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Transcript: Secretary Gates on 'FNS'
Written by Chris Wallace / Published March 29, 2009 / Fox News Sunday
The following is a rush transcript of the March 29, 2009, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace." This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: This week, President Obama took ownership of the war in Afghanistan. Here for an exclusive interview on the new strategy as well as other tough challenges around the world is the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
And, Mr. Secretary, welcome back to "FOX News Sunday."
DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: Thank you, Chris.
WALLACE: Let's start with President Obama's mission statement Friday on the new strategy in Afghanistan. Here it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ... that we have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: President Bush used to talk about building a flourishing democracy. Has President Obama narrowed our mission and, if so, why?
GATES: I think the — the near-term objectives have been narrowed. I think our long-term objective still would be to see a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan.
But I think what we need to focus on and focus our efforts is making headway in reversing the Taliban's momentum and strengthening the Afghan army and police, and — and really going after Al Qaeda, as the president said.
WALLACE: Yeah, I'm going to pick up on that. The president said that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks against the U.S. homeland. Does Al Qaeda still have that kind of operational capability to plan and pull off those kinds of attacks?
GATES: They certainly have the capability to plan, and in many ways they have metastasized, with elements in North Africa, in the Levant, in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, and they aren't necessarily directly controlled from Al Qaeda in western Pakistan, but they are trained there. They often get guidance from there and inspiration from there.
So I think they do have those capabilities. They clearly have been inhibited by all the things that have been done over the last six or seven years.
WALLACE: When you say they still have those capabilities to pull off an attack on the U.S. homeland, do you still regard them as a very serious threat?
GATES: I still regard them as a very serious threat, yes.
WALLACE: U.S. commanders in the field wanted more combat troops than the 17,000 that President Obama committed.
Why did he decide against committing all of those additional combat troops? And will there be enough for the kind of counterinsurgency, living among the population, protecting the population, that was so key to the success of the surge in Iraq?
GATES: Well, let me be very clear about this. The president has approved every single soldier that I have requested of him. I have not sent any requests for units or troops to the president so far that he has not approved.
Now, the reality is I've been at this a long time, and I don't think I've ever in several decades run into a ground commander who thought he had enough troops. That's probably true in all of history.
But we have fulfilled all of the requirements that General McKiernan has put down for 2009, and my view is there's no need to ask for more troops, ask the president to approve more troops, until we see how the troops we — he already has approved are in there, how they are doing, what the Europeans have done. And we will be reviewing that come the end of the year.
WALLACE: And are there enough for the kind of counterinsurgency tactics — living in the population, protecting the population — that we saw so successful in Iraq?
GATES: Well, based on the requirements that have been levied by General McKiernan for 2009, that would be his view, I think.
And the reality is there already are a lot of troops there. This will bring us, when all is said and done, to about 68,000 troops, plus another 35,000 or so Europeans and other partners.
WALLACE: What kind of long-term commitment has the president given you? Has he promised you that he will stay in Afghanistan until the Taliban, in fact, are — and Al Qaeda are defeated?
GATES: He has clearly — he clearly understands that this is a very tough fight and that we're in it until we're successful, that Al Qaeda is no longer a threat to the United States, and that — and that we are in no danger of either Afghanistan or the western part of Pakistan being a base for Al Qaeda.
By the same token, I think he's been clear — and frankly, it was my view in our discussions — that we don't want to just pursue — settle on this strategy and then pursue it blindly and open-endedly.
And that's why I felt very strongly that toward the end of the year or about a year from now we need to reevaluate this strategy and see if we're making progress.
WALLACE: But the strategy is subject to review. The commitment to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda — is that subject to review?
GATES: I don't think so.
WALLACE: That is the commitment.
GATES: Certainly, to defeat Al Qaeda and — and make sure that Afghanistan and western Pakistan are not safe havens for them.
WALLACE: There were reports this week that elements of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, are providing the Taliban and other extremists with money, supplies, even tips on allied missions against them. One, is it true? And two, if so, can we stop it?
GATES: Well, the way I would answer is to say that we certainly have concerns about the contacts of — between the Pakistani intelligence service and the — and some of these groups in the past.
But the reality is the Pakistanis have had contacts with these groups since they were fighting the Soviets 20 or 25 years ago when I first was dealing with the Pakistanis on this, and I must say also helping make sure that some of those same groups got weapons from our safe haven in Pakistan.
But with people like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haghani network, the Pakistanis have had contacts with these people for a long time, I think partly as a hedge against what might happen in Afghanistan if we were to walk away or whatever. What we need to do is try and help the Pakistanis understand these groups are now an existential threat to them and that we will be there as a steadfast ally for Pakistan, that they can count on us and that they don't need that hedge.
WALLACE: There's a NATO summit coming up next week in Europe. Have we given up on the idea of getting our allies to send more combat troops to fight alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan?
GATES: No, we haven't. And in fact, I think some of our allies will send additional forces there to provide security before the August elections in Afghanistan.
But I think what we're really interested in for the longer term from our partners and the allies is helping us with this civilian surge in terms of experts in agriculture, and finance, and governance and so on, to help us improve the situation inside Afghanistan, give a sense of forward progress on the part of the Afghan people.
Also, police trainers — you know, the Caribinieri, the Guardia Seville, these various groups in Europe are really very good paramilitary-type police, and I think they could do a good job in the police training, so those will be probably the principal focus of our requests.
WALLACE: New subject. North Korea says that it will launch a communications satellite sometime in the next few days. They have, in fact, even moved a missile out to the launch pad. Several questions. Why are we so troubled by an activity that the North Koreans say is civilian?
GATES: Well, I think that they're — I don't know anyone at a senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
WALLACE: Do we believe that they now have the ability to put a nuclear warhead on top of a missile, as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Maples, suggested?
GATES: I think that we believe that that's their long-term intent. I personally would be skeptical that they have the ability right now to do that.
WALLACE: The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Keating, says that we are, quote, "fully prepared" to shoot down this missile. Are there any circumstances under which we will do that?
GATES: Well, I think if we had an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii, that looked like it was headed for Hawaii or something like that, we might consider it. But I don't think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point.
WALLACE: What if it were headed for the West Coast, for Alaska?
GATES: Well, we — I don't think we believe this missile can do that.
WALLACE: And what about the Japanese? Obviously — would — they have some of our technology. Do we believe they're going to — prepared to shoot this down?
GATES: Well, again, based on what I read in the newspapers, what the Japanese are saying is that the — if that missile fails, and it looks like it's going to drop debris on Japan, that they might take some action.
WALLACE: You're basically discussing this, Mr. Secretary, as if it's going to happen.
GATES: The launch?
GATES: I think it probably will.
WALLACE: And there's nothing we can do about it?
WALLACE: And what does that say to you?
GATES: Well, I would say we're not prepared to do anything about it.
WALLACE: There are reports — well, let me — I want to stay with that. What does that say to you about the North Korean regime, that — that we and the rest of the world can all say that this is — you know, a provocative act, an unlawful act, and they thumb our noses and we're not going to do anything about it?
GATES: Well, I think it's very troubling. The reality is that the six-party talks really have not made any headway any time recently.
There has certainly been no — if this is Kim Jong-il's welcoming present to a new president, launching a missile like this and threatening to have a nuclear test, I think it says a lot about the imperviousness of this — of this regime in North Korea to any kind of diplomatic overtures.
WALLACE: There are reports that the Obama White House has asked you to cut $2 billion from the next budget for missile defense, roughly 20 percent. Is this president less committed? Is he less convinced that this program will work than President Bush was?
GATES: Well, I don't know about the comparison. I would say — I would tell you that I have not received any specific requests from the White House in terms of our budget. We'll be talking about that. We have the top line number.
We receive what we call a pass-back from the Office of Management and Budget, but I considered the suggestions that they made simply those, suggestions. I've taken some of them and some of them I haven't.
WALLACE: But do you regard there is a new skepticism in the part of the White House towards missile defense?
GATES: I think that — I think one of the things that we need to do is sit down and go through the capabilities that we have, the tests that we've been through, and — and focus on where — where we need to sustain development, where we need to sustain a commitment to have a capability.
WALLACE: So it sounds like that's under review.
GATES: I think so.
WALLACE: There are so many trouble spots around the world, but I want to do a lightning round tour of the horizon. I know this is not your thing, Mr. Secretary, but let's try to do quick questions, quick answers.
Iraq — do you see any developments so far that might cause you to have to slow down President Obama's time line to pull out of the major cities by this summer and to get our combat troops out by August of 2010?
GATES: I haven't seen anything at this point that would lead me to think that there will be a need to change the time lines.
WALLACE: Iran — you said recently — you said recently that they are not close to a nuclear weapon. Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says that they have enough material to make a bomb. Is there a contradiction there?
GATES: No. What they have is — is probably enough low-enriched uranium from their centrifuges at Natanz to give them the capacity should they then enrich it more highly to proceed to make a weapon. They don't have the capability at this point to enrich. We were suspicious they may be building one clandestinely.
We do not believe they are doing enriching beyond a low level at Natanz, and the IAEA is in there, so we will know if they tried to do that. So I guess the point — the bridge between what Admiral Mullen said and what I've said is they do have enough low-enriched uranium that if they should then proceed to enrich it more highly, they could build a weapon.
WALLACE: You expressed, I think it would be fair to say, extreme skepticism about the ability of diplomacy to alter the behavior of the North Koreans. Do you feel the same way about the Iranians?
GATES: Well, I think — I think, frankly, from my perspective the opportunity for success is probably more in economic sanctions in both places than it is in diplomacy.
Diplomacy — perhaps if there is enough economic pressure placed on Iran, diplomacy can provide them an open door through which they can walk if they choose to change their policies, and so I think the two go hand in hand, but I think what gets them to the table is economic sanctions.
WALLACE: A couple of more questions for the lightning round. Mexico - - the Pentagon issued a report in November on the growing drug violence there that said this, "An unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States."
Mr. Secretary, how likely is that scenario, that the Mexican government loses control of part of the country?
GATES: I don't think that's a likely scenario at this point. I think that a lot of the violence is — is among or between the cartels as they strive for control of certain areas in Mexico.
I think President Calderon has acted with enormous courage and forcefully in sending troops in to try and get control of that situation.
And I think that — as I think Admiral Blair testified just in the last couple of days, I think that the chances of the Mexican government losing control of some part of their country or becoming a failed state is — are very low.
WALLACE: In January, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave a one-word answer, "yes," when asked if this president is going to end the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" for gays in the military.
Where does that stand? And why is there currently money in the 2010 budget to keep enforcing that policy?
GATES: Well, it continues to be the law. And any change in the policy would require a change in the law. We will follow the law, whatever it is.
That dialogue, though, has really not progressed very far at this point in the administration. I think the president and I feel like we've got a lot on our plates right now, and let's push that one down the road a little bit.
WALLACE: And finally, and we have just a minute left, President Bush used to talk about the global war on terror. This administration, this White House, seems to steer away from that.
In fact, in his speech on Friday, President Obama talked about a campaign against extremism. Beyond the words, is there a strategic difference between the way these two presidents see the fight?
GATES: I think that they — they both see Al Qaeda as a threat to the United States, Al Qaeda and its extremist allies. And I think they both have made clear their determination to go after it.
We have the opportunity now that perhaps we did not have before to apply the kind of resources, both military and civilian, against it and a broader kind of strategy that we did not have before.
WALLACE: But a difference between saying war on terror or campaign against extremism...
GATES: I think that's people looking for differences where there are none.
WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, I want to thank you so much for coming in. We got through everything. Thank you. Please come back, sir.
GATES: My pleasure. Thank you.
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