Sunday, September 27, 2009 12:37 PM
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Host): Now, this was clearly a carefully considered strategy (President Obama's initial Afghanistan strategy). And now the president is telling us -- he told me last week that he can't approve General McChrystal's request until we get the strategy right. Why the second thoughts on the strategy?
GATES: I don't think there are second thoughts so much as, you know, when he made his decisions at the end of March, he also announced that he would -- we would be reviewing the policy and the strategy after the elections...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But he said the tool was in the tactics, not the strategy.
GATES: Well, I -- I think that he -- he clearly felt that we would have to reassess where we are after the election. Now, in addition to having a flawed election in Afghanistan, we now have General McChrystal's assessment.
When the president made his comments at -- at the end of March, his decisions, obviously, General McChrystal was not in place. We now have his assessment. He has found the situation on the ground in Afghanistan worse than he had -- than he anticipated.
And so I think what the president is now saying is, in light of the election, in light of McChrystal's more concerning assessment of the situation on the ground, have we got the strategy right, were the decisions in -- that he made at the end of March the right ones? Do we need to make some adjustments in light of what we've found?
And once we've decided whether or not to make adjustments in the strategy, then we will consider the additional resources.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But did -- but didn't General McChrystal take these problems of the election into account? He didn't even deliver his report until August 30th, which was after the elections. Dennis Blair, the head of national intelligence, said back in February or March that we could foresee that there would be problems with this election.
GATES: Well, I think -- I think that the potential magnitude of the problems in the election really didn't become apparent until the vote count began in early September. So -- so I think it was really after he submitted his -- his assessment.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So now we have a real dilemma. Does that mean that the United States is re-thinking whether it can even -- whether it can bolster President Karzai's government, whether we have to give up on it?
GATES: Well, I -- you know, the Afghan people have gone to the polls, and we have the two election commissions -- one internal, one international -- that could still come to conclusions, even if they throw out some fraudulent ballots or a number of fraudulent ballots, that there was a clear winner.
The key is whether the Afghans believe that their government has legitimacy. And everything that I've seen in the intelligence and elsewhere indicates that remains the case.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It does seem, though, that you're caught in a dilemma right now. You've got your commanding general on the ground who's given you this report. He's said that troops -- more troops are necessary or you risk failure.
That report has been endorsed by the head of Central Command, David Petraeus. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Congress and said we probably need more troops.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the president is saying that we need to think about the strategy right now. And it really creates the impression of a rift between the civilian leadership, you, as secretary of Defense, the president, and the uniformed military.
GATES: I don't think that's the case at all. I talked with -- I had an extensive conversation on the telephone with both General McChrystal and General Petraeus on -- on Wednesday. General McChrystal was very explicit in saying that he thinks this assessment, this review that's going on right now is exactly the right thing to do. He obviously doesn't want it to be open-ended or be a protracted kind of thing...
STEPHANOPOULOS: How long will it take?
GATES: Well, I -- you know, I -- it's not going to take -- I think it -- it's a matter of a few weeks. And people should remember that the debate within the Bush administration on the surge lasted three months, from October to December 2006.
So I think it's important to make sure we're confident that we have the right strategy in place, and then we can make the decisions on additional forces.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the clock really does seem to be ticking, again, to go back to General McChrystal's report. He says that if we don't turn the tide in the next 12 months, we risk failure. So every week that goes by puts the soldiers who are on the ground at risk, doesn't it?
GATES: But having the -- having the wrong strategy would put even more soldiers at risk. So I think it's important to get the strategy right and then we can make the resources decision.
As I say, I don't expect this to be protracted process. The reality is that, even if the president did decide to approve additional combat forces going into Afghanistan, the first forces couldn't arrive until January.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So what are the options right now? You have said in the past that you didn't believe what some people are recommending -- stepping up drone attacks, stepping up missile attacks, using special forces -- you don't believe or haven't believed in the past that that's sufficient to contain the Taliban.
GATES: I think that most people who -- the people that I've talked to in the Pentagon who are the experts on counterterrorism essentially say that counterterrorism is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists. And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground, getting information from people like the Afghans or, in the case of Iraq, the Iraqis.
And so you can't do this from -- from a distance or remotely, in the view of virtually all of the experts that I've talked to.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So if that -- if that's not going to work, and then you have General McChrystal who said in his report that you need a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign, counterinsurgency is the answer, that certainly seems to be endorsed by General Petraeus. Is there a middle ground between those two poles?
GATES: Well, I think -- I think people are -- are, frankly, so focused on -- on the comment that -- in General McChrystal's report about additional resources that they're neglecting to look at the rest of what's in his report and that -- where he talks very explicitly about the fact that -- that a preoccupation with the resources or with additional forces, if you don't have the strategy right, is a mistake.
And -- and he, as I say, he understands this process that's underway. But -- but what he talks about in most of that assessment is not resources, but a different way of using U.S. forces and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
It talks about accelerating the growth of the Afghan national security forces. It spends a lot of time talking about how we stay on side with the Afghan people. This is mostly what McChrystal's assessment is about.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's a resource-intensive strategy, isn't it? He says that the troops have to probably be more lightly armed and engage more with the population. And it's hard to ignore that stark conclusion: Success is not ensured by additional forces alone, as you point out, but continued under-resourcing will likely cause failure. Failure.
GATES: Well, that's what we're discussing. And how do we avoid that?
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, as you said, you hope to have this done in a few weeks and you want to avoid failure, as well, but the president has not made any -- any decision at all on resources? Has he -- has he ruled it out?
GATES: No, I haven't even given him General McChrystal's request for resources. I have the -- I -- I'm receiving the -- the report. I'm going to sit on it until I think -- or the president thinks -- it's appropriate to bring that into the discussion of the national security principles.