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Gates: Afghans Need to Accelerate Stabilization Efforts

December 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks to Jim Lehrer about President Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan after the new year.
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JIM LEHRER: And to our interview with Defense Secretary Gates.

I spoke with him a short time ago at the Capitol.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

ROBERT GATES: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: How confident are you that the president’s plan for Afghanistan is actually going to work?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that, if the members of his team and he did not believe that it would work, that we would — wouldn’t have recommended it to him and he wouldn’t have made the decisions.

Clearly, this is a very difficult, very complex challenge, but we believe this is the best way forward.

JIM LEHRER: There are many — there are many steps involved in this. And one of them, of course, is, stop the momentum of the Taliban. You think that can be done with 30,000 troops, and along the lines the president has outlined?

ROBERT GATES: Yes, and in no small part because those 30,000 are joining another 68,000 American troops that are already there, another 44,000 non-U.S. troops. And we expect to get several 1,000 more.

So, this is a quite considerable force. And General McChrystal, I think, has a lot of confidence that we can reverse the momentum with this.

JIM LEHRER: And when — when will the total force be on the ground in Afghanistan? In other words, the NATO forces, plus the American forces, when will it all be together and working?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I can only speak for the American forces at this point.

The — the first U.S. units will probably begin to flow within a couple of weeks. I signed the deployment orders last night on Air Force One coming back from West Point. And the — the overwhelming majority of the U.S. forces will be in by the end of July, the full force probably the end of August, early September.

JIM LEHRER: And end of August and total troops on the ground, NATO and U.S.?

ROBERT GATES: Pretty close to 150,000 — well, excuse me, except that, again, I don’t know exactly when the NATO forces, or non-U.S. forces, will be flowing.

We do have some private commitments. I think there will be some announcements over the next few days. There will be some additional announcements, I expect, of consequence after the London conference in January on Afghanistan.

U.S. troops will focus on the south

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
We are asking our allies...to essentially assume responsibility for the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, so we can concentrate our forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Can you lay out some kind of division of labor for these troops? In other words, what percentage of these troops are going to be involved in training the Afghan military, and what percentage are going to be used in going after the Taliban, in other words, in combat?

ROBERT GATES: Well, in terms of -- let me describe two divisions of labor.

First of all, we are asking our allies, with their added forces and the ones they already have in-country, to essentially assume responsibility for the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, so we can concentrate our forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan. There will probably be a brigade or two are that involved in...

ROBERT GATES: ... training.

JIM LEHRER: How many troops to a brigade or two?

ROBERT GATES: A normal brigade is about 3,500 to 4,000 troops.

But the real training that goes on with the Afghans is not the basic training, where they teach them to march and so on. It is in partnering with us in combat and getting the combat experience and gaining confidence from that. That is what we saw in Iraq really made the difference, was the actual partnering with us in combat operations.

JIM LEHRER: So, there will be American troops side by side with Afghan troops? There won't be an Afghan military unit and an American unit operating separately; is that right?

ROBERT GATES: Our -- our intent is that at least for the next year or two, that most of the Afghan units will be partnered with international forces.

As they gain confidence and can increasingly operate on their own, they will do that. And that -- those are the circumstances under which we will then begin to transfer responsibility for security in specific districts or provinces, as they gain confidence and capability.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the -- the date the president gave for when to start withdrawing American troops, when this will -- this process is more or less complete, or at least far along, is about 18 months from now, July 2011.

Why that date? Where did that -- who selected that date and why?

ROBERT GATES: It's two years from when the Marines arrived in Helmand, in July of this year. So, it wasn't just an arbitrary date. We -- we picked a two-year time frame from when Marines arrived. We're already starting to see results in southern Helmand Province, as a result of the arrival of the Marines.

But -- but I think it's important to make clear that what the president talked about in July of 2011 is not a deadline or the completion of something. It's the beginning of something. It is the beginning of a process of transition from international forces to Afghan security forces on a district-by-district, province-by-province basis, essentially what we did in Iraq.

Firm date for withdrawal?

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
What we're saying is that it is the president's decision that we should begin transferring responsibility for security, district by district, province by province, in Afghanistan as the conditions on the ground permit.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what is it that you -- you know -- you know more probably than anybody about the state of affairs within the Afghan military as we sit here today. What has given you the confidence to think that they are going to -- they are going to be able to start taking over in 2011?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, it's going to depend on the conditions in -- on the ground in the various provinces and districts.

And the reality is, there are some considerable number of districts in Afghanistan that are not particularly contested by the Taliban. And, so, one ought to be able to turn over responsibility to them in July of 2011, potentially even earlier.

The more heavily contested districts, Helmand -- provinces like Helmand and Kandahar and so on, will probably take longer. So, we will have a situation similar to that in Iraq, where you will have some provinces that are under indigenous security control. At the same time, international forces will still be deeply engaged in combat in other provinces. This is a process that is going to be under way that we anticipate beginning in July of 2011.

JIM LEHRER: So, but that should not be seen as a firm date, is what you're saying, right? I mean, no matter what happens, these -- the withdrawal is going to begin in 2011; you're not saying that?

ROBERT GATES: What we're saying is that it is the president's decision that we should begin transferring responsibility for security, district by district, province by province, in Afghanistan as the conditions on the ground permit.

We expect that transition to begin in July of 2011. It will take some period of time. It will be a gradual process. And the -- and the drawdown of our forces, as it has been in Iraq, will be a gradual one.

JIM LEHRER: Well, as you know, Mr. Secretary, the president has drawn a lot of heat today because of this date, and among members of Congress and others who say, hey, wait a minute, that's not the way you fight a war. You don't say, hey, we're going to start the war. We're going to send in 30,000 more troops. We're going to do all this. And, by the way, we're going to start withdraw 18 -- start withdrawing 18 months later.

Are you comfortable with that?

ROBERT GATES: I am. And the reason I'm comfortable is -- well, there are several reasons.

First of all, you know, after it was clear that the surge had worked or was working in Iraq, the Iraqis were eager to get us out of the country as quickly as possible.

Afghanistan is in a very tough neighborhood, and it's not entirely clear to me that there aren't a lot of Afghans that would like the American Army and the Marine Corps to stick around and provide them with protection in their neighborhood for an indefinite period of time.

So, what we have tried to balance here -- and a lot of this is a balance -- is to demonstrate resolve by saying, we are going to send in 30,000 more troops to join the 68,000 we already have there. We are going to take the fight to the Taliban. We are going to reverse their momentum. We are going to deny them control of territory in Afghanistan.

But, at the same time, we want to make clear a sense of urgency to the Afghans that they are going to need to step up to the plate and get busy in recruiting and -- and training additional security forces, because they are going to be responsible increasingly for the security of their own country, partnering with us, working with us and our allies in the international security assistance force and so on.

But -- so, it's a matter of demonstrating resolve, but, at the same time, signaling to the Afghans that they need to build a fire and accelerate their efforts to begin to play a bigger role in this.

JIM LEHRER: What's to prevent the Taliban from just kind of laying low and -- and say, OK, well, the U.S. is going to start withdrawing in 18 months; the U.S. starts withdrawing and, wham, the Taliban comes back strong?

ROBERT GATES: I would love the Taliban to lay low for 18 months. That would give us open-field running, all right?

JIM LEHRER: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT GATES: Are they going to lay low in Pakistan, give us -- so, no attacks in Afghanistan, let us build the Afghan forces, let us develop economically? Are they going to lay low in Afghanistan, and -- and not kill people at night, not retaliate, not try and attack our coalition forces?

Or are they doing -- going to do what they're doing right now, which is being as aggressive as they possibly can be? And we are sending in enough force to engage them, to put them down, degrade their capabilities, so that a growing Afghan national security force can handle a degraded Taliban capability.

U.S. casualties likely to grow

JIM LEHRER: Should the American public expect casualties -- American casualties to grow, as -- as the U.S. and the allies take the battle to the Taliban?

ROBERT GATES: They would -- we should have that expectation. It will vary. You know, every life is precious. We lost 44 heroes in October. We lost 15 in November.

So, as we go into the winter, there may be fewer casualties, but, certainly, there will be more casualties. And, as spring comes, and we are more engaged around the country, the casualties are almost certain to rise again.

JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned about how this is going to impact American public opinion, which is already -- some support is already beginning to wane toward the Afghanistan project in the United States. Are you worried about that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, you know, contrary to the impression of a lot of people around the world, the American people have never been very enthusiastic about war, beginning with the revolution.

And -- and I think it's a matter -- and I recall specifically, before the first Gulf War, 15 percent of the American people supported president H.W. Bush's decision to liberate Kuwait. I think the president's firm decision, the clarity that he made a decision based on what he believed was important for the national security of the United States, rather than for any political or partisan purpose, the fact that they knew he was taking political risks by making this decision, I think the American people appreciate and follow strong leadership.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the Bush administration. You have served at the highest levels in two administrations, both of them -- both of them the Bush -- two Bush administrations. You have now watched President Obama, been involved in President Obama's making this decision.

What do you think of the way he -- he went about it, President Obama?

ROBERT GATES: I think that the process that we went through was -- was really an important one. A lot of questions were asked, and a lot of people were asking questions.

It wasn't just the president asking questions. I think we all learned something in the process. I think the generals learned something. And I think we have come up with -- we came up with a set of recommendations to the president and decisions on his part that have really unanimous support on both the civilian and military side.

And I think we wouldn't have had that had we tried to rush this process and had we not had the intense dialogue that we have.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe your involvement in the decision-making process?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I was involved.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a -- did you get what you wanted?

ROBERT GATES: I'm very satisfied with the outcome.

I think that this is -- you know, there are no great choices in this situation. There rarely are when you're in war. But I think, of -- of the alternatives available to us, the options available to us, I think this is the best way forward and the way forward that offers the greatest probability of success.

JIM LEHRER: Did you get the impression that President Obama was listening to every one of these voices, including your own, and taking it all in?

ROBERT GATES: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And this plan that he announced last night, is it correct to say that it could be considered the Gates plan, as the McChrystal plan, in other words, that this is a -- a consensus plan; not just one or two people made the decision?

ROBERT GATES: I would say this is the president's plan.

He heard a lot of voices, and there are elements of a lot of different people's views in the -- in the package of decisions that he made.

JIM LEHRER: So, after this comes out, there won't be any leaks about the fights over this and that and whatever; everybody came together and made this decision?

ROBERT GATES: Well, as one of the things, unfortunately, we have seen in this process is that everything leaks in Washington. And there was a lot of debate. There were a lot of different points of view.

But what's important is that everybody came together at the end in agreeing that this was the right way to go forward.

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

ROBERT GATES: My pleasure.