By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo., May 19, 2011 – During a question-and-answer session here today, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave U.S. Army Engineer School students his view of the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Though the current agreement between the United States and Iraq calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, Gates said U.S. and Iraqi officials see value in a continued, but relatively modest, U.S. presence there.
“I think that most of us in our government believe that there is value in a residual U.S. force remaining in Iraq,” Gates said, estimating the size of that force to be anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 troops. The residual force, he added, would continue training Iraqi forces.
“They still have a lot of work to do with logistics and things like intelligence,” he said. “They basically have no air defense capability. They’ve improved enormously, but they’ve still got a long way to go.”
In addition, a continued U.S. presence would be useful in deterring Iran from interfering with Iraq and in reassuring allies in the region, adding that his conversations with Iraqi leaders indicate they agree, Gates said.
But, Gates acknowledged it is a point of contention among elected Iraqi officials.
“Most of the Iraqi leaders acknowledge that they need a continuing U.S. presence, but it’s political dynamite in Iraq,” he said. “The fact remains that most Iraqis want us gone.” He noted that radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has made a campaign theme out of ensuring the U.S. military presence in Iraq ends, and his groups are behind increased attacks against U.S. troops, especially in southern Iraq.
“So the question that is unsettled at this point is whether the Iraqi leadership will come together and all the different factions will hold hands and jump off the cliff together in terms of seeking authority and going forward with a continuing U.S. presence after the end of December,” the secretary said, noting that he believes the odds are about 50-50 that they’ll do so.
On Afghanistan, Gates said it’s too early to know whether the May 1 raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden will play out to allow an accelerated U.S. withdrawal.
“I think we’ll have a better view of that come winter – toward the end of the year, in six months or so,” he said. One of the key questions, he added, will be whether bin Laden’s death affects the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban. If that relationship is pulled apart with bin Laden dead, he explained, opportunities for reconciliation in Afghanistan are enhanced, perhaps significantly.
“And if that process were to go faster, then we could leave faster,” Gates said. “But the president made clear from the get-go on this, that decisions on certain levels will be made based on the conditions on the ground.” That will affect decisions with respect to July, when the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan is scheduled to begin drawing down, he said. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is preparing recommendations.
“At this point I think it would be unwise to accelerate the drawdowns beyond what General Petraeus will recommend in the next few weeks,” the secretary said.
Meanwhile, Gates said, despite some hostile sentiment toward Pakistan in some circles in Washington since the bin Laden raid, Pakistan is important to the United States, and vice versa.
“We need them, and they need us,” he said, and discussions are under way on how to proceed.
“I think we’ve got a pretty sensible path forward in terms of trying to work with [the Pakistanis] and take advantage of their willingness now,” Gates said. “They have said in the wake of the bin Laden assault, ‘Why don’t you let us do it, or why don’t we partner?’ That’s an offer I think we should take them up on, and I think it’s also a test of their seriousness.”
The secretary noted that he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference yesterday that they had seen no evidence that Pakistan’s senior leadership knew bin Laden was hiding in their country, and that the leadership is clearly embarrassed.
“And so, this is an opportunity, perhaps, to move this relationship forward,” Gates said. “We’ve had some pretty good cooperation across the [Afghan-Pakistani] border between the Pakistanis and the U.S., and it clearly has been helpful to us to have 140,000 Pakistani troops in South of Waziristan, Swat and places like that.”
As the relationship moves forward, he added, work must continue on resolving the “trust deficit” that exists between the United States and Pakistan.