Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, says bringing peace and security to Afghanistan and Iraq represents a major challenge, but one that the US is committed to achieving.
In a wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera's Abderrahim Foukara, Gates spoke about: the US strategy for peace in Afghanistan facing a "war of necessity", the divide between two wars, fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan's role in the region, the "threat" of a nuclear Iran, maintaining allies in the Middle East, and US ties with Latin America.
|Strategy for peace in Afghanistan
There are rumblings of discontent with the war in Afghanistan among many Americans. Is that cause for concern to you personally as secretary of defence?
Americans know that our country has been at war for a number of years ever since we were attacked in 2001.
Obviously we've lost a lot of our young men and women in combat, not to mention the casualties in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11.
And so there is a sort of war awareness on the part of the American people.
By the same token, I believe that they and members of our congress vividly remember that it was from Afghanistan that the attack was launched.
And that the Taliban did not just provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, but actively co-operated with them, colluded with them and provided them with a worldwide base of operations.
And so I think the American people know that we have to work with the Afghan government and people so that they can establish control over their own territory and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for al-Qaeda in the future.
The reality is also that al-Qaeda has killed many more Muslims than it has Americans, Europeans and others.
So this is a challenge we all face and I am confident the American people will sustain their committment to help the Afghan people.
How much is the US in a pickle in Afghanistan?
I think the picture is mixed. It's clear that the Taliban have had success in reinfiltrating back into the country.
They have intimidated a lot of Afghans. And so we and our allies and a lot of the security forces, clearly have our work cut out for us.
The situation is serious, but General [Stanley] McChrystal and, I must say, the Afghan defence minister [Abdul Rahim] Wardak have told me that we can be successful.
In light of the US attack in Kunduz, which resulted in the killing of many civilian Afghans, how much of a real problem are civilian deaths in Afghanistan?
I think it's a real problem, and General McChrystal thinks it's a real problem too.
Clearly, we regret any loss of civilian life in Afghanistan, and I've addressed this issue while in Afghanistan as well in the United States. And one of the central themes of General McChrystal's new approach in Afghanistan is significant change in our tactical approach to try and minimise the number of innocent civilians that are killed.
So he has changed the rules in terms of air power. He has issued a directive that convoys obey Afghan traffic laws, and, in fact, that our troops take some additional risk to themselves to avoid innocent Afghan casualties.
Part of the challenge here is that the Taliban actively target innocent civilians and they also create circumstances where they mingle among innocent civilians.
And they are willing to put innocent civilians at risk.
But we are trying to figure out new tactics that minimise this.
But it is a challenge. Central to the success of the 42 nations that are trying to help the Afghan people and government at this point is that the Afghan people continue to believe that we are their friends, their partners and here to help them.
So civilian casualties are a problem for us and we are doing everything conceivable to try and avoid that.
I think that based on the latest polling that we have, nationwide, in Afghanistan, fewer than 10 per cent of the people support the Taliban.
The Taliban's approach is one principally of intimadation of villagers and others, and Afghans don't want to live under those circumstances. They don't want to live under the Taliban rule again.
While they may not actively support the US, neither do they support the Taliban.
The Afghan people have been at war for over 30 years. What they want is peace and security. Over time, we and all of the international community with us, along with the Afghan security forces, are in a position to try to bring that to them.
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|Facing a 'war of necessity'
Do you think saying the US is in Afghanistan to help the people holds water despite the fact that Afghans have traditionally been hostile to foreign forces in their country? In the past they rejected occupation, first by the British and later on by the Soviets, for example.
I think that the historical rejection of foreign powers has been because the Afghan people have come to see those powers, whether it's Britain or the Soviet Union or anyone else, as being there for their own imperial interests, rather than being there in the interests in the Afghan people.
We have no interest in a permanent presence in Afghanistan; no interest in bases in Afghanistan.
What our interest is, is in giving the Afghan people the capacity to protect its own people and to prevent Afghanistan from being a centre for violent extremists again. And then we'll leave.
And I think that's an important message from us to the Afghan people. We want to give them the capacity to protect their own security as well as the security of other nations around the world from threats emanating from Afghanistan, and then we'll be gone.
When Barack Obama said the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, did he say that because he knew it could be a winnable situation or because if he said otherwise and he talked about exiting Afghanistan, people would say President Obama does not have what it takes to look after the national security concerns of Americans?
I do not believe that President Obama would have made trhe committment he has made if he did not believe we could achieve our objectives in Afghanistan, which as I have described are giving them the capacity to secure their own territory and prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan.
If he didn't think, he could achieve those objectives, I don't believe he would have committed the additional forces he has, or made the statement in support of the strategy as he did a few weeks ago.
So you think the war in Afghanistan is winnable?
I don't like to speak in terms of winning or losing. I think we need to speak in terms of achieving our objectives.
This is not just about the United States, it's about the Afghan government and people, about dozens of nations and nongovernmental organisations that are in Afghanistan that all share the same objectives that I have just described.
Which is to bring peace and security to the Afghan people and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for violent extremists.
I think that those objectives are achievable and I think that's the way we ought to think about it.
There is a debate about the level of US troops in Afghanistan. Some people say to secure the gains the US makes in Afghanistan, the troop level needs to be increased. Others say the more you increase the level of troops, the more you increase the targets for the Taliban.
We are not yet beginning to think about significant troops in Afghanistan.
"I have had a number of reservations about the number of US troops [in Afghanistan]"
US Defence Secretary
The next step for us is to evaluate General McChrystal's assessment of the situation and the way he intends to implement the president's strategy going forward. And once we've done that, then we will look at the question of whether additional resources are needed to achieve those objectives.
I have been concerned about ... I have had a number of reservations about the number of US troops.
One of those is - as we were just talking - about whether our forces come to be seen by the Afghans at some point as occupiers rather than partners.
General McChrystal's point, which I think has great validity, is: it's really how those forces are used and how they interact with the Afghan people that determines how they are seen by the Afghans.
And I think that the approach that he has taken, in terms of partnering with the Afghans, and interacting with the Afghan people, and supporting them, mitigates the concerns that I had.
There are issues on both sides of [the argument] and, frankly, I haven't made up my own mind at this point, in terms of whether more forces are needed.
So, as far as you are concerned, thinking about withdrawing the US militarily from Afghanistan, even thinking about it, is out of the question?
That's my view.
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This takes me back to the original point you made about 9/11. President Bush made the original decision to go to war in Afghanistan, which he did, and then subsequently made the decision to go to war in Iraq, opening himself to criticism that he diverted crucial attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. And yet, now we have President Obama saying that it is a war of necessity. A lot of people would argue it was a war of necessity then, but having moved away from it, then come back to it again, it's become a war of choice.
|The divide between two wars
It is a matter of first of all, this gets very tied up into US politics and the controversies of the war in Iraq and so on. I think that success in achieiving our objectives in Afghanistan has been a consistent theme since 2002, for both the Bush administration and the Obama administration.
I think President Obama would say as you suggested that our attention was diverted by Iraq and now it is important to focus, again, on the situation in Afghanistan, and the truth is the situation in Afghanistan has changed, and it really began to change in 2005 and 2006.
Frankly, when agreements were reached on the Pakistani side of the border, it essentially relieved the pressure from the Pakistan side, on the Taliban who were then in Pakistan.
And so we have seen a steady increase in violence that really began late in 2005 and early 2006, and the Taliban have gotten better and better over that time.
You also now have alliances of convenience between the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - his group - and al-Qaeda. So it is now perhaps a more complex situation than it was in 2002.
But in terms of the determination to deal with this problem and partner with the Afghans in achieving these objectives, the president is absolutely firm.
When you say the situation now is much more complex, to what extent is that synonymous with saying we, US politicians, missed the bandwagon?
The way I would phrase it, and the way we have phrased, it is that we did not provide the resources in Afghanistan early enough to stem this change in the situation in 2005 and 2006.
And we have to speak frankly: because of the troop commitments in Iraq, we didn't have the resources to move in reinforcements if you will as the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate.
When I first arrived in this job, I extended one brigade in Afghanistan in January 2007 and added another brigade later in spring 2007 but that was really about all the resources that we had at that time.
As we have drawn down in Iraq, more capability has become available.
I would like to ask you about the 'shenanigans' with the news agency Associated Press over the publication of the picture of the dead US marine. Doesn't that put you in a difficult position, leaving you open to the accusation of infringing or violating freedom of expression?
I have, in a letter that I sent to the head of the Associated Press, I said this is not a matter of law, this is not a matter of policy, this is not a constitutional issue, this is a question of judgement, of common decency, and out of respect for the family.
What I asked was, that they defer to the wishes of the family that these pictures of their maimed and stricken child not be provided the newspaper all over the United States. They chose to go ahead and do it anyway.
And you are not concerned that this may have been interpreted as an infringement on the freedom of press?
No I don't think. There is no question, no issue of infringement of the freedom of the press whatsoever. I was asking them, I didn't pressure them, I didn't threaten them.
All I did was ask the. In fact, the words that I used with the head of the Associated Press was that "I beg you to defer to the wishes of the father of this marine".
That's all I asked. That's not an infringement of the freedom of the press. That's an appeal to common decency.
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|Pakistan's role in the region
[Washington Post columnist] George Will recently wrote about Pakistan, saying that it is the country that really matters. What do you make of that, given that the implications are that Afghanistan does not really matter, that the US should get out of Afghanistan?
Pakistan is very important. It is important intrinsically to the United States.
We have been a friend of Pakistan's for a long time and an ally of Pakistan's. We've had a very close relationship and we look forward to building that relationship, going forward completely independent of Afghanistan.
I think one of the new aspects of the president's strategy with respect to Afghanistan is the recognition that the problem we face there, we and the Afghans, is a regional problem.
And as we've seen in recent months, it is a problem that the Pakistani government faces and so I think Pakistan clearly is important.
It is important in its own right to the United States, as a friend and ally, but it is also important in terms of violent extremists that cross back and forth across that border and put both the government of Afghanistan and the government of Pakistan at risk.
Given the difficulties that successive Pakistani civilian governments have had, how dependable, from a US point of view, do you think the current government in Pakistan is, in terms of being able to deal not only with the volatility of Pakistan but also the regional volatility, Afghanistan, India and so forth?
I think if you look back, 15 or 16 months, the Pakistani government has performed admirably.
No one I think would have predicted the political consensus that has emerged in Pakistan in terms of the effort to take on these violent extremists in the North West Frontier Province, in the Fata [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and in that area.
I think people would not have predicted the success of the Pakistani army. I think people would not have predicted the success in the Pakistani government's effective dealing with internally displaced persons as a result of a military operation and how many of them have returned to Swat and how effective the Pakistani government has been in this respect.
So all of that is simply to say I believe that the Pakistani government, both the civilian side and the military side, have performed better than almost anyone's expectations in the region, or in this country, or elsewhere, and we are very impressed by that and we are prepared to be helpful, to help the Pakistanis in any way we can.
Given the serious misgivings that the United States had in the past about the role of Pakistani intelligence, in terms of dealing with the Taliban, there were accusations to the Pakistani intelligence at that time that they were actually lending a hand of support to the Taliban. Are you 100 per cent satisfied now that that has stopped and that you, the US, the Pakistani military and the Pakistani civilian government are all in the same trench, working for the same goal?
First of all, I believe we are in the same trench, working for the same goal.
I think you have to go back a little bit in history. I was very much involved in the American effort 20, 25 years ago in co-operation with Pakistan to support the muhajidin in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Soviet Union.
One of the vehicles that we used in that effort was the connection between the Pakistani intelligence and various muhajidin groups within Afghanistan.
So these relationships with groups in Afghanistan and with Pakistanis go back a long way and at that time we were very productive and very useful.
My own view is that the connections were maintained largely as a hedge because the Pakistanis are very concerned about the stability of their border area and about the stability of Afghanistan and they weren't sure whether we would continue our efforts in Afghanistan.
So I believe we're on the same page, I believe we're working for the same goals. I have a lot of confidence in the Pakistanis.
Basically the implication of what you're saying is that the United States will not do again what it did after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which is to cut loose and leave the regional players to fend for themselves, undermining the credibility of the US in that part of Asia?
I think that's absolutely right. And I have to say I was in the American government at the time we did that and it was a serious strategic mistake.
As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan and we did not cultivate our relationship with the Pakistanis properly. And so I think we gave rise to doubts in the region about whether we are prepared to stay there and be their partner on a continuous basis, and I believe we've learned our lesson and that both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.
In terms of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, you are absolutely categorically sure that there is no risk that they may fall into the wrong hands given the pressures that the Taliban in Afghanistan are exerting not just on the Pakistanis but also on the United States in Pakistan?
I'm quite comfortable that the security arrangements for the Pakistani nuclear capabilities are sufficient and adequate.
What sort of guarantees do you have to cover that?
I would say it's based both on our own understanding of the security arrangements that the Pakistanis have for their weapons and their capabilities, their laboratories and so on. But also the insurances we have been given by the Pakistanis.
Were you baffled by President Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke, when he was asked how he would measure progress and he said 'we will know it when we see it'?
I probably would have answered the question differently.
How would you have answered it?
I would have answered it: I believe that success or progress will be as when we see the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police, assuming a greater and greater role in security operations protecting Afghanistan and the Afghan people, so that we can recede, first into an advisory role and then leave altogether.
So in some way, it's somehow comparable to the situation in Iraq where our role has become less and less prominent, where the Iraqis have taken a more and more prominent role protecting their own security, and I think that will be one way we will be able to measure success in Afghanistan as we see the Afghan security forces taking a more and more prominent and leading role in protecting their own security.
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|Fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq
In the latest press conference that you gave, together with Admiral Mike Mullen, you talked about the analogies people often make between Afghanistan and Iraq. You said that the fundamental difference is that in Iraq there has been a strong central government but in Afghanistan, there has never been a strong central government. And in terms of fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, that's obviously making your work a lot more difficult. How confident are you that the Iraqi central government, led by Nuri al-Maliki, at the present time, can hold the country together after you leave?
I think we have real confidence that they can do that and I think the best evidence that a sense of Iraqi nationalism has returned is that al-Qaeda has made very strong efforts in recent weeks and months to try and provoke a renewal of the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq through suicide bombers, and what has been interesting and encouraging is that they have failed in that effort.
The Shia understand this is al-Qaeda trying to provoke that kind of a conflict and they're having none (...) so there has not been any renewal of sectarian violence.
|Gates says the US has confidence in the Iraqi forces' ability to keep the country secure [AFP]
Our generals have very high regard of the Iraqi army and, increasingly, Iraqi police, and I think we would not have felt comfortable agreeing to the arrangements we have to pull out of Iraqi cities, and to put a deadline on the withdrawal of American combat troops, if we didn't have confidence in the Iraqis. I think [commander of US forces in Iraq] General [Ray] Odierno would say they have developed better and faster than he would have anticipated.
So we are very encouraged by the developments in Iraq with respect to the security situation despite these suicide bombings that we think are mostly the efforts of al-Qaeda.
A lot of the people in the region will look at Iraq post-2003, now that you say al-Qaeda has been trying to stoke up sectarian strife in Iraq. A lot of people will look at 2003, and at what the United States did post 2003, and say: Actually that was the engine of sectarian strife in Iraq in the first place.
Well, I wasn't in government at the time and I was no expert on Iraq before I came into government. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert now either but ...
But would you say the US getting out of Iraq would necessarily put an end to sectarian strife or would it actually increase the prospects of sectarian strife?
I think that what we have already seen in Iraq, despite the provocations by al-Qaeda, the Iraqis are ready to move beyond the violence of the last several years and to grove their economy and to have peace.
I think that's why you have not seen renewed sectarian violence and that's why we are comfortable with the arrangements in which we have withdrawn from cities and in which we will withdraw all our combat troops by the end of August next year.
We are very comfortable with that, and that means we do not believe there will be a renewal of the sectarian violence with our departure.
My understanding is that President Obama has pledged that the US will not build any permanent military bases in Iraq after leaving. Does that pledge still stand?
Now how do you define permanent? Because bases in Germany have been there for about 60 years now. In Korea for a similar period of time. How do you define permanent and how do you define temporary?
Temporary is based on the fact that another part of this agreement is that all US forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. That is the agreement that we have with the Iraqi government: all US forces. No bases, no forces.
Unless the Iraqis ask you to stay?
Unless there is some new agreement, or some new negotiation which would clearly be on Iraqi terms.
But we will not have any permanent bases in Iraq. We have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq and we are now planning on withdrawing all American military forces by the end of 2011.
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|The 'threat' of a nuclear Iran
A lot of people, including some of your closest allies in the Gulf, think that at the end of the day, the real winner after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is Iran, and, you listen to US politicians here in DC, you have a real problem with Iran.
I think Iran has been a challenge for the United States, and for the international community for that matter, for 30 years. I think that a strong and democratic Iraq, particularly one with a multi-sectarian government, becomes a barrier to Iranian influence and not a bridge for it.
So I think, in the short term, perhaps Iran's position was strengthened somewhat but I think if you look to the longer term, and the role that Iraq can play in the region going forward, I think that Iran's position may well be diminished.
But many people feel that you took out one fundamental bastion against Iranian influence in the region and that is the regime of Saddam Hussein. You changed the political configuration in the country, bringing a Shia government to power. Everybody knows there are Iraqi politicians in the Iraqi government who are very close to Iran or have some sort of sensibility that makes them close to the government of Iran. How is that going to be a bastion against Iranian influence even in the long term?
Well, I think first of all we've seen over the past years a genuine assertion of Iraqi nationalism from Prime Minister Maliki and from other leaders inside Iraq.
I have no doubt that at the end of the day, the leaders in Iraq are first and foremost Iraqis. After all none of them have forgotten the eight years of war that they fought with Saddam Hussein and they haven't forgotten that Saddam Hussein started that war.
So I think that, by all accounts that we can see and the actions we have seen the government of Iraq take, including for example Prime Minister Maliki's offensive in the Basra area over a year ago, made clear they are most concerned with maintaining Iraqi sovereignty.
If the United States has learned anything in the last year as we have negotiated the framework agreement with the Iraqis it is that the Iraqis are very sensitive about their sovereignty and, as with almost any other country, are not going to tolerate other countries trying to interfere in their internal affairs.
Let's assume for a minute that in the short term, or medium term even, that the Iranians have strengthened their hand in Iraq, and that's going to change in the long term. Hasn't Iran been able to increase its influence in neighbouring Iraq, and therefore strengthened its hand in dealing with the West over its nuclear programmme?
No, I don't agree with that. I think that the situation in Iraq has little bearing on Iran and its nuclear programme.
Can you, for example in the case the Israelis resort to military action, as they seem to be itching to do, against Iranian nuclear facilities, can you guarantee that Iranians will not use Iraq to retaliate against the Unites States for example?
Well, I'm not going to address hypothetical situations. Our view is that there is still an opportunity for diplomacy and political and economic pressures to bring about a change of policy in Iran, so getting into hypotheticals about military reaction, I think doesn't take us very far.
And I'm confident that we still have some opportunities in that area.
Hypotheticals aside, if you say you still have some time for manoeuvring in that area, to what extent are you reading from the same hymn sheet as the Israelis?
Every country looks at a given situation through the lens of its own security. Our view, and the view that we have shared I might say strongly with all our friends and allies in the region as well as elsewhere, is that the way to deal with the Iranian nuclear programme at this point is through diplomatic and economic efforts.
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|Maintaining allies in the Middle East
The issue of Iran and Israel is obviously rattling a lot of countries in the region, the Israelis, the Gulf states, who are thinking about buying more and more weapons, and indeed there has been some sales authorised by the United States. Some estimates put the weapons packages to the Gulf states and Israel at about $100bn. How much substance is there to that?
That figure sounds very high to me. But I think there's a central question or a central point here to be made and it has to do both with our friends and allies in the region, our Arab allies, as well as the Iranian nuclear programme, and that is one of the pathways, to get the Iranians to change their approach on the nuclear issue, is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardise their security, not enhance it.
So the more that our Arab friends and allies can straighten their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their co-operation, both with each other and with us, I think sends the signal to the Iranians that this path they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.
So that's one of the reasons why I think our relationship with these countries and our security co-operation with them is so important.
I mentioned $100bn and you said that doesn't sound right to you. What does sound right to you as a figure?
I honestly don't know.
But there are a lot of weapons being asked for by the countries in the region?
We have a very broad foreign military sales programme and obviously with most of our friends and allies out there, but the arrangements that are being negotiated right now, I just honestly don't know the accumulated total.
You're asking the Iranians to give up their intentions to build nuclear weapons. They are saying they're not building nuclear weapons. On the other hand, a lot of people in the region feel that you know that the Israelis do have nuclear weapons and they say why doesn't the West start with Israel, which is known to possess nuclear weapons rather than with the Iranians, who are suspected of having them. What do you say to that argument?
First of all, it's the Iranian leadership that has said it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Those threats have not been made in the other direction. It is the Iranian government that is in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions with respect to these programmes, so focus needs to be on the country that is feuding the will of the international community and the United Nations.
But you decided that the rhetoric of the Iranians reflects the reality of what's going on in Iran in terms of nuclear weapons. Isn't that a leap of faith?
Well, we obviously have information in terms of what the Iranians are doing. We also have what the Iranians themselves have said, so we only are taking them at their word.
So you know for sure that they are working on a nuclear bomb?
I would not go that far but clearly they have elements of their nuclear programme that are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
We want them to adhere to these resolutions and we are willing to acknowledge the right of the Iranian government and the Iranian people to have a peaceful nuclear programme if it is intended for the production of electric power so on. What is central, then, is trying to persuade the Iranians to agree to that and then to verification procedures under the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].
That gives us confidence that it is indeed a peaceful nuclear programme and not a weaponisation programme.
The truth of the matter is that, if Iran proceeds with a nuclear weapons programme it may well spark and arms race, a real arms race, and potentially a nuclear arms race in the entire region.
So it is in the interest of all countries for Iran to agree to arrangements that allow a peaceful nuclear programme and give the international community confidence that's all they're doing.
But the Obama administration seems to have a difficult circle to square because on one hand they're saying that they want improved relations with the Muslim world. On the other hand, any pressure on Iran, is seen by people in the Muslim world as an indication the US is not genuine in wanting to improve those relations because many Muslims say Israel has nuclear weapons, and the US is not doing anything about it.
The focus is on which country is in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. The pressure on Iran is simply to be a good member of the international community.
The neighbours around Iran, our Arab friends and allies, are concerned about what is going on in Iran, and not just the governments.
So the question is how does Iran become a member in good standing of the international community. That's in the interest of everybody.
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|US ties with Latin America
A last issue, relations between the US and Latin America: There have been a lot of angry noises coming out of Latin America over the issue of military bases in Colombia. How much of a problem is the issue of bases in Colombia to the United States and its relations with Latin America?
I think that's an issue that has been exploited by certain governments down there such as the Venezuelan government.
I think for most of the continent it's not a problem. These are not American bases. This is a co-operative arrangement, negotiated with the government of Colombia, for counter-narcotic purposes.
That's all it is and nothing more, no permanent US base, no US base at all, but use of Colombian facilities in co-operation with the Colombians.
But doesn't it concern you that even President Lula [da Silva] in Brazil, who is not really known for being over-vocal in his criticism of the United States, has actually been quite vocal recently in terms of criticising what is described by President [Hugo] Chavez of Venezuela, for example, as belligerent intentions on the part of the United States in Latin America?
Well, they are clearly not belligerent intentions on part of the United States and I believe that when the other governments that may be concerned in South America fully understand the nature of the co-operation agreement with the Colombians, they will understand that this is a very limited operation tightly focused on counter-narcotics.
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Source: Al Jazeera