GATES: I met a young captain on my first visit to Afghanistan at a forward operating base, Tillman, right on the Pakistani border. And I was walking with him and he was training Afghans, he was building roads, he was meeting with village elders, he was providing basic services, and he was fighting a war. And I turned to him and I said, "be hell of a thing go back trying to sell shoes now, wouldn't it?" And the complexity of the job that we have given these young people, and the amazing thing is how these young captains and NCOs have risen to the occasion.
This is a war that is being fought at the local level by lower level officers and NCOs and troops. The generals can set the umbrella, can set the stage in terms of the overall strategy. But whether it works or not in a way I think not seen before in war, it really depends on what these younger officers and NCOs and their troops are doing.
McFADDEN: Speaking of commanding officers, I want to ask you just now that the dust is settled, General McChrystal, I know that you suggested his appointment to the President, I know that you believed that he was the right man to lead us in Afghanistan. And my impression is that you were hoping that the President wouldn't fire him. Now, six months later, was he the right man for Afghanistan?
GATES: I think he was the right man, and the truth of the matter is General Petraeus has, I think, in significant ways continued the campaign plans that General McChrystal put together.
McFADDEN: What went wrong?
GATES: What happened was was an unfortunate thing, a tragedy in many ways.
McFADDEN: Do you understand why it happened?
GATES: No, not really.
McFADDEN: Have you talked to him?
GATES: Ah, not since he retired, no.
McFADDEN: So it's...
GATES: But but I think we were very fortunate, and I will say, I mean one of my concerns was that losing General McChrystal would be a big setback in our effort in Afghanistan. And again, we have all these tens of thousands of young people out there with their lives on the line. And it was actually the President who suggested to me, well how about sending Petraeus out there? And that, for me, said okay, we will not lose ground in this war if we send Dave Petraeus out there.
McFADDEN: Do you think the President did the right thing in firing McChrystal?
GATES: I think so. The truth of the matter is General McChrystal took responsibility for this on himself. He behaved, I thought, with extraordinary integrity.
McFADDEN: Tough situation.
GATES: Very. Welcome to Washington.
McFADDEN: I mean you always are the Washington outsider, yet you've been there 40 years running the joint! How's that work?
GATES: [laughter] Well I think...
McFADDEN: I mean every speech you start with a little kick in the pants to Washington, right?
GATES: Well that's because it's a guaranteed laugh every place in the country.
GATES: I mean Will Rogers used to say, I don't make jokes, I just watch -- I just watch the government and report the facts! [laughter] And, so you know, I mean they're cheap laugh lines, but you know my...
McFADDEN: How do you really feel about Washington, Mr. Secretary?