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Gates: I Was ‘ Strong Advocate’ for Afghanistan Surge to End in Summer 2012

June 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an interview Thursday with Jim Lehrer, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed President Obama's new timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, how he would define success in that war and the chances of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban plus the U.S. role in Libya and his tenure at the Pentagon.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: I take it you support the president’s decision on the Afghan troop withdrawals.

ROBERT GATES: I do. I do. I think it provides the troops – we’ve had a lot of success in accomplishing our mission. We have more work to do. We still have more than half the fighting season this year to go, and this gives us most of – most of next year to both beat back the Taliban further but also improve the quality and quantity of the Afghan security forces.

JIM LEHRER: In the final analysis, was it a difficult decision for the president to make? Were there many options on the table for him to choose from?

ROBERT GATES: There were. There were. And in fact, Gen. Petraeus himself offered, at my request, a number of options that began as early as next July, a year from this July, and running into 2013. So the president had a wide array of options in front of him.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have an option? Was there a Gates option?

ROBERT GATES: Not going in, no. I was listening and paying attention. And …

JIM LEHRER: Well, I heard that – coming out that you were – you played the role of a compromiser – in other words, a little bit of this, a little bit of that – between the two or three factions. Am I right about that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I tried – I was a strong advocate of – as I listened to the debate go forward, I became a strong advocate as the end of summer as one that struck a balance between our military needs and sustainability here at home.

JIM LEHRER: The end of summer – for what to happen at the end of summer?

ROBERT GATES: For the surge to come out.

JIM LEHRER: For the surge to come out.

ROBERT GATES: I think that it’s important to remember, that will still leave some 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan. And just as an example, we have increased the size of the Afghan security forces by over a hundred thousand during the last year.

So the whole idea of this strategy from the very beginning was for us to come in heavy with the surge, beat back the Taliban momentum – and particularly in the south and southwest, Helmand, Kandahar, in that area – get more aggressive in taking on the infiltration routes coming across from Pakistan in the east of Afghanistan and increasingly partner with the Afghan security forces, the Afghan army.

We also have the Afghan local police that are developing and are potentially a game changer because they’re locals to the villages.

So we’ve seen a lot of progress this year. We still have a lot of work to do. There’s still a lot of hard fighting to go. But I think we’ve made – I think we’ve made pretty good progress. And the whole idea of this thing has been between now and 2014, the end of 2014, to transition the security lead in Afghanistan to the Afghans. It’s their country.

And I will say they’re fighting and dying for their country. They’re dying roughly at a rate two and a half, three times as many soldiers as our coalition.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have the feeling, either directly or indirectly, from the president that the issue of kind of war fatigue for Americans also played a part in this final decision?

ROBERT GATES: I think we’re all mindful of that and of the folks sitting around that table, maybe me more than any of them, except maybe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen – I’ve been in this job four and a half years. I took it over when Iraq was in really dire straits. So it has been a long haul.

But the point I’ve tried to make to people is, they need to understand – I know we talk about a 10-year war in Afghanistan, but the truth of the matter is, after we’d ousted the Taliban in 2002 and also al-Qaida from Afghanistan, the U.S. sort of turned its attention away from Afghanistan and really didn’t turn back with the full resources, a full strategy and so on, until really early in 2009.

JIM LEHRER: When you leave office, which is a week from today, are you going to leave with a feeling of confidence that down the road, this Afghanistan mission that the United States and NATO are involved in is in fact going to be successful?

ROBERT GATES: It is in my view, if you decide- if you define success the way I think we should, which is that we have prevented the Taliban from forcefully overthrowing – forcibly overthrowing the government of Afghanistan; that the Afghan security forces can secure their own territory and prevent al-Qaida or other extremist groups from coming back and using it as a safe haven. I believe that’s an achievable mission by the end of 2014, and I think we’re making good headway in that direction.

Anything else that happens – it’s like the president said in his speech last night. Anything else that happens in terms of goodness, whether it’s roads or anything else, frankly is peripheral to the achievement of that fundamental goal: preventing Afghanistan from becoming a launch pad for attacks against the United States and our allies and partners.

JIM LEHRER: And you believe there are enough troops, after the withdrawals and according to the plan, if it goes as scheduled, to get this job done?

ROBERT GATES: Absolutely, particularly in combination with the increase in the size of the Afghan security forces.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to characterize this final decision as a compromise between, on the one side, Gen. Petraeus and the military leaders and, on the other side, Vice President Biden and some of the Democrats in Congress and others who wanted a more escalated withdrawal? Is that correct? Is that about – is that about it?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think one reason that I’ve maybe been useful to two very different presidents is that I’ve never gotten into who struck John and who’s up, who’s down, who won, who lost on these kinds of debates. It was a rich debate. The president heard all points of view, and he made a decision.

JIM LEHRER: So there was no winner in this debate?

ROBERT GATES: I’ll just not go down that road.


JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

Finally, on Afghanistan, let me ask you this. What were the realistic – realistic chances -of somewhere down the line there being a negotiated settlement in this fight with the Taliban?

ROBERT GATES: I think those chances are probably good.


ROBERT GATES: I think we have to keep the pressure on the Taliban. I think the death of bin Laden is a potential help in this respect. There was a personal relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. And you know, the Taliban are in the position – one of the things that the Afghan government and the coalition demand is that the Taliban disavow any connection or support with al-Qaida going forward. That’s one of the redlines.

You know, if I were an – if I were a Taliban, I’d say, what did al-Qaida ever do for me except get me kicked out of Afghanistan? The United States wouldn’t have gone in to overthrow the Taliban if it hadn’t been for the – for al-Qaida launching the attack against us from there. So I think that – I think these – very often these kinds of conflicts come to an end through a compromise or through negotiations, and the truth is, you know, if you look at Iraq and what happened in Anbar province, we ended up – the people who were shooting at us we ended up partnering with

JIM LEHRER: And you think that’s very possible in this case?


JIM LEHRER: All right.

Well, let’s go to some other subject now, Mr. Secretary. Libya. What do you think of the talk by some in Congress of voting to withhold funds for the execution or further execution of U.S. military operations with NATO against Libya?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think it would be a mistake. I think once we have our forces engaged to deny funding for them would be a mistake. These allies, particularly the British and the French, and the Italians for that matter, have really been a big help to us in Afghanistan. They consider Libya a vital interest for them. Our alliance with them is a vital interest for us. So as they have helped us in Afghanistan, it seems to me that we are in a position of helping them with respect to Libya. And to cut off funding for the U.S. forces in that context I think would be a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: Is – how close do you think the NATO force is to making it – or getting rid of Gadhafi, just to be straight about it? I mean, how close is he to leaving?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think – I think the – based on everything we see, the government gets shakier every day. His forces have been significantly diminished. The opposition is expanding the areas under their control. I don’t think anybody can predict when he’ll fall or leave. Personally, my opinion is he won’t leave voluntarily, but somebody in the army or his family will decide that it’s time for a change.

JIM LEHRER: But until that change comes, there will be no real what you call successful ending to this NATO military exercise, correct?

ROBERT GATES: No, the end – the end of this has to be Gadhafi leaving, one way or another.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What is it – just to ask the question directly, there have been an awful lot of drones that have exploded and other things have exploded in the Gadhafi compound and all of that, and it’s hard for a lot of people to believe that getting Gadhafi the hard way – in other words, killing him – is not on the agenda. Is it – is it not on the agenda?

ROBERT GATES: No, I don’t – I –

JIM LEHRER: – unofficially if not officially?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I certainly haven’t been looking at the target list, but everything I’ve been told is that those are legitimate command-and-control targets in his – first of all, this is a huge compound. It’s not like…


ROBERT GATES: …like that we’re hitting him in the villa at Abbottabad in Pakistan where bin Laden was.

JIM LEHRER: You talked about the – in more general terms about the military, and you’ve said – in recent interviews you’ve talked many times about that the U.S. military is exhausted. Explain what you mean by that.

ROBERT GATES: Well, we have a lot of people in the military, and particularly in combat arms, who have been on repeated rotations. I run into people routinely who have had three, four, five, six rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they come home for a year, they’re deployed for a year. So the strain on them and on their families is – and while they’re home, they’re preparing to deploy again. And so there has been no real extended period of time – now, that’s beginning to improve with the drawdown of 100,000 troops in Iraq, but it will probably be this fall before most Army units get to one year deployed, two years at home. And it’s just the repetition of this over all these years in Iraq and Afghanistan that has – that has really taken a toll.

But it’s also true even of the Air Force and the Navy. For example, the Air Force has been at war since 1991, either Desert Storm or then enforcing the no-fly zone, and then Afghanistan, and then – and then Iraq in 2003. The Navy has been deployed – our – many of our aircraft carriers, which are supposed to deploy for six months at a time and six months at home, many of them now have eight-and-a-half-month rotations. So people are getting tired

JIM LEHRER: You’ve said also that you’ve become increasingly cautious about the use of military forces, the deployment of U.S. forces. Is that the result of this as well?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I – what I’ve – what I’ve been trying to describe is that, first of all, I would never be cautious if we were attacked or were about to be attacked. I would be the first guy in line saying we must do whatever it takes to deal with this threat.

However, where we have an elective opportunity, where we see a situation where we decide it’s in our interests, even if we haven’t been threatened, to take some action – that’s where I think I’ve become more cautious.

JIM LEHRER: And Libya fits that description, does it not?

ROBERT GATES: That’s probably fair.

JIM LEHRER: All right. And you think that this should be U.S. policy to – at this stage of the game, to be very, very careful and not do any elective type of military action?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I wouldn’t go that far, because you don’t know what kind of -what kind of situations may emerge.


ROBERT GATES: And, of course, ultimately it’s the president’s decision. He has to decide what’s in our national interest.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, finally, you’ve also spoken and –  a year or so ago a speech at Duke University, where you talked about the fact that for most Americans, our wars, America’s wars have become an abstraction because so few of Americans and their families are directly involved. Is that – is that – is that hurting us as a country, do you think?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that – I think that it makes most Americans, the 99 percent of Americans who are not serving unaware of the strains and the stresses on our military families. And so what I’ve been trying to do and what Mrs. Biden and Mrs. Obama and the chairman and his wife – all these folks, are trying to do is to – is to try and get that other 99 percent to – they all say they support the troops, but it’s not just enough to say it. Go out and find one of them and give them a job. If they need some repairs on their house, do that. Mow the grass. Find some action you can take as a citizen who appreciates our military to help those families and particularly the families of those who are deployed. Every town in America has somebody from the National Guard who’s probably deployed. So there’s somebody out there that they can help. And actions always speak louder than words.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re not suggesting some kind of mandatory national service or something like that that would force people to be more aware of war?

ROBERT GATES: No. Speaking personally…


ROBERT GATES: …I have always that there ought to be some kind of mandatory national service, not necessarily in the military but to show everybody that freedom isn’t free, that everybody has an obligation to the nation as a community. And so it could be military service, it could be teaching in rural or poor areas, it could be nursing, it could be any kind of service projects – the Peace Corps, whatever, but a period of service – working in our national parks or something – but a period of service that basically gives back to the nation that has given its citizens so much.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, much has been written and said about your last four and a half years as secretary of defense. And a lot of people have been assessing your performance. What do you think of the way you’ve performed as secretary of state the last – secretary of defense the last four and half years?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I would say that, you know, there’s been a lot that’s happened over the last four and a half years. I will say that I think that the thing I’m proudest of is what I’ve been able to do for our troops, giving them these heavily armored vehicles, these Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles; giving them one-hour medevac or less in Afghanistan; more reconnaissance capabilities to prevent them from being attacked; trying to do whatever was necessary to help them accomplish their mission and come home safely.

JIM LEHRER: And you feel good about what you’ve done?

ROBERT GATES: I feel very good about that.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you and good luck.

ROBERT GATES: Thanks very much.