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Media Availability with Secretary Gates en route to Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
December 08, 2009

   

SEC. GATES:  So let me just talk a little bit about the trip to Afghanistan and what my agenda is.

 

                First of all, with the Afghans, clearly we'll want to talk with President Karzai and Minister Wardak about the president's decision and the implementation of that decision, how we hope to use our troops and the additional troops from our allies in partnering with the Afghan national security forces.

 

                Another major message will be the importance of a long-term relationship between the United States, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and Afghanistan, that we are not going to repeat the experience of 1989, and that obviously, as the security situation improves and we're able, over time, to reduce our forces, that the civilian developmental, economic, other kinds of relations between us and developing countries that are normal will become the predominant part of the relationship.  But we intend to be their partner for a long time to come.

 

                I will ask them about the prospects for increasing the retention and recruitment of the Afghan security forces and the training of those forces and the speed with which we can get them into embedded and partnering relationships with our forces and those of the other ISAF countries.

 

                I'll talk to them about the importance for us of capable, honest ministers in areas that are critical for our success, such as defense and interior and others, as well as in key provinces.

 

                With respect to the meetings with the U.S. commanders and our troops, clearly, again, I'll be asking them about their view of the way forward, now that we have the president's decisions, how they are viewing the Afghan capabilities and potential for accelerated growth and partnering.

 

                I'll probably focus a lot on their perception of logistics and the ability to receive the inflow of U.S. forces and equipment in the time frame that we're talking about.  And then I have a lot of concerns that are sort of traditional for me that I'll be talking to them about in terms of taking care of the troops.

 

                I want to talk quite a bit about the counter-IED effort, especially in light of this task force I've just formed.  I want to make sure that we can preserve the golden hour in terms of medevac with the influx of additional, significant additional U.S. and ISAF forces.

 

                I'll be asking them if they have much experience at this point with the MRAP all-terrain vehicles.  There are only a few hundred in Afghanistan at this point.  But we'll see if we have any reaction to that; obviously concern about the adequacy of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance efforts for them.

 

                And I'll be asking about equipment in general.  For example, one of the members of Congress told me offline at the hearings the other day that he heard some complaints from some of the soldiers about the straps on their backpacks being too thin and putting too much pressure on their shoulders in ways that leave their hands numb; so just little stuff like that.  I'll be asking the soldiers what kind of equipment issues they have that we can do something about back in Washington; obviously talk about civil-military cooperation.

 

                And then a big piece of my conversation, especially with the soldiers, will just be to thank them for their service and for their sacrifice and tell them we're in this thing to win.  Some of these units, particularly the Stryker unit, have taken a lot of casualties, so I want to talk to them about that, express sympathy.

 

                Q     Secretary, can you describe the discussions that you've had?

 

                STAFF:  This is Anne Flaherty -- the new AP reporter.

 

                Q     Hi.  The discussions that the administration has had with Afghanistan since the announcement or before the announcement.  I believe Obama called him Sunday night, Karzai Sunday night, before the big announcement.  But you have not spoken to Karzai, or --

 

                SEC. GATES:  I spoke -- I have not spoken to President Karzai.  I did talk to Minister Wardak about the decision and where we were headed.  I think it was -- Monday?  I think it was on Monday.

 

                Q     What was that conversation like?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Basically foreshadowing the president's decisions of the speech and the agenda that we have in front of us, and particularly the importance of recruitment for the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces].

 

                I would say his main concern is the flow of equipment, particularly the Afghan National Army.  And so I'm sure that'll be a subject that comes up in my conversations with him.

 

                Q     I’ve heard you say in a statement last week (inaudible) -- talked about 1989 and not wanting to -- (inaudible)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, yeah.  And as I said to somebody else, I mean, it wasn't like we were twiddling our thumbs at the time.  We had the liberation of Eastern Europe, the collapsing Soviet Union.  As I recall, we had some issues in Panama.  So we were pretty busy.

 

                And frankly, there was just so much on the agenda at that time in terms of all of the evolution of first Poland and then the -- the Polish turn began as early as February 1989 and really accelerated beginning in May.  And then we had the succession of East European countries liberating themselves, and then the growing number of problems with the Soviet Union or inside the Soviet Union and tracking all of that; and then, of course, a year later, the first Gulf War.  So there was a lot going on.  But this is an area that we should have paid closer attention to.

 

                Q     How are you going to express this to President Karzai?  Are you going to bring up 1989 and say --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Sure, absolutely.  I mean, they remember.

 

                Q     (Inaudible)—is there enough housing available?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, that's what we'll be talking about.  I mean, most of them live in tents anyway.  And that's one of the subjects I'll be talking about is how are you going to handle the logistics of these troops coming in.

 

                I will say this.  If we would not have agreed to the shorter time line, if the logistics folks and the folks out here hadn't thought it was possible -- and it's going to be a heavy lift; there's no question about it -- but our folks are confident they can get it done.

 

                Q     What does a heavy lift mean?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Just -- I mean, a heavy lift in terms of a hard job.  And it's going to require a lot of effort on a lot of different people's part.

 

                Q     (Inaudible)—which units?

 

                SEC. GATES:  You probably know that better than I do at this point.  (Laughs.)  I signed the first deployment orders on Friday for roughly the first 17,000 troops that will flow through March and April.

 

                Q     (Inaudible) -- when March and April will arrive?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah, they'll begin arriving February, March, April.  As I mentioned, the first Marines actually will start arriving next week, and the Marines will flow in probably at a fairly steady pace over the next few weeks.  They may not all be in until February or thereabouts, but the first units are coming in pretty quick.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, the effort to build the Afghan security force has been going on for many years.  What can be done to speed it up and to raise the level of their confidence?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, a couple of things.  First of all, as was mentioned in the hearings last week, I mean, one of the eye openers for us was learning that the Taliban, for the most part, are better paid than the ANSF.  So that's something that we and the Afghans have already taken steps to correct.  The police are particularly poorly paid.  But even the army is less well paid.

 

                And so the army is putting -- they're raising the pay of the police and they're putting in place a number of additional incentives and bonuses and so on for the army in terms of combat pay and various things like that.  So that clearly will help.  And I think, frankly, that's the biggest obstacle.

 

                And one of the problems -- I mean, it sounds silly on its face, but attrition is higher in the areas on the Afghan National Army -- attrition is higher in the areas where the combat is heavier than it is in places, say, in the west and in the north.  And the reason is that there aren't enough of them, and they basically fight until they die or they go AWOL, because there's nobody to rotate in behind them so that they can get a break.  So the numbers and beginning to be in a position where you can rotate some of these Afghan soldiers, I think, will be an important part of the retention piece of it as well.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, there's a lot of this.  It's late in the game, frankly.

 

                Q     Sir, Adam Entous from Reuters.  Can you give us a breakdown of the 17,000?  What exactly are that 17,000?

 

                STAFF:  We can get you a breakdown.

 

                Q     (Inaudible) -- where they're going, what they're going to be doing?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, most of the first troops going in will be going into the south.  And I think the bulk of those 17,000 are Marines.  But we can get the specifics for you.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  I don't think so.  I think some number will also go to Kandahar Province.

 

                Q     How surprised were you by– (inaudible)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, you know, I think I've mentioned to you all before, since spring I have been surprised by the change of tone on the part of our allies.  There's been -- and Admiral Mullen has seen it on the uniformed side as well -- there's been a sort of a sense of commitment, a sense of the realization of the importance of being successful in Afghanistan, of the consequences for the alliance of not being successful, and just a greater sense of commitment to this thing.

 

                And the uniformed military in many of these countries has been much more ready to provide additional forces than some of their civilian leaders.  But what has been impressive has been the change in tone on the part of the civilian leaders as well.

 

                Q     (Inaudible) -- the conversations that you have with them as far as strategy?

 

                SEC. GATES:  There was a lot of interaction with the allies.  We spent -- a good part of the discussions in Bratislava were about this.  And then there have just been a lot of telephone calls and a lot of visits.  I mean, I've had the Australian defense minister and the German defense minister both here in the last couple of weeks, several other countries as well.

 

                Q     Can you talk about dwell time with this 17,000 and the units -- (inaudible) -- still on the same path to get dwell time back to where you want it to be, or is that a question that's just not known yet?

 

                SEC. GATES:  The estimate that we have now from both General Casey and General Conway is that it will not interfere.  We will not have to break the one-to-one dwell time.  The Marines actually are at about one to 1.5.  And General Conway thinks that they will be able to continue pretty much on the same trajectory in terms of getting to one to two that they were on before.

 

                I'll be a harder push for the Army, but it'll -- they will still head in the right direction.  It'll just be slower getting to the one to two for the Army.  But we're not going to have to break the one to one for anybody.  The one exception and the one area that we worry about in some of the forces that are the most stretched are some of those in what we call the enablers -- the helicopters, the intelligence, the counter-IED, road clearance, engineers.  Some of these specialists are pushed pretty hard.

 

                Q     What is the timeline for the one-to-two?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think General Casey's hope had been that they could get to one to two sometime in 2011.  It may take a little longer now.

 

                Q     On the NATO issue, when you take into account that the Canadians and the Dutch are going to be reducing their numbers, and when you look at how many of the 7,000 are actually already in the country and just getting extended, is it really that substantial of an increase that you got from NATO?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah, I think it's -- frankly, my hope was more -- I mean, my hope was that we could get 5,000.  So a commitment for 7,000 is better than I expected.  And what I'm hearing coming out of the NATO meeting is that it may go -- that the commitments may go higher than that.

 

                There are several governments that are unwilling to make a commitment prior to the January conference that Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Brown are organizing in London.  And then some others have elections early in the year, provincial and other kinds of elections, and would rather not make any new commitments or make a decision before that time.

 

                Q     And is it really seven [thousand] when you consider that many of them are already positioned in the country now, because they were sent here for the election and are just being extended out?  Is it really --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, some of that is true.  But I think -- my understanding, at least -- I mean, I haven't seen the specific commitments of specific countries, but my impression, at least from the couple of defense ministers that I talked to, was that these are new and additional forces.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  To a certain extent it is.  And I think one of the benefits of the change in the command-and-control structure and creating the intermediate joint headquarters puts us in a position to try and establish greater consistency in the training programs and so on, so that people who are being trained by the Czechs or by the French or by the Germans or someone, and those being trained by the U.K. and the U.S., all are essentially getting the same level of training, whether it's -- I think that the differentiation is probably greater on the police side than it is on the army side, but for both.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Before this additional 30,000 troops, are you satisfied with where that stands right now?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah, there are -- you know, there are -- it's, in some ways, a matter of averages.  The reality is, based on the briefings that I've gotten, for the overwhelming percentage of those who are wounded, they get to a regular medical facility in less than an hour.  There are clearly always going to be exceptions.  If somebody's in the middle of a five-hour fire fight and the fighting is still going on, a medevac helicopter clearly can't come in and land.  But based on what I've been told, the preponderance of those who are wounded can expect to be medevac'd out in less than an hour.  And I feel pretty strongly about that.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, you know, it's a good question, and I can't be sure of the answer.  I think partly it's the understanding that the situation has gotten more serious.  But I do think that it's sort of their perception of a change in tone in Washington.  And I know I've been nicer to them since -- than I was earlier.  (Laughter.)  So --

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think the key thing to remember about the relationship with Pakistan is that it's Pakistan's foot on the accelerator.  And we are prepared to move ahead with that relationship and cooperation just as fast as they are prepared to accept it.  And so we'll be encouraging them, offering help.

 

                And frankly, you know, the more they get attacked internally, just like this terrible attack in Rawalpindi at the mosque, the more open they may be to additional help from us.  But we are prepared to expand that relationship at any pace that they are prepared to accept.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, you know, they're just in the process of absorbing the president's decisions and so on.  And I will tell you, I think we've got one of our best ambassadors in the world in Islamabad in Anne Patterson.  So I think there's some real opportunity there.

 

                I mean, the reality is the Pakistanis have done so much more than any of us would have expected or believed a year or a year and a half ago.  And so I think I feel pretty good about what they're doing.  They're taking some serious casualties.  They're in a serious fight.  And they just have all the support -- they have all of the support from us we can give them.

 

                STAFF :  We'll take one or two more.  Hold on.  Terry, do you have anything?  You don't have to.  All right.

 

                Maureen?  Elizabeth?

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah.  Yeah, I actually told him that I'd rather be going where I'm going than where he's going.  (Laughter.)

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, there is an article in the Post this morning about a concern that millions of dollars of equipment is being left behind in Iraq and that some of it should be moved into Afghanistan.  Can you talk a little bit about that?  Is there a concern or --

 

                SEC. GATES:  The Army has been deeply engaged for months in terms of what to do about the equipment left in -- the equipment that we have in Iraq.  What of it should be turned over to the Iraqis?  What of it should be sent on to Afghanistan?  What of it should be brought back to the United States?

 

                We have about a little over three million pieces of equipment in Iraq.  I'm told that by September of '10, more than two million pieces of that three million will have been disposed of one way or the other.  We have gotten some extra flexibility from the Congress in terms of turning equipment over to the Iraqi army, and we are trying to decide.

 

                Frankly, we just have to figure out, in terms of cost and in terms of logistics, what makes sense in terms of moving it from Iraq to Afghanistan.  In some cases, it's just easier and cheaper to buy it new than to take used equipment, pack it up and ship it from Iraq to Afghanistan.  But I will tell you, the Army has been working on this in great detail for months now, and I think they have a pretty good plan.

 

                Q     Do you have any sense of how that'll break down, that 2 million by next year?  How much will be left behind?  How much will go to Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No.

 

                STAFF:  Last one.  Adam.

 

                Q     On the issue of corruption, in your discussions with Karzai on corruption, how big of an issue is this?  And have you seen enough action from Karzai so far to satisfy what you've seen -- (inaudible)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think we'll all be watching the appointments that get made.  From my standpoint, as I said at the outset, it is important to us, in terms of all of our success, including the Afghans' success, to have capable and honest ministers in the areas that matter the most to us.  For me, that's clearly defense and interior, finance.  I think Secretary Clinton would add agriculture and probably education.

 

                And the truth of the matter is, the incumbents in these jobs, as far as I'm concerned, fill that criterion -- those criteria.  I mean, I think we've all believed that both Minister Wardak and Minister Atmar are very capable people.  And I feel like I have a good partnership with Wardak.  He clearly knows what he's doing.  He was a general during the fight against the Soviets.

 

                And so, as Secretary Clinton said in the hearings last week, you know, there is a tendency to paint this government with too broad a brush.  The fact is there are competent, capable, honest ministers and there are capable, competent and honest governors.  And we just need to encourage that.

 

                STAFF:  Okay, thank you.

 

                Q     Thank you.

 

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