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AFP Interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

SEC. GATES:  Well, he had — he had a range of options that began next July for the drawdown following July.  Obviously he preferred options that gave more time.  And I would just say, both from my experience in this job and as a historian, I’m not aware of a single general ever in history that didn’t want more troops and more time.  And so all of these things had to be considered.  He was in the meetings, at least the last two, and participated vigorously.

Q:  So obviously it wouldn’t have been his preferred choice, as you say.

SEC. GATES:  No.  And I think that one of the things that’s kind of being lost in the debate here is that the president set forth that the surge would last on the order of 18 to 24 months when he first announced it, that the transition beyond the surge would last about that long.  And the fact is that a surge is a surge.  It’s not a permanent increase in the number of troops.  It was the same thing in Iraq.

And the reality is this surge, from the completion of getting it in until it’s out, will have been twice as long as the surge in Iraq.  The surge in Iraq was fully in in roughly May or June of 2007, and those five brigade combat teams were all out by a year later.  So the president has actually given the surge in Afghanistan twice as long as the surge in Iraq.  And it also then falls at the far end of the commitment he made that we would transition this in 18 to 24 months.  And it’s pretty much up to 24 months, actually a little over 24 months.

Q:  Just to clarify timing, when you said — when the president said the summer of 2012, is that the beginning of the summer?

SEC. GATES:  It’s the end of summer.  It’s the end of September.

Q:  So the surge forces come out by the end of September.

SEC. GATES:  Right.  I think technically the end of summer is the 22nd of September.

Q:  OK.  And what is then –?

SEC. GATES:  The context of the conversation was really the end of September.

Q:  And there is a huge focus often building about the fighting season, the summer.  And now, obviously, to get troops out of a place like Afghanistan, fewer of the surge forces will be in place, perhaps, than what some of the commanders wanted.

How big of a problem or a risk is that to you?  Does this jeopardize, for example, the gains in the south or plans to sort of hit harder at the Taliban in the east?

SEC. GATES:  I don’t think so, because, first of all, you have to remember the strategy has several components.  One is to degrade the capabilities of the Taliban, but the other is to lift up the capabilities of the ANSF.  Well, this last year we’ve had a really quite successful year in terms of the Afghan security forces, adding 100,000.

One of the reasons I wanted a little more time was to give more time for partnering, because the more partnering we can do with these guys, the better they are.  But the whole idea here is that transition to Afghan security, that’s in process already.  A quarter of the population of the country, including the capital, have been under Afghan security lead for the better part of a year.  And so that process needs to keep moving forward to stay within the framework that was agreed in Lisbon of having that process complete by the end of 2014.

Q:  So you’re not concerned, for example, or — let me rephrase that.  Does it mean a scaling back of —

SEC. GATES:  Here’s —

Q:  Go ahead.

SEC. GATES:  Here’s my thinking about it.  We are barely — we aren’t even halfway into the fighting season in 2011.  The big question mark last year was whether, this fighting season, the Taliban would take back what they — what we had gained in throwing them out of Kandahar and Helmand.

We are not halfway through this fighting season, and they have not even tried to do that.  And the general view months ago was if we could hold on to the gains we made last year and further expand the security bubble in this fighting season — the way I’ve described it is that I believe we could turn the corner on this thing this winter.  So — and I have said that publicly.

And so if we can get most of another fighting season under our belt, we could, I think, cement the success that we have.  We talk about these achievements being fragile and reversible.  I think we could take it beyond fragile and reversible.  And at the same time, we’re still going to have almost 70,000 troops there after the end of the surge to continue working the problem in the east, as well as sustaining and partnering in the south and southwest.

So, all things considered, it seemed to me that this was a reasonable approach that offered real prospect of continuing our success and pointing us in the right direction towards 2014.

Q:  Critics saying that — go ahead.

Q:  So it does not mean any change or lowering of the objectives or of the strategy?

SEC. GATES:  No.  But again, it’s important to remember how limited the objectives are.  If there’s one thing that has happened since December of 2009, it is a greater sense of realism about what we can achieve.

And our real objectives in Afghanistan, in my view, are limited to denying the Taliban — reversing the Taliban’s momentum, denying them control of territory in populated areas, degrading their capabilities, and enhancing the capabilities of the ANSF to the point where they can manage the Taliban and prevent any safe havens, prevent the violent overthrow of the Kabul government and prevent the re-establishment of safe havens for al-Qaida or other extremists.  That’s it.  And we will do the minimum necessary in other areas to enable the achievement of those goals.

And that’s what I think the president has been trying to — has been articulating to people in turn.  And what he was saying last night is our objectives in Afghanistan are pretty focused, and we’re not going to move the goal posts in terms of becoming more ambitious than that.

We will probably continue development programs in Afghanistan for decades, as we do with dozens of other countries.  But that’s a different set of objectives, and that’s not primarily a military operation, although I think the president acknowledged last night that we do expect to have some continuing security presence in Afghanistan after 2014, probably very modest in size, but enough to continue the counterterrorism mission and so on.

Q:  There’s criticism, as always, that this is arbitrary, that these calendars and time lines are not based on military calculations, but it’s heavily politically driven.  There happens to be an election in 2012.  What do you say to that?

SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think that all of these things are arbitrary to a certain extent, including the military time line.  I mean, everybody has a time line.  And nobody can scientifically prove that any of these dates — that something specific will have occurred by that time.  They’re a best estimate.  They’re a best estimate in terms of the military commanders, and they’re a best estimate in terms of the president’s desire for success in our mission in Afghanistan, which also requires political sustainability here at home.

Q:  And then can we turn to perceptions outside this town?  There was a lot of difficulty the last time around when July 2011 was mentioned.  You yourself had to go around the world sometimes and explain exactly what it meant.  There wasn’t a rush to the exits.

What kind of message will this decision send to countries in the region, to Pakistan?  And are you concerned that this could be misinterpreted as some kind of move to the exits, or are you confident this will work out?

SEC. GATES:  I think that the message is the president has left the surge in a year longer than the surge in Iraq.  And the surge has accomplished its mission.  It has reversed the momentum of the Taliban.  It has taken away their home territory in the south and southwest.  And now the question is maintaining that and further degrading the Taliban and preventing them from infiltrating in the east, or at least going after those infiltration routes.

I think that, you know, at a certain point, I mean, that people expect, as we are transitioning to full Afghan security lead in 2014, that we and all of our partners would keep all of our troops there until the last day; obviously not.  There’s going to be a transition for all of us.

And, you know, some nations have already begun reducing their forces.  Some are changing the mission of their forces, as the Canadians have done.  We will be changing the mission of more and more of our forces as time goes on to more of a train-and-equip, partnering, counterterrorism, and so on.

This is a fluid situation.  This isn’t a bunch of static, you know, building blocks.  In some parts of the country, we won’t have a presence at all.  Others we’ll be in the background.  Others will be doing CT.  Others will be doing COIN and CT.  So it’s — the desire to pigeonhole both strategy and time lines seems to me kind of unrealistic in terms of reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

Q:  On the fact that, for example, France and Germany have already, since the president addressed yesterday evening, have already announced that they will too withdraw troops next year and follow the path the U.S. will have in the next few years.  It’s not a concern that NATO allies could – take the opportunity to —

SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, had the — I think that risk would have been significantly greater had the time line for the end of the surge been significantly shorter.  But the truth is, this is more than a year from now that the president is talking about having the surge out of there.  So there’s a lot of time to plan.

I think our suggestion and our approach would be, as we look to our allies, “OK, we understand.  So first focus on the forces you’ve surged.  And, oh, by the way, if you didn’t surge, don’t take anybody out.”  (Laughter.)  Right?  “If you want to take 10 percent of your surge, then that’s probably a legitimate approach.”

Q:  Do you think they’re listening to that?

SEC. GATES:  I hope so.  I hope they’ll read what you write.

Q:  On NATO —

Q:  Just one on Afghanistan.  Sorry, considering Pakistan.  Can the strategy succeed if the cooperation with Pakistan remains what it is now?

SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that, again, this is one of these areas that people want to paint in black or white, and the reality of the relationship with Pakistan is obviously in the gray.  And the Pakistanis have done things that have been helpful to us.  Having 140,000 troops on that western border of Pakistan, having cleared SWAT, South Waziristan, just their presence is stirring things up, flushing people out and so on, has all been helpful.  And they’ve taken a lot of casualties doing that.

There is — there is continuing cooperation across the border in terms of planning specific operations; not as much as we’d like, but there is some.  And so there are some positive things happening.  We’re all aware of the things that are not happening in terms of blocking some of the infiltrators, we think, probably support for the Haqqani network and so on.  But it’s a mixed picture and I think that — and I think as long as the picture stays mixed like that, that we can — without some sort of fundamentals of change in the strategic calculus of Pakistan, which I think we’ve all come to realize is not likely.

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