MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates steps down this month after five years at the Pentagon. Gates took over from Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 and he stayed on under President Obama. Gates is now on a farewell tour of sorts. He gave his final major policy speech to a Washington think tank last week and he delivered his final commencement address as Secretary of Defense at the naval academy in Annapolis.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense): I have come to work every day with a sense of personal responsibility for each and every young American in uniform as if you were my own sons and daughters. My only prayer is that you serve with honor and come home safely.

SIEGEL: It was at Annapolis, shortly after Secretary Gates had finished shaking hands on a broiling day with hundreds of newly minted graduates, that I got to sit down and talk with him about his tenure. I started by asking about Iraq and how he views his legacy there.

Secretary GATES: I think that the origins of the war will always remain controversial, but I think given where we were when I came to the job in the end of 2006, we have been successful. I would even say we've been victorious in helping the Iraqis establish a democracy.

It's messy, but ironically, it's something of a model for what's going on across the region now. Who would have dreamed in 2006 that Iraq would be more advanced than any of the other Arab countries in building a democratic state?

SIEGEL: In Afghanistan, have we had sufficient success so that we can also start bringing our troops home and say it's messy, perhaps not entirely democratic, but sufficient?

Secretary GATES: I would say that we have had a very great deal of military success over the last year to 18 months. I think we have reversed the momentum of the Taliban. There's still violence. The progress is fragile. But my view, and what I've said elsewhere recently, is that if we can hold on to the gains we've made over the last year or so and expand security further, then we may be in a position where we can say we've turned the corner by the end of this year.

And I think one of the key things the administration has done has been to lower our expectations on creating a strong central government, on governance and so on, so that if the Afghans can settle disputes in the villages, if provincial and district governments can deliver security, then that's probably good enough.

SIEGEL: But the theory of turning the corner, as I've understood it over the past year, is the effort was to deal a serious enough blow, a military blow, to the Taliban, the Taliban leaders would rethink their calculus of fighting versus talking and the prospects for political settlement would be real. Are we there yet?

Secretary GATES: I don't think we're there yet, but I think we could be by the end of this year. But I think that it's really two pieces. The first is strengthening the Afghan national security forces to the point where they can handle a degraded Taliban. And the other piece of it is, creating an environment in which that Taliban believed they will not win and therefore open the way for a reconciliation that observes our red lines.

And the first and biggest red line is a disavowal of the relationship with al-Qaida. Now, this may be significantly enhanced by the death of bin Laden because that relationship was very much dependant on the personal relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar of the Taliban.

SIEGEL: You mention Mullah Omar. We always understood that there weren't going to be any negotiations with al-Qaida. That was out of the question. Some people also said there would be no negotiations with Mullah Omar, who was so close to them. But there are reports out of Europe that I've seen confirmed, it's said, by others in Washington that we're dealing with a representative of Mullah Omar. An inevitable thing for us to be doing or is he out of bounds, in your view?

Secretary GATES: Well, I think that, you know, the way these conflicts come to an end is that peace is made between people who've been killing each other. And we clearly - the Taliban are a part of the political fabric in Afghanistan at this point and if they're willing to follow the rules, if they're willing to put down their weapons, if they're willing to abandon al-Qaida, if they're willing to live under the Afghan constitution, then I think there's a strong basis for them to reenter the political process.

SIEGEL: And a good outcome, success, if not the victory in Afghanistan would inevitably mean seeing people whom we've been fighting against being part of the post-war order in Afghanistan.

Secretary GATES: Probably.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about a study that was conducted by an NGO recently. When they surveyed Afghan men of fighting age and asked them what they thought about the death of bin Laden, those in the most contested areas of Afghanistan acknowledged that NATO has the upper hand, the surge has worked, but I think 70 percent of them regarded the death of bin Laden as bad news.

And the researcher's reading of it was that the military side was working well, but the civilian surge that was supposed to follow it, the better government that would take the place of the Taliban, just never showed up. Is that a valid criticism of what's happened in Afghanistan?

Secretary GATES: I think this is a work in progress and it obviously is going to take more time. But I think we have scaled down our expectations in this regard because building good governance in Afghanistan is probably the work of decades.

SIEGEL: Have U.S. civilian agencies, whether it's State or USAID or DEA, have they been in there doing what's been needed?

Secretary GATES: I think our embassy had an overall authorized strength of something like 350 in January of 2009. In reality, there were about 250 in the embassy. There are now about 1,100. This is a huge commitment on the part of the State Department. I like to remind people that if you took every foreign service officer in the world, that's about 5,500 or 6,000 of them. That's not enough to crew a single aircraft carrier.

SIEGEL: I'd also asked Defense Secretary Gates about what will likely be the last big decision on his watch, how many troops President Obama should bring home from Afghanistan in July. Here's how Gates summed up his advice to the president.

Secretary GATES: He needs to, as I've put it, kind of bookend this thing in terms of announcing something in July, but then being able to say, and by such and such a time, I expect to have a certain number of troops out.

SIEGEL: And what's kind of timeframe that a commander could deal with that sort of bookend, a year?

Secretary GATES: Well, I think that's part of the debate.

SIEGEL: And where would you fall down in that debate?

Secretary GATES: Well, I've still got a few weeks to keep my counsel.

SIEGEL: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking with me last week at the naval academy. Tomorrow, in the second part of our conversation, Gates speaks about the future challenges facing the U.S. military.

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