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Interview With George Stephanopoulos of ABC

Interview With George Stephanopoulos of ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos"

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Washington, DC

December 5, 2009

QUESTION: And we begin with the cornerstones of President Obama’s national security cabinet, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Welcome to you both. This is the first time you’re here together on This Week. Thanks for doing it.

SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) The first time we’ve been called cornerstones.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Secretary Gates, let me begin with you, because there’s been so much focus since the President’s speech on this call to begin an exit strategy in July 2011, and I want to show you what Senator McCain said earlier this week.

SENATOR MCCAIN: When conditions on the ground have decisively begun to change for the better, that is when our troops should start to return home with honor – not one minute longer, not one minute sooner, and certainly not on some arbitrary date in July 2011.

QUESTION: Just two months ago, you seemed to agree with that sentiment. You called the notion of timelines and exit strategies a strategic mistake. What changed?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, first of all, I don’t consider this an exit strategy, and I try to avoid using that term. I think --

QUESTION: Why not?

SECRETARY GATES: -- this is a transition. This is a transition that’s going to take place, and it’s not an arbitrary date. It will be two years since the Marines went into southern Helmand, and that – two years that our military leaders believe would give us time to know that our strategy is working. They believe that in that time, General McChrystal will have the opportunity to demonstrate decisively in certain areas of Afghanistan that the approach we’re taking is working. Obviously, the transition will begin in the less contested areas of the country, but it will be the same kind of gradual, conditions-based transition – province by province, district by district – that we saw in Iraq.

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QUESTION: We’ve heard that phrase a lot.

SECRETARY GATES: It begins – but it begins in July, not 2011.

QUESTION: No – and I understand that, but you talk about this conditions-based decision making and I guess that’s – it’s a fairly vague term. So if the strategy is working, do the troops stay? If it’s not working, do they leave? How is the decision-making process going to go?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, from my standpoint, the decision in terms of when a district or a cluster of districts or a province is ready to be turned over to the Afghan security forces is a judgment that will be made by our commanders on the ground, not here in Washington. And we will do the same thing we did in Iraq. When we transition to Afghan security responsibility, we will withdraw in – first into tactical overwatch, and then a strategic overwatch – if you will, the cavalry over the hill – in case they run into trouble.

QUESTION: And this certainly increases the leverage on President Karzai and his government, Secretary Clinton, which brings up questions similar to questions that were raised by a lot of Democrats during – after the Iraq surge, including President Obama when he was a senator. He asked Secretary Rice, basically, what happens if the Maliki government doesn’t live up to its promises.

SENATOR OBAMA: Are there any circumstances that you can articulate in which we would say to the Maliki government that enough is enough and we are no longer committing our troops?

QUESTION: A lot of people asking the same exact question today about President Karzai. At what point do we say enough is enough; we’re no longer going to commit troops?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, George, I understand the desire to ask these questions which are all thrown into the future. They’re obviously matters of concern about how we have a good partner as we move forward in Afghanistan. But I think you have to look at what President Karzai said in his inaugural speech, where he said that Afghan security forces would begin to take responsibility for important parts of the country within three years, and that they would be responsible for everything within five years.

And from our perspective, we think we have a strategy that is a good, integrated approach. It’s civilian and military. It’s been extremely, thoroughly analyzed. But we have to begin to implement it with the kind of commitment that we all feel toward it. I can’t predict everything that’s going to happen with President Karzai. I came away from my meeting with him around the inauguration heartened by a lot of what he was saying, but the proof is in the pudding. We’re going to have to wait to see how it unfolds.

QUESTION: But if you’re really going to have maximum leverage, doesn’t he have to know that if he doesn’t live up to the commitment, we’re going to go?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think he knows that we have a commitment to trying to protect our national security. That’s why we’re there. We do want to assist the people of Afghanistan and to try to improve the capacity of the Afghan Government. But I think it’s important to stress that this decision was based on what we believe is best for the United States, and we have to have a realistic view of who we’re working with in Afghanistan, and it’s not only President Karzai. It’s ministers of various agencies that – some of which are doing quite well and producing good results. It’s provincial and local leaders. So it’s a much more complicated set of players than just one person.

QUESTION: There’s also the question of Pakistan, the neighbor, and whether they’re living up to their commitments. You got in a little hot water in Pakistan when you suggested that they hadn’t been doing enough in the past to go after the Taliban.

And Secretary Gates, let me turn the question about this to you. It’s connected to a report that Senator Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released this week about Usama bin Ladin. He suggested that the failure to block his exit from Tora Bora has made the situation there much worse. In his report, he actually wrote that the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Ladin to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide.

The Pakistani prime minister sort of shrugged off any concerns about that this week about whether or not he had gone – done enough to go after Usama bin Ladin. He said he doesn’t believe Usama is in Pakistan. Is he right? And do you think the Pakistanis have done enough to get him?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, we don’t know for a fact where Usama bin Ladin is. If we did, we’d go get him. But --

QUESTION: When was the last time we had any good intelligence on (inaudible)?

SECRETARY GATES: I think it’s been years.



QUESTION: So these reports that came out just this week about a detainee saying he might have seen him in Afghanistan earlier this year --

SECRETARY GATES: No, no, that’s --

QUESTION: We can’t confirm that?


QUESTION: So do you believe that one of the reasons we haven’t had good enough intelligence is because the Pakistani Government has not been cooperating enough?

SECRETARY GATES: No. I think it’s because if, as we suspect, he is in North Waziristan, it is an area that the Pakistani Government has not had a presence in, in quite some time. The truth of the matter is that we have been very impressed by the Pakistanis’ army – the Pakistani army’s willingness to go into places like Swat and South Waziristan. If one had asked any of us a year or more ago if the Pakistani army would be doing that, we would have said no chance. And so they are bringing pressure to bear on the Taliban in Pakistan, and particularly those that are attacking the Pakistani Government. But frankly, any pressure on the Taliban, whether it’s in Pakistan or in Afghanistan, is helpful to us, because al-Qaida is working with both of them.

QUESTION: You mentioned the actions the Pakistani Government has taken. Is Baluchistan next? Is that where they have to go next to take out the Taliban?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, I think that the Pakistani Government – we sometimes tend to forget that Pakistan, like Afghanistan, is a sovereign country. And Pakistani – the Pakistani army will go where the Pakistani army thinks the threat is. And if they think that threat’s in Baluchistan, that’s where they’ll go. If they think it’s in North Waziristan, they may go up there. Or they may just winter in where they are right now. But these are calls that the Pakstanis make. We are sharing information with them. We have had a steadily developing, better relationship between our militaries. And we will help them in any way we possibly can. But that’s their call.

QUESTION: Back to Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton Some have suggested that your – one of your envoys, the President’s envoy Richard Holbrooke should begin negotiations with those elements of the Taliban who are willing to talk to him. Do you agree with that?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, George, we have said, and the President made it clear in his speech at West Point, that there are two different approaches here. One is what could be called reintegration, and that is really looking at the lower-level members of the Taliban who are there through intimidation and coercion, or frankly, because it’s a better living that they can make anyway – anywhere else. We think there’s a real opportunity for a number of those to be persuaded to leave the battlefield.

Now, the problem, of course – once they leave and we have a lot of evidence of this, they’ll get killed if they’re not protected. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to get these secure zones.

QUESTION: Because they don’t believe we’ll stay?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, and also just – we need to secure the population. It’s one of General McChrystal’s principal objectives. Then the upper levels of the Taliban – look, they have to renounce al-Qaida, renounce violence. They have to be willing to abide by the constitution of Afghanistan and live peacefully. We have no firm information whether any of those leaders would be at all interested in following that kind of a path In fact, I’m highly skeptical that any of them would. So we’re going to be consulting with our Afghan partners. It’s going to be a multiply run operation to see who might come off of the battlefield and who might possibly give up their allegiance to the Taliban and their connection with al-Qaida.

QUESTION: But high-level negotiations are possible?

SECRETARY CLINTON: We don’t know yet. And again, I think that we asked Mullah Omar to give up bin Ladin before we went into Afghanistan after 9/11. He wouldn’t do it. I don’t know why we think he would have changed by now.

SECRETARY GATES: Let me just add I think that the likelihood of the leadership of the Taliban or senior leaders being willing to accept the conditions Secretary Clinton just talked about depends, in the first instance, on reversing their momentum right now and putting them in a position where they suddenly begin to realize that they’re likely to lose.

QUESTION: How is this offense in Helmand Province going?

SECRETARY GATES: It’s actually going very well, and the Marines have already had – I think one of the reasons that our military leaders are pretty confident is that they have already begun to see changes where the Marines are present in southern Helmand.

QUESTION: Let me talk about a question of cost, which has been raised by our next guest. Senator Russ Feingold, as you know, is against the escalation announced by the President, but he’s also gone on and wrote a letter to the President where he raises – where he says “We request that you not send any additional troops to Afghanistan until Congress has enacted appropriations to pay for the cost of such an increase, and that you propose reductions in spending to pay for the cost of any military operations in Afghanistan, a concern shared by many of the American people.”

Secretary Clinton, shouldn’t this war, if we’re going to fight it, be paid for?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, the President has said that the costs are going to be accounted for, that the Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department, the State Department are going to be working to make sure that we give the best projections of costs we can. I think that we’re going to have to address our deficit situation across the board; there’s no doubt about that, and I certainly support that. But I think we have to look at the entire budget and we have to be very clear about what the costs are.

As Secretary Gates has said a couple of times in our testimony together, we are drawing down from Iraq. There will be savings over the next two to three years coming from there. And the addition of these troops is going to put a burden on us, no doubt about it. It is manageable, but we have to look at all of our fiscal situation and begin to address it.

QUESTION: There’s also the question of the cost-benefit analysis, and a lot of people look at our own U.S. Government intelligence estimates, saying there are fewer than a hundred active al-Qaida in Afghanistan and say, why is that worth putting $30 billion more this year into Afghanistan?

SECRETARY GATES: It is because in that border area – Afghan-Pakistani border – that is the epicenter of extremist Jihad. And al-Qaida has close relationships with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have very close relationships with the Taliban in Pakistan. The Taliban in Pakistan have been attacking Pakistani civilians, Pakistani Government officials, military officials, trying to destabilize the Government of Pakistan. Any success by the Taliban in either Afghanistan or Pakistan benefits al-Qaida, and any safe haven on either side of the border creates opportunities for them to recruit, get new funds, and do operational planning.

And what’s more, the Taliban revival in the safe havens in western Pakistan is a lesson to al-Qaida that they can come back if they are provided the kind of safe haven that the Taliban were. This is the place where the Jihadists defeated the Soviet Union, one superpower. And they believe – their narrative is that it helped create the collapse of the Soviet Union. If – they believe that if they can defeat us in Afghanistan, that they then have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower --

QUESTION: But if you look at that --

SECRETARY GATES: -- and it creates huge opportunities for them in that area as well as around the world.

QUESTION: You were the deputy director of the CIA back in 1985 when Gorbachev made the decision to expand. Eighteen months later, he was pulling out. What’s to prevent that from happening again?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, what he did was agree with his generals to make one last push. But the parallel just doesn’t work. The reality is the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. They killed a million Afghans, they made 5 million refugees out of Afghanis, they were isolated in the world in terms of what they were doing there. We are part of an alliance that – of 42 countries with us, in addition to us, that are contributing troops. We have a UN mandate. We have a mandate from NATO. So you have broad international support for what’s going on in Afghanistan, and the situation is just completely different than was the case with the Soviet Union.

QUESTION: We’re just about out of time. Secretary Clinton, I want to ask you about the case of Amanda Knox, the American college student who was convicted of murder in Italy just on Friday. Senator Cantwell of Washington has expressed a lot of concerns about this conviction. She said she wants to talk to you about it.

Here is what she said: “I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial. The prosecution did not present enough evidence for an impartial jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Knox was guilty. Italian jurors were not sequestered and were allowed to view highly negative news coverage about Ms. Knox.”

She goes on to lay out several of the concerns she had with the trial. She did say, as I said, she’s going to be in contact with you so you can express the concerns to the Italian Government. Do you share her concerns about this trial?

SECRETARY CLINTON: George, I honestly haven’t had time to even examine that. I have been immersed in what we’re doing in Afghanistan. Of course, I’ll meet with Senator Cantwell or anyone who has a concern, but I can’t offer any opinion about that at this time.

QUESTION: So you have not expressed any concerns to the Italian Government?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I have not, no.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, thank you both very much.


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