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

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates February 27, 2009

Press Conference Call with Secretary Gates on President Obama's Troop Withdrawal Plan


OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. And welcome to the briefing by Secretary Gates. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later, we'll conduct a question-and-answer session. Instructions will be given at that time.

If you need assistance on today's conference, please press star and then zero. I will now turn the conference over to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Please go ahead.

JOSH EARNEST (deputy White House press secretary): Good afternoon, everybody. It's Josh Earnest. Thank you for jumping on the call. As Rob mentioned, we'll hear some brief remarks from Secretary Gates and then we'll open it up for questions. We're running tight on time so we'll move quickly. And we won't have any follow-up questions. So you'll just get one bite at the apple here.

But Secretary Gates, do you want to start us off?

SEC. GATES: Sure. I'll just start with a couple of comments.

First of all, the atmosphere here at Camp Lejeune, for the speech, was very warm, very enthusiastic. And I would also say that the welcome has been pretty extraordinary. The -- I think that the speech was very well received. There were a number of interruptions for applause, as you may have all seen.

On the substance, I obviously am very supportive of the option that the president has chosen, the decision that he has made, as is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Frankly this is -- both the chairman and I thought this should come out. And it was a very thorough, deliberative process where a lot of different options and a lot of different analysis were examined.

So with that, why don't I just go straight to questions?

MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Secretary.

Rob, why don't we go ahead and take some questions now?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Ladies and gentlemen, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star-1, star, then 1 on your touch-tone phone.

Okay. It will be just a moment as people queue up.

All right. The first question is from Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Please go ahead.

Q Secretary Gates, one of the things that surprised me in the speech was the -- flat-out saying all troops would be out by 2011, at the end of 2011. And I know he referenced the status of forces agreement, but he seemed quite definitive about that. Can you explain what he meant? And is that what he meant -- everybody's out by 2011, no matter what?

SEC. GATES: I think what he was referring to was that under the terms of the status of forces agreement, which is what we are operating under now, all U.S. forces must be out by the end of 2011. It will require a new agreement or it would require a new agreement, a new negotiation, almost certainly at Iraqi initiative, to provide for some presence beyond the end of 2011. So in the absence of that agreement, the absence of any negotiation for such an agreement, it is in keeping with the SOFA that -- to say definitively that we will be out at the end of 2011.

MR. EARNEST: All right, Rob. We'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Okay. The next question is from Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

Q Hello, sir. What difference did the three months make for you going from 16 months to 19 months? And what problems did you have with the 19 -- with the 16-month issue in the first place?

SEC. GATES: I think that the view of commanders in the field, particularly General Odierno, was that the real concern -- I'm going to interrupt myself -- the real concern has been how do we get through this year and all of the elections that will take place, beginning with the district and subdistrict elections early in the summer, the national elections at the end of the year, and have a period of adjustment after those national elections to make sure people are accepting the results and so on, and that we would have the maximum force presence during -- through the end of this year and early into next year.

And if you go along that timeline, even if there are some reductions during the course of this year, as there will be, it provides a -- the maximum available force for General Odierno during that sensitive period. And to try and get everybody out by May would have -- if you do that -- then really would present some significant logistical and security issues.

And so the extra two months or so was considered to be important in terms of just the logistics of how you do this.

Q Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir.

MR. EARNEST: Rob, we'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. The next question is from Andrew Gray of Reuters. Please go ahead.

Q Hi, Mr. Secretary. I just wanted to follow up on the first question, about the possibility of forces remaining after the end of 2011. You've said in the past that you foresee where that could happen and, in fact, could be useful to assist the Iraqi forces. Does that remain your view, if the Iraqis are interested in doing it, that it would also be in the interest of the United States to do it?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think we'll have to wait and see. I mean, it's a hypothetical. The Iraqis have not said anything about that at this point, so it remains to be seen whether they will take an initiative. I think that we should be -- my own view would be that we should be prepared to have some very modest-sized presence for training and helping them with their new equipment and providing, perhaps, intelligence support and so on beyond that.

But again, it's hypothetical, because such a -- there -- no such request has been made, and no indication that it will be, at this point.

OPERATOR: The --

MR. EARNEST: We'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And the next question is from Brian Montopoli of CBS News. Please go ahead.

Q Hi there, sir. I just wanted to get a little clarification on the difference between the combat and non-combat troops. Once the U.S. has pulled all combat troops out by August 31st of next year, the remaining troops will be non-combat. But they will presumably be combat-capable. Will there be a real significant difference in what troops are doing today and what the troops will be doing, you know, once they're officially designated non-combat?

SEC. GATES: Yes. All of the combat units will be out of Iraq by the end of August, and -- of 2010 -- and those that are left will have a combat capability. There will be, as the president said, targeted counterterrorism operations. There will be continued embeds with some of the Iraqi forces in a training capacity and so on.

So there will be the capability, but the units will be gone, and, more importantly, the mission will have changed. And so the notion of being engaged in combat in the way we have been up until now will be completely different.

MR. EARNEST: Rob, we'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And the next question is from Michael Martin of ABC News.

Please go ahead, excuse me, Rachel Martin.

Q Close.

OPERATOR: Sorry about that.

Q That's okay.

Secretary Gates, how flexible is this plan? Can you describe? The president has suggested often that he is partial to decision- making based on conditions on the ground.

In light of that, how fluid and nimble is this timetable projection? And if it is so nimble and fluid, why set a date at all?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that first of all, because he said that he would. And I think it is important to have a date, in terms of the conclusion of one mission and the beginning of another mission. And I think that the date provides a way of delineating when one mission in Iraq ends and a completely new and different one begins.

So I think that the date is important. It's important for our troops to know. It's important for the Iraqis to know. And so I think in terms of flexibility, I mean, the president has made clear that he's the commander in chief and retains the flexibility to make changes.

He clearly does not anticipate having to do that. He has balanced the risks of staying longer or coming out sooner and has come out in this direction. And I think it is the expectation of all of us involved, in that process, and above all him that we will meet these timelines.

Q Thank you.

MR. EARNEST: Rob, we'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And the next question is from James Meek of New York Daily News.

Please go ahead.

Q Hi, Secretary Gates. I'd like to ask you about the shift. President Obama said twice in his speech about refocusing on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We've got 17,000 troops going over. People are calling it a surge. But it seems like a buildup. Can you talk a little more about how you see that force, in terms of how long they're going to be -- you know, I guess, it will be 55,000 troops by summer in Afghanistan -- if you see that force getting larger in the coming years?

A surge tends to imply that these folks would -- you know, those numbers would come down in a couple of years, as they did in Iraq. Do you see that force remaining, a large force, for years to come? Do you see that force getting larger than 55,000?

How do you foresee that scenario in Afghanistan with the troops?

SEC. GATES: First, no one involved in the process has, to my knowledge, ever referred to the additional troops going into Iraq as -- I mean, into Afghanistan as a surge.

I think that the question about how long the additional forces will be there is a question that will be addressed. And whether additional forces would be sent is to be determined by the review that is going on right now and the decisions the president will make once that review is over. And I think that there won't be a real sense of the ultimate size of the force or the duration of its presence until he has made those decisions subsequent to the conclusion of the review.

Q Thank you. Thank you, sir.

MR. EARNEST: We'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And the next question is from Dan Sagalyn of the NewsHour. Please go ahead.

Q Thank you. Forgive me if I'm asking a question that already answered. I got disconnected.

I wanted to go back to the issue of the 35(,000) to 50,000 troops that are going to remain in Iraq after 18 months. You've said they're not going to be combat brigades, but are you going to take combat brigades that are in the United States and sort of rename them, re-designate them or are you going to create new units for this specific mission?

And if I could ask a separate question on Afghanistan, the Marines that are -- that Barack -- the president spoke to today, what will their mission be when they get to Afghanistan? Will it be population security, to mentor Afghan forces, to hunt the Taliban? If you could talk a little bit about specifically how they'll be used.

SEC. GATES: Well, with respect to the second question, I think it's probably all of the above. My understanding is they will be deployed principally into the south, and so it will be combating the Taliban; it will be population security.

And with respect to the 35(,000) to 50,000, you know, I think that that's a question probably better directed at General Odierno. But the clear idea is to consolidate U.S. forces into a few places where both civilians and military would be -- in other words, our folks would provide protection for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other civilians working in Iraq. And in terms of whether those are new units or whether they are re-missioned units that are already there I think remains to be seen.

But if they are forces that are already in Iraq that remain at that point, then they will be re-missioned to the new, much more limited mission that we've been talking about.

MR. EARNEST: All right, Rob. Ready for the next one.

OPERATOR: All right. Sure. And the next question is from Jason Austin (sp) of Fox News Radio. Please go ahead.

Q Hi, Secretary Gates. If the situation in Iraq were to take a turn for the worse, has the president mentioned discussing how many troops he'd be willing to send back to the country, in addition to the troops that are there as noncombat forces? And would that affect the troop levels being built up in Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: I think that's really pretty hypothetical. I think, you know, we are being -- we feel that we have -- the decisions the president has made have taken into account the risks that have been identified both by Ambassador Crocker and by General Odierno surrounding the elections. And one of the reasons that General Odierno wanted to maintain as many troops as he could just beyond the end of 2009 was in fact to be available for those kinds of contingencies.

I think that, you know, the truth of the matter is the Iraqis are going to have to step up to their responsibilities in this. And I think you saw with the performance of the Iraqi security forces in the provincial elections that they really did a superb job of maintaining security.

So I think the general view is that we will proceed on this -- on this time line and the approach the president has identified. And I don't think anybody's talking about sending more troops back in there if -- if there are problems.

MR. EARNEST: Thank you.

All right, Rob, we'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And the next question is from Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles daily -- excuse me, the Los Angeles Times. Please, go ahead.

Q Secretary Gates, I was wondering if there was -- you talked a little bit about the draw-down being sort of back-loaded to 2010, to make sure there's enough troops for the elections. I wonder if you could say, first, how many units we should expect to come out this year, just sort of roughly? And also, if you could talk a little bit about the movement of air assets, and if we should see -- expect a lot of surveillance and attack aircraft moving from Iraq to Afghanistan, and when we might see that.

SEC. GATES: I think that the two theaters are clearly separate. And frankly I don't know the answer to your question, about air assets and so on moving from one place to the other.

We are adding intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Afghanistan at this point. Up to this point, most of what we've been adding, in Afghanistan, are new assets.

They have not been assets transferred from Iraq. But as we draw down in Iraq, some of those enabling assets may move from one theater to another. We'll just have to wait and see.

In terms of the number of troops coming out, this year, I think, we'll just have to wait and see what General Odierno's specific recommendations are. But again the general approach is to try and -- there will be drawdowns this year of combat brigades. But in terms of how many and when, I think, we'll wait and get the specific recommendations from General Odierno.

MR. EARNEST. All right, Rob, we'll take the next one.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And the next question is from Anne Gearan of Associated Press.

Please go ahead.

Q Hi, Mr. Secretary. Anne Gearan at the AP.

Can you tell us what happened to the 23-month option? You said this came out where both you and the chairman thought it should. But at one time, there were some pretty strong voices arguing for a longer timeline. How did you settle on the 19 months, versus a slightly longer version?

SEC. GATES: (Off mike) -- General Odierno about his views, to General Petraeus about his views, to the Chiefs. And then obviously the chairman and I talked to him separately or independently.

So, but, and I think in this whole process, there was really, with each of the options that was being examined, 16 months, 19 months and 23 months, the, and all of those dated from the inauguration basically, was a weighing of the risks involved, the risks of progress, with respect to sustaining progress in Iraq, but also issues relating to stress on the force and the need for additional capability in Afghanistan.

All these things were taken into account. And I think that the -- I think that General Odierno and General Petraeus are comfortable with the option that the president has decided on, and both the chiefs and -- as well as the chairman and myself are very supportive of the -- of that option as well.

MR. EARNEST: All right, Rob. We have time for one more question.

OPERATOR: All right, sir. And that question is from Spencer Ackerman of -- I believe it's the Washington Independent. Please go ahead.

Q Thanks very much. Mr. Secretary, in his speech, President Obama talked about a training mission for Iraqi security forces that was conditioned on them being non-sectarian. Can you talk a bit about what mechanisms you'll have in place going forward to adjudicate whether or not certain units act in a sectarian fashion that might require the withdrawal of American support?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think that we have been very pleased by the progress in Iraq and the development of the Iraqi army as a non-sectarian force. And it has operated as a non-sectarian force, as illustrated by the offensive several months ago in Basra. And so I think we have a pretty good feel that this is -- that the Army is developing along non-sectarian lines, is operating on non- sectarian lines. And so that's -- that really is the premise from which we start.

We have close enough relationships with these units and so on, both as advisers and occasionally as embeds, that I think if we saw concerns like that, we would be aware of them and be able to bring them to -- that some unit was acting in a non -- or in a sectarian fashion, that we would be in a position to bring that to the attention of the Iraqi leadership.

MR. EARNEST: Secretary Gates, thank you very much for your time today, sir, and thanks to everybody for jumping on the call.

SEC. GATES: Thank you all.

OPERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Secretary Gates, and thank you, Deputy Press Secretary Earnest. And that does conclude our conference for today.

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