USA — Gates Gives Frank Assessments of World Trouble Spots

SAN FRANCISCO — With North Kore­an leader Kim Jong-il report­ed­ly in poor health, the suc­ces­sion process may be dri­ving the nation’s increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous behav­ior, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here last night.

Gates, speak­ing at the Marines’ Memo­r­i­al Association’s George P. Shultz lec­ture series, also dis­cussed Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Iran and Iraq with a capac­i­ty audi­ence at the Marine’s Memo­r­i­al Theater. 

The ail­ing dictator’s son wants to take over, Gates said, but he “has to earn his stripes by the North Kore­an military.” 

“My wor­ry is that’s the provo­ca­tion behind the sink­ing of the [South Kore­an frigate] Cheo­nan. We’re con­cerned this may not be the only provo­ca­tion from the North Koreans.” 

The Unit­ed States is work­ing with all nations of the area to pro­vide sta­bil­i­ty in the face of North Korea’s weapons pro­lif­er­a­tion activ­i­ties and its nuclear pro­gram, Gates said. But Chi­na – North Korea’s largest part­ner – is reluc­tant because Chi­nese lead­ers are wor­ried that a col­lapse of the North Korea gov­ern­ment would send mil­lions of refugees into Chi­na, he added. 

“The fact is that North Korea con­tin­ues to smug­gle mis­siles and weapons to oth­er coun­tries around the world – Bur­ma, Iran, Hezbol­lah, Hamas – and they con­tin­ue with their devel­op­ment of their nuclear pro­gram,” the sec­re­tary said. 

Gates tout­ed the increase in troops in Afghanistan, say­ing there are now 40,000 more coali­tion mil­i­tary per­son­nel in the coun­try than at the begin­ning of the year. “Thir­ty thou­sand of them are Amer­i­can, and almost 10,000 are from our part­ners – prin­ci­pal­ly from our NATO part­ners,” he said. 

The coali­tion con­tri­bu­tion is sig­nif­i­cant, the sec­re­tary said. In 2007, the allies had rough­ly 17,000 troops in the coun­try. “The num­bers are now up to 50,000 troops, and they are in the fight,” Gates said. “A num­ber of the nation­al caveats have gone away, and they are being very effec­tive part­ners.” Caveats are restric­tions some coun­tries place on how their troops can be used. 

Gates also dis­cussed U.S. diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary ties with Pak­istan, and he accept­ed some of the blame for a “sig­nif­i­cant trust deficit” between the two nations. When he was the direc­tor of cen­tral intel­li­gence, he said, the Unit­ed States turned its back on Afghanistan when the Sovi­ets left in 1989 and sev­ered ties with Pak­istan over the country’s nuclear pro­gram in 1992. 

“To the Pak­ista­nis, when we achieved our objec­tive – the ejec­tion of the Sovi­ets – we turned our backs and left the Pak­ista­nis hold­ing the bag,” he said. 

Pak­istani lead­ers fear the Unit­ed States will do the same thing once it reach­es its objec­tives in Afghanistan, Gates said. “They had hedged over the last decade, try­ing to be in a posi­tion to deal with who­ev­er might come to pow­er in Afghanistan,” he added. “I think we are reduc­ing the trust deficit.” 

Pak­istan is bat­tling the Tal­iban and al-Qai­da with 140,000 troops in bat­tle with the ter­ror groups along the bor­der with Afghanistan, Gates told the audi­ence. “What we need to do is affirm for the Pak­ista­nis that we will be a reli­able, strate­gic part­ner for the long term and that we will not walk away from Afghanistan,” he said. “And when the fight is over in Afghanistan, we’re still going to stay there and pro­vide the kind of devel­op­ment aid and mil­i­tary train­ing and so on that is needed.” 

The flood­ing of the Indus Riv­er and its trib­u­taries com­pli­cates mat­ters, the sec­re­tary acknowl­edged. “The flood­ing, in terms of the num­ber of peo­ple affect­ed and its eco­nom­ic con­se­quences, is sev­er­al times worse than the earth­quake in 2005,” he said. “How much this will impact Pak­istan and its army remains to be seen. That’s one of the rea­sons Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has asked us to lean very far for­ward in pro­vid­ing as much help as we can.” 

The sec­re­tary said he has served every pres­i­dent since Lyn­don John­son, and that in his career, Iran has proved “the most frus­trat­ing and chal­leng­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty prob­lems the Unit­ed States has faced.” If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, he said, an arms race will ensue in the region. 

“To have a pro­lif­er­a­tion prob­lem in the most volatile part of the world can­not be a good devel­op­ment,” he said. “On the oth­er hand, I think – as we’ve seen in Iraq – that every war is unpre­dictable and has unin­tend­ed con­se­quences and is more dif­fi­cult than peo­ple expect. I think a mil­i­tary attack upon Iran would have enor­mous con­se­quences in a vari­ety of ways.” 

Still, an attack remains an arrow in the quiver, the sec­re­tary said, and Oba­ma needs all options open. 

“All the evi­dence … shows the new round of sanc­tions is real­ly begin­ning to bite on the Ira­ni­ans,” the sec­re­tary told the audi­ence. Iran­ian lead­ers hate to be iso­lat­ed, he said, and they are being iso­lat­ed. Now, he added, coun­tries in the region and else­where are tight­en­ing the sanc­tions on Iran, and that could have an effect. 

The only long-range solu­tion to the prob­lem is for the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment to decide that its nuclear pro­gram dimin­ish­es their country’s secu­ri­ty rather than enhanc­ing it, Gates said. In the mean­time, he added, the Unit­ed States is work­ing with allies in the area to pro­vide mis­sile defense and to keep the diplo­mat­ic front open. 

In Iraq, Gates said, said the with­draw­al of Amer­i­can troops is going well. Vio­lence in Iraq is at the low­est lev­el since 2003, he said, and while some iso­lat­ed groups con­tin­ue to try to derail progress, they are not suc­cess­ful. Mean­while, he said, Iraqi polit­i­cal lead­ers are work­ing to set up a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. “They are not shoot­ing at each oth­er; they are nego­ti­at­ing,” he said. “We fig­ured it would take months to put togeth­er a government.” 

The sec­re­tary also looked to the future. 

“Con­sid­er this: An Iraq in 10 years could be pro­duc­ing as much oil as Sau­di Ara­bia,” he said. “It could be a very rich coun­try. If it is able to sus­tain the democ­ra­cy it has today, I think it could change the entire equa­tion in the Mid­dle East.” 

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

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