WASHINGTON, March 12, 2009 – The war in Afghanistan poses the biggest challenge to the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday, but he expressed confidence that Iraq “is in a better place” and warfighters and wounded warriors are better provided for than two years ago. Speaking on PBS’ “Tavis Smiley Show,” Gates reflected on the challenges he faces as defense secretary and the accomplishments he has helped to bring about.

“Clearly, the war in Afghanistan is our biggest current challenge,” he said. “Getting the strategy right on that, having a path forward, and having clear and attainable goals, I think is the biggest challenge that we face right now.”

Iran, too, poses “a real problem,” Gates said. “I think it’s one of the significant challenges that we’re going to face over the next several years.”

But Gates said he considers progress made in Iraq a highlight of his two years as defense secretary.

“Clearly, the war in Iraq is in a better place than it was when I took this job, and I think I’ve had some part in that,” he said.

Gates emphasized that “a lot of people are responsible” for that success, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command leader who oversaw the surge as Multinational Force Iraq commander.

The recent increase in violence in Iraq is likely tied to al-Qaida’s efforts to disrupt the impact of the successful provincial elections, Gates said.

“And even with the violence in the last couple of weeks, the level of violence in Iraq is dramatically lower than it has been, really from a year ago or from six months ago or any time since 2004,” he said. “So I think that our commanders see these as isolated incidents.”

Gates said he’s also pleased “that we’ve been able to do some things to help the warfighters.” He cited more heavy armored vehicles; more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability; and better care for wounded troops. “I think all of those things I feel pretty good about,” he said.

The secretary championed the effort to get more mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to the combat theater faster to protect troops from improvised explosive devices. “These heavier armored vehicles … have significantly reduced the number of our men and women in uniform who have been killed by these IEDs,” he said.

Warfighters also are getting more intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities since Gates pushed the initiative to the front burner.

In addition, he said, he’s pleased about progress in caring for wounded combat troops. Just two months after he took the top Defense Department post, news reports broke about unacceptable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gates responded by firing the top commanders and officials responsible and demanding across-the-board improvements.

“I think there have been dramatic improvements in the way we treat our wounded warriors over the last couple of years,” he said. He cited the warrior transition units at military facilities, the family support programs and the proliferation of new support groups as examples.

“Have we got it just right now? No, and nobody in this building would say that,” he said. “But we have made enormous strides over the last couple of years, and, frankly, with a lot of help from the Congress that has given us the resources to be able to do this. And we’re going to keep working at it.”

Gates called wounded warriors “our heroes.”

“My mantra here is that after the wars themselves, we have no higher priority than taking care of our wounded warriors,” he said.

Gates made it clear that other challenges remain at the department.

At the top of the list, he said, is getting the department to focus more on immediate wartime requirements. “One of my biggest frustrations here is that this is a building that for a long time has been more focused on planning for future war than effectively fighting current wars,” he said.

The department needs to be able to do both, he said, as it keeps an unwavering eye on supporting those in the current conflict.

“One of my concerns is that there is no institutional base inside the Department of Defense where people come to work every morning asking, ‘What can I do today to help the warfighter in Iraq or Afghanistan be more successful and come home alive?’”

Gates said he wants to institutionalize the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan about fighting insurgencies.

“The Department of Defense — and particularly our leaders in uniform, our men and women in uniform — have probably learned better and faster because their lives have been on the line, than anybody else in the government or in the world,” he said. “What we’ve had to relearn for the first time since Vietnam is how to do counterinsurgency.”

This requires “a totally different set of skills” than required to fight a conventional conflict, he said.

“I think that we have institutionalized those,” Gates said. “And one of my goals is to make sure that lessons that we have learned are not forgotten and that they are in fact institutionalized into our training and doctrine, so that officers 10 or 15 years from now still have access to the lessons that have been learned.”

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