we are having done, and development projects that we're undertaking in partnership with others, including with the Afghans. 

 

                So I think the place to start is where we have a direct interest and where we control the flow of dollars, if you will, into the situation.  

 

                I think that it's -- you know, the reality is, we have some very good ministers in Afghanistan.  The minister of the Interior, the minister of Defense -- just to mention two that I work with closely -- I have high regard for.  We have some very good governors.  So this is not -- this is not all a bleak picture.   

 

                There are some bright spots as well, and the key is, sort of as in the military situation, to strengthen that and to -- and to make it more widespread.  But I think that the place to start is the place where we have the greatest leverage, and that's where we're writing the checks. 

 

                STAFF:  Thank you very much, ladies and gentleman.  Thank -- 

 

                MIN. MACKAY:  I'd just -- I'd just respond very briefly only to echo much of what Secretary Gates has said.  With respect to governance, it's clear that all NATO allies, the United States, Canada, expect a reliable partner.  It will be very interesting -- and we're all watching very closely -- to see the new Cabinet that the president will name.   

 

                I would also very much associate myself with the comments about Ministers Atmar and Wardak.  I've worked closely with both of them. They're extremely able gentlemen.  And the composition of that new Cabinet is going to be very important.  And the president -- you heard yesterday President Karzai emphasize his commitment to deal with the subject of corruption.   

 

                In order to continue on the development side -- and putting the military to one side for a moment -- we are going to continue to look for other areas to expand into.  Agriculture, in particular, I think is  something that all countries have been focusing on, giving them a sustainable agriculture sector, looking for alternative crops, obviously, to poppy, and giving them the seed, and in fact helping them develop markets for things such as pomegranate and beets and barley and wheat.  That will be a significant breakthrough to developing an economy for Afghanistan.   

 

                But again, none of it can happen without the umbrella of security.  And Canada is committed in the long term to play a role on that development side. 

 

                And we will be there for Afghanistan in the future. 

 

                If I could just finish on one final note, I expressed to Secretary Gates and the American delegation Canada's solidarity with the United States during a difficult time over the tragedy at Fort Hood.  And Canadians very much sympathize with the military families and those who were lost in that incident, as we have on other occasions when we've taken casualties.  And this is, again, a very difficult price you pay for liberty and freedom and the efforts that are being made on the security front. 

 

                So we're very grateful for this abiding, historic relationship that we have with our neighbors to the south, and I think it's evidenced today by the presence of Secretary Gates here in Halifax, my home province of Nova Scotia.   

 

                And again, I want to express my appreciation to you, Bob.

 

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