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Afghanistan: Obama v. Petraeus (Part 379)

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PETRAEUSAt the start of the year we closely tracked the political battle between the White House and military commanders, notably General David Petraeus, over the deployment of additional US troops to Afghanistan. This was nominally resolved at the end of March by a "compromise" agreement (even though the military got almost all of the troop request) in which Obama announced a new strategy of military measures supporting non-military measures to build up the country.

The situation was not resolved, either inside Washington or in Afghanistan, and we are back in another cycle of reports, spin, and power moves over another escalation in the US military commitment. One curious absentee, however, is Petraeus, who has not been far from media-shy in the past. Tom Englehardt digs beneath the surface for the story:

How Top Generals May Trap Obama in a Losing War

Front and center in the debate over the Afghan War these days are General Stanley "Stan" McChrystal, Afghan war commander, whose "classified, pre-decisional" and devastating report -- almost eight years and at least $220 billion later, the war is a complete disaster -- was conveniently, not to say suspiciously, leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post by we-know-not-who at a particularly embarrassing moment for Barack Obama; Admiral Michael "Mike" Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been increasingly vocal about a "deteriorating" war and the need for more American boots on the ground; and the president himself, who blitzed every TV show in sight last Sunday and Monday for his health reform program, but spent significant time expressing doubts about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. ("I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan... or sending a message that America is here for the duration.")

On the other hand, here's someone you haven't seen front and center for a while: General David Petraeus.

He was, of course, George W. Bush's pick to lead the president's last-ditch effort in Iraq. He was the poster boy for Bush's military policies in his last two years. He was the highly praised architect and symbol of "the surge." He appeared repeatedly, his chest a mass of medals and ribbons, for heavily publicized, widely televised congressional testimony, complete with charts and graphs, that was meant, at least in part, for the American public. He was the man who, to use an image from that period which has recently resurfaced, managed to synchronize the American and Baghdad "clocks," pacifying for a time both the home and war fronts.

He never met a journalist, as far as we can tell, he didn't want to woo. (And he clearly won over the influential Tom Ricks, then of the Washington Post, who wrote The Gamble, a bestselling paean to him and his sub-commanders.) From the look of it, he's the most political general to come down the pike since, in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur said his goodbyes to Congress after being cashiered by President Truman for insubordination -- for, in effect, wanting to run his own war and the foreign policy that went with it. It was Petraeus who brought Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) back from the crypt, overseeing the writing of a new Army counterinsurgency manual that would make it central to both the ongoing wars and what are already being referred to as the "next" ones.

Before he left office, Bush advanced his favorite general to the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the former president's Global War on Terror across the energy heartlands of the planet from Egypt to Pakistan. The command is, of course, especially focused on Bush's two full-scale wars: the Iraq War, now being pursued under Petraeus's former subordinate, General Ray Odierno, and the Afghan War, for which Petraeus seems to have personally handpicked a new commanding general, Stan McChrystal. From the military's dark side world of special ops and targeted assassinations, McChrystal had operated in Iraq and was also part of an Army promotion board headed by Petraeus that advanced the careers of officers committed to counterinsurgency. To install McChrystal in May, Obama abruptly sacked the then-Afghan war commander, General David McKiernan, in what was then considered, with some exaggeration, a new MacArthur moment.

On taking over, McChrystal, who had previously been a counterterrorism guy (and isn't about to give that up, either), swore fealty to counterinsurgency doctrine (that is, to Petraeus) by proclaiming that the American goal in Afghanistan must not be primarily to hunt down and kill Taliban insurgents, but to "protect the population." He also turned to a "team" of civilian experts, largely gathered from Washington think-tanks, a number of whom had been involved in planning out Petraeus's Iraq surge of 2007, to make an assessment of the state of the war and what needed to be done. Think of them as the Surgettes.

As in many official reassessments, the cast of characters essentially guaranteed the results before a single meeting was held. Based on past history and opinions, this team could only provide one Petraeus-approved answer to the war: more -- more troops, up to 40,000-45,000 of them, and other resources for an American counterinsurgency operation without end.

Hence, even if McChrystal's name is on it, the report slipped to Bob Woodward which just sandbagged the president has a distinctly Petraeusian shape to it. In a piece linked to Woodward's bombshell in the Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung wrote of unnamed officials in Washington who claimed "the military has been trying to push Obama into a corner." The language in the coverage elsewhere has been similar.

There is, wrote DeYoung a day later, now a "rupture" between the military "pushing for an early decision to send more troops" and civilian policymakers "increasingly doubtful of an escalating nation-building effort." Nancy Youssef of McClatchy News wrote about how "mixed signals" from Washington were causing "increasing ire from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan"; a group of McClatchy reporters talked of military advocates of escalation feeling "frustration" over "White House dithering." David Sanger of the New York Times described "a split between an American military that says it needs more troops now and an American president clearly reluctant to leap into that abyss." "Impatient" is about the calmest word you'll see for the attitude of the military top command right now.

Buyer's Remorse, the Afghan War, and the President

In the midst of all this, between Admiral Mullen and General McChrystal is, it seems, a missing man. The most photogenic general in our recent history, the man who created the doctrine and oversees the war, the man who is now shaping the U.S. Army (and its future plans and career patterns), is somehow, at this crucial moment, out of the Washington spotlight. This last week General Petraeus was, in fact, in England, giving a speech and writing an article for the (London) Times laying out his basic "protect the population" version of counterinsurgency and praising our British allies by quoting one of their great imperial plunderers. ("If Cecil Rhodes was correct in his wonderful observation that 'being an Englishman is the greatest prize in the lottery of life,' and I'm inclined to think that he was, then the second greatest prize in the lottery of life must be to be a friend of an Englishman, and based on that, the more than 230,000 men and women in uniform who work with your country's finest day by day are very lucky indeed, as am I.")

Only at mid-week, with Washington aboil, did he arrive in the capital for a counterinsurgency conference at the National Press Club and quietly "endorse" "General McChrystal's assessment." Whatever the look of things, however, it's unlikely that Petraeus is actually on the sidelines at this moment of heightened tension. He is undoubtedly still The Man.

So much is, of course, happening just beyond the sightlines of those of us who are mere citizens of this country, which is why inference and guesswork are, unfortunately, the order of the day. Read any account in a major newspaper right now and it's guaranteed to be chock-a-block full of senior officials and top military officers who are never "authorized to speak," but nonetheless yak away from behind a scrim of anonymity. Petraeus may or may not be one of them, but the odds are reasonable that this is still a Petraeus Moment.

If so, Obama has only himself to blame. He took up Afghanistan ("the right war") in the presidential campaign as proof that, despite wanting to end the war in Iraq, he was tough. (Why is it that a Democratic candidate needs a war or threat of war to trash-talk about in order to prove his "strength," when doing so is obviously a sign of weakness?)

Once in office, Obama compounded the damage by doubling down his bet on the war. In March, he introduced a "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" in his first significant public statement on the subject, which had expansion written all over it. He also agreed to send in 21,000 more troops (which, by the way, Petraeus reportedly convinced him to do). In August, in another sign of weakness masquerading as strength, before an unenthusiastic audience at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, he unnecessarily declared: "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." All of this he will now pay for at the hands of Petraeus, or if not him, then a coterie of military men behind the latest push for a new kind of Afghan War.

As it happens, this was never Obama's "war of necessity." It was always Petraeus's. And the new report from McChrystal and the Surgettes is undoubtedly Petraeus's progeny as well. It seems, in fact, cleverly put together to catch a cautious president, who wasn't cautious enough about his war of choice, in a potentially devastating trap. The military insistence on quick action on a troop decision sets up a devastating choice for the president: "Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure." Go against your chosen general and the failure that follows is yours alone. (Unnamed figures supposedly close to McChrystal are already launching test balloons, passed on by others, suggesting that the general might resign in protest if the president doesn't deliver -- a possibility he has denied even considering.) On the other hand, offer him somewhere between 15,000 and 45,000 more American troops as well as other resources, and the failure that follows will still be yours.

It's a basic lose-lose proposition and, as journalist Eric Schmitt wrote in a New York Times assessment of the situation, "it will be very hard to say no to General McChrystal." No wonder the president and some of his men are dragging their feet and looking elsewhere. As one typically anonymous "defense analyst" quoted in the Los Angeles Times said, the administration is suffering "buyer's remorse for this war... They never really thought about what was required, and now they have sticker shock."

Admittedly, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 51% of Americans are against sending in more troops. (Who knows how they would react to a president who went on TV to announce that he had genuinely reconsidered?) Official Washington is another matter. For General Petraeus, who claims to have no political ambitions but is periodically mentioned as the Eisenhower of 2012, how potentially peachy to launch your campaign against the president who lost you the war.

A Petraeus Moment?

In the present context, the media language being used to describe this military-civilian conflict of wills -- frustration, impatience, split, rupture, ire -- may fall short of capturing the import of a moment which has been brewing, institutionally speaking, for a long time. There have been increasing numbers of generals' "revolts" of various sorts in our recent past. Of course, George W. Bush was insistent on turning planning over to his generals (though only when he liked them), something Barack Obama criticized him for during the election campaign. ("The job of the commander in chief is to listen to the best counsel available and to listen even to people you don't agree with and then ultimately you make the final decision and you take responsibility for those actions.")

Now, it looks as if we are about to have a civilian-military encounter of the first order in which Obama will indeed need to take responsibility for difficult actions (or the lack thereof). If a genuine clash heats up, expect more discussion of "MacArthur moments," but this will not be Truman versus MacArthur redux, and not just because Petraeus seems to be a subtler political player than MacArthur ever was.

Over the nearly six decades that separate us from Truman's great moment, the Pentagon has become a far more overwhelming institution. In Afghanistan, as in Washington, it has swallowed up much of what once was intelligence, as it is swallowing up much of what once was diplomacy. It is linked to one of the two businesses, the Pentagon-subsidized weapons industry, which has proven an American success story even in the worst of economic times (the other remains Hollywood). It now holds a far different position in a society that seems to feed on war.

It's one thing for the leaders of a country to say that war should be left to the generals when suddenly embroiled in conflict, quite another when that country is eternally in a state of war. In such a case, if you turn crucial war decisions over to the military, you functionally turn foreign policy over to them as well. All of this is made more complicated, because the cast of "civilians" theoretically pitted against the military right now includes Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general who is the president's special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan (dubbed the "war czar" when he held the same position in the Bush administration), and James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, who is national security advisor, not to speak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The question is: will an already heavily militarized foreign policy geared to endless global war be surrendered to the generals? Depending on what Obama does, the answer to that question may not be fully, or even largely, clarified this time around. He may quietly give way, or they may, or compromises may be reached behind the scenes. After all, careers and political futures are at stake.

But consider us warned. This is a question that is not likely to go away and that may determine what this country becomes.

We know what a MacArthur moment was; we may find out soon enough what a Petraeus moment is.

Transcript: Secretary of State Clinton on CBS

Iran’s Nukes: Did Gates Just Complicate the Obama Position?

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HILLARY CLINTONHARRY SMITH: Madam Secretary, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

CLINTON: Thank you, Harry.

SMITH: The president said, about this secret facility that’s been uncovered in Iran, that it is inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program. What does the United States think this secret facility is for?

CLINTON: Well, we believe that it is a covert facility designed for uranium enrichment. It has not been disclosed. And therefore it raises additional suspicions about the Iranian intent regarding their nuclear program.

And this week we had several very important developments. First, we had, in this room, a bilateral meeting with President Medvedev and President Obama.

And in a very small setting where I was there, the president, you know, talked with great specificity with President Medvedev about the dual track that we are on regarding the Iranian nuclear program and the upcoming meeting on October 1st, and opened the discussion about the information that we had concerning this facility.

SMITH: So he told President Medvedev?

CLINTON: Yes. Yes. And what we also saw happen today, later that day, was an agreement by all the members of the so-called P-5- plus-1, United States, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Russia and China, all in agreement, saying that we expected answers from Iran in the October 1st meeting and that we were working on what’s called a dual track.

We’re pursuing the answers. We have made it clear to Iran that they have a right to peaceful nuclear energy for civilian purposes under appropriate safeguards and monitoring, but not to a nuclear weapons program.

And if we don’t get the answers that we’re expecting and the changes in behavior that we’re looking for, then we will work with our partners to move toward sanctions.

SMITH: You talked this summer about, if diplomacy failed, you called the sanctions “crippling sanctions” would be in order. What would those be?

CLINTON: Well, harry, we’re exploring how you broaden and deepen sanctions. Now, sanctions are already in place, as you know. But, like many sanction regimes, they’re leaky.

But in the last eight months, since we’ve been dealing with North Korea on a similar set of issues, we have forged an international consensus around very tough sanctions. And that’s given us some additional information about how to proceed on the Iranian front.

But this is a very serious matter. The Russians have come out with a strong statement saying that the burden has now shifted. It has shifted to Iran. They have to come to this meeting on October 1st and present convincing evidence as to the purpose of their nuclear program.

We don’t believe that they can present convincing evidence that it’s only for peaceful purposes. But we are going to put them to the test on October 1st.

SMITH: They’ve managed to hide a nuclear weapons development system for almost 20 years. Do you suspect that this is other than peaceful purposes? Because they have insisted, for the last half dozen a years or so, the only reason they’re interested in enriching uranium is for nuclear power for electricity.

CLINTON: Well, it certainly is hard to accept that at face value.

CLINTON: This latest incident concerning the facility at Qom, it would have been disclosed were it for peaceful purposes. There would have already been IAEA inspections.

We have been following this for several years in cooperation with some of our international partners, watching and assessing what the Iranians were doing. And then when this became known actually through the Iranians beginning to provide some information about it, we disclosed the fact and gave the information we had to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

So I guess one has to ask, if it’s for a peaceful purposes, why was it not public? Why was the fact of it not generally known instead of through our working with partners to discover it?

SMITH: Because the IAEA guidelines basically dictate that if you’re even...

CLINTON: That’s right.

SMITH: ... going to do anything like this, you have to send us your plans to start with.

CLINTON: That’s exactly right. And of course, as you point out rightly, there have been many other actions along the way that raise similar doubts.

Now, the Iranians keep insisting, no, no, this is just for peaceful purposes. Well, I think, as the Russians said in their statement, and as we believe, and what this meeting on October 1st is to test, is, fine, prove it, don’t assert it, prove it.

And we are looking to see what they have to say.

SMITH: You keep talking about the Russians and it’s interesting because President Medvedev almost did cartwheels once the president announced that the radar shields were going to not be constructed in the Czech Republic and the missile systems were going to be constructed in Poland.

Do you really have -- is Russia really in tune with the United States on this? Because they’ve made verbal statements in the past and then when it has come time to have the rubber meet the road, so to speak, they haven’t been there.

Will they really be there this time?

CLINTON: I think Russia has begun to see many more indications that Iran is engaging in threatening behavior, certainly these last incidents seem to confirm that.

And finally the Russians were very supportive of our sanctions against North Korea. President Medvedev said in this room that sanctions may not be preferable, but they may be inevitable.

So I think this is what diplomacy and engagement is about. We are doing what we think is right for the United States. The missile defense decision, the Iranian process, this is in the interest of our people, our security, our safety, and our friends and allies.

But we also believe that in working closely with Russia, sharing information, that they have been quite helpful this past week.

SMITH: Is there anything the Iranians can do in this meeting on October 1st to dissuade you from what you believe they’re up to? What can they say in this meeting to say we’re really -- all we’re trying to do is make electricity?

CLINTON: Well, they can’t say anything, because they’ve said that for years. But they can open up their entire system to the kind of extensive investigation that the facts call for.

SMITH: Is that the only thing the U.S. and the other nations that will be there -- is that the only thing you’ll be satisfied with, if they completely open the doors?

CLINTON: Well, we have to be satisfied. And there may be other approaches short of that. But, you know, I think it’s really essential that we satisfy ourselves and the international community, which has passed numerous resolutions against Iran’s program, pointing out that they’re violating U.N. and IAEA obligations and the Non- Proliferation Treaty.

So words are not enough. They’re going to have to come and demonstrate clearly to the international community what they’re up to.

SMITH: In a region and in a nation that has known some instability over the last couple of months, what do you think this means in light of that as a backdrop?

CLINTON: Well, Harry, that’s a really important question because we know that there has been instability. It’s not only what we see on the television screens, but what is reported to us. But we’re dealing with the government that is there.

We encourage the free expression of ideas and political choices, but this nuclear program really is the core of our concern right now. And we are very urgently pursuing the engagement strategy that the president talked about, while simultaneously working to get the kind of very tough sanctions that, you know, may well have to be imposed.

SMITH: All right. Let’s talk about Afghanistan for a couple of minutes.

General McChrystal made his report to President Obama. One of the things he says is there’s a year window in which the United States has to act in order to ensure that the insurgency doesn’t basically take over the country.

Do you agree with that assessment?

CLINTON: Well, let me just put General McChrystal’s report into the broader context because it doesn’t stand alone. It is part of a process. And let’s look at what we’ve done during the last nine months under President Obama’s leadership.

We inherited a situation. We didn’t reject it out of hand. We didn’t accept it out of hand. We engaged in a very thorough review. We reached some critical decisions, including looking at both Afghanistan and Pakistan together because, of course, the threat goes back and forth across the borders.

We also reaffirmed our commitment to going after Al Qaida, to dismantling, defeating them. We believe, and we’ve seen just this week here in New York; we believe that Al Qaida poses a direct threat to the United States, to friends and allies throughout the world.

So we are very clear about our mission. Our mission is to protect the United States and protect our friends and allies, and to go after the scourge of Al Qaida and related extremist groups.

Now, the decision that was made to add troops in the spring has not even been fully implemented yet. You know, you don’t get up and just deploy the 82nd Airborne and they get there the next day. We are only now reaching the end of the deployment cycle.

We also know that, going hand in hand with our military strategy was our civilian strategy, a much more focused effort, a much more accountable one, dealing with the government of Afghanistan. So we not only saw the change of commanders in the military, we saw a change in our ambassador and a beefing up of the embassy in Kabul.

At the same time, Afghanistan is going through an election. This is not like an election, you know, in Western Europe or in the United States. To carry out an election under these circumstances was going to be difficult under any conditions.

It’s not over yet. We have to wait until it is resolved -- hopefully, very soon, then make a new commitment about how we’re going to meet our strategic goals. And it’s going to be up to the president to determine how best to achieve that.

So, you know, General McChrystal, the new commander, was asked for his assessment. There’s other input that’s coming throughout the government that the president will take on board. But I think we ought to look at it in context.

SMITH: There’s growing, sort of, discontent with sending more troops into Afghanistan. And one of the issues is the Karzai government, which is corrupt, at least, and may, in fact, have tried to steal this most recent election.

Is it worth American blood and treasure to help support a regime like that?

CLINTON: Well, with all respect, we’re doing this for the United States. We’re doing this because we think that a return to a safe haven in Afghanistan with Al Qaida, with Taliban elements associated with Al Qaida, with the same purpose, to basically run a syndicate of terror out of either Afghanistan or the border region, is something we cannot tolerate.

And, you know, we have to recognize that this was always going to be a challenge.

Now, having said that, does the Karzai government or whoever is the next president have to do more to fulfill the needs of the Afghan people to understand what is expected from the rule of law, transparency and accountability? Absolutely.

But, again, we inherited a situation with a set of expectations and behaviors that we have gone about attempting to influence and change. And one of my highest priorities is, once this election is finalized, to work with our entire civilian team, with Special Representative Holbrooke, with Ambassador Eikenberry and everyone else, to really impress upon the new government what is expected of them.

But let’s not forget, Harry, this is about us sitting right here in New York. This is about making sure that we’ve got the intelligence and the capacity to interrupt potential attacks, that we try to continue our effort to destroy and defeat Al Qaida, which are unfortunately still, to this day, attempting to kill and destroy Americans and others.

SMITH: Najibullah Zazi went to Pakistan...

CLINTON: That’s right.

SMITH: ... to the border areas, in order to get bomb training. Is Pakistan doing enough to clean up its own house?

CLINTON: Well, look at -- again, what has happened in the last nine months? Pakistan has increased its commitment in the fight against the Taliban.

SMITH: They were successful in the Swat Valley.

CLINTON: Absolutely successful. A lot of people thought that would never happen. I believe that, if we engaged very intensively with our Pakistani friends -- and we did, through meetings in Washington and in Islamabad -- if we shared information, we listened to each other, that there would be a decision by the civilian and military leadership that the threat was directed at them, that it could undermine their government, in fact, you know, would lead to very dangerous consequences in terms of the survivability of the state in many parts of the country. So, yes, have they taken action? Absolutely.

SMITH: “Have they done enough?” was the question.

CLINTON: Well, you know, we are always working for more. I mean, as I just finished saying, we’re -- we’re not satisfied with anything. This is not, you know, a check-box kind of experience where, “Oh, we’re done with that. We’re done with that.”

But look at what has been accomplished. And I think that we will continue to see a very close coordination. But it is important for Americans to understand that focusing on Al Qaida and the Taliban -- who are largely, but not exclusively, now in Pakistan -- cannot be done if we allow them to return to a safe haven in Afghanistan. So this has to be viewed as part of the overall strategy.

SMITH: Madam Secretary, we thank you so much for your time.

CLINTON: Thank you, Harry. It’s always good to talk to you.

Transcripts: Secretary of Defense Gates on CNN, ABC

Iran’s Nukes: Did Gates Just Complicate the Obama Position?

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GATESRobert Gates on CNN's "State of the Union"

JOHN KING: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

We learned as the week came to an end about a new underground secret Iranian nuclear bunker, and the president described it this way. “The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.”

Tell us more about what we know, and do you have any doubt Iran was using this facility or planned to use this facility to develop nuclear weapons?

GATES: We’ve been watching the construction of this facility for quite some time, and one of the reasons that we waited to make it public was to ensure that our conclusions about its purpose were right.

This is information shared among ourselves, the British, the French, as we’ve gone along. And I think that, certainly, the intelligence people have no doubt that this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only because the Iranians kept it a secret. If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes, there’s no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.

KING: Take me back in time. You say you’ve known about it for some time, dating back into the Bush administration. You, of course, were serving in the Bush administration. How far back?

GATES: Well, it’s hard for me to remember, but at least a couple of years we’ve been watching it.

KING: At least a couple of years. Because the former vice president, Dick Cheney, is on record as saying in the closing months of the administration, he was an advocate for possibly using military action against some of these Iranian sites. Was this one of his targets, this area we’ve just learned about?

GATES: Well, I think I’ll just let his statement speak for itself.

KING: All right. We know -- and correct me if I’m wrong, please -- that you were skeptical about that, in fact, opposed to that. You didn’t think that was the way to go. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said publicly many times how skeptical he is about the military options here. I just want you to help an American out there who says, we can’t trust Ahmadinejad, this has been going on for years. We don’t think sanctions will work. Why don’t we do something about it? Explain to that person out there, whether they work in the United States Congress or whether it’s just an average American, when you look at the contingencies that you have available to you and the president has available to him, are there any good military options when it comes to these deep underground facilities?

GATES: Well, without getting into any specifics, I would just say we obviously don’t take any options off the table.

My view has been that there has been an opportunity through the use of diplomacy and economic sanctions to persuade the Iranians to change their approach to nuclear weapons.

The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened.

So I think, as I say, while you don’t take options off the table, I think there’s still room left for diplomacy. The P5 plus 1 [US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China] will be meeting with Iran here shortly. The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers. And there obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. And I think we have the time to make that work.

KING: I want to get to that diplomacy in just a minute, but when you shared this intelligence with others, I want to ask you specifically about the case of Israel, which you know in the past has been very skeptical about the diplomatic route. And many have thought perhaps Israel would take matters into its own hands because it is in the neighborhood. What did the Israeli government, specifically the Israeli military, say when they learned of this intelligence, about this new second facility?

GATES: Well, Israel, obviously, thinks of the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. We’ve obviously been in close touch with them, as our ally and friend, and continue to urge them to let this diplomatic and economic sanctions path play out.

KING: And as that goes forward, President Sarkozy was quite skeptical and he was very clear, this year, December, he wants to see progress or else we’ll see tougher sanctions. From your perspective, what sanctions would have the most teeth, would work?

GATES: Well, there are a variety of options still available, including sanctions on banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for their oil and gas industry. I think there’s a pretty rich list to pick from, actually.

KING: If you look at that list, though, in some of those cases, you’ll find the suppliers, gasoline, imports, some of the equipment and technology would be China, would you not?

GATES: China’s participation is clearly important.

KING: And the early indications are they will or won’t help?

GATES: Well, I haven’t had -- I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to the president or those who were with him in Pittsburgh, so I don’t know the nature of the conversations that they had with the Chinese there, but I do have the sense that the Chinese take this pretty seriously.

KING: Let me ask you about the situation in Iran, as this diplomacy goes forward. You’re the defense secretary now. You have been the director of Central Intelligence. When you look at post- election Iran, all the talk of turmoil, reports of tension between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, Ahmadinejad and the reforms, is the water bubbling or is the water boiling in the sense that you just see trouble or do you see potential seeds of revolution?

GATES: Well, I guess I would say it’s simmering. It’s clear in the aftermath of the election, that there are some fairly deep fissures in Iranian society and politics, and probably even in the leadership. And frankly, this is one of the reasons why I think additional and especially severe economic sanctions could have some real impact, because we know that the sanctions that have already been placed on the country have had an impact. The unemployment among youth is about 40 percent. They have some real serious problems, especially with the younger people.

So I think that we are seeing some changes or some divisions in the Iranian leadership and in society that we really haven’t seen in the 30 years since the revolution.

KING: And if you think sanctions work and this is a clear violation -- they hid this from the world, they hid this from everybody, in clear violation of their commitments -- why wait? Why not slap tougher sanctions now? Why wait until the end of the year?

GATES: Well, the opportunity exists in the October 1st meeting and over the next few weeks to see if we can leverage publicizing this additional illegal facility and activity to leverage the Iranians to begin to make some concessions, to begin to abide by the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

GATES: I think we are all sensitive to the possibility of the Iranians trying to run the clock out on us. And so nobody thinks of this as an open-ended process.

KING: And so, lastly, on this point, this facility, obviously, is not on-line yet. It is under construction, not on-line. So Iran’s capability in terms of being ready to perhaps have a nuclear bomb, in the past, the public statements have been a year to three away. Is that still operational?

GATES: That would be my view.

KING: The defense secretary, Robert Gates.

We’ll be back in just a moment with another big decision facing the secretary and the president, whether to send thousands more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Stay with us.


KING: We’re back with the defense secretary, Robert Gates.

Very momentous decision. Recommendation you will have to make to the president, the president will have to make to the nation about whether to send thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of more troops into Afghanistan. I want to start with a threshold question. Do you have full confidence in the commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, on the ground in Afghanistan now?

GATES: Absolutely. I think we have in General McChrystal the very best commanding officer we could possibly have there.

KING: Does the president share that?

GATES: I believe so.

KING: And then is it a logical extension then to go on to say, if you have such full confidence, that if General McChrystal says, I need 40,000 more troops, he will get them?

GATES: I think we are in the middle of a review. The president, when he made his decisions on strategy in Afghanistan at the end of March, said that after the Afghan elections, that we would review where we are and review the strategy.

We now, in addition to that, have General McChrystal’s assessment of the situation. He found a situation in Afghanistan that is more serious than we had thought and that he had thought before going out there. So we’re in the middle of a process of evaluating, really, the decisions the president made in late March to say, have we got the strategy right? And once we confidently have the strategy right, then we’ll address the question of additional resource...


KING: As you know, some of your friends on Capitol Hill are saying, why wait, in the sense of because of the ominous warnings, General McChrystal sounds, in his report, among them, this: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term, over the next 12 months, while Afghan security capability matures, risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

If the situation is that dire and he believes he needs more troops, why wait?

GATES: Well, first of all, I would like to remember -- remind people that the debate within the Bush administration over the surge took about three months, from October to December 2006.

It’s very important that we get this right and there is always a dialogue between the chiefs -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Centcom commander, and our commander in the field. We had the same kind of dialogue with General Odierno about the timing of pulling our combat units out of Iraq. And the conclusion of all of that was actually for General Odierno to take some additional risk. And it has proved to work very well.

So the question is, there has got to be some dialogue between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of Central Command, as well as General McChrystal, and then a discussion among the president’s national security team.

KING: You know the conversation in town,though, some, understand the surge debate, find this one rather remarkable in the sense that you now have General McChrystal, part of his report has leaked out, saying he needs more troops. Admiral Mullen has testified to Congress recently he believes we’re going to need more troops. Some see an effort to almost put the president in a box before he deals with the other issues.

If you have the military, the admiral and the generals on record saying we need more troops, does the president really have a choice to say no?

GATES: Well, I think the president always has a choice. He’s the commander-in-chief.

The reality is, do we need additional forces? How many additional forces? And to do what?

And it’s the “to do what?” that I think we need to make sure we have confidence we understand before making recommendations to the president.

KING: Help me on that point, because there’s a lot of questions about the legitimacy of the election. Did President Karzai commit fraud to the level at which he perhaps has stolen the election? The political vacuum could be months. You may have to make your decision uncertain as to the political leadership in Afghanistan unless you wait. There could be a runoff. There could be contestments (ph) and challenges. Would you prefer some sort of power-sharing arrangement to move past this vacuum?

GATES: Well, I don’t think it’s up to us to tell the Afghans how to organize their government. The reality is that you still have an election process playing out. You have both the Afghan and the international election commissions evaluating the ballots. And if they come to a conclusion that there was a real winner, then I think it has legitimacy for both the international and the national -- and the Afghan audience.

But I think, above all, what’s important is whether or not the government of Afghanistan has legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans. All of the information that we have available to us today indicates that continues to be the case.

KING: Let’s turn to the debate back home. You try to stay of the politics, but it does influence what happens in this town. As you know, a growing number of people on Capitol Hill want a clearer exit strategy. They want benchmarks. They want to know where the end is. Some have even said -- a few, but some have said we need a time line to get U.S. troops out. And now a liberal organization that was very vocal in the Iraq political debate is urging its members to call the president, e-mail the White House and say, don’t send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to be stuck in a quagmire.

Is Afghanistan a quagmire?

GATES: I don’t think so, and I think that with a general like McChrystal, it won’t become one. I think that we are being very careful to look at this as we go along. We’ve put out metrics so that we can measure whether or not we’re making progress. And if we’re not making progress, then we’re prepared to adjust our strategy, just as we’re looking at whether adjustments are needed right now.

So I think that the notion of time lines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think, would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States. Taliban and Al Qaida as far as they’re concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaida recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on.

I think it would be a huge setback for the United States. I think what we need is a strategy that we think can be successful and then to pursue it, and pursue it with confidence and resolution.

KING: You mentioned the history, and you’re a student of history, and you’re on the record talking about how this did become a quagmire for the Soviets, who had about 120,000 troops in Afghanistan. And you have said many times the Afghan people began to view them as occupiers, not as friends.

Where’s the line for the United States so that you don’t cross that very same line?

GATES: Well, I think the analogy of the situation with the Soviets really doesn’t hold. The Soviets’ presence in Afghanistan was condemned by virtually every country in the world. They conducted a war of terror against the Afghans. They probably killed 1 million Afghans, made 5 million of them into refugees, tried to impose an alien social and cultural change on the country.

So the situations are completely different. And I think that the -- I think the Afghans continue to see us as their ally and partner.

KING: General McChrystal, in an interview that will air on “60 Minutes” tonight, talks about the breadth and the geographic spread of the violence in Afghanistan. He says, “It’s a little more than I would have gathered.”

We’ve been at this nearly eight years. Why are we still surprised?

GATES: Well, I will tell you, I think that the strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s. And that strategy was more about the Soviet Union than it was about Afghanistan.

KING: You served in the Bush administration. That’s a pretty broad damnation of the Bush strategy.

GATES: Well, the reality is, we were fighting a holding action. We were very deeply engaged in Iraq. I increased -- I extended the 10th Mountain Division the first month I was on this job in January of ‘07. I extended -- I put another brigade into Afghanistan in the spring of 2007. And that’s all we had to put in there. Every -- we were -- we were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that we have now.

KING: And if it comes to the point of sending more, this time, if the president agrees and General McChrystal gets -- maybe it’s 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000, do we have the troops now? If you needed 40,000, could you find it?

GATES: Well, I think, if the president were to decide to approve additional combat forces, they really probably could not begin to flow until some time in January.

KING: We’re about out of time. I want to ask you a couple quick questions in closing. One is, do you see any chance now, because of the delays in the political problems, that the administration will keep its promise to close Gitmo, the Guantanamo Bay detention center, in one year, as promised?

GATES: Well, I think -- I think it has proven more complicated than anticipated. I will be the first to tell you that, when the president-elect’s national security new team met in Chicago on December 7th, I was one of those who argued for a firm deadline. Because I said that’s the only way you move the bureaucracy in Washington.

And you have to extend that date, if at least you have a strong plan, showing you’re making progress in that direction, then it shouldn’t be a problem to extend it. And we’ll just see whether that has to happen or not.

KING: And lastly, you served eight presidents. What makes this one unique, or is there anything unique when it comes to these decisions of war and peace?

GATES: He is very analytical. He’s very deliberate about the way he goes through things. He wants to understand everything. He delves very deeply into these issues. I’m not going to get into comparing the different presidents. I very much enjoy working for this one.

KING: Mr. Secretary, thank for your time.

GATES: Thank you.

Robert Gates on ABC's This Week

STEPHANOPOULOS: And we begin with the secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

Welcome back to “This Week.”

GATES: Thank you.

STEPHANOPOULOS: National security was front and center all week long. Let’s begin with Afghanistan. We saw the leak of General McChrystal’s review, and he concluded that the United States has about 12 months to reverse Taliban momentum and that, without new troops, the strategy laid out by the president is likely to fail.

And I want to show what the president said back in March when he laid out that strategy. He called it “new and comprehensive.”


OBAMA: This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review. My administration has heard from our military commanders, as well as our diplomats. We’ve consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, with our partners and our NATO allies, and with other donors and international organizations. We’ve also worked closely with members of Congress here at home.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, this was clearly a carefully considered strategy. And now the president is telling us -- he told me last week that he can’t approve General McChrystal’s request until we get the strategy right. Why the second thoughts on the strategy?

GATES: I don’t think there are second thoughts so much as, you know, when he made his decisions at the end of March, he also announced that he would -- we would be reviewing the policy and the strategy after the elections...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But he said the tool was in the tactics, not the strategy.

GATES: Well, I -- I think that he -- he clearly felt that we would have to reassess where we are after the election. Now, in addition to having a flawed election in Afghanistan, we now have General McChrystal’s assessment.

When the president made his comments at -- at the end of March, his decisions, obviously, General McChrystal was not in place. We now have his assessment. He has found the situation on the ground in Afghanistan worse than he had -- than he anticipated.

And so I think what the president is now saying is, in light of the election, in light of McChrystal’s more concerning assessment of the situation on the ground, have we got the strategy right, were the decisions in -- that he made at the end of March the right ones? Do we need to make some adjustments in light of what we’ve found?

And once we’ve decided whether or not to make adjustments in the strategy, then we will consider the additional resources.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But did -- but didn’t General McChrystal take these problems of the election into account? He didn’t even deliver his report until August 30th, which was after the elections. Dennis Blair, the head of national intelligence, said back in February or March that we could foresee that there would be problems with this election.

GATES: Well, I think -- I think that the potential magnitude of the problems in the election really didn’t become apparent until the vote count began in early September. So -- so I think it was really after he submitted his -- his assessment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So now we have a real dilemma. Does that mean that the United States is re-thinking whether it can even -- whether it can bolster President Karzai’s government, whether we have to give up on it?

GATES: Well, I -- you know, the Afghan people have gone to the polls, and we have the two election commissions -- one internal, one international -- that could still come to conclusions, even if they throw out some fraudulent ballots or a number of fraudulent ballots, that there was a clear winner.

The key is whether the Afghans believe that their government has legitimacy. And everything that I’ve seen in the intelligence and elsewhere indicates that remains the case.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It does seem, though, that you’re caught in a dilemma right now. You’ve got your commanding general on the ground who’s given you this report. He’s said that troops -- more troops are necessary or you risk failure.

That report has been endorsed by the head of Central Command, David Petraeus. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Congress and said we probably need more troops.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the president is saying that we need to think about the strategy right now. And it really creates the impression of a rift between the civilian leadership, you, as secretary of Defense, the president, and the uniformed military.

GATES: I don’t think that’s the case at all. I talked with -- I had an extensive conversation on the telephone with both General McChrystal and General Petraeus on -- on Wednesday. General McChrystal was very explicit in saying that he thinks this assessment, this review that’s going on right now is exactly the right thing to do. He obviously doesn’t want it to be open-ended or be a protracted kind of thing...

STEPHANOPOULOS: How long will it take?

GATES: Well, I -- you know, I -- it’s not going to take -- I think it -- it’s a matter of a few weeks. And people should remember that the debate within the Bush administration on the surge lasted three months, from October to December 2006.

So I think it’s important to make sure we’re confident that we have the right strategy in place, and then we can make the decisions on additional forces.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the clock really does seem to be ticking, again, to go back to General McChrystal’s report. He says that if we don’t turn the tide in the next 12 months, we risk failure. So every week that goes by puts the soldiers who are on the ground at risk, doesn’t it?

GATES: But having the -- having the wrong strategy would put even more soldiers at risk. So I think it’s important to get the strategy right and then we can make the resources decision.

As I say, I don’t expect this to be protracted process. The reality is that, even if the president did decide to approve additional combat forces going into Afghanistan, the first forces couldn’t arrive until January.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what are the options right now? You have said in the past that you didn’t believe what some people are recommending -- stepping up drone attacks, stepping up missile attacks, using special forces -- you don’t believe or haven’t believed in the past that that’s sufficient to contain the Taliban.

GATES: I think that most people who -- the people that I’ve talked to in the Pentagon who are the experts on counterterrorism essentially say that counterterrorism is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists. And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground, getting information from people like the Afghans or, in the case of Iraq, the Iraqis.

And so you can’t do this from -- from a distance or remotely, in the view of virtually all of the experts that I’ve talked to.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So if that -- if that’s not going to work, and then you have General McChrystal who said in his report that you need a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign, counterinsurgency is the answer, that certainly seems to be endorsed by General Petraeus. Is there a middle ground between those two poles?

GATES: Well, I think -- I think people are -- are, frankly, so focused on -- on the comment that -- in General McChrystal’s report about additional resources that they’re neglecting to look at the rest of what’s in his report and that -- where he talks very explicitly about the fact that -- that a preoccupation with the resources or with additional forces, if you don’t have the strategy right, is a mistake.

And -- and he, as I say, he understands this process that’s underway. But -- but what he talks about in most of that assessment is not resources, but a different way of using U.S. forces and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

It talks about accelerating the growth of the Afghan national security forces. It spends a lot of time talking about how we stay on side with the Afghan people. This is mostly what McChrystal’s assessment is about.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it’s a resource-intensive strategy, isn’t it? He says that the troops have to probably be more lightly armed and engage more with the population. And it’s hard to ignore that stark conclusion: Success is not ensured by additional forces alone, as you point out, but continued under-resourcing will likely cause failure. Failure.

GATES: Well, that’s what we’re discussing. And how do we avoid that?

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, as you said, you hope to have this done in a few weeks and you want to avoid failure, as well, but the president has not made any -- any decision at all on resources? Has he -- has he ruled it out?

GATES: No, I haven’t even given him General McChrystal’s request for resources. I have the -- I -- I’m receiving the -- the report. I’m going to sit on it until I think -- or the president thinks -- it’s appropriate to bring that into the discussion of the national security principles.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s what -- General McChrystal says we have to have more troops to avoid failure. Where we’ve had a lack of clarity is on what success means in Afghanistan. You pointed out at the beginning of this year what it was, and he said we’re not -- we shouldn’t expect a Valhalla in Afghanistan.

The president’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was asked for his definition of success last month, and here’s what he said.


HOLBROOKE: I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we’ll know it when we see it.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that good enough?

GATES: Well, I think -- I think we know it when we see it, and we see it in Iraq. I think that success in Afghanistan looks a great deal like success in Iraq, in this respect, that the Afghan national security forces increasingly take the lead in protecting their own territory and going after the insurgents and protecting their own people. We withdraw to an over-watch situation and then we withdraw altogether.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Which first required a surge in Iraq.

GATES: It did require the surge. And that’s -- the issue that we will be looking at over the next several weeks -- the next couple of weeks or so -- is, do we have the right strategy?

And that includes the question of -- of, is the -- is McChrystal’s approach, in the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Command commander, the right approach? And if so, then what -- what would be the additional resources required?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to Iran. The president has put Iran on notice that they’re going to have to allow inspectors into this secret site which U.S. intelligence discovered for enriching uranium. President Ahmadinejad says that President Obama is mistaken and the United States owes Iran an apology. Is Iran going to get one?

GATES: Not a chance.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what happens next? The president has said that this site is not configured for peaceful purposes. Now, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded -- of the U.S. government -- concluded that Iran had stopped its active nuclear weapons program in 2003. Does the president’s conclusion -- that this site is not configured for peaceful purposes -- mean that that intelligence estimate is no longer operative?

GATES: No, not necessarily. But what it does mean is that they had a covert site. They did not declare it. They didn’t -- if -- if this were a peaceful nuclear program, why didn’t they announce this site when they began to construct it? Why didn’t they allow IAEA inspectors in from the very beginning?

This -- this is part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning with respect to their nuclear program. So it’s no wonder that world leaders think that they have ulterior motives, that they have a plan to go forward with nuclear weapons. Otherwise, why would they do all this in such a deceptive manner?

STEPHANOPOULOS: U.S. intelligence had been tracking this site for quite some time before President Obama made it public. Is this the only secret site that we know of?

GATES: Well, I’m not going to -- I’m not going to get into that. I would just say that we’re watching very closely.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the United States government believe that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program?

GATES: I think that -- my personal opinion is that the Iranians have the intention of having nuclear weapons. I think the question of whether they have made a formal decision to -- to move toward the development of nuclear weapons is -- is in doubt.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said a couple of weeks ago that Iran is closer to what he called “breakout” capacity on developing a nuclear weapon. What does that mean exactly? And how much time -- if they do, indeed, have the intent -- how much time do we have before Iran has a nuclear weapons capacity?

GATES: Well, I think “breakout” in the -- in the ambassador’s terms means they have enriched enough uranium to a relatively low level that if they have another facility where they could enrich it more highly, that they have a -- they have enriched enough at a low level that they could, in essence, throw out all the IAEA inspectors, change the configuration of the -- of the cascades and the enrichment capability, and enrich it to a level where they could use it -- where they could make it into weapons-grade uranium.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you say you personally have no doubt that they want weapons. Can that weapons program be stopped with sanctions?

GATES: I think that what is critical is persuading the Iranians that -- or leading them to the conclusion that their security will be diminished by trying to get nuclear weapons, rather than enhanced.

And I think that, because of the election, we see fissures in Iran that we have not seen before, not in the 30 years since the revolution. And I think that severe sanctions, if the Iranian -- that, first of all, we -- we have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure.

And so the first step is the meeting on October 1st with the 5+1 powers, with the Iranians, to see if they will begin to change their policy in a way that is satisfactory to -- to the great powers.

And then, if that doesn’t work, then I think you begin to move in the direction of severe sanctions. And their economic problems are difficult enough that -- that I think that severe sanctions would have the potential of -- of bringing them to change their -- their policies.

I think -- you asked me, how long do I think we have? I would say somewhere between one to three years.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn, finally, to Guantanamo. We have just a couple of minutes left. A major story in The Washington Post suggesting that the president’s deadline of January 22nd for closing Guantanamo will not be met, and White House officials tell me that at least some prisoners will still be in Guantanamo on January 22nd and beyond. How big a setback is that? And how long will it take to finally close Guantanamo?

GATES: When the president-elect met with his new national security team in Chicago on December 7th...


GATES: ... last year, this issue was discussed, about closing Guantanamo and executive orders to do that and so on. And the question was, should we set a deadline? Should we pin ourselves down?

I actually was one of those who said we should, because I know enough from being around this town that, if you don’t put a deadline on something, you’ll never move the bureaucracy. But I also said, and then if we find we can’t get it done by that time but we have a good plan, then you’re in a position to say, “It’s going to take us a little longer, but we are moving in the direction of implementing the policy that the president set.” And I think that’s the position that...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s where we are. So the deadline of January 22nd will not be met?

GATES: It’s going to be tough.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And -- and how many prisoners will be there on January 22nd, do you know?

GATES: I don’t know the answer to that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, as you said, it’s going to be tough and likely will not be met?

GATES: We’ll see.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One -- one other deadline question. When you were working for President Bush, you used to keep a countdown clock on your desk, counting down the number of days you had left to serve. Is that clock still there?

GATES: No, I threw the clock out. It was obviously useless.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re in for the long haul?

GATES: We’ll see. The president-elect and I, when we first discussed this, agreed to leave it open.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Gates, thank you very much for your time today.

GATES: Thanks a lot.

Afghanistan: The Difficulties of "The Necessary War"

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US TROOPS AFGHANAmidst the drumbeat from media, "experts", and many politicians for further US military intervention in Afghanistan, Stephen Walt's concise but effective survey of the complications of "the necessary war", posted on his blog for Foreign Policy, is a depressing but essential read, "These (and other) contradictions might help us understand why the current effort in Afghanistan is likely to fail, even if we devote a lot more resources to it and even if the people in charge do their best":

Why is Afghanistan so hard?

Why is Afghanistan so hard? It's not difficult to think of reasons: 1) the long-standing divisions among the various tribal/ethnic groups that make up Afghan society, 2) the mountainous, inhospitable terrain, 3) lack of infrastructure, 4) weak governmental institutions and little history of centralized authority, 5) the destructive effects of many years of warfare, 6) endemic corruption, 7) traditional hostility to foreign occupation, etc. ... Given all that, it is hardly surprising that outside efforts to rebuild the country and establish a legitimate central government have thus far failed to accomplish very much.

If that weren't enough, our efforts there are also hampered by some inherent strategic contradictions. In particular, most of the things the United States might do to improve the situation tend to make other aspects of the problem worse. Even if we make progress on one dimension, it tends to set us back in some other way. Here are five reasons why running harder seems to leave us in the same place.

1. If the U.S. does more, others do less.

The United States didn't want NATO's help when it first went into Afghanistan in 2002. As one U.S. official put it at the time, "the more allies you have, the more permissions you have to get." Those days are long past, however, and the Obama administration would love to get more help from its allies. Unfortunately, working with lots of allies creates obvious coordination problems (e.g., the recent airstrike at German instigation that killed a number of Afghan civilians), and public support for the war is visibly waning in Europe (as it is in the United States). Even worse, there is a basic contradiction between the Obama administration's decision to increase US force levels and its desire to get greater allied assistance. As the well-known theory of collective goods tells us, the more we do, the more that other states will be tempted to "free-ride," leaving Uncle Sam holding the bag.

2. The more money we put in, the more corrupt Afghanistan will become.

Afghanistan has two main industries: opium growing and international assistance. It also has an endemic problem with corruption. Even if various forms of external assistance do accomplish some worthy tasks, it also tends to reinforce the other dysfunctional behaviors that have plagued the Karzai regime since its inception. In short, even well-intentioned and admirable efforts to help the Afghan people in concrete ways may not leave us in a better position overall.

Read rest of article...

Video, Transcript, and Analysis: Gates Interview with Al Jazeera (7 September)

On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke to Al Jazeera on a range of issues including the situation in Iraq, the Iran nuclear progamme, the "necessary war" in Afghanistan, the role of Pakistan in the region, and the ties of United States with Latin America.

The most critical point Gates made was on the Iranian pursuit of uranium enrichment. It appears that the US is trying to neutralise Israeli opposition to a peace process with the "threat" of Palestine by offering an incentive of dealing with the greater "threat" from Iran. Washington will lead a political campaign rallying Arab states against Tehran's ambitions if Israel in turn meets some of the Arab concerns by engaging in genuine discussions with the Palestinian Authority:
I think there's a central question or a central point here to be made and it has to do both with our friends and allies in the region, our Arab allies, as well as the Iranian nuclear programme, and that is one of the pathways, to get the Iranians to change their approach on the nuclear issue, is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardise their security, not enhance it.

So the more that our Arab friends and allies can straighten their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their co-operation, both with each other and with us, I think sends the signal to the Iranians that this path they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.


Q - There are rumblings of discontent with the war in Afghanistan among many Americans. Is that cause for concern to you personally as secretary of defence?

Americans know that our country has been at war for a number of years ever since we were attacked in 2001.

Obviously we've lost a lot of our young men and women in combat, not to mention the casualties in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11.

And so there is a sort of war awareness on the part of the American people.

By the same token, I believe that they and members of our congress vividly remember that it was from Afghanistan that the attack was launched.

And that the Taliban did not just provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, but actively co-operated with them, colluded with them and provided them with a worldwide base of operations.

And so I think the American people know that we have to work with the Afghan government and people so that they can establish control over their own territory and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for al-Qaeda in the future.

The reality is also that al-Qaeda has killed many more Muslims than it has Americans, Europeans and others.

So this is a challenge we all face and I am confident the American people will sustain their committment to help the Afghan people.

Q - How much is the US in a pickle in Afghanistan?

I think the picture is mixed. It's clear that the Taliban have had success in reinfiltrating back into the country.

They have intimidated a lot of Afghans. And so we and our allies and a lot of the security forces, clearly have our work cut out for us.

The situation is serious, but General [Stanley] McChrystal and, I must say, the Afghan defence minister [Abdul Rahim] Wardak have told me that we can be successful.

Q - In light of the US attack in Kunduz, which resulted in the killing of many civilian Afghans, how much of a real problem are civilian deaths in Afghanistan?

I think it's a real problem, and General McChrystal thinks it's a real problem too.

Clearly, we regret any loss of civilian life in Afghanistan, and I've addressed this issue while in Afghanistan as well in the United States. And one of the central themes of General McChrystal's new approach in Afghanistan is significant change in our tactical approach to try and minimise the number of innocent civilians that are killed.

So he has changed the rules in terms of air power. He has issued a directive that convoys obey Afghan traffic laws, and, in fact, that our troops take some additional risk to themselves to avoid innocent Afghan casualties.

Part of the challenge here is that the Taliban actively target innocent civilians and they also create circumstances where they mingle among innocent civilians.

And they are willing to put innocent civilians at risk.

But we are trying to figure out new tactics that minimise this.

But it is a challenge. Central to the success of the 42 nations that are trying to help the Afghan people and government at this point is that the Afghan people continue to believe that we are their friends, their partners and here to help them.

So civilian casualties are a problem for us and we are doing everything conceivable to try and avoid that.

I think that based on the latest polling that we have, nationwide, in Afghanistan, fewer than 10 per cent of the people support the Taliban.

The Taliban's approach is one principally of intimadation of villagers and others, and Afghans don't want to live under those circumstances. They don't want to live under the Taliban rule again.

While they may not actively support the US, neither do they support the Taliban.

The Afghan people have been at war for over 30 years. What they want is peace and security. Over time, we and all of the international community with us, along with the Afghan security forces, are in a position to try to bring that to them.

Q - Do you think saying the US is in Afghanistan to help the people holds water despite the fact that Afghans have traditionally been hostile to foreign forces in their country? In the past they rejected occupation, first by the British and later on by the Soviets, for example.

I think that the historical rejection of foreign powers has been because the Afghan people have come to see those powers, whether it's Britain or the Soviet Union or anyone else, as being there for their own imperial interests, rather than being there in the interests in the Afghan people.

We have no interest in a permanent presence in Afghanistan; no interest in bases in Afghanistan.

What our interest is, is in giving the Afghan people the capacity to protect its own people and to prevent Afghanistan from being a centre for violent extremists again. And then we'll leave.

And I think that's an important message from us to the Afghan people. We want to give them the capacity to protect their own security as well as the security of other nations around the world from threats emanating from Afghanistan, and then we'll be gone.

Q - When Barack Obama said the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, did he say that because he knew it could be a winnable situation or because if he said otherwise and he talked about exiting Afghanistan, people would say President Obama does not have what it takes to look after the national security concerns of Americans?

I do not believe that President Obama would have made trhe committment he has made if he did not believe we could achieve our objectives in Afghanistan, which as I have described are giving them the capacity to secure their own territory and prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan.

If he didn't think, he could achieve those objectives, I don't believe he would have committed the additional forces he has, or made the statement in support of the strategy as he did a few weeks ago.

Q - So you think the war in Afghanistan is winnable?

I don't like to speak in terms of winning or losing. I think we need to speak in terms of achieving our objectives.

This is not just about the United States, it's about the Afghan government and people, about dozens of nations and nongovernmental organisations that are in Afghanistan that all share the same objectives that I have just described.

Which is to bring peace and security to the Afghan people and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for violent extremists.

I think that those objectives are achievable and I think that's the way we ought to think about it.

Q - There is a debate about the level of US troops in Afghanistan. Some people say to secure the gains the US makes in Afghanistan, the troop level needs to be increased. Others say the more you increase the level of troops, the more you increase the targets for the Taliban.

We are not yet beginning to think about significant troops in Afghanistan.

The next step for us is to evaluate General McChrystal's assessment of the situation and the way he intends to implement the president's strategy going forward. And once we've done that, then we will look at the question of whether additional resources are needed to achieve those objectives.

I have been concerned about ... I have had a number of reservations about the number of US troops.

One of those is - as we were just talking - about whether our forces come to be seen by the Afghans at some point as occupiers rather than partners.

General McChrystal's point, which I think has great validity, is: it's really how those forces are used and how they interact with the Afghan people that determines how they are seen by the Afghans.

And I think that the approach that he has taken, in terms of partnering with the Afghans, and interacting with the Afghan people, and supporting them, mitigates the concerns that I had.

There are issues on both sides of [the argument] and, frankly, I haven't made up my own mind at this point, in terms of whether more forces are needed.

Q - So, as far as you are concerned, thinking about withdrawing the US militarily from Afghanistan, even thinking about it, is out of the question?

That's my view.

Q - This takes me back to the original point you made about 9/11. President Bush made the original decision to go to war in Afghanistan, which he did, and then subsequently made the decision to go to war in Iraq, opening himself to criticism that he diverted crucial attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. And yet, now we have President Obama saying that it is a war of necessity. A lot of people would argue it was a war of necessity then, but having moved away from it, then come back to it again, it's become a war of choice.

It is a matter of first of all, this gets very tied up into US politics and the controversies of the war in Iraq and so on. I think that success in achieiving our objectives in Afghanistan has been a consistent theme since 2002, for both the Bush administration and the Obama administration.

I think President Obama would say as you suggested that our attention was diverted by Iraq and now it is important to focus, again, on the situation in Afghanistan, and the truth is the situation in Afghanistan has changed, and it really began to change in 2005 and 2006.

Frankly, when agreements were reached on the Pakistani side of the border, it essentially relieved the pressure from the Pakistan side, on the Taliban who were then in Pakistan.

And so we have seen a steady increase in violence that really began late in 2005 and early 2006, and the Taliban have gotten better and better over that time.

You also now have alliances of convenience between the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - his group - and al-Qaeda. So it is now perhaps a more complex situation than it was in 2002.

But in terms of the determination to deal with this problem and partner with the Afghans in achieving these objectives, the president is absolutely firm.

Q - When you say the situation now is much more complex, to what extent is that synonymous with saying we, US politicians, missed the bandwagon?

The way I would phrase it, and the way we have phrased, it is that we did not provide the resources in Afghanistan early enough to stem this change in the situation in 2005 and 2006.

And we have to speak frankly: because of the troop commitments in Iraq, we didn't have the resources to move in reinforcements if you will as the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate.

When I first arrived in this job, I extended one brigade in Afghanistan in January 2007 and added another brigade later in spring 2007 but that was really about all the resources that we had at that time.

As we have drawn down in Iraq, more capability has become available.

Q - I would like to ask you about the 'shenanigans' with the news agency Associated Press over the publication of the picture of the dead US marine. Doesn't that put you in a difficult position, leaving you open to the accusation of infringing or violating freedom of expression?

I have, in a letter that I sent to the head of the Associated Press, I said this is not a matter of law, this is not a matter of policy, this is not a constitutional issue, this is a question of judgement, of common decency, and out of respect for the family.

What I asked was, that they defer to the wishes of the family that these pictures of their maimed and stricken child not be provided the newspaper all over the United States. They chose to go ahead and do it anyway.

Q - And you are not concerned that this may have been interpreted as an infringement on the freedom of press?

No I don't think. There is no question, no issue of infringement of the freedom of the press whatsoever. I was asking them, I didn't pressure them, I didn't threaten them.

All I did was ask the. In fact, the words that I used with the head of the Associated Press was that "I beg you to defer to the wishes of the father of this marine".

That's all I asked. That's not an infringement of the freedom of the press. That's an appeal to common decency.

Q - [Washington Post columnist] George Will recently wrote about Pakistan, saying that it is the country that really matters. What do you make of that, given that the implications are that Afghanistan does not really matter, that the US should get out of Afghanistan?

Pakistan is very important. It is important intrinsically to the United States.

We have been a friend of Pakistan's for a long time and an ally of Pakistan's. We've had a very close relationship and we look forward to building that relationship, going forward completely independent of Afghanistan.

I think one of the new aspects of the president's strategy with respect to Afghanistan is the recognition that the problem we face there, we and the Afghans, is a regional problem.

And as we've seen in recent months, it is a problem that the Pakistani government faces and so I think Pakistan clearly is important.

It is important in its own right to the United States, as a friend and ally, but it is also important in terms of violent extremists that cross back and forth across that border and put both the government of Afghanistan and the government of Pakistan at risk.

Q - Given the difficulties that successive Pakistani civilian governments have had, how dependable, from a US point of view, do you think the current government in Pakistan is, in terms of being able to deal not only with the volatility of Pakistan but also the regional volatility, Afghanistan, India and so forth?

I think if you look back, 15 or 16 months, the Pakistani government has performed admirably.

No one I think would have predicted the political consensus that has emerged in Pakistan in terms of the effort to take on these violent extremists in the North West Frontier Province, in the Fata [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and in that area.

I think people would not have predicted the success of the Pakistani army. I think people would not have predicted the success in the Pakistani government's effective dealing with internally displaced persons as a result of a military operation and how many of them have returned to Swat and how effective the Pakistani government has been in this respect.

So all of that is simply to say I believe that the Pakistani government, both the civilian side and the military side, have performed better than almost anyone's expectations in the region, or in this country, or elsewhere, and we are very impressed by that and we are prepared to be helpful, to help the Pakistanis in any way we can.

Q - Given the serious misgivings that the United States had in the past about the role of Pakistani intelligence, in terms of dealing with the Taliban, there were accusations to the Pakistani intelligence at that time that they were actually lending a hand of support to the Taliban. Are you 100 per cent satisfied now that that has stopped and that you, the US, the Pakistani military and the Pakistani civilian government are all in the same trench, working for the same goal?

First of all, I believe we are in the same trench, working for the same goal.

I think you have to go back a little bit in history. I was very much involved in the American effort 20, 25 years ago in co-operation with Pakistan to support the muhajidin in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Soviet Union.

One of the vehicles that we used in that effort was the connection between the Pakistani intelligence and various muhajidin groups within Afghanistan.

So these relationships with groups in Afghanistan and with Pakistanis go back a long way and at that time we were very productive and very useful.

My own view is that the connections were maintained largely as a hedge because the Pakistanis are very concerned about the stability of their border area and about the stability of Afghanistan and they weren't sure whether we would continue our efforts in Afghanistan.

So I believe we're on the same page, I believe we're working for the same goals. I have a lot of confidence in the Pakistanis.

Q - Basically the implication of what you're saying is that the United States will not do again what it did after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which is to cut loose and leave the regional players to fend for themselves, undermining the credibility of the US in that part of Asia?

I think that's absolutely right. And I have to say I was in the American government at the time we did that and it was a serious strategic mistake.

As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan and we did not cultivate our relationship with the Pakistanis properly. And so I think we gave rise to doubts in the region about whether we are prepared to stay there and be their partner on a continuous basis, and I believe we've learned our lesson and that both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.

Q - In terms of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, you are absolutely categorically sure that there is no risk that they may fall into the wrong hands given the pressures that the Taliban in Afghanistan are exerting not just on the Pakistanis but also on the United States in Pakistan?

I'm quite comfortable that the security arrangements for the Pakistani nuclear capabilities are sufficient and adequate.

Q - What sort of guarantees do you have to cover that?

I would say it's based both on our own understanding of the security arrangements that the Pakistanis have for their weapons and their capabilities, their laboratories and so on. But also the insurances we have been given by the Pakistanis.

Q - Were you baffled by President Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke, when he was asked how he would measure progress and he said 'we will know it when we see it'?

I probably would have answered the question differently.

Q - How would you have answered it?

I would have answered it: I believe that success or progress will be as when we see the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police, assuming a greater and greater role in security operations protecting Afghanistan and the Afghan people, so that we can recede, first into an advisory role and then leave altogether.

So in some way, it's somehow comparable to the situation in Iraq where our role has become less and less prominent, where the Iraqis have taken a more and more prominent role protecting their own security, and I think that will be one way we will be able to measure success in Afghanistan as we see the Afghan security forces taking a more and more prominent and leading role in protecting their own security.

Q - In the latest press conference that you gave, together with Admiral Mike Mullen, you talked about the analogies people often make between Afghanistan and Iraq. You said that the fundamental difference is that in Iraq there has been a strong central government but in Afghanistan, there has never been a strong central government. And in terms of fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, that's obviously making your work a lot more difficult. How confident are you that the Iraqi central government, led by Nuri al-Maliki, at the present time, can hold the country together after you leave?

I think we have real confidence that they can do that and I think the best evidence that a sense of Iraqi nationalism has returned is that al-Qaeda has made very strong efforts in recent weeks and months to try and provoke a renewal of the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq through suicide bombers, and what has been interesting and encouraging is that they have failed in that effort.

The Shia understand this is al-Qaeda trying to provoke that kind of a conflict and they're having none (...) so there has not been any renewal of sectarian violence.

Our generals have very high regard of the Iraqi army and, increasingly, Iraqi police, and I think we would not have felt comfortable agreeing to the arrangements we have to pull out of Iraqi cities, and to put a deadline on the withdrawal of American combat troops, if we didn't have confidence in the Iraqis. I think [commander of US forces in Iraq] General [Ray] Odierno would say they have developed better and faster than he would have anticipated.

So we are very encouraged by the developments in Iraq with respect to the security situation despite these suicide bombings that we think are mostly the efforts of al-Qaeda.

Q - A lot of the people in the region will look at Iraq post-2003, now that you say al-Qaeda has been trying to stoke up sectarian strife in Iraq. A lot of people will look at 2003, and at what the United States did post 2003, and say: Actually that was the engine of sectarian strife in Iraq in the first place.

Well, I wasn't in government at the time and I was no expert on Iraq before I came into government. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert now either but ...

Q - But would you say the US getting out of Iraq would necessarily put an end to sectarian strife or would it actually increase the prospects of sectarian strife?

I think that what we have already seen in Iraq, despite the provocations by al-Qaeda, the Iraqis are ready to move beyond the violence of the last several years and to grove their economy and to have peace.

I think that's why you have not seen renewed sectarian violence and that's why we are comfortable with the arrangements in which we have withdrawn from cities and in which we will withdraw all our combat troops by the end of August next year.

We are very comfortable with that, and that means we do not believe there will be a renewal of the sectarian violence with our departure.

Q - My understanding is that President Obama has pledged that the US will not build any permanent military bases in Iraq after leaving. Does that pledge still stand?


Q - Now how do you define permanent? Because bases in Germany have been there for about 60 years now. In Korea for a similar period of time. How do you define permanent and how do you define temporary?

Temporary is based on the fact that another part of this agreement is that all US forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. That is the agreement that we have with the Iraqi government: all US forces. No bases, no forces.

Q - Unless the Iraqis ask you to stay?

Unless there is some new agreement, or some new negotiation which would clearly be on Iraqi terms.

But we will not have any permanent bases in Iraq. We have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq and we are now planning on withdrawing all American military forces by the end of 2011.

Q - A lot of people, including some of your closest allies in the Gulf, think that at the end of the day, the real winner after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is Iran, and, you listen to US politicians here in DC, you have a real problem with Iran.

I think Iran has been a challenge for the United States, and for the international community for that matter, for 30 years. I think that a strong and democratic Iraq, particularly one with a multi-sectarian government, becomes a barrier to Iranian influence and not a bridge for it.

So I think, in the short term, perhaps Iran's position was strengthened somewhat but I think if you look to the longer term, and the role that Iraq can play in the region going forward, I think that Iran's position may well be diminished.

Q - But many people feel that you took out one fundamental bastion against Iranian influence in the region and that is the regime of Saddam Hussein. You changed the political configuration in the country, bringing a Shia government to power. Everybody knows there are Iraqi politicians in the Iraqi government who are very close to Iran or have some sort of sensibility that makes them close to the government of Iran. How is that going to be a bastion against Iranian influence even in the long term?

Well, I think first of all we've seen over the past years a genuine assertion of Iraqi nationalism from Prime Minister Maliki and from other leaders inside Iraq.

I have no doubt that at the end of the day, the leaders in Iraq are first and foremost Iraqis. After all none of them have forgotten the eight years of war that they fought with Saddam Hussein and they haven't forgotten that Saddam Hussein started that war.

So I think that, by all accounts that we can see and the actions we have seen the government of Iraq take, including for example Prime Minister Maliki's offensive in the Basra area over a year ago, made clear they are most concerned with maintaining Iraqi sovereignty.

If the United States has learned anything in the last year as we have negotiated the framework agreement with the Iraqis it is that the Iraqis are very sensitive about their sovereignty and, as with almost any other country, are not going to tolerate other countries trying to interfere in their internal affairs.

Q - Let's assume for a minute that in the short term, or medium term even, that the Iranians have strengthened their hand in Iraq, and that's going to change in the long term. Hasn't Iran been able to increase its influence in neighbouring Iraq, and therefore strengthened its hand in dealing with the West over its nuclear programmme?

No, I don't agree with that. I think that the situation in Iraq has little bearing on Iran and its nuclear programme.

Q - Can you, for example in the case the Israelis resort to military action, as they seem to be itching to do, against Iranian nuclear facilities, can you guarantee that Iranians will not use Iraq to retaliate against the Unites States for example?

Well, I'm not going to address hypothetical situations. Our view is that there is still an opportunity for diplomacy and political and economic pressures to bring about a change of policy in Iran, so getting into hypotheticals about military reaction, I think doesn't take us very far.

And I'm confident that we still have some opportunities in that area.

Q - Hypotheticals aside, if you say you still have some time for manoeuvring in that area, to what extent are you reading from the same hymn sheet as the Israelis?

Every country looks at a given situation through the lens of its own security. Our view, and the view that we have shared I might say strongly with all our friends and allies in the region as well as elsewhere, is that the way to deal with the Iranian nuclear programme at this point is through diplomatic and economic efforts.

Q - The issue of Iran and Israel is obviously rattling a lot of countries in the region, the Israelis, the Gulf states, who are thinking about buying more and more weapons, and indeed there has been some sales authorised by the United States. Some estimates put the weapons packages to the Gulf states and Israel at about $100bn. How much substance is there to that?

That figure sounds very high to me. But I think there's a central question or a central point here to be made and it has to do both with our friends and allies in the region, our Arab allies, as well as the Iranian nuclear programme, and that is one of the pathways, to get the Iranians to change their approach on the nuclear issue, is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardise their security, not enhance it.

So the more that our Arab friends and allies can straighten their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their co-operation, both with each other and with us, I think sends the signal to the Iranians that this path they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.

So that's one of the reasons why I think our relationship with these countries and our security co-operation with them is so important.

Q - I mentioned $100bn and you said that doesn't sound right to you. What does sound right to you as a figure?

I honestly don't know.

Q - But there are a lot of weapons being asked for by the countries in the region?

We have a very broad foreign military sales programme and obviously with most of our friends and allies out there, but the arrangements that are being negotiated right now, I just honestly don't know the accumulated total.

Q - You're asking the Iranians to give up their intentions to build nuclear weapons. They are saying they're not building nuclear weapons. On the other hand, a lot of people in the region feel that you know that the Israelis do have nuclear weapons and they say why doesn't the West start with Israel, which is known to possess nuclear weapons rather than with the Iranians, who are suspected of having them. What do you say to that argument?

First of all, it's the Iranian leadership that has said it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Those threats have not been made in the other direction. It is the Iranian government that is in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions with respect to these programmes, so focus needs to be on the country that is feuding the will of the international community and the United Nations.

Q - But you decided that the rhetoric of the Iranians reflects the reality of what's going on in Iran in terms of nuclear weapons. Isn't that a leap of faith?

Well, we obviously have information in terms of what the Iranians are doing. We also have what the Iranians themselves have said, so we only are taking them at their word.

Q - So you know for sure that they are working on a nuclear bomb?

I would not go that far but clearly they have elements of their nuclear programme that are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

We want them to adhere to these resolutions and we are willing to acknowledge the right of the Iranian government and the Iranian people to have a peaceful nuclear programme if it is intended for the production of electric power so on. What is central, then, is trying to persuade the Iranians to agree to that and then to verification procedures under the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].

That gives us confidence that it is indeed a peaceful nuclear programme and not a weaponisation programme.

The truth of the matter is that, if Iran proceeds with a nuclear weapons programme it may well spark and arms race, a real arms race, and potentially a nuclear arms race in the entire region.

So it is in the interest of all countries for Iran to agree to arrangements that allow a peaceful nuclear programme and give the international community confidence that's all they're doing.

Q - But the Obama administration seems to have a difficult circle to square because on one hand they're saying that they want improved relations with the Muslim world. On the other hand, any pressure on Iran, is seen by people in the Muslim world as an indication the US is not genuine in wanting to improve those relations because many Muslims say Israel has nuclear weapons, and the US is not doing anything about it.

The focus is on which country is in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. The pressure on Iran is simply to be a good member of the international community.

The neighbours around Iran, our Arab friends and allies, are concerned about what is going on in Iran, and not just the governments.

So the question is how does Iran become a member in good standing of the international community. That's in the interest of everybody.

Q - A last issue, relations between the US and Latin America: There have been a lot of angry noises coming out of Latin America over the issue of military bases in Colombia. How much of a problem is the issue of bases in Colombia to the United States and its relations with Latin America?

I think that's an issue that has been exploited by certain governments down there such as the Venezuelan government.

I think for most of the continent it's not a problem. These are not American bases. This is a co-operative arrangement, negotiated with the government of Colombia, for counter-narcotic purposes.

That's all it is and nothing more, no permanent US base, no US base at all, but use of Colombian facilities in co-operation with the Colombians.

Q - But doesn't it concern you that even President Lula [da Silva] in Brazil, who is not really known for being over-vocal in his criticism of the United States, has actually been quite vocal recently in terms of criticising what is described by President [Hugo] Chavez of Venezuela, for example, as belligerent intentions on the part of the United States in Latin America?

Well, they are clearly not belligerent intentions on part of the United States and I believe that when the other governments that may be concerned in South America fully understand the nature of the co-operation agreement with the Colombians, they will understand that this is a very limited operation tightly focused on counter-narcotics.