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Defense Secretary Gates Describes Plan for Iraq

September 14, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And now, how it all looks to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. I talked with him this afternoon at the Pentagon.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Last night, House Speaker Pelosi said, quote, “The president outlined a status quo strategy that leaves at least 130,000 American soldiers in harm’s way as part of a 10-year occupation of Iraq,” end quote. Has she got it right?

ROBERT GATES: No, actually, I don’t think she does. The reality is that what we’re looking at is a conditions-based drawdown to a long-term presence that would be a stabilizing force in Iraq and in the region. It would be a fraction of the force that we have there right now.

We are looking at negotiating a long-term strategic agreement with the Iraqis, but the number of troops that would be there would be considerably smaller, have a completely different mission, and, as I say, be a very small fraction of what we have there today.

JIM LEHRER: But how do we get from here to there? The first step is just reducing to 130,000 troops, which was the pre-surge strength, correct?

ROBERT GATES: That’s correct. Well, first of all, as General Petraeus indicated on his testimony on Monday, he expects to continue the drawdowns after July, assuming conditions permit. And all of these decisions have been based on an analysis of what has taken place just over the last three months, in terms of the full surge, as well as the political developments, particularly in Anbar and elsewhere.

JIM LEHRER: So there is a — this December date that the president mentioned in his speech for a transition into a new phase, what is that? What exactly is he talking about?

ROBERT GATES: Well, it’s the beginning of a transition. And right now we’re in the lead because of the heavy combat, particularly in the Baghdad area. We will then go to much more of a partnering role, which puts us either just behind them or in a support role, and then what we call an overwatch role, where we’ll be over the horizon, if you will, and they will be basically operating on their own.

And I think what perhaps hasn’t come through is that this will happen pretty much on a province-by-province basis. It’s not going to happen in the whole country at one time. For example, there are now several provinces where there are no coalition forces at all.

And so we — for example, Anbar is in really good shape, and that’s why we won’t need to replace the 2,200 Marines that are coming out this next week. So it will be a bit of a patchwork quilt in the country as the circumstances dictate in each of the provinces, in each of the areas.

JIM LEHRER: But the circumstances you’re talking about, you and the president and General Petraeus and others are talking about, you’re talking about the military circumstances, right, not the political circumstances within the government, the Iraqi government?

ROBERT GATES: Well, it’s — you know, there are the activities taking place in the provinces. And interestingly enough, where you have — often where you have the absence of coalition forces, you have a strong provincial government, you have local police, and so on.

Obviously, economic development continues to be an important aspect of this. And when it comes to reconciliation, if you will, you really have what the president has been talking about in terms of the top-down, which is this major legislation that everybody has been paying attention to, including us, but also the developments in the local areas and where — for example, in the absence of a hydrocarbon law, the government is still distributing hydrocarbon or oil revenues to the provinces.

So you have things happening at the local level, and we just have to keep pushing at the national level to try and get those two to come together.

"The country is broken"

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
I think being more optimistic than I've been in the last nine months is actually a fairly modest claim.

JIM LEHRER: Would you not concede that Ambassador Crocker's assessment before Congress and elsewhere in Washington -- he's still using the term "dysfunctional" to describe the national government. Where does the optimism come from for the national level of the Iraqi government?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I don't know anybody who's really significantly optimistic at the national level. We have hopes; we have expectations. They clearly have had a hard time coming together.

But I think what has been missing to a certain degree from the discussion is how hard this is for them. This is a country that has been under a dictatorship for 35 years, had eight years of war with Iran, had a war with us when they invaded Kuwait, had 12 years of sanctions.

The country itself in many respects is broken. The infrastructure in many ways was broken before we got there, before we went in, in 2003. It's also a government that never existed for the good of the people, in terms of distributing goods and services and making the quality of life better.

So they're really starting from a very low point in terms of trying to rebuild the country as a whole. And you have the fact that the people who are in the majority were oppressed by the Shia -- or by the Sunnis for a long time. The Shias were suppressed by the Sunnis for a long time, as were the Kurds. So getting these guys to reconcile with one another, given the depth of hatred and the history, is, I think, harder than probably we anticipated.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, you've now been secretary of defense for nine months. I don't want to characterize it -- you can speak for yourself -- but I haven't noticed a lot of optimistic statements from you up until now. What has caused you, if anything, to be more optimistic than you have been, at least publicly, up until now?

ROBERT GATES: Well, as I said when we were at Al Asad air base in Iraq that I was more optimistic now than I had been at any time since I became secretary. The reality is, when I became secretary, the situation was deteriorating pretty badly in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Right before your very eyes.

ROBERT GATES: And so the bar was pretty low. I think being more optimistic than I've been in the last nine months is actually a fairly modest claim.

Current level of optimism

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
We have to have a gradual process of a turnover to the Iraqis, with us continuing to provide security as long as we can in the framework that Gen. Petraeus has laid out.

JIM LEHRER: So your level of optimism is where right now?

ROBERT GATES: I see some very positive things happening, clearly, on the security side. I see a lot of activity at the local level. I see some government ministries beginning to operate with some measure of effectiveness.

I think there are some things that are happening among the Shia that are very interesting and create some opportunities. We've obviously had the change of heart of the sheiks and the Sunnis in Anbar province, and largely because al-Qaida overplayed their hand. They went in and they killed a lot of Sunnis. They killed women and children and so on.

We may be seeing something of the same thing with the Jaish al Mahdi, the Shia extremists. They carried out a fair amount of violence at a religious event in Karbala not too long ago. They're probably responsible for the assassination of two Shia governors in the south. And there's a lot of Shia that are very unhappy about the way that the JAM, the Jaish al Mahdi, has been carrying out its activities.

So this may create some opportunities even on the Shia side for some things to begin to move in terms of reconciliation.

JIM LEHRER: But the key words remain "may" and "hope"?

ROBERT GATES: Absolutely. This history remains to be written; that's a reality we have to face.

JIM LEHRER: I mentioned the quote from Speaker Pelosi. There have been all kinds of people who have spoken since the president spoke last night, including some Republican senators, as well, who are skeptical about whether or not this can work. Do you understand the skepticism that's coming from Congress and elsewhere about all of this?

ROBERT GATES: Sure. I think it's quite understandable. I think that it's interesting, the difference in perception from Washington and the perception of those on the ground in Iraq.

Ambassador Crocker, despite his very realistic characterizations, I think also pointed out a number of positive things that were happening. General Petraeus clearly sees positive things happening on the security front. I think what they may perceive is that they think a corner has been turned there and a lot of things are just beginning that have not yet fully come to fruition.

And I think that's perhaps hard to see here in Washington. I think, frankly, there's also probably some skepticism based on overly optimistic projections in the past.

JIM LEHRER: You also have conceded in the past that mistakes have been made by the United States up until now, as well.


JIM LEHRER: Well, just to be direct about it, you're the new secretary of defense. There are new generals, you know, involved in this. There have been mistakes made by prior secretaries of defense around and in that group, and also past generals. Why should they feel that the new guys can make a difference?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think you have to evaluate the risks and the benefits. The risks of us not being successful in Iraq are enormous. The costs of just basically chucking it, getting out as fast as possible -- first of all, there are huge risks to our own troops in trying to do that.

But in just walking away from the situation, saying, "How fast can we get out of there?" we will leave behind us a kind of chaos that will leave us problems for decades to come and, as others have said, very likely being back there again in a military way and in a much tougher fight.

So the consequences of failure are huge. And, therefore, it seems to me that we have to have a gradual process of a turnover to the Iraqis, with us continuing to provide security as long as we can in the framework that General Petraeus has laid out, but in a situation where we are trying to leave behind us, as we do draw down, an Iraq that can still -- that can continue to be an independent country and that will basically not be a sanctuary for terrorists in the future.

Petraeus's war?

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
The reality is there are 2.1 million people in the military and about 200,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. So 90 percent of the military is not in Iraq and Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, how did General Petraeus become such a central figure in all of this?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that part of it is having written the book on counterinsurgency, quite literally, I think he has generally been characterized as having been successful in Mosul when he was there in an earlier tour. And I think that, clearly, the strategy of the surge is different than what was going before, and it does seem to have produced some positive results.

JIM LEHRER: But my understanding is that you recommended that General Petraeus be given this job as commander of the -- in Iraq, is that true?

ROBERT GATES: That's true. And I did so on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and the chairman.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the Joint Chiefs, there have been reports that some of the members of the Joint Chiefs and others do not fully support what General Petraeus is recommending. What can you add to that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, that's not accurate. I tried to structure a process over the last number of months so that the Joint Chiefs would do their own analysis of the situation in Iraq. Admiral Fallon, the commander of the Central Command, would do his own analysis, and his team would do their own analysis, and General Petraeus and his team with do their own analysis.

I wanted the president to be in a position to hear more than one military voice. I didn't want General Petraeus' voice to be the only one that he heard in this process. And so I've structured it so that each of these groups would do their own independent analysis.

As it turned out, they all came to pretty much the same conclusion. And General Pace will say that the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Fallon at CENTCOM, and General Petraeus are all on the same page, and all of the chiefs and Admiral Fallon fully support the recommendations that General Petraeus has made. So what you have, in essence, is, having looked at it independently, all of the president's senior military advisers support the recommendations that General Petraeus made.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the columnists have begun to refer to it as Petraeus' war now. Does that ring true to you?

ROBERT GATES: No, I don't think that's the case. This is America's war. We are all in it.

JIM LEHRER: What level of responsibility do you think he bears now for what happens from this point on?

ROBERT GATES: Well, as you pointed out earlier in the interview, there is a political dimension, there is an economic dimension. Certainly, the security dimension he is responsible for, and I think that the results have been very positive in that respect.

JIM LEHRER: The transition phase, is there -- the general, General Petraeus, has declined to put dates on any of these kinds of things. Why is that? Is it because there's just not enough known factors and so you don't know -- you can go 130,000, you know when you might go to 100,000, might go to 80,000, what the -- how the mission might change? You just can't go that way?

ROBERT GATES: Well, his view is that it's very hard in Iraq to look out more than about six months, and that's why the date of March has come up at a time for another evaluation to see what then we can continue to do after July. As he indicated last Monday, he anticipates that -- he has said that the drawdowns will continue after July, but the pace will be dependent on the conditions on the ground.

And I think that, while we've laid out sort of the parameters of the withdrawal of these five brigades, December-July, I think that there's a desire to have some flexibility on the ground, in terms of the situation that he faces.

JIM LEHRER: It's been strongly suggested by members of Congress and elsewhere and others, people on the Senate Armed Services Committee, for instance, who say the U.S. military is strained and stressed as a result of this, and there's not a lot of choices anyhow. We have to withdraw some troops in order to just maintain a full-fledged and capable military. Is that correct?

ROBERT GATES: Well, there's no question but that there is strain on the military. But the reality is there are 2.1 million people in the military and about 200,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. So 90 percent of the military is not in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Are they prepared, are they trained for full-spectrum warfare? No. The focus on training for the last two or three years has been on counterinsurgency. And so we, as General Pace would say, if we had to go after another target, if we had a problem in Korea or something like that, our force would be blunter. It would take us longer to get the job done than we have set forth in our plans. But there's no question we could get the job done.

Casualty rates of American troops

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
We're taking a lot of measures to try and reduce the risk for our troops. But the sad reality of war is that, if you're in day-to-day combat, there are going to be casualties.

JIM LEHRER: What if things go badly in Iraq and you can't go below 130,000 troops next summer or you have to even put more troops in? Are we capable of doing that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, we could if the president ordered it. Clearly, that's not our expectation; that is certainly not what we're planning on at this point. We are planning on what he has proposed, which is to draw down these brigades, and he has done that based on what he sees happening in the country. I wouldn't expect a sudden reversal in that.

JIM LEHRER: Did the stress and strain on the total force have anything to do with the decision to reduce 230,000 by next summer?

ROBERT GATES: I think that the way we have characterized it in our conversations was that the -- the decisions were resource-informed but not resource-driven. It clearly was in the back of everyone's minds, but the decisions in terms of what to do were really made based on General Petraeus' assessment of what was going on in the country.

JIM LEHRER: On the progress angle, the casualty rates among American troops are about now what they were a year ago. Why is that? Why has there been no reduction?

ROBERT GATES: Well, there was, sadly, a significant increase for a time as we went into areas that -- where our forces and the Iraqi army hadn't been sometimes in several years. And so we had some real tragic losses earlier in the summer, in particular. Every single loss is tragic, but the numbers were much larger earlier in the summer.

I think one of the reasons they've gone down, frankly, is that, in areas where we have surged, we have more people coming forward and giving us information about these buried improvised explosive devices that kill so many of our troops and so on. And I think, as long as we're in the fight, as long as we're taking on tough enemies, sad to say, tragically, we are going to continue to suffer casualties.

JIM LEHRER: And does the suffering of casualties drive some overreaching decisions along with the other factors that you've mentioned?

ROBERT GATES: Clearly, we do everything we can to try and reduce the casualties. I've declared getting these mine resistant ambush protective vehicles, these big, heavy vehicles that we're just getting manufactured now, into the theater. We're even flying these things into Iraq because the record of the Marines using these in Anbar province has been so promising in terms of surviving attacks by these roadside bombs.

So we're taking a lot of measures to try and reduce the risk for our troops. But the sad reality of war is that, if you're in day-to-day combat, there are going to be casualties.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, nine months ago when you became secretary of defense, did you come into the job with your own personal, private list of goals or things you wanted to accomplish?

ROBERT GATES: I would say that we are now where I had -- where last January I had hoped we would be this fall, that is, a significant improvement in the security situation in multiple areas of Iraq that would allow us to begin drawing down our forces.

JIM LEHRER: Assuming you stay in the Bush administration until the end of the Bush administration, which would be another 14, 15 months or so.

ROBERT GATES: Four hundred and ninety one days.

JIM LEHRER: Four hundred and ninety one days.

ROBERT GATES: But who's counting?

JIM LEHRER: Who's counting? What would you hope and expect the situation in Iraq to be when your watch ends?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I hope -- and I underscore the word "hope" -- that, by December of 2008, that we would have a significantly smaller American presence in Iraq, that we would perhaps be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 brigades instead of the 20 that we have right now, and that the situation was continuing to improve in a way that allowed that to happen, because that, in turn, will reflect that Iraq itself is making some significant progress.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

ROBERT GATES: Thank you.