Gates Shares Views on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo., May 19, 2011 — Dur­ing a ques­tion-and-answer ses­sion here today, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates gave U.S. Army Engi­neer School stu­dents here his view of the sit­u­a­tions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pak­istan.
Though the cur­rent agree­ment between the Unit­ed States and Iraq calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, Gates said U.S. and Iraqi offi­cials see val­ue in a con­tin­ued, but rel­a­tive­ly mod­est, U.S. pres­ence there.

“I think that most of us in our gov­ern­ment believe that there is val­ue in a resid­ual U.S. force remain­ing in Iraq,” Gates said, esti­mat­ing the size of that force to be any­where from 8,000 to 15,000 troops. The resid­ual force, he added, would con­tin­ue train­ing Iraqi forces.

“They still have a lot of work to do with logis­tics and things like intel­li­gence,” he said. “They basi­cal­ly have no air defense capa­bil­i­ty. They’ve improved enor­mous­ly, but they’ve still got as long way to go.”

In addi­tion, a con­tin­ued U.S. pres­ence would be use­ful in deter­ring Iran from inter­fer­ing with Iraq and in reas­sur­ing allies in the region, adding that his con­ver­sa­tions with Iraqi lead­ers indi­cate they agree, Gates said.

But, Gates acknowl­edged it is a point of con­tention among elect­ed Iraqi offi­cials.

“Most of the Iraqi lead­ers acknowl­edge that they need a con­tin­u­ing U.S. pres­ence, but it’s polit­i­cal dyna­mite in Iraq,” he said. “The fact remains that most Iraqis want us gone.” He not­ed that rad­i­cal cler­ic Muq­ta­da al-Sadr has made a cam­paign theme out of ensur­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence in Iraq ends, and his groups are behind increased attacks against U.S. troops, espe­cial­ly in south­ern Iraq.

“So the ques­tion that is unset­tled at this point is whether the Iraqi lead­er­ship will come togeth­er and all the dif­fer­ent fac­tions will hold hands and jump off the cliff togeth­er in terms of seek­ing author­i­ty and going for­ward with a con­tin­u­ing U.S. pres­ence after the end of Decem­ber,” the sec­re­tary said, not­ing that he believes the odds are about 50–50 that they’ll do so.

On Afghanistan, Gates said it’s too ear­ly to know whether the May 1 raid that killed al-Qai­da leader Osama bin Laden will play out to allow an accel­er­at­ed U.S. with­draw­al.

“I think we’ll have a bet­ter view of that come win­ter – toward the end of the year, in six months or so,” he said. One of the key ques­tions, he added, will be whether bin Laden’s death affects the rela­tion­ship between al-Qai­da and the Tal­iban. If that rela­tion­ship is pulled apart with bin Laden dead, he explained, oppor­tu­ni­ties for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Afghanistan are enhanced, per­haps sig­nif­i­cant­ly.

“And if that process were to go faster, then we could leave faster,” Gates said. “But the pres­i­dent made clear from the get-go on this, that deci­sions on cer­tain lev­els will be made based on the con­di­tions on the ground.” That will affect deci­sions with respect to July, when the U.S. troop lev­el in Afghanistan is sched­uled to begin draw­ing down, he said. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, com­man­der of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is prepar­ing rec­om­men­da­tions.

“At this point I think it would be unwise to accel­er­ate the draw­downs beyond what Gen­er­al Petraeus will rec­om­mend in the next few weeks,” the sec­re­tary said.

Mean­while, Gates said, despite some hos­tile sen­ti­ment toward Pak­istan in some cir­cles in Wash­ing­ton since the bin Laden raid, Pak­istan is impor­tant to the Unit­ed States, and vice ver­sa.

“We need them, and they need us,” he said, and dis­cus­sions are under way on how to pro­ceed.

“I think we’ve got a pret­ty sen­si­ble path for­ward in terms of try­ing to work with [the Pak­ista­nis] and take advan­tage of their will­ing­ness now,” Gates said. “They have said in the wake of the bin Laden assault, ‘Why don’t you let us do it, or why don’t we part­ner?’ That’s an offer I think we should take them up on, and I think it’s also a test of their seri­ous­ness.”

The sec­re­tary not­ed that he and Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said at a Pen­ta­gon news con­fer­ence yes­ter­day that they had seen no evi­dence that Pakistan’s senior lead­er­ship knew bin Laden was hid­ing in their coun­try, and that the lead­er­ship is clear­ly embar­rassed.

“And so, this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty, per­haps, to move this rela­tion­ship for­ward,” Gates said. “We’ve had some pret­ty good coop­er­a­tion across the [Afghan-Pak­istani] bor­der between the Pak­ista­nis and the U.S., and it clear­ly has been help­ful to us to have 140,000 Pak­istani troops in South of Waziris­tan, Swat and places like that.”

As the rela­tion­ship moves for­ward, he added, work must con­tin­ue on resolv­ing the “trust deficit” that exists between the Unit­ed States and Pak­istan.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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