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Town Hall Meeting with Secretary Gates at the U.S. Embassy, Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
December 09, 2010

                AMBASSADOR KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan):  Ready to go?

                Well, Mr. Secretary, it’s a great privilege that I have as the chief of mission here to welcome you to the largest United States mission globally right now, Embassy Kabul.

                You have been a tireless advocate over your tenure as the secretary of Defense to increase the expeditionary capabilities of our civilian forces overseas.  Just over the last two years, Mission Kabul has grown from a little over 200 civilians to now well over 1,100, on our way to a growth of 1,400.

                Mr. Secretary, the volunteers that you see before you today on the American side of this Afghan-American team are from 16 departments and agencies now.  The growth of this embassy has been extraordinary.  We are now managing the largest foreign appropriations bill bilaterally in the history of the United States.  Again, none of this would not have been possible without your vision and without the great support of your department and without the great support of the United States military.

                Indeed, we have managed now over time to become so close as a civilian-military team here that we’re starting to learn lessons from each other.  We’re starting to talk like each other now.

                General Petraeus, I learned, in his most recent counterinsurgency manual, came to the Department of State, to our great political section, and asked how do you make a formal diplomatic demarche, because I want to include that in my counterinsurgency manual.  That’s how close we have become at this point in time.

                Now, Mr. Secretary, you have had aviator flight jackets that have been given to you from the United States Navy.  You’ve had pullovers that have been given to you by the United States Marine Corps.  You’ve got windbreakers that have been given to you by the United States Air Force.  And you’ve got sweaters that have been given to you by the United States Army.  But, Mr. Secretary, I know that you do not have in your inventory and in your closet at home a fleece -- (laughter) -- from the United States Embassy and from Mission Afghanistan.  So, if I could -- if I could give you this fleece.  (Laughter, applause.)

                With great pride on behalf of a terrific team of Afghans and Americans who comprise Embassy Kabul, Mission Afghanistan, let me introduce the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, the Honorable Robert Gates.  (Applause, cheers.)

                SEC. GATES:  Well, good morning.

                And thank you, Ambassador Eikenberry -- Karl -- for having me here today.  This getting close together, I just have two warnings for you:  avoid PowerPoint, avoid acronyms.  (Laughter.)  Don’t get too close.  (Laughter.)

                I know that President Obama was very sorry he couldn’t make it here to Kabul and visit here at the embassy and meet the embassy staff, and I’m not much of a consolation prize.  But I am grateful for this opportunity to see all of you in person and thank each and every one of you for your service, especially during the holiday season.

                This embassy has accomplished extraordinary things over the past two years.  You’ve more than tripled the number of U.S. civilians in country while dramatically expanding your operations.  As we say over at Defense, you’ve built the plane while flying it.

                Many of you never expected that your vocations would lead you to this place and this kind of mission, and yet you’ve stepped forward in our nation’s and this nation’s hour of need.  Your work is the linchpin of the president’s strategy.  We must implement the president’s pledge that the U.S. is committed to a long-term, enduring partnership that will help the Afghan people build the peaceful, prosperous, strong and independent country they want.

                This mission will continue even after our military effort transitions from combat to the more traditional train, assist and equip mission.  Every child educated, every farmer whose livelihood is improved, every illness treated forms a stark contrast to the Taliban, and increases the legitimacy of our Afghan partners.

                The importance of the work you do extends beyond this conflict.  The capability of our military and civilian efforts must grow and evolve together.  For the most part, America’s instruments of national power, military and civilian, were set up in a different era for a very different set of threats.

                Our military was designed to defeat other armies, navies and air forces; not advise, train and equip them.  Likewise, our civilian agencies were designed primarily to manage relations between states from the capital, rather than to get out in the field and help at the ground level.  But today we face a global security environment where, unlike the Cold War, the most likely and lethal threats -- an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble -- will likely emanate from a fractured of failing state rather than an aggressor state.

                The work you and our men and women in uniform are doing together now will not only be the key to succeeding in this conflict, but, I believe, critical to helping our agencies learn how best to collaborate to protect the country we love in the future.

                A personal hero of mine, George Marshall -- who was unique in history -- in our history as the only person to have served as both secretary of Defense and secretary of State, and mastermind of the great partner capacity-building operation, the Marshall Plan -- had a key understanding of how the different organs of American power can and should work together.

                He said something, which I think has great significance for your work here.  He said, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos,” and that ultimately “military power wins battles, but spiritual power wins wars.”  No one has ever said it better or more succinctly.

                Thank you.  (Applause.)

                Now, like I tell our young soldiers, I’d be happy to take a few questions.  I’m making no promises about whether I’ll know the answer.  (Laughter.)

                Anybody?  Don’t be shy.  Yeah.

                Q:  Is it on?

                Mr. Secretary, I don’t have a question, but I just want to say thank you very much for your support for more resources for the State Department.  There aren’t many voices in Washington making that appeal, and the people in the State Department really appreciate your support.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

                SEC. GATES:  Well, as I’ve told -- as I’ve told both Condi Rice and Secretary Clinton, in a way, I see this as payback.  There’s a little-known story about the second secretary of Defense, whose name was Lawrence -- Louis Johnson.  And the rumor has it that Louis Johnson was just as crazy as the first secretary of Defense, James Forrestal.

                And the U.S. Defense budget had dropped from $99 billion in 1945 to $10 billion in 1947.  And Louis Johnson wanted to run for president in 1952, and he wanted to run on a platform of cutting military spending.  So he wanted to take it down to six (billion dollars) or $7 billion.  And it was the then-Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, working behind Louis Johnson’s back, ensured that the State Department supported sustaining the Defense budget.  So, like I say, 60 years later, it’s just payback time.  (Laughter.)

                Another question?  Yes.

                Q:  Sir, my name is -- (name inaudible) -- working for the Political Section.

                My question is, in the light of the withdrawal of U.S. forces or -- and other coalition from Afghanistan in 2011 beginning in July, how would you define victory here?  Like, the Afghans, they do not have that much confidence on their own forces so far.  Thank you.

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, their armed forces, the Afghan armed forces, have not only increased in number in the last year, but really have increased in quality.

                I’ll give you one example.  Those qualifying on marksmanship, believe it or not, a year or so ago was like 35 percent.  It’s now over 90 percent.  And so both the numbers and the quality are increasing.

                The other thing -- as we have said until we’re blue in the face -- we aren’t all leaving in July 2011.  And I think one of the most significant things about the Lisbon summit was its embrace of President Karzai’s goal of a turnover of lead security responsibility across the country to the Afghans in 2014.  So this is going to be a gradual process between July -- actually perhaps spring of 2011 in terms of transition, but also in terms of whatever drawdowns there are beginning in July of 2011 through 2014.

                So everything isn’t -- I got a question from an Afghan at the press conference last night who implied that we weren’t going to transfer or transition anything until the end of 2014, and then everything would be transferred.  Everybody needs to see both the drawdowns and the transition of security responsibility as a process that will begin in the spring and the summer of 2011, but continue from then on.  And it’ll be a gradual, conditions-based process.

                Yes, ma’am.

                Q:  Sir, every generation takes lessons from the wars that it fought.  Clearly, the Vietnam generation took lessons from that war.  What lessons would you hope that our generation takes from this conflict?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that the lesson that we -- from the standpoint of the Department of Defense, I think the lesson we have taken from both Iraq and Afghanistan is the need for a whole-of-government effort; that it isn’t just -- that the kinds of conflicts that we’re in and most likely to be engaged in in the years to come are going to be those where both a civilian and a military component are required.

                And I think that just as over the past 10 years or so CIA and the military have made huge strides in learning how to work together again for the first time since Vietnam, in some ways I think that’s true of the civilians and the military as well.  And I think it’s a lesson -- just like I’m trying to make sure the Army doesn’t forget what it’s learned in the last 10 years in terms of counterinsurgency, it’s important that neither the civilians nor the military unlearn the importance of this collaborative way of doing business.

                One more?  Yes, sir.

                Q:  Sir, if I can follow up on that, two years before I came here, I was working with OSD Partnership Strategy in stability operations.  And, as you know, we were trying to figure out, in places where you don’t have the broad appropriation and authorization that we have here in Afghanistan to work together and other places of the world where we’d like to be a lot more preventative so we don’t have to have this much effort, but getting the legal authorities right so that we can work together in other places of the world -- I know this has been an ongoing issue.  I know you had proposed pooled funding as an idea.  But just -- has there been any progress with the Congress in terms of changing authorizations that allow our various departments of the government to work more effectively, so that perhaps we don’t find ourselves in a massive effort like we find ourselves here?

                SEC. GATES:  Not a lot.  It’s both an authorities issue and a funding issue.  And we do have some authorities -- 1206, 1207 -- that have enabled us to work together and in essence have dual key operations.  But the hardest thing for us to sell to legislators is what we in the military call phase zero operations:  getting into a place that’s got problems, and addressing those problems, building the capacity of that government, both civilian and military, so it can deal with those problems, so that we don’t subsequently have to send in our troops and 1,100 people in an embassy to try and fix the problem with them.

                It is, frankly, a characteristic of democracies that preventive action when action would be relatively cheap and relatively painless is pretty rare.  We seem to have to wait until we’ve got a crisis on our hands before we can do anything.  But my hope is that particularly if State and Defense are in lockstep and go onto the Hill together working on these issues, we can gradually get support for the kind of operations that, compared with what we have done in Iraq and what we have done here in Afghanistan, are trivially cheap by comparison to a U.S. military operation.

                So getting people on the Hill and the American people to understand that these phase zero operations, these preventive partnership-building programs, are truly worth their weight in gold.  And we’ll just have to keep working at it.  There are clearly some people up there on the Hill that understand this.  And I think if we can -- if we can partner with them in trying to get the rest of them to understand, that maybe we can make some headway.

                You know, when I gave the Landon Lecture at Kansas State, it was a little bit like the man-bites-dog story; nobody could remember a Defense secretary defending the State Department’s budget before.  And maybe if we have more man-bites-dog stories, then we can get some peoples’ attention.

                Thank you all very much.