Q: There’s some questions for you if that’s okay.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: All right.
Q: You’ve made an interesting comment today about a two-stage assessment process on troop numbers. The July decision and then you’ll look at how (inaudible) the rest of the surge troops – (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: I don’t – I think it should all be part of one piece.
Q: Okay. I guess the question is how best to understand then what it is that you’re describing.
SEC. GATES: I think to make a decision on July in complete isolation from anything else has no strategic meaning. And so part of that has to be kind of what’s the book end? Where are we headed? What’s the ramp look like? And I think that will be part of the discussion. And is (inaudible) when does the surge coming in?
Q: You mean over what period of time.
SEC. GATES: Over what period of time. I think this has all been in the press – maybe not articulated quite that way.
SEC. GATES: That has not been decided.
Q: Can I ask you – I want to ask you about a comment you made back in [Forward Operation Base] Walton. You said that, for my money, the question is if it were up to me, I would leave the shooters for last, in other words the combat troops to come out last. What did you mean by that, talking about the shooters?
SEC. GATES: It sounds pretty clear.
Q: The last of the –
SEC. GATES: I would look for support people that we no longer need. We’ve done a lot of construction. Maybe those people aren’t needed. I’d try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on.
Q: Is that a no-brainer or is that –
SEC. GATES: I think that’s a no-brainer.
Q: Is there a different point of view within the administration?
SEC. GATES: Oh, I think the mix of who come out is really up to General Petraeus and then General Allen in terms of the composition and which units are selected. I think that’s up to the commanders in the field.
Q: What about the (inaudible) and the (inaudible)?
SEC. GATES: Not necessarily.
Q: But do you think that you could maintain the same amount of combat power you have today through the end of the – through this fighting season and still do a drawdown that meets with the White House’s approval? Could you maintain the combat power –
SEC. GATES: We haven’t had a discussion on it yet.
Q: No, but in your –
SEC. GATES: But in my view, I think it will be a mix. And we don’t have that many support people out here so it’s going to probably end up being a mix of some combat elements and some support elements. All I was saying is that if I were in Petraeus’ shoes or John Allen’s shoes, if it were six of one, a half dozen of the other, I’d opt to keep the shooters and take the support out first. But the numbers are such that it’s going to have to be both.
Q: Because you said it would be a mistake to rush to conclusion right now?
SEC. GATES: No, the rush to conclusion was about the consequences of bin Laden’s killing for Afghanistan.
Q: Well (inaudible) can be?
SEC. GATES: Everybody’s so comfortable. (Laughter.)
Q: But obviously it was pretty tough thanking these kids. That was obviously pretty tough, but I also noticed a lot of the kids talking. What did they say to you afterwards?
SEC. GATES: They thanked me, thanked me for staying on, thanked me for my service.
Q: But that’s tough for you too.
SEC. GATES: Yes.
Somebody said this -- I think it was somebody in the press said this farewell tour was longer than Tina Turner’s. (Laughter.) But not as long as Oprah’s.
Q: Okay, guys.
Q: You know, with President Karzai and the statements yesterday about (inaudible) are there ways to accommodate what he’s asking for, additional changes you’re thinking about making? What do you make (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: I’ll leave that up to General Petraeus. The truth is we have really been working hard at this all along, and we have continually adjusted our approach, our tactics, our rules of engagement to try and protect civilians. I think in the past on a variety of issues from civilian casualties to private security contractors and so on, we haven’t often listened early enough to President Karzai. He told me early on, maybe four years ago, he said, I know I have many flaws but I know my people. And I believe he knows the mind of his people. And both General McChrystal and General Petraeus have stressed the point that killing an innocent civilian is a strategic defeat for what we’re trying to accomplish. So we need to take those concerns seriously and if there are further adjustments we can make, I would say without putting our troops further in harm’s way, then we ought to look at that and I know General Petraeus will.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can I ask you a totally unrelated question to this? On Yemen – you heard that President Saleh is in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. You haven’t talked about where the U.S. relationship with Yemen (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: Well, my recollection is that Secretary Clinton a couple of days ago endorsed the GCC process that has some sort of a negotiated outcome (inaudible) the results in Saleh’s departure. I don’t have anything to say other than that.
Q: Thank you.