Press Availability with Secretary Gates from Forward Operating Base Cafferata, Afghanistan
SEC. GATES: I'll just say very briefly that it obviously was inspiring to be at both of these facilities, Frontenac and here at Cafferata. These incredible young people and the job they're doing and the enthusiasm they have, and really some good feedback about their partnering with the Afghans and talking to them directly, always in some ways more reliable than what you hear on a PowerPoint or see on a PowerPoint slide. So it's been a very worthwhile day for me, hope it has been for you all as well.
Q Would you give a couple of impressions of your walk through Now Zad? We didn't see very many people on the street.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the thing that -- the thing I kept trying to remind myself of was what I said in front of the troops, that, essentially for four years that town was a complete ghost town; there wasn't anybody there. And they now have about 15 or 20 shops, and in fact, I heard even a larger number at one point.
Obviously having the roads de-mined and cleared will make it possible for them to have more customers. Right now, it sounds like a lot of their customers are from the Afghan national security forces. But people are beginning to move back into town.
And it's really all -- I mean, the other thing to remember is that having this town cleared after not having any presence -- Afghan government or coalition or anybody else -- for about four years, this process has only been under way for a few months at this point. So it's gradual. But I think, you know, what I got from the Marines taking me around is the perspective of when they got here and now the level of activity that they see in the shops.
Q Why don't you talk a bit about your meeting yesterday with General McChrystal and what you saw? We asked you on the plane about the plans for the offensive and the operations to take full control of Marja. What is the thinking now? Can you elaborate a bit after having talked to him? (Inaudible.)
SEC. GATES: Well, not really. I mean, we talked about -- they're going -- they're going to do the same kind of shaping that they did in Kandahar. They're going to do the same kind of trying to set the political stage that they did in Marja, not only get more of the different tribal elders in and talk to them about governance and so on. They clearly -- Kandahar is a much more sophisticated, bigger city, big suburbs, and so it's a much more complex kind of operation.
And there are -- there are parts of the areas around Kandahar where the security is pretty good. And frankly, one of the take-aways that I got from my briefings yesterday and today is that, in the environs of Kandahar, in some cases, sort of criminal activity and criminal militias are as big a challenge as the Taliban themselves. So it's the whole package of governance, rule of law, as well as taking down the Taliban.
Q So does it change the way you look at the war? I mean, does it change any of your perceptions at all, or, you know --
SEC. GATES: No, not really. I think -- I think that -- I guess I would say the one -- the one thing is that I -- I feel reinforced that the path we're on is the right path, but also that it's going to take a while, it's going to be complicated.
Q Do you think it's possible to completely rid a place like this of the Taliban, or will there be some sort of enduring presence?
SEC. GATES: Well, I said quite a while ago that in many respects the Taliban are now part of the political fabric of Afghanistan. But I mean, the whole principle behind reintegration is they want to come over and live under the Afghan constitution, the Afghan -- Afghan law, concede the monopoly of force to the Afghan government.
And I think that we're seeing signs that that is happening. It's still pretty small-scale. But you know, if they're willing to put down their weapons and rejoin society -- as we talked a lot and as we talked yesterday at the press conference -- as I said at the press conference with President Karzai, we believe that there are a substantial number of these Taliban foot soldiers who do -- who fight because they don't have any other way to support their families or because they're intimidated.
So if we can create alternatives for those -- for those people -- the Afghan government can create alternatives for them -- the chances of them wanting to re-enter society and go back to their villages increases substantially.
Q Mr. Secretary, do you feel that we have Karzai's support -- the degree of support you need for the Kandahar operation?
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I think -- I think that he has -- I think General McChrystal has worked very hard to ensure that President Karzai is the commander in chief. He took the Marja operation to him, briefed him on it, got his approval to go forward with it. And I have every expectation he'll do the same thing with Kandahar.
Q The Now Zad tour, did that help bring home at all the scope of the rebuilding stuff that you had -- that you have here in Afghanistan? Or were you already pretty tuned in on that?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- first of all, you have to start with the fact that it's a poor country to start with, and has been through 30 years of war. So I think it's important keep some context and perspective here in terms of, you know, build to what? And it seems to me that, just looking at it, that somebody having a roof over their head and being able to work their farm and send their children to school for a lot of Afghans today sounds like a pretty good life.
Q Mr. Secretary? Mr. Secretary?
Q Mr. Secretary, you have a -- we walking down; there's obviously a FOB [Forward Operating Base] here. There's a reinforced company, roughly, of Marines for this one town. Is it worth it, I mean, the expenditure of this much American time, money, blood -- theoretically -- for the town of Now Zad?
SEC. GATES: Well, they're focused here, but they're operating pretty widely. They're not just -- they're just not stationary here in Now Zad, they're operating at some distance from this place. And so you use a place like this and then you spread out. This is what General McChrystal calls the inkblot strategy. And you take over -- you able to establish control of lines of communication, highways, markets, things like that.
And so I think it's a mistake to see this as sort of a Fort Apache, where everybody is inside the stockade and not doing anything else. They're mostly outside the stockade. In fact, I was told today -- when I came here I wanted to see -- there's a counter-IED team here, there's -- and there's about half -- well, if there were 150 Marines here today, there are about -- there are over 300 stationed here. Well, they're all out on missions, out miles from here. So I think you need to keep that in perspective. This isn't -- this isn't a stationary operation.
Q Sir, you said you wanted to come out and hear the ground troops -- from these troops. Did you hear anything different than you hear in Pentagon briefings?
SEC. GATES: Yeah. I mean, like at the lunch with -- I had lunch with some junior enlisted, and I talked to them about equipment issues. And there were some specific equipment issues that they had that I want to go back and pursue that I hadn't heard of before.
But it was -- I'll just give you an example. It's a radio pack that a team leader and above carries, but it weighs about 11 pounds and it sits right on the small of their back. And the guy who was telling me about it was a medic, a specialist, and he said it's creating back problems for them, and it also affects the way their armor lays down. So we're going to go back and have some folks look at that.
And there were several things like that. You know, I always learn something when I come out here.
Q Mr. Secretary, at that lunch, that was with the battalion that's taken the highest number of casualties here. How did they seem to you? What did they tell you about that experience?
SEC. GATES: They're young, they're resilient. You know, they know what they've lost. And yet they seem very committed and very much with their heads in the game. They know what they're here to do, and they're clearly prepared to do whatever it takes personally to make it happen. I was -- I was very impressed.
GEOFF MORRELL (DOD spokesman): Probably have time for one more. Stars & Stripes -- (name inaudible) -- did you have one? No?
Sorry, AFN, do you have something?
MR. MORRELL: Go ahead.
Q Sir, what I would like to know as a servicemember, strategically, what have we tried to do differently than what we were doing before in Iraq? And how is that affecting, you know, the troops now that are here on the ground?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the big -- the big change is really a fundamental change of strategy that General McChrystal has put in place, and that is moving the object of the campaign from killing Taliban to protecting Afghans. And for him, the metric of success is not the number of Taliban killed, but the number of Afghans protected, because only when they feel protected and more secure are they then willing to begin to cooperate with the Afghan government, cooperate with us and with the other allies. And I think that -- and I think we're beginning to see the benefits of that.
And I talked to these young enlisted officers -- these young soldiers about this at lunch, and they get it. You know, they -- they'd like to be able to fire more warning shots, but they understand that for every innocent person they hurt, they likely recruit a number of Taliban. And so they got it. And I think they really understood why General McChrystal is taking the approach he has.
Q Thank you, sir.
MR. MORRELL: Thank you all.
SEC. GATES: Okay.
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