'This Week' Full Transcript: Dec. 6, 2009

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: And we begin with the cornerstones of President Obama's national security cabinet, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton; secretary of defense, Robert Gates. Welcome to you both.

This is the first time you're here together on THIS WEEK. Thanks for doing it.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The first time we've been called cornerstones.

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Gates, let me begin with you, because there has been so much focus since the president's speech on this call to begin an exit strategy in July 2011. I want to show you what Senator McCain said earlier this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When conditions on the ground have decisively begun to change for the better, that is when our troops should start to return home with honor, not one minute longer, not one minute sooner, and certainly not on some arbitrary date in July 2011.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Just two months ago, you seemed to agree with that sentiment. You called the notion of timelines and exit strategies a strategic mistake. What changed?

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, first of all, I don't consider this an exit strategy. And I try to avoid using that term. I think this is a transition...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?

GATES: This is a transition that's going to take place. And it's not an arbitrary date. It will be two years since the Marines went into southern Helmand and that two years that our military leaders believe will give us time to know that our strategy is working.

They believe that in that time General McChrystal will have the opportunity to demonstrate decisively in certain areas of Afghanistan that the approach we're taking is working. Obviously the transition will begin in the less contested areas of the country.

But it will be the same kind of gradual conditions-based transition province by province, district by district, that we saw in Iraq.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We've heard that phrase a lot...

GATES: But it begins -- but it begins in July 2011.

STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I understand that. But you about this conditions-based decision-making. And I guess that it's fairly vague term. So if the strategy is working, do the troops stay? If it's not working, do they leave? How -- how is the decision-making process going to go?

GATES: Well, from my standpoint, the decision in terms of when a district or a cluster of districts or a province is ready to be turned over to the Afghan security forces is a judgment that will be made by our commanders on the ground, not here in Washington.

And we will do the same thing we did in Iraq, when we transitioned to Afghan security responsibility. We will withdraw first into tactical overwatch, and then a strategic overwatch, if you will, the cavalry over the hill in case they run into trouble.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And this certainly increases the leverage on President Karzai and his government, Secretary Clinton, which brings up questions similar to questions that were raised by a lot of Democrats during -- after the Iraq surge, including President Obama when he was a senator.

He asked Secretary Rice basically what happens if the Maliki government doesn't live up to its promises.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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