U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates talks to Marines deployed to Field Operating Base Bastion, Afghanistan, during his to southwest Asia.
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan (May 7, 2009) – The question-and-answer session Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates opened here today with newly deployed Marines started with a pregnant pause, but quickly moved into a lively give-and-take about everything from deployment lengths to current and possible future military operations.
The group, mostly members of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Marine Wing Support Squadron 37 and Marine Combat Logistics Battalion 3, took advantage of the opportunity to ask the defense secretary about issues on their minds.
Asked about security along the Pakistan-Afghan border, Gates credited the Pakistani government with cracking down on Taliban forces that had moved toward Islamabad. Pakistan had always viewed India as its archenemy, and only recently has started to recognize extremists in the western part of the country as “a real threat,” he said.
The Taliban “over-reached” by trying to take over Pakistan’s Bruner district, Gates send, sending a wake-up call to the Pakistani government.
“They are beginning to go after these guys,” he told the Marines. “So the action we have seen over the last couple of weeks has been very encouraging as they come after these bad guys in the border area.”
But Gates reassured one Marine that there’s no truth to any rumor that the U.S. military is considering a humanitarian mission in Pakistan. That, Gates told the questioner, “is fully in the category of rumor.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about a mission in Pakistan,” he reiterated, emphasizing that the United States hopes only for an opportunity to help the Pakistanis increase their capabilities. “We just want to partner with them to enable them to carry the fight in the border area as they have been for the last couple of weeks,” he said.
Another questioner asked Gates about Iranian influence in the region.
“First we try to nail them if we catch them in Iraq,” he said. “We have sanctions in place to try to get those guys to change their practices, but Iran is a tough nut.”
Reporting on his visits this week to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Gates said the United States is working with its partners in the Gulf region to help them develop missile, air and maritime defenses against Iran. He also noted the “significant naval presence” in the region that helps to serve as a deterrent.
“The real hard problem that, frankly, we haven’t solved yet is, ‘How do you get them to walk away from their nuclear weapons program?’” Gates said. “There are a lot of options for dealing with it, but we need a long-term solution.”
The trick, he said, is to get the Iranians to realize that they will be less – not more – secure with nuclear weapons, “because they will probably set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
Gates also noted the threat the Iranian-sanctioned Hezbollah terrorist organization poses. Many people don’t realize that before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terror group, he said.
“They are going to be a problem for us, I think,” he said.
Gates offered another questioner his assessment of progress in promoting interagency contributions toward the mission in Afghanistan.
“A central part of the new administration’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy is a significant civilian surge,” he said. Plans call for bringing another 500 civilians with specialized skills in everything from well-digging to building schools to accounting to provincial reconstruction teams to provide support at the provincial and district levels, he said.
But expressing concern that the process likely won’t move as quickly as needed, Gates said the Defense Department may tap into reserve components. These troops potentially could “act as a bridge” until the civilians can be hired through supplemental funding, he said.
“There is clearly an understanding that there is a need for more civilian expertise,” he told the Marines. “You guys can’t do this all by yourselves. We can clear these areas, but we have to hold them, and then we have to build something. And the build part is what the civilians have got to do.”
Gates extended his frustration over the sluggishness of the interagency effort to his own department.
“We’ve had complaining in the Department of Defense that the rest of the government hasn’t been at war,” he said. “One of my complaints has been that there have been significant parts of the Department of Defense that haven’t been at war. So we are trying to get all of the Defense Department into the fight, and at the same time try to get the rest of the government the resources they need to get into the fight.”
After telling the Marines he wants to make sure they have everything they need to succeed, Gates fielded a question about a shortage of communications equipment here.
He expressed confidence that equipment is en route – in a container bound for Camp Leatherneck that hasn’t yet caught up with the newly deployed Marines – and promised to have his staff look into the issue.
In response to another questioner, Gates said there’s no plan to change Marine deployment lengths from the current seven months. What he said he wants to see change is increasing the dwell time at home between deployments.
“Looking at all services, but especially the Army and Marine Corps, that have been redeployed so many times is seeing how we can extend the dwell time,” he said. He recalled not too long ago when Marines were home just seven months after a deployment, only to deploy again for another seven months.
That, he said, is a major reason the military has worked so hard to expand both the Army’s and Marine Corps’ end strengths.
“Both have gotten there two years earlier than expected,” Gates reported. “So I think as we draw down in Iraq, despite the buildup [in Afghanistan], we will be in a position, I hope, by later this year to begin lengthening the dwell time at home for everybody.”