PRES. KARZAI: (Through interpreter.) (In progress) -- Secretary Gates on his 13th visit to Afghanistan. And we're happy to be coming to this press conference with him to get your questions.
Secretary Gates is one of the highly respected and skillful secretaries and members of the cabinet of the United States. And he is a great friend of Afghanistan and an important element of growing an enhanced relationship between the two countries.
And today we discussed in a very friendly spirit all things and all issues of bilateral importance. And we are grateful for his personal efforts throughout all these years in making things better.
Today we discussed on a wide range of issues our mutual interests. That included training, talks on training the Afghan security forces; the strategic partnership between Afghanistan and the United States; the situation in the region; and the start of the transition process of security responsibilities, which began on the Afghan new year -- and we also discussed on how this process will be taken forward by the end of 2014 -- and on many other issues of interest and concern to Afghanistan and the United States. Of course, civilian casualties was one of those issues we discussed.
And I once again welcome him to Afghanistan. Mr. Secretary, you have the floor.
SEC. GATES: Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you for once again hosting me.
I would like to begin by joining General Petraeus in offering my personal apology for the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys by coalition forces last week. This breaks our heart. Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people, whose security is our chief concern.
We've been working extremely hard, first under General McChrystal and now General Petraeus, to avoid civilian casualties. Coalition forces, despite this incident, have done a much better job over the past couple of years. Even so, I would also like to offer President Karzai my personal apology, because I know these tragedies weigh heavily on his heart and create problems for him as the leader and protector of the Afghan people.
Although insurgents are responsible for over 80 percent of all civilian casualties, it is ultimately our duty, along with our Afghan partners, to protect the Afghan people -- all of the Afghan people. And to do that, we must continue building on the significant security gains achieved by the Afghan and coalition forces in the last year.
Tonight President Karzai and I had a very productive discussion about how to maintain this momentum as we look forward to beginning the formal transition to Afghan security lead this year -- this summer. When I visited Afghanistan last December, I said that the progress that our joint forces had made together on the ground had exceeded my expectations. From my conversations with commanders at Bagram this afternoon, it is clear that they have not let up the pressure on the enemy at all this winter. In fact, we are conducting a record number of operations despite, as I saw firsthand today, occasional bad weather that has made difficult terrain even more challenging.
The gains we are seeing across the country are significant. In the east, Afghan and ISAF forces are expanding zones of security outward from Kabul and Jalalabad, focusing on blocking insurgent infiltration into population centers along key arteries. As a result, commerce has grown and distant provinces are increasingly connected to major marketplaces.
Something similar is happening in the south, where Afghan and international troops have forced the Taliban out of their traditional strongholds and a semblance of normalcy is beginning to return to local populations now free of their grip. Our forces are linking zones of security in Helmand to Kandahar as we ultimately move toward connecting these areas in the south with those in the east, centered in Kabul.
Because of the shared sacrifices of Afghan and coalition forces, we are now closer than ever to President Karzai's goal of building Afghan national security forces that can take the leader for their nation's security, as they will in more and more areas in the months ahead. President Karzai will soon announce the first areas of the country where this formal transition will take place. We spoke tonight about that process and how it will impact the distribution of U.S. forces in July. While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view, we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country.
Nevertheless, as I have said time and again, we are not leaving Afghanistan this summer. Come September, October and beyond, there will still be substantial numbers of coalition forces here, still partnering with Afghans and still maintaining unrelenting pressure on our enemy, and working toward our shared objective for Afghanistan to assume the lead across the country for its security by the end of 2014. And we will in the coming months and years continue building a long-term security partnership with the Afghan people.
We know there will be more tough days ahead, but thanks to the strategy, resources and partnership we now have in place, I believe we are now positioned to achieve the shared goal of a stable, secure Afghanistan that is no longer a safe haven for terrorists. The United States will remain committed to this effort because we recognize the importance of our work here for the future of the Afghan people, for the stability of the region, and for the long-term security of America and its allies, and because we want a long-term, close relationship with Afghanistan.
PRES. KARZAI: Secretary Gates, I will put you in danger first. (Chuckles.)
SEC. GATES: Okay.
Q: May I begin by asking a question of President Karzai --
SEC. GATES: Microphone.
PRES. KARZAI: It's for the interpreters as well.
Q: President Karzai, you mentioned the civilian casualties issue. I wonder if -- in light of the personal apology that Secretary Gates just offered, do you accept that apology, in light of the statement that you put out yesterday saying the U.S. response had been inadequate? And also, what is an adequate U.S. response to civilian casualties, understanding that you would prefer there be none, but there have been and there have -- when they do happen, how should the U.S. act differently?
And may I ask also a question of Secretary Gates? You mentioned the strategic partnership that you wish to work with Afghanistan, and you mentioned earlier today that discussions were already under way. I wonder -- understanding that the details will be worked out in negotiations, could you give us an idea of what at least the contours of that would look like to the U.S. side? What would the U.S. be willing to do militarily in Afghanistan, beyond 2014?
PRES. KARZAI: With regard to the civilian casualties, sir, this has been an issue that has been for long now at the heart of some of the tensions in an otherwise very healthy relationship between the two countries.
The United States and its allies arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, and the subsequent removal of the terrorists and the Taliban from Afghanistan, with the help of the Afghan people, was an event that rightly the Afghan people called a liberation of Afghanistan from oppression and tyranny and a hope for Afghanistan towards a better future.
Much has been achieved in that journey from 2002 to today. The country has better roads. The country has better education. The country has a better economy. The country has a better capacity. The country's flag is flying all around the world and Afghanistan is present in all international occasions. It's a country no longer forgotten or no longer in isolation. That has been done because of our relationship with the United States and because of the assistance that the United States has given to the Afghan people -- all of them.
Now, while all of that is there in a manner of great appreciation of the Afghan people, civilian casualties are an issue that the Afghans fail to understand, because we, the Afghan people, are allies with the rest of the world in the war on terror. We are victims in the war on terror. But for us to continue to suffer civilian casualties is something that we fail to understand and becomes a major issue of grief and disappointment.
Secretary Gates is an honored friend of Afghanistan. And I trust completely when he says he's sorry and he apologizes. That's something that we respect personally because of him as well as because of the message he brings on behalf of the United States government.
And I, as the president of Afghanistan, as someone that the Afghan people have elected to look after them and to make sure that they are secure and protected, find it extremely difficult to -- (inaudible) -- when we have multiple meetings when civilian casualties take place to explain to the Afghan people that this can go on. They want it stopped. They want it not reduced; they want it stopped.
Now, I understand the difficulty on the side of the military, where the engagement operations, that that is at times inevitable. That inevitability, the Afghan people understand, but they want it stopped, and they want done in the manner that Afghans will not lose their loved ones anymore, either in the crossfire or when the operations are -- take place.
Secretary Gates' apology I will convey to the Afghan people. They heard him speak right now. And I will say that Secretary Gates, from the depth of his heart, apologized. But while we take that apology with a lot of respect and agree with it to accept it today, I would request Secretary Gates that he take the plea of the Afghan people to Washington that these civilian casualties stop, and make the utmost effort so we don't have them anymore.
We are ready to sacrifice in the war on terror. We have never complained when our soldiers die. We have never complained when our security forces die and for giving sacrifices on a daily basis. But civilians, of course, it is their right and our responsibility to protect.
SEC. GATES: With respect to a strategic partnership, the United States will send a team here to Afghanistan next week to begin negotiating on a strategic partnership. The specifics, I think, remain to be negotiated. But I would say that if the Afghan people and the Afghan government are interested in an ongoing security relationship and some sort of an ongoing security presence, with the permission of the Afghan government, the United States, I think, is open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance, perhaps making use of facilities made available to us by the Afghan government for those purposes. We have no interest in permanent bases, but if the Afghans want us here, we are certainly prepared to contemplate that.
Q: (Name inaudible) -- from Al-Jazeera English. Sir, my first question would be the -- (inaudible) -- I’ve been with the U.S. Army embedded for 12 days in -- (inaudible) district. Many people there believe that there is a hidden agenda, U.S. has there, and not only there but all over Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan doesn’t -- (inaudible).
PRES. KARZAI: Where was that?
Q: (Inaudible) – the one example that there are these projects called "cash for work." There are like 1,800 people there paying 300 Afghanis each a day. But 1,800 people would not -- would not exist there. This money, people believe, goes to Taliban, indirectly supporting Taliban; and there's a hidden agenda American have.
So if we are talking about long-term strategy, what is this long-term strategy? What's U.S. want from Afghanistan? We know what Afghans want from U.S., but we don't know -- what is this -- and also this hidden agenda that everyone's talking about? Is there a hidden agenda?
And my question, Mr. President, I was there within the Afghan military too. They're very weak. They're -- not morale-wise; they're very -- strong morale. But they have the guns but no ammunition. They have their food that comes to them one week later. Are you expecting them in two weeks' time to fight enemy like Taliban with their fists? How are you expecting them to do that?
SEC. GATES: As hard as it may be for some to believe, the United States has no hidden agendas in Afghanistan or in this region as a whole. What we want is stability. We want a region that is not a source for terrorists to launch attacks against the United States that kill thousands of our citizens. And we would like to see democratic, prosperous states here. They're, of course, for -- good for their own people. We have no interest beyond that.
PRES. KARZAI: On the question of the Afghan army and their state of readiness, we are aware of the difficulties that they have. I'm glad to hear from you that they have a high morale. (Inaudible) -- if they are weak on the equipment side and the resistance side. This is an ongoing issue of discussion between us and the United States and our other allies. We will keep pursuing that the Afghan army is trained better and equipped better.
Of course, while we are training our army and equipping our army, it is -- even if our army is not fully equipped today, even if they are not as well-trained today as the armies of the rest of the world or as our allies, Afghanistan is our country and we will have to protect it, even if it is with our bare hands.
Therefore, the state of readiness will not reduce our responsibility or our determination to provide protection to the Afghan people and protection of our borders and security of our -- of our people.
Now, I was told by one of your colleagues today that you were in -- (inaudible) – and that you were there for twelve days and that you went there with the U.S. Army and the Afghan Army. And I would like to see you, to hear more about your observations there. Thank you.
SEC. GATES: Al.
Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, at your news conference in Washington the other day, you and Admiral Mullen said you thought that Iran and al-Qaida would be the big losers from the unrest in the Middle East. But I wonder if there aren't some factors that could be beneficial to Iran, such as ongoing instability, the rise of more Shiites into power, weaker central governments, perhaps ungoverned spaces. So can you explain why you feel that wouldn't be good for Iran? And I ask that, in particular, in light of the growing calls for direct U.S. military action in Libya, which we're hearing out of Washington today.
And President Karzai, what's your view of the impact of the unrest in the Middle East in this region and on Iran's posture towards this region? Thank you.
SEC. GATES: Well, my views are explained very simply: I'm an optimist. I do believe that -- I have some confidence that al-Qaida is in fact the loser in the developments in the Middle East. Their narrative has been that the only way that reform can be brought about and that authoritarian governments can be overthrown is by extreme violence. And the people of Tunisia and the people of Egypt have shown that not to be true. So they have disproven al-Qaida's narrative.
Whether these countries move toward democracy remains to be seen. We've seen the situation in Iraq. It's complicated, but overall moving in the right direction. I think that's what we'll see in the future.
I think where Iran is the loser in the region is the contrast between the militaries and the security authorities in places like Tunisia and Egypt standing aside while people protest against their government, while the security services of the Iranian government ruthlessly suppress and kill those who would criticize or protest against the Iranian government. They are losers already in this image across the world of their repression of those who have different points of view from the Iranian government.
In the long term, we will clearly have to see how things develop, but in some ways the pressures have been building for decades under the tectonic plates of the Middle East. Those pressures have broken through and there has been an earthquake; and I think we need all to bend our efforts toward ensuring that the consequences of that earthquake end up being positive and end up being democratic and in favor of the people of those countries.
My sense is developments are moving in that direction.
Q: And on military action, sir?
SEC. GATES: Well, with respect to military action, we have prepared any number of options in terms of capabilities. But I think we will have to monitor this situation very closely. We will do whatever the president directs us to do. But I think at this point there is a sense that any action should be the result of an international sanction before anything is done.
PRES. KARZAI: From an Afghan perspective, we wish our fellow Muslim countries in the Middle East peace and stability, and specially from an Afghan perspective, where our country went to 30 years of war and instability and lack of governance and functioning institutions, I hope that whatever takes place in that part of the world is one that will bring the people of the -- of those countries stability and strong government institutions.
My advice would be that -- to all of those who are there, the government and their opposition, not to fight one another and not to weaken their governance and their institutions, and not to destroy their own infrastructure.
After 20 years of civil strife and interventions, Afghanistan was reduced to nothing with regard to governance and the infrastructure. And I hope that will not happen in our fellow Muslim countries.
Q: My question is to Secretary Gates. Despite the repeated requests by the government of Afghanistan to the world and to the United States that the safe havens of terror across the border need to be eliminated, it seems that Afghanistan’s request has been ignored or has not been taken seriously. Where do you see the problem is; why haven’t you taken seriously the government of Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, we do take seriously that concern. And I think that the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States are working together to try and deal with that problem. And the reality is that Pakistan has moved 140,000 troops to the border area. They have tried to eliminate the extremists in South Waziristan and Swat. And there is increasing cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of dealing with the terrorist threat that crosses back and forth across that border.
So, you know, very few things move as quickly as we would like them to move. But the truth is, there has been a significant improvement in the cooperation among the three countries, and I would say particularly between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I think we would like to see this cooperation progress in the future.