“I would say that at a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against the democratically elected government in Afghanistan and thus turning Afghanistan potentially again into a haven for alQaida and other extremist groups,” Gates said.
The secretary conceded that the situation in Afghanistan “began to go downhill again” in 2005 and 2006. That’s when the Taliban started taking advantage of safe havens on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan-Afghan border and began “to re-infiltrate into Afghanistan and create security problems.”
The decision to send an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and reassess the strategy there focuses on this challenge. “We’ve really just been responding to that,” Gates said. “Clearly, we all still have our work cut out for us.”
Although NATO is committing additional troops to provide security for the August elections, the secretary said he was not sure if they’d remain for any prolonged period.
“The allies have sent all the troops that they have committed to send. It hasn’t been that they have failed to follow through on their commitments,” he said.
The problem is that “the need is greater than the commitments that have been made to this point,” he said. “And so we would like more help.”
But the biggest shortfall, he said, isn’t on the military side. “Really, where we need the help is on the civilian side, whether it’s agricultural specialists or people who can help with governance, economic development and so on,” he said.
Gates reiterated the need for achievable near- and mid-term goals in Afghanistan, with benchmarks to assess the effectiveness of the mission there. These, he said, will “measure whether we are actually making progress and getting to a better place in Afghanistan in terms of security, in terms of credibility of the government” and how the U.S.-Afghan partnership is working.
These, he said, aren’t the same goals the United States hopes to see in 10, 20 or 30 years — “a completely democratic, fully economically developed ally.”
He referred to this state as “Valhalla,” a mythical utopian state, but conceded, “I think that’s a little ways in the distance.”
Turning to Iraq, Gates said he’s “on the same page” with President Barack Obama regarding the drawdown of U.S. troops there. “The fact is that if there is no new agreement with the Iraqis, there will be zero U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of 2011,” he said.
But Gates conceded that the United States may maintain a “very modest-sized presence” after the status-of-forces agreement expires in December 2011 to provide training, equipment assistance and intelligence support. That would happen, he said, only if the Iraqis request it, and if Obama approves the request.
As the discussion turned to intelligence, Gates defended the work of intelligence professionals who have become the targets of frequent pot-shots. “They really do a very good job of telling you what’s going on right now around the world,” he said. “But forecasting – the truth of the matter is they’re not a lot better than anybody else. And I think policymakers need to understand that.”
Gates noted the challenge of getting a true picture of what’s taking place in Iran and other potential hot spots around the world.
“Obviously, some targets are much more difficult than others,” he said. Iran, North Korea and Cuba are all very difficult targets.
“The truth of the matter is, for decades our intelligence hasn’t been terrific on some of these places,” Gates said. “I think there’s a lot of effort to try and make it better. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there.”