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Robert Gates interview
US secretary of defence talks about Iran's nuclear programme and economic sanctions with David Frost.
Last Modified: 10 Jun 2010 17:44 GMT

 

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Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, told Al Jazeera's David Frost that a new round of economic sanctions is meant to spur nuclear talks with Iran; that the US is committed to beginning a drawdown of its troops in Afghanistan in July 2011; and that the US wants an investigation of Israel's deadly flotilla raid that is "credible in the international arena."

He also offered his thoughts on recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and the scheduled withdrawal of tens of thousands of US troops from Iraq.

A full transcript of Gates' remarks is below. You can also click on an excerpt to jump to that section of the transcript.

Frost: Tell me as you look at the world today as compared with when you joined the CIA in 1966, is the world today as you see it more dangerous than in the Cold War or is it safer?

Gates: I actually think it is more dangerous. During the Cold War the threat was always there of a nuclear cataclysm but except for two or three periods during the decades of the Cold War that threat was actually quite remote.

Both sides had rational governments, made rational decisions and so the day to day threat while potentially cataclysmic was at the same time remote. The problem now is two-fold it seems to me.

The first is with respect to the use of a weapon of mass destruction - the nuclear weapon. The likelihood of a catastrophic attack or a cataclysmic attack remains remote but the likelihood of a small scale attack by a terrorist or a rogue state is significantly greater than it was at any time during the Cold War.

Secondly, we have more and more failed and failing states that are a source of terrorism and instability, and also rogue states, that seem to be impervious to external pressure.

In terms of trying to get them to change their policies, whether it is Iran, North Korea, Burma or Myanmar, the number of trouble makers around the world seems to grow with each passing day.

The other problem I would say is that challenges to security and crises, used to come up, be dealt with and go away. Nothing ever goes away anymore. It’s just one thing after another.

Do you mean things? Things seem to have no ending, like Afghanistan.

Yes, the leaders face this growing number of challenges abroad and they are never able to just cross something off the list.

You said, no doubt with Iran in mind: "If you are going to be a proliferator, all options are there on the table. How we deal with you, if you have made the decision to be a proliferator."

That is correct and it is under the new Nuclear Posture Review, that the president approved and we issued a couple of months ago, that if you are not a party to the non-proliferation treaty and if you insist on flouting the will of the international community then there are basically no strictures, except our own judgment, in terms of what we might be willing to do to deal with the problem.

It looks pretty certain that a fourth set of sanctions against Iran will probably go through today. How will that change things do you think? Why will it be more effective than the other three?

Well, first of all, I think the Iranians hate being isolated.

They hate having the permanent five members of the Security Council speak as one in disapproval of what they are doing.

And the importance of the resolution in many respects is manifested by the efforts that the Iranians have done to try and prevent it from being passed.

But the other aspect of fthe resolution is that it also provides a legal platform for individual countries to then take more far-reaching steps individually, and this is potentially quite important.

Well, the fascinating thing that came out from the statements today, is that they can take their own tougher measures when this is passed.  

Well, a lot of countries, including the EU, like to have that legal umbrella provided by the security council.

So that means the actions can grow. What does it mean in terms of the next move? I suppose the next move will be for these countries to take their own tougher measures. What could a tougher measure be towards Iran?

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have a number of front companies – Iranian shipping lines, Iranian imports. There are a variety of areas that can be targeted, preventing foreign companies from going in to help them maintain or grow their oil or gas export capability or any other business enterprises.

The key here is actually to get the Iranians back to the table and to arrive at an agreement where they forego having nuclear weapons as not being in their own interests. That is really the objective that we are seeking here.

It is essential, at the end of the day for the Iranians to decide that having a nuclear weapon is not in their interest and that the consequences of proliferation, the risk of conflict - that all of these things are real dangers to Iran itself.

The purpose of these economic pressures is simply to try and bring enough pressure to bare along with the diplomatic opening at the other side.

All the countries, including the US, are prepared to accept an Iranian civil nuclear programme that is adequately monitored by the IAEA. So this is really a process to get these guys to understand what their best interest is.

If you are looking ahead, would you expect good news of non-proliferation to come first from Iran or North Korea?

Well that is a tough question. If there is a difference in time I suspect it will be a nano-second.

A nanosecond. Well, in terms of the subject you were mentioning early on, in terms of issues and disputes and so on, a continuum that goes on and doesn’t have a finite end, we mentioned Afghanistan.

That is absolutely, looking at the subject of Afghanistan, that is absolutely the nightmare really in a way, that it could go on and on and on.

This is where I think the president’s decision to say we will begin a process of transitioning in July 2011 was actually very important.

There was a lot of controversy about it. But it really sends the message to the Afghans and to the Afghan government in particular, that they have to take ownership of the war in their own country that this is their war and we are helping them.

The president was careful not to put any time limits on how long that transition will take, what the pace of drawdowns might be and I think we have also signalled, most of the coalition countries have signalled, that we are prepared to be in Afghanistan for a very long time - in terms of helping them with development and trying to improve the quality of life in their country.

One of the concerns is that there may be those in Afghanistan who would like to have American, British and other forces in their force for far into the future as long as anybody can see, because it is a lot easier for us to defend them than for them to defend themselves. 

So that’s why I think this marking a transition period is not just a signal to our own publics that this is not an open-ended commitment forever, but also a signal to the Afghans that it is their fight and they need to understand that they need to take ownership.

Because that area of how you balance what you reveal to the enemy as well as what you reveal to your colleagues in America or in Britain, is absolutely key, isn’t it? 

As many came out with statements when Washington announced that this particular withdrawal was going to happen by July next year.

On the one hand that was presumably to reassure the Democratic doubters in Washington, but it did seem to give an unnecessary hint about what was coming next – or what wasn’t coming next - in terms of the actual war itself.

I obviously got this question in a number of hearings and I said: "So what are the Taliban going to do? Just go into hiding for a year, year and a half?"

That would be welcome. Give us the leg up for a year and a half. I don’t see them backing off in terms of the fight. The other aspect of this is, the president didn’t say anything about how long that transition would take, how long it would take to draw down our forces - after all, we will have 150,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan when this plus-up is completed. This is a significant force and if you add to it the Afghan forces, it is a substantial force to take on the Taliban.

The thing to remember about the Taliban is that they are hated inside Afghanistan. All the polling, all of the evidence we have suggest that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10% of Afghans want to see the Taliban come back. It is their ability to intimidate, to assassinate and to wreak havoc on civil programmes that gives them the influence and the sway that they have.

So these added forces, particularly over a period of a year and a half, two years, three years, are going to provide the security in a lot of these places that allow the Afghans themselves to fight back.

Mind you, it is also presumably true to say that surveys that show how much Afghans want the coalition to be there or active and so on, the figures that we would get there for America or Britain, wouldn’t be great either.

I think the numbers that we have seen, shows that there is about an even split in Afghanistan and that most Afghans do believe that we are there to help them. Every time we have a civilian casualty, every time there’s an issue with respect to our forces, that doesn’t help us.

Some of the changes General McChrystal tried to put into place make sure that the Afghan people continue to see that we are on their side. We are not there as an occupier but rather as somebody there to help them.

That’s vital dialogue, isn’t it? And Kandahar obviously is in people’s thoughts in the attack that is going to be involved in Kandahar. Someone wrote here that the Kandahar operation is as important as the battle for Baghdad in Iraq. Do you agree with that or is it a bit of an overstatement?

I think that is something of an overstatement. It is important, but Baghdad was the nation’s capital and while Kandahar is a hugely important city in Afghanistan, one thing to remember about Kandahar is that the Taliban does not control or govern it.

They are a security challenge but the government has a presence in Kandahar. There are various police forces in Kandahar. The day to day life goes on in Kandahar. It is not like a place like Marjah where the Taliban actually ran it for 2 years and occupied it. So it is more of a political, economic, security challenge than it is just a security challenge. And this is what General McChrystal was getting at when he was saying there is not going to be a D-day in Kandahar. There is not going to be a set-piece battle.

This is about getting governance right, enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan leadership and governance in Kandahar, particularly in areas around Kandahar, and enhancing the security situation. It is very much a whole of government kind of effort and the shaping exercises with the Afghan leaders, the elders and so on has already been going on for several weeks.

In terms of looking ahead, can you foresee the day when the government of Afghanistan has three or four quite senior former members of the Taliban in the government?

I think that all of us believe that some kind of a political settlement or outcome is the way this will, this conflict will finally come to an end. The key is for us, is that reconciliation takes place on the terms posited by the Afghan government.

The Taliban has to disavow any kind of relationship with Al Qaeda. They have to put down their weapons and stop resisting government forces and they have to behave under the terms of the Afghan constitution and if there are those that are willing to do that then they could be a part of a government.

I said a year or more ago that the Taliban had become a part of the political fabric of Afghanistan and we must not try and establish for ourselves the goal of eliminating every last member of the Taliban. That is an impossible goal for us.

So the question is to turn the momentum against them, deny them control and degrade their capabilities to the point where the Afghans can handle it.

How many fighting members of the Taliban would you assume are in Afghanistan?

It is like counting shadows but most of our estimates range between 10,000 and 20,000, but it is a very imprecise number.

When you meet, as you are about to do, with your Nato colleagues, do you feel that the countries of Nato are making as much of a contribution to the war in Afghanistan as you would like?

Well, it would never be as much as I would like.  But I will say that I think that, the members of the alliance have really stepped up their game in the last couple of years. 

When I first came to this job, three-and-a-half years ago, there were only about 12,000 [troops from] Nato and partner nations there. There are now almost 50,000, so this has been a huge increase. There has been an increase of almost 10,000 just in the last few months since the president announced his strategy going forward in December. 

So I think the alliance really has stepped up. We do still have a shortfall in trainers and my view is that perhaps those countries that are not making a significant contribution in terms of combat troops should fill the gap with respect to trainers.

You said once that in fact that the reconciliation at senior levels is unlikely with the Taliban until the Taliban realise that they’re not going to win.  That will be the cause of a possible change in the Taliban position.

I think the point of inflection comes when they see the momentum has shifted and that the tide has turned against them.  This won’t wait until there’s a defeat, a complete defeat, I think that the politics will come to bear at some point, my hope is over the course of the next year, 18 months.

That’s an excitingly short period.

Well we’ll hope.

Hope is obviously a vital factor.

Hope is the key word.

As you look at the other problems and challenges in the world, I mean where does North Korea feature in your lexicon?

Well, I think North Korea is a real challenge, but I would say it is a challenge in two respects. 

In terms of their military capabilities, they are essentially a regional challenge, and their unpredictability is a concern frankly for both China and South Korea - as well as ourselves and others in the region. 

And they have a bad habit, particularly in the last year or two of actually surprising the Chinese:  their nuclear tests, their missile launches, the sinking of this South Korean ship. 

But it is this unpredictability and their willingness to resort to provocative behaviour, the uncertainties introduced by a succession, and whether some of this provocation is an attempt by a 26 year old son of Kim Jong Il to try and sort of prove his chops to the North Korean military that he’s tough enough to be the successor, that all adds.

The other concern though about North Korea that is not regional is their contribution to proliferation and not just of nuclear materials but also of missile technology and basically they’re willing to sell anything they have and so they are a concern in that respect as well.

And so that’s absolutely key. What about the situation today with Israel and following of course the downing of the boat and so on.  Is that situation capable of resolution?  The argument for getting rid of the blockade on Gaza gets more and more eloquent around the world.  Can you see an improvement in the situation there between the two sides?

Well, I mean, clearly it is the goal of the President and certainly the Secretary of State and the rest of us to try and push the Middle East peace process forward.  

What has been interesting through all this has been the relative calm on the West Bank; so you do see a difference between the West Bank and Gaza, the difference between the leadership of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the more radical or the radical leadership of Hamas in Gaza. 

I think that division of the Palestinians complicates the peace process, but it doesn’t make it impossible, and the truth is if we could show progress on the West Bank and in that part of the process it may create pressures to help resolve the Gaza problem.

Or vice versa?  Obviously some people say you have to start by getting rid of the blockade.  Here’s the British and French foreign ministers saying,  William Hague and Bernard Kouchner and so on, both calling for an international investigation into the raid, that was the raid we were talking about, why won’t the US support an international investigation and the blockade must go?

More and more people are saying that now.  So the blockade could be, maybe should be I don’t know, the starting point, you’re saying it could come second?

Well... all I’m all saying is that part of the problem that the Israelis have had is that, that Hamas has used humanitarian donations in the past, principally to strengthen their military capabilities in Gaza. 

Construction materials haven’t gone for housing, they’ve gone for bunkers.  And of course thousands of rockets have been launched out of Gaza into Israel, and Hamas is acquiring rockets of ever increasing range.  So the Israelis have a real security problem with Gaza and my guess is that’s the reason for the blockade in the first place. 

Now I think with respect to an investigation, I haven’t been home for a while so I’m not exactly sure what the US position is, but it seems to me that whatever investigation takes place, however it’s structured, has to have credibility in the international arena. 

And in a way perhaps, the way the South Koreans handled the investigation into the Cheonan sinking is an example - where they ran the investigation but they had representatives of other countries, Sweden and the US and others, participate in it in a way that gave it credibility to a broad international community. 

I don’t know whether that’s the right answer here or not.

But a lot of people obviously in this particular situation whereas Israel was a stable force at one stage but now it’s actually promulgating instability in the area.

There was this quote in the Guardian editorial yesterday or the day before: "Now that Israel has picked a fight with a key Muslim ally, Turkey, Israel’s refusal to accept an international inquiry will add weight to the view that it has become a strategic liability to the interests of the country that guarantees its survival.  Mr Netanyahu would be foolish to assume that Mr Obama is not drawing the same conclusion".

Well, I think that there have been a number of ups and downs in the US-Israeli relationship over the decades, and I think that the relationship between the two countries remains strong. But that doesn’t negate the reality that the president wants to move forward on this peace process. And the president wants... [he] is obviously concerned about Israel’s security, but figuring out how to balance the politics and the security is something where we clearly will have an independent view.

David Cameron, Tony Blair, Ban Ki Moon, all making … there is a growing pressure on that part of the world now and on Israel’s position, that seems to grow with the days.

I think that, that’s clear.

What, if you were looking ahead, what are your ambitions for the next few years.  You said you’ll go on until Christmas at least, and then you’ll hopefully say you’ll stay on for another year.

Well we’ll see, at some point my wife has a vote in this.  (laughs)  This was originally for two years and I’ve retired two or three times and failed every time so we’ll see.

But you said when you took the job you said it’s an awful job and I’m only doing it because I love my country and so on.  Is it an awful job?

Yes. And I would say so, in this context: How could one say one enjoys a job when every day you sign papers sending young men and women in harm’s way?

You sign condolence letters to their parents, or their husbands or wives, or their children, or you go to the hospitals and visit the wounded or you go to Arlington to the cemetery, to the funerals. 

How anybody could say a job, where that’s an important component of the job, is enjoyable? [It] is unthinkable to me.

And you’ve said I believe that the outcome of these conflicts must shape our world for decades to come, it’s that serious, it’s that important, it’s that much at stake right now Mr Secretary?

I think that, let’s take the case of Iraq.

Historians will debate whether going into Iraq in the first place was the right or wrong decision, but when I came to this job at the end of 2006, the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq, I think along the lines you just quoted, would have had impact for decades to come. 

A failure in Afghanistan, for Nato, I think will have consequences for a long time to come. Not just for the United States but for the alliance itself having made this commitment, and so I think these conflicts, however one might agree or disagree how they started, the outcome matters a great deal.

And it’s going to matter for a long long time.

I think so, and the good news is things in Iraq look like they’re headed in a very positive direction.

And in fact, in fact David Petraeus two years ago said that the progress in Iraq was very welcome obviously but still fragile..  Would you say Iraq has moved out of the fragile category by now?

I actually do, I do.  And we are on track to draw down to our 50 thousand troops, in an advisory and assist capacity by the end of August and then withdraw all of our troops by the end of 2011.

General Odierno is comfortable with that, has just reaffirmed that he’s on track to do that.  We anticipated that the government formation process would take months.  What is important is that despite efforts by Al Qaeda to provoke a renewal of sectarian violence through terrorism, it hasn’t had that, it hasn’t been successful, the Iraqi security forces - with us - have been very successful in going after Al Qaeda in Iraq. And you see them proceeding in their constitution, in terms of how to form a government. [The] certification of the election just this last week is a very important step forward, clearly a lot of credibility to the election.

I remember [Gen Ray Odierno, the commander of US forces in Iraq] saying before the election if we got a 50 percent turnout that would be really good, if we had a 55 percent turnout it would be outstanding.  62 percent of the Iraqis voted.  So I think, you know, for a lot of pain and a lot of cost, we may end up with a largely democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East.

Well, there’s one other upcoming battle that we haven’t referred to, which is the battle that takes place involving the Americans and the English against each other on Saturday in the soccer world cup.

(Gates laughs)

So in that case the two compatriots will be at daggers drawn for the next 90 minutes.

Only for 90 minutes.  Although I must say that in my contacts with my Canadian colleagues, the ice hockey match in the Olympics still seems to come up with some regularity.

Some fascination.  Ice hockey rules Canada. Well, it’s a real joy to talk like this, here’s to the next time; but thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us.

Thank you, my pleasure.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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