Michael's Dispatches

Bob Gates: Secretary of War

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18 May 2009

Bob Gates is a straight-talker.  He's not glossing over anything or trying to put lipstick on a screeching pig.  We saw this happening some years ago before he took office.  Back when I first went to the war, I didn't trust the U.S. government any further than I could see with my own eyes.  The lies and half-truths flowed from Washington D.C. like the mighty Mississippi.  Nothing much has changed in that regard; today more than ever, I don't trust "the government" to be truthful with us.

Yet through time and observation, some leaders have emerged whose sound judgment and integrity slowly have become apparent.  Petraeus was one of the first.  Bob Gates is also in that category.  As a writer who spends a fair amount of time on the cutting edge that Secretary Gates often talks about, my confidence in him continues to grow.  Secretary Gates has been a truthful man when he talks about matters with which I am familiar.

Please see this transcript from 60 Minutes:

60 Minutes: Secretary Of Defense Robert Gates Talks About Iraq, Afghanistan And His Job.

(CBS)  He calls himself the "Secretary of War." Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense for both Presidents Bush and Obama is the man in charge of winding down the war in Iraq and building up the war in Afghanistan.

60 Minutes and correspondent Katie Couric flew with him to Afghanistan just over a week ago. He went half way around the world to see the troops and to fire their commander, General David McKiernan.

Gates wants General Stanley McChrystal, a counter-insurgency expert, to implement the new U.S. strategy, which includes adding 21,000 more American combat troops to secure the cities and villages, and hold them until Afghan forces can grow and take over.

How long will it be before they even begin to take the lead in military operations? While we were in Kabul, Gates told us it will take at least two to four years.

"War is inherently unpredictable. Okay? And the enemy always has a vote. But that would be our anticipation," Secretary Gates told Katie Couric.

"Then U.S. troops will definitely be here at least through the end of President Obama's current term? Is that accurate?" Couric asked.

"We'll see," Gates replied. "This is a war."

"At the same time, don't you think that people in the United States deserve some kind of idea of how long this commitment will be?" Couric asked.

"I think what the people in the United States want to see is the momentum shifting to see that the strategies that we’re following are working," Gates said. "And that's why I've said in nine months to a year, we need to evaluate how we're doing."

Asked what it would take for U.S. troops to be out in four years, Gates said, "You're asking me to make up a fairy story. I don't know what it would take. What it would take is the Afghan army growing and doing its job well. It would take the effectiveness of our own strategy and our own forces. It would take bringing better governance to the country. It would take a lot of different things to have a finite time when we can say, 'We're out of here.'"

"I don't believe in those stories. I've been around too long," he added.

When we landed in Kabul, Gates was met at the airport by General McKiernan, who he fired over dinner later that night. Gates said he wanted fresh eyes and fresh thinking to lead the war - a war that has been going badly.

Roadside bomb attacks rose 33 percent last year, with U.S. and coalition deaths up more than 20 percent. U.S. troops have complained that they're under-manned and under-equipped. Gates has made it his mission to change that.

We flew with him to three U.S. bases in southern Afghanistan. Our access was unprecedented. He usually avoids the spotlight, and he's so low-key that "Bob Gates" is hardly a household name. At Camp Leatherneck, he was even misintroduced to the troops as "Bill Gates."

But whether they know his name, they do know that he has gotten them stronger vehicles to survive roadside bombs, better body armor, and better battlefield intelligence. And he has cut by a third the time it takes to get a wounded soldier to a hospital.

"We sent out ten additional helicopters and three more field hospitals. We hope that we don't need it for any of you, but I want it to be there for you if it is needed," he told soldiers in Afghanistan.

At the Pentagon, before the trip, Gates told Couric the troops in harms way are his top priority.

"You've signaled you want to change the culture at the Pentagon. What about the culture here needs changing?" Couric asked.

"I want a part of this building that comes to work every single day, asking themselves, 'What can I do to help the soldier in the field today? What can I do to make them successful in the field and bring 'em home safely?'" Gates explained.

But Gates said that instead of helping today's soldiers battle insurgents, too much of the Pentagon has been focused on future conventional wars. "I wanted a department that frankly could walk and chew gum at the same time, that could wage war as we are doing now, at the same time we plan and prepare for tomorrow's wars," he said.

So, his new budget cuts some billion-dollar futuristic weapon systems, and instead provides more protection for troops on the battlefield.

The U.S. will have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan when the surge is completed this fall. NATO will have less than half as many, which makes no sense to Gates because terrorist plots spawned in the region are aimed at Europe as well as the U.S.

"I've been disappointed with NATO's response to this ever since I got this job," Gates told Couric. "NATO as an alliance, if you exclude the United States, has almost two million men under arms. Why they can't get more than 32,000 to Afghanistan has always been a puzzle to me."

"A puzzle, but it must be maddening as well," Couric remarked.

"Frustrating," Gates said.

Gates has more experience in Afghanistan than anyone in the president's inner circle. He was the number two man in the CIA back in the 1980's, sending weapons to the mujahedeen to help them drive out the Russians. Because of that experience he does not want to add additional U.S. troop again next year.

"I was out here 20 years ago when we were fighting the Soviets. The Soviets had 110 to 120,000 troops in this country. They did not care about civilian casualties. And they lost. At some point in this country, the size of the foreign military footprint becomes a hindrance rather than a help. Because we begin to look like occupiers to the Afghans," Gates told Couric.

"Isn't it ironic, though, that the very people the U.S. befriended and armed in the 1980s have morphed into our enemies. What lesson can be learned from that? Be careful who you cozy up to?" Couric asked.

"Or just that history is ironic," Gates replied.

The Taliban and al Qaeda have safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas in the mountains along the Afghan border. Gates told 60 Minutes it is up to Pakistan to clear those terrorists out.

"We want to try and persuade the Pakistanis of the importance of doing this," Gates explained.

"But the Pakistani army clearly has its hands full right now, fighting the Taliban much closer to its capital. So what are you going to do about these safe havens?" Couric asked.

"We'll just have to keep working with the Pakistanis. These problems aren't going to be solved overnight," he replied.

"But the Pakistan army is still focused on conventional warfare against India. And there are more terrorists per square mile in Pakistan than any place in the world. Do you think that Pakistan's army is capable of neutralizing the Taliban?" Couric asked.

"They can do this. They just need training and probably some different kinds of equipment," Gates replied.

Since 2001, America has given Pakistan's military more than a billion dollars a year. Still, parts of Pakistan's intelligence service support the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"Look, they're maintaining contact with these groups, in my view as a strategic hedge," Gates said. "They are not sure who's going to win in Afghanistan. They're not sure what's going to happen along that border area. So, to a certain extent, they play both sides."

In the mountains west of Kabul, Gates acknowledged to local leaders that when U.S. bombs kill civilians, they give the Taliban a propaganda bonanza. But the U.S. kills civilians unintentionally - the Taliban commit atrocities deliberately.

The Taliban use brutality, like amputations and beheadings, to intimidate and expand their power. And they often hold public executions.

Just last month, a Taliban firing squad executed a man and a woman in front of a crowd because the couple had tried to elope - a death penalty offense to the Taliban because the woman was engaged to someone else.

In the office on his plane, Couric asked what keeps him up at night.

"I suspect everybody would say the thing that frightens them the most is a group like al Qaeda getting hold of a weapon of mass destruction. And I think that really is a serious worry," Gates said.

"Like a nuclear weapon in Pakistan?" Couric asked.

"Not necessarily from Pakistan. North Korea's another worry," he replied.

During our trip we also stopped in Saudi Arabia. Gates' motorcade took us to see U.S. troops who train the royal family's bodyguards.

Because Gates is the only Bush holdover in the Obama cabinet, he has a unique view of both presidents. But he's extremely reluctant to share his insights.

"You have said that President Obama is more analytical in your view than President Bush," Couric remarked.

"That's something I wished I hadn't said," Gates said.

Asked why, Gates told Couric, "I really have been very disciplined about not drawing those kinds of comparisons."

"What three words would you use to describe President Bush?" Couric asked.

"Committed, questioning, eager to make a decision and move on," Gates said.

The words he used to describe President Obama were "deliberative, decisive and calm."

Deliberative, decisive and calm also describes Bob Gates. An Eagle Scout from Kansas, he has served eight presidents. But this Washington insider prefers being outside Washington, a city that he says is too full of egos.

"Washington is the only place in the world you can see a prominent person walking down Lovers' Lane holding his own hand," Gates joked.

The troops appreciated his Washington one-liners. "Washington is the place where those who travel the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic," Gates joked. "A place where so many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory."

So, 60 Minutes asked him why he agreed to be Secretary of Defense for President Bush and to stay on under President Obama.

"I do it because it's my duty," Gates said. "And I do it almost exclusively for these young men and women in uniform out here. And whatever I can do to help them, the rest is all fluff as far as I'm concerned."

He takes his commitment to the troops very personally.

"I know you went to Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran’s Day and you went to see who had died on the day you were sworn in," Couric remarked. "Why did you do that?"

"It just mattered to me. And I keep track of the number who have died and the number who have been wounded on my watch," he replied.

"Since the hour I was sworn in as Secretary of Defense, 1,327 American men and women in uniform have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan; 10,443 have been wounded. Each of them is in my thoughts and prayers every day," Gates said during a speech at Texas A&M.

Bob Gates takes his work home with him. He goes to bed at 11 and gets up at 5 a.m. And he avoids the Washington dinner circuit.

"But even if you don't like Washington, you like your job. Don't you?" Couric asked.

"The truth of the matter is being Secretary of War in a time of war is a very painful thing. And it's not a job anybody should like," Gates said. "How can you like a job when you go to Walter Reed and you know you sent those young men and women in harm's way? Every single person in combat today I sent there. And I never forget that for a second. So no, I don't enjoy my job."

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