Secretary of State Clinton’s Interview With David Gregory of NBC’s Meet The Press

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–December 6, 2009.

QUESTION:  But first, here they are.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, welcome both of you back to Meet The Press.


QUESTION:  So much of the heat of this debate this week was not about the going in, but about the getting out. This is what the President said about the scope of this mission:

“These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2001.”

QUESTION:  Secretary Gates, is this a deadline?

SECRETARY GATES: It’s the beginning of a process.  In July 2011, our generals are confident that they will know whether our strategy is working.  The plan is to begin transferring areas of responsibility for security over to the Afghan security forces, with us remaining in a tactical and then strategic overwatch position, sort of the cavalry over the hill.  But we will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring them home, but the pace of that, of bringing them home, and where we bring them home from, will depend on the circumstances on the ground, and those judgments will be made by our commanders in the field.

QUESTION:  Regardless of the circumstances, though, what you’re saying is that withdrawal will take place at that point?

SECRETARY GATES:  It will begin in July of 2011, but how quickly it goes will very much depend on the conditions on the ground.  We will have a significant number of forces in there for some considerable period of time after that.

QUESTION: You both, of course, this week, have taken tough questions about this issue of a deadline and whether that’s a bad thing to signal up front.  Three years ago, Secretary Gates, you were asked on Capitol Hill about another war, another debate, another timeline.  That was about Iraq.  And Secretary Clinton, you were asked as senator back in 2005 the same question about Iraq and timelines for withdrawal.  This is what you both said back then:

SENATOR GRAHAM:  Do you believe if we set timetables or a policy to withdraw at a date certain, it would be seen by the extremists as a sign of weakness, the moderates would be disheartened, and it would create a tremendous impediment to the moderate forces coming forward in Iraq?

SECRETARY GATES:  I think a specific timetable would give – would essentially tell them how long they have to wait until we’re gone.

SENATOR CLINTON:  We don’t want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists that we are going to be out of here at some date certain.  I think that would be like a green light to go ahead and just bide your time.

QUESTION:  That was about Iraq.  Why are your views different when it comes to Afghanistan?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Because we’re not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline.  What we’re talking about is an assessment that, in January 2011, we can begin a transition, a transition to hand off responsibility to the Afghan forces.  That is what eventually happened in Iraq.

We’re going to be out of Iraq.  We have a firm deadline, because the Iraqis believe that they can assume and will assume responsibility for their own future.  We want the Afghans to feel the same sense of urgency.  We want them to actually make good on what President Karzai said in his inaugural speech, which is that by five years from now, they’ll have total control for their defense.

QUESTION:  But this is a time certain.  Secretary Gates, you just said that the withdrawal will begin, regardless of conditions.  The pace of withdrawal could be affected.  This is a date certain.  And when it came to Iraq, you thought that was a bad idea.

SECRETARY GATES:  I was opposed to a deadline in Iraq, and if you’d listen to what I said, that that was a date certain to have all of our forces out of Iraq.  I am opposed to that in Afghanistan as well.  But I believe that there is an important element here of balancing, sending a signal of resolve, but also giving the Afghan Government a sense of urgency that they need to get their young men recruited, trained, and into the field, partnering with our forces and then on their own.  And so I think that the beginning of this process in July 2011 makes a lot of sense, because the other side of it is open.

QUESTION:  What kind of casualties should Americans be prepared to suffer in Afghanistan with this new strategy?

SECRETARY GATES:  Well, the tragedy is that the casualties will probably continue to grow, at least for the time being.  This is what we saw in the surge in Iraq.  But it’s because they’re going into places where the Taliban essentially have controlled the territory and upsetting the apple cart, if you will.  And what happened in Iraq is what we anticipate will happen here.  We’ll have an increase in casualties at the front end of this process, but over time, it will actually lead to fewer casualties.

QUESTION:  Secretary Clinton, what happens if the strategy isn’t working in 18 months time?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Well, first, David, we obviously believe that it will work.  We have spent a lot of time testing all the assumptions.  Our commanders have a lot of confidence that it will work.  But the President has said, and we agree, that we will take stock of where we are every month.  We’re not going to wait.  We’re going to be looking to see what’s happening.

Now, we’ve had the Marines that were sent in.  Remember, this President inherited a situation where we had basically lost ground to the Taliban.  The war in Afghanistan, unfortunately, was lost in the fog of the war in Iraq.  And the President put in troops when he first got there, and then said, “But let’s make sure we know where we’re headed, and how to get there.”

And so we’re going to continue to evaluate as we go.  But the Marines went into Helmand Province last July, and Bob can tell you that the reports are that they’re making real headway.  So we have confidence in this strategy.

QUESTION:  The issue of what was inherited came up this week.  The President very pointedly said, Secretary Gates, that reinforcements that were requested of the Bush Administration on your watch were not provided, and that he provided them when he came into office.  Is that true?

SECRETARY GATES:  There was, throughout my time as Secretary of Defense under President Bush, an outstanding request from General McKiernan.  And as Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified repeatedly, we just, because of the commitment of forces in Iraq, we did not have the ability to meet the resource needs in Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  So you don’t have any problem with that statement?

SECRETARY GATES:  No.  There was an outstanding troop request, and on my watch.

QUESTION:  Let’s talk about the mission, and I want to chart a little bit of the evolution of the President’s public statements about this.

Going back to July of 2008, during the campaign, when he talked about America’s commitment to Afghanistan, watch this: 

“The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring, because             the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.”

QUESTION:  And yet Tuesday, when he spoke to the country, he seemed to dismiss the notion of what he called an open-ended commitment or an enduring commitment to Afghanistan, saying this:

“Some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort.  I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.”

QUESTION:  Secretary Clinton, has the President concluded, as President now, that in Afghanistan, the war on terrorism needs to be downsized?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  No.  And I think, David, there is no contradiction between the two statements you just played.  We will have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan.  We’re going to be putting in combat troops.  We are going to be joined by 42 partners.  We just got a commitment of an additional 7,000 troops from our NATO ISAF allies.  And we will most likely be continuing, once our combat responsibilities have ended, in whatever support for the Afghan security forces in terms of training, logistics, intelligence, that will enable them to do what they need to do. 

At the same time, we will have an ongoing civilian commitment to Afghanistan.  So, yes, we don’t have an open-ended combat commitment.  We think we have a strategy that will create the space and time for the Afghans to stand up their own security forces and take responsibility.  But we’re not going to be walking away from Afghanistan again.  We did that before.  It didn’t turn out very well.

So we will stay involved, we will stay supportive, and I think that’s exactly the right approach.

QUESTION:  But if you have a situation where you’re going to begin the withdrawal of troops, regardless of conditions on the ground, some critics see that as weakness, and a bad sign to the enemy. 

One of your former colleagues, the former Vice President Dick Cheney, said this to POLITICO this week about the President’s speech.  Cheney said the average Afghan citizen “sees talk about exit strategies and how soon we can get out, instead of talk about how we win.  Those folks begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies,” Cheney said.  “They’re worried the United States isn’t going to be there much longer and the bad guys are.” 

And if you look at some of the response from Pakistan, the very country we need to get to the baddest of the guys who are over in their country with al-Qaida, there is this, as reported by the New York Times:  “Washington’s assertion that American troops could begin leaving in 18 months provoked anxiety in Afghanistan, and rekindled longstanding fears in Pakistan that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.  Both countries face intertwined Taliban insurgencies regarding the new policy of President Obama, we’re studying that policy,” Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani said.  “We need more clarity on it, and when we get more clarity on it, we can see what we can implement on that plan.”

Is what former Vice President Cheney is worrying about, is that already starting to take place in terms of the attitude in Pakistan?

SECRETARY GATES:  Well, first of all, we’re not talking about an abrupt withdrawal.  We’re talking about something that will take place over a period of time. 

We – our commanders think that these additional forces – and one of the reasons for the President’s decision to try and accelerate their deployment is the view that this extended surge has the opportunity to make significant gains in terms of reversing the momentum of the Taliban, denying them control of Afghan territory, and degrading their capabilities.  Our military thinks we have a real opportunity to do that. 

And it’s not just in the next 18 months, because we will have a significant – we will have a hundred thousand forces – troops there.  And they are not leaving in July of 2011.  Some handful or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time. 

The piece of this that people need to keep in mind that’s different from Iraq is our need to communicate a sense of urgency to the Afghans of their need to begin to accept responsibility.  The Iraqis, after it was clear that the surge was working, clearly wanted us out of the country as fast as possible.  In the case of the Afghans, there are those – not everybody, and not a lot of the people, but there are those who would love to have the United States Army stay there in this very rough neighborhood indefinitely.  And we want to communicate the message we will not provide for their security forever.  They have to step up to that responsibility.

QUESTION:  There seems to be an important point.  Beyond July of 2011, there is going to be a significant amount of U.S. troops there.  There’s going to be about a hundred thousand once this surge is finished.  How many more years should Americans expect to have a significant force presence in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY GATES:  Well, I think that – again, I don’t want to put a deadline on it, okay?  But I think that just picking up on President Karzai’s statements in his inaugural address, he talked about taking over security control in three years of important areas of Afghanistan, and all of Afghanistan in five years.  I think that we’re in that neighborhood, two to three to four years.

But again, during that period, we will be, just as we did in Iraq, turning over provinces to Afghan security forces, and that will allow us to bring the number of our forces down in a steady, but conditions-based circumstance.

QUESTION:  We are also, in a more covert way that’s not very well kept as a secret, at war in Pakistan as well.  The real al-Qaida figures – Usama bin Ladin, Mullah Omar, the Hakani network, the baddest of the bad – are in Pakistan and not Afghanistan.  What are the Pakistanis prepared to do to destroy them?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Well, David, I think what we’ve seen over the course of this year is a sea change in attitude by the Pakistanis.  If we had been sitting here a year ago and you had asked what they were going to do, there wouldn’t be much of an answer.  Now we can say they’re beginning to go after the terrorists who are threatening their very existence as a sovereign nation.  They’ve had two military campaigns in the space of the last eight months, and they are making real progress. 

What we are discussing and consulting with them over is how all of these groups are now a threat to them.  There is a syndicate of terrorism, with al-Qaida at the head of it.  So we’re doing everything we can to support them in what is a, really, life-or-death struggle.  I mean, they just blew up – the terrorists just blew up a mosque in Rawalpindi filled with military officers.  These terrorists, with al-Qaida’s funding, encouragement, training, equipping, is going right at the Pakistani Government.

QUESTION:  Can a mission be accomplished without capturing Usama bin Ladin?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Well, I really believe it’s important to capture and/or kill Usama bin Ladin, Zawahiri, the others who are part of that leadership team.  But certainly, you can make enormous progress absent that.

QUESTION:  I want to talk a little bit about history, a history you know well, Secretary Gates, in your work in this region, going back decades.  This was the editorial in The New York Times days after the Soviet invasion in 1979.  I’ll put it up on the screen.

“Moscow’s Backyard Quagmire.  By intervening so strongly on behalf of a wobbly Afghan client, the Soviet Union appears to be sinking deeper into a backyard quagmire.”

A lot of questions about the Afghan client today.  You have said, and along this process, you were worried about putting more troops in.  You said the Soviets had 110,000 committed there and they couldn’t win.  Why is it different now?  Isn’t this mission impossible?

SECRETARY GATES:  It’s pretty straightforward.  First of all, the Soviets were trying to impose an alien culture and political system on Afghanistan.  But more importantly, they were there terrorizing the Afghans.  They killed a million Afghans.  They made refugees out of 5 million Afghans.  They were isolated internationally. 

All of those factors are different for us, completely different.  We have the sanction of the UN, we have the sanction of NATO, we have the invitation of the Afghan Government itself, we have 42 military partners in Afghanistan, we are supporting and protecting the Afghan people.

One of the central themes of General McChrystal’s strategy is to reduce and keep civilian casualties low.  And so it’s a very different situation.  And what General McChrystal persuaded me of was that the size of the footprint matters a lot less than what they’re doing there.  And the new strategy that he’s put in place in terms of how we deal with the Afghans and how we behave, I think, will make a big difference.

QUESTION:  I want to bring it back home and ask you a very important political question, Secretary Clinton.  You have heard the reaction from the Democratic Party, liberals using terms like “echoes of Vietnam,” that this is risky, that this is a gamble.  Vietnam War protester Tom Hayden talked about the immorality of fighting for a regime like – that is currently in place in Afghanistan.

You’ve been on the campaign trail running for president.  You’re a former senator.  You know the politics of your party well.  What is the message of this President to those Democrats who are not on board?  And can you effectively prosecute this war without the base of the party behind it?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Well, David, I think it’s clear to anyone who has followed this that President Obama has done what he thinks is right for the country.  He is well aware of the political concerns raised that you have just described.  I think he deserves a lot of credit for not only delving into this and asking the hard questions, but coming to a decision that has both political and economic costs, but which he has concluded is in our vital national security interest.

I think that we have to look more broadly at what has gone on in Afghanistan.  Yes – are there problems with the current government?  Of course there are, as there are with any government.  We deal with a lot of governments that are hardly poster children for good governance.

But look at what has happened.  When President Karzai came into office, there were about a million kids in school, and they were all boys.  There are now 7 million, and they’re 40 percent girls.  There is, all of a sudden, a wheat harvest because of better seeds and fertilizer that is giving people, once again, income from their land.  There are so many positive examples of what has changed.

Of course, there is a lot of work to be done.  I mean, good grief, this country was devastated by three decades of the most brutal kind of war.  It’s recovering.  And as Bob has said, they really do want a different future.

QUESTION:  But is – but the politics of this, the cost of this, will there have to be a war tax?  What will you do to keep the Democrats in line on this?

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Well, the President has said he will make sure that the cost of the war is accounted for in the budget.  It is an additional expense.  Everybody knows that.  And we have so many important demands here at home.

We would not be pursuing this strategy if we did not believe it was directly connected to the safety of our people, our interests, our allies around the world.  And I just hope that a lot of my friends who are raising questions – Bob and I heard them when we were up there testifying – will really pay attention to the rationale behind the President doing this.

QUESTION:  Secretary Gates, you are a hard-nosed realist about this region and about this struggle going back decades.  Is failure an option in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY GATES:  No, I don’t think it can be given the nature of the terror network that Secretary Clinton referred to.  But we will be monitoring our progress, and be willing to adjust our strategy if there are issues.  We are not just going to plunge blindly ahead if it becomes clear that what we’re doing isn’t working.

I mean, there are some other alternatives.  We frankly didn’t think that the outcome of the long discussions that we had was that those outcomes were probably less likely to work than what we have chosen.  We think and recommended to the President a strategy that he has decided on that we believe – all of us, including the uniformed military and our commanders in the field – offers the very best chance for our success.  And we’re – and that’s what we’re going to count on.

QUESTION:  Well, you say failure is not an option.  The President has said we will fight this fight and fight it hard, only up to a certain point.

SECRETARY GATES:  And then we begin to transfer the responsibility to the Afghans.  And a lot can happen in 18 months.

QUESTION:  You said when you were last on this program back in March that you considered it a challenge, the notion that you might stay on for the entire first term as Secretary of Defense.  What do you say now?

SECRETARY GATES:  I’d say that’s a challenge.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Will you see this war through, the withdrawal of troops through?

SECRETARY GATES:  I think that’s probably up to the President.

QUESTION:  All right.  Thank you both very much.

SECRETARY CLINTON:  Thank you, David.