SINGAPORE, June 1, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrapped up the Asia Security Summit here today expressing confidence in strides being made and sharing insights about topics ranging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to China’s military buildup to the standup of the new U.S. Africa Command.

“If there’s one overriding theme that I take away from the conference, it’s growing regional cooperation across a number of issues,” Gates told reporters as he wrapped up the three-day summit. “And as far as we’re concerned, that’s all for the good.”

The secretary joined Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a broad-ranging discussion with reporters about issues facing not only Asia, but also the world. Here’s a synopsis of what they covered:

About Progress in Iraq:

Gates called the drop in casualties among both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians “a reflection of some real progress that has been made,” but hesitated to declare a trend. “Given the history, everybody is leery about being optimistic. But it does seem to be developing in a very positive way,” he said.

“Losing one soldier is one too many, but having the casualties at the lowest level in a long time is very heartening,” he said. “And the key will be to continue to sustain the progress that we have seen.”

Gates called the Iraqi security forces’ efforts in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul signs of their maturing capabilities. “I think you are seeing a capability on the part of the Iraqi forces that we have not seen at any time previously in the war,” he said.

He shared Army Gen. David H. Petraeus’ hopes that continued improvement could lead to more troop withdrawals this fall. Petraeus commands coalition forces in Iraq, and is awaiting Senate approval to take charge of U.S. Central Command.

Mullen noted that decisions on further reductions in troop strength depend on whether the current trend continues and proves to have taken root. “I am leery of saying we are at a sustainable point and predicting that at this point,” the chairman said. “Progress has clearly been made. And I also think we need to get to the fall to se where we are. But we are on a pretty good track right now.”

About Contributions in Afghanistan:

Gates said he pressed for more contributions in Afghanistan throughout the Asia Security Summit. “The best I can recall, I asked everybody,” he said. “Each country can make a contribution, depending on its own capabilities and its own domestic circumstances.”

He noted that many Asian countries already are contributing, singling out as an example Mongolia, which in addition to sending troops to eight rotations in Afghanistan, has sent nine troop rotations to Iraq.

In addition, Japan has resumed refueling for U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean, he said. France has committed to sending 700 troops, which Gates and Mullen agreed will make a big impact. Various other countries are providing trainers, medical assistance and other support.

“So the question is, for those who are already engaged, ‘Can you do more?’” Gates said. “And for those not engaged, ‘Think about what you might want to do.’”

The effort in Afghanistan “truly is a global endeavor, and it is clearly up to each government to decide what it can do and how it can make a contribution,” he said.

About Pakistan’s Border Challenges:

Gates responded to the notion that Pakistan isn’t doing enough to confront al-Qaida and Taliban operatives along its border with Afghanistan by saying the new government needs some time.

“It is obviously a time of change in Pakistan,” he said. “My view is that this is still a new civilian government. We need to give them time to gain an appreciation of the range of challenges they face and the nature of the challenge there.”

That said, Gates conceded, “the border situation clearly is a concern for us.”

“They know our concerns,” he said of the Pakistani government. “They are trying a strategy. … They are the sovereign government of Pakistan, and we hope they will be successful.”

Mullen said he shares Gates’ concerns, but believes the Pakistanis have the best understanding of their country’s tribal areas and the best potential for success there. “I think we need to stay engaged with them and supportive of that,” he said.

About the Broader War on Terror:

Regardless of who wins the November election, the next U.S. president almost assuredly will continue an aggressive campaign against al-Qaida and other extremist networks, Gates said.

“They may use different terminology, they may approach it in a different way, but no American president can afford not to be aggressive in dealing with potential threats to the United States and to our friends caused by these violent extremists.”

Gates expressed concern that al-Qaida has “metastasized” to broader areas, either directly or by influencing others with similar goals and tactics. Al-Qaida has constituted itself along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and clearly is training potential terrorists, including those from Europe and even the United States, he said. Osama bin Laden continues to inspire others through the Internet, videos and other remote means.

“The international community needs to continue to cooperate closely in dealing with these threats,” he said.

Mullen said he was impressed as he interacted with his regional counterparts here by their focus on meeting the challenges terrorists pose in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. He said he found “a continued commitment to that and a realization that nobody can get this done by themselves.”

“It is going to take all of us and that regional commitment,” the admiral said.

About China:

The United States will continue watching China — particularly its strategic modernization programs — and will adjust its own programs as necessary, Gates said. He told reporters he’s encouraged by the strategic dialogue taking place between the two countries and hopes it will lead to better understanding about their intentions and long-term defense strategies.

U.S. concerns involve the types of weapons China is building, the numbers of those weapons and the capabilities they will create, he said. “We hope that the dialogue we have going will reduce uncertainty and make hedging or any kind of a competition in this arena unnecessary,” he said.

Gates said he disagrees with Chinese Lt. Gen. M.A. Xiatian’s assertions at the security conference that U.S. missile defense efforts are offensive or that China’s missile program is defensive in nature.

“Missile defense is exactly what it says. It’s a defense,” he said. “And it is hard to see a limited capability such as we have and will have in the future undermining the offensive capabilities of either Russia or China.”

Meanwhile, he said, it’s impossible to depict China’s ballistic missile development program as anything but offensive. “I don’t know what you use them for if it’s not for offensive capability,” he said. “It’s hard to see an intercontinental ballistic missile as a defensive weapon.”

While these weapons could be seen as a deterrent, “it is clearly for use in an offensive way,” he said.

About U.S. Africa Command:

Gates dismissed allegations that the United States stood up AfriCom to counter Chinese influence in Africa as “nonsense.”

“This is about us trying to do a better job of cultivating and strengthening our relationships in Africa,” he said. “It is not directed against anybody whatsoever.”

“AfriCom is a vehicle for the United States to give even more attention to improving our relationships in Africa and providing training and help to African governments,” he said. This help, he said, ranges from helping governments professionalize their militaries to preparing them to carry out peacekeeping or disaster-response missions.

Mullen said the command will provide regular, senior-level engagement between the United States and African nations similar to what’s already in place in Asia and elsewhere in the world.

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