MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
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.
ROBERT GATES: 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.
GATES: 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?
GATES: 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?
GATES: 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?
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.
SIEGEL: 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?
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?
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.
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?
GATES: Well, I think that's part of the debate.
SIEGEL: And where would you fall down in that debate?
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.