Transcript: Sec. Gates and Sen. McCain

"This Week" Transcript with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Sept. 27, 2009 —


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: And we begin with the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

Welcome back to "This Week".

National security was front and center all week long. Let's begin with Afghanistan. We saw the leak of General McChrystal's review. And he concluded that the United States has about 12 months to reverse Taliban momentum and that without new troops, the strategy laid out by the president is likely to fail.

And I want to show what the president said back in March when he laid out that strategy. He called it "new and comprehensive."


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review. My administration has heard from our military commanders, as well as our diplomats. We've consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments with our partners and our NATO allies and with other donors and international organizations. We've also worked closely with members of Congress here at home.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, this was clearly a carefully considered strategy. And now the president is telling us -- he told me last week that he can't approve General McChrystal's request until we get the strategy right.

Why the second thoughts on the strategy?

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I don't think there are second thoughts so much as when he made his decisions at the end of March, he also announced that he would -- we would be reviewing the policy and the strategy after the elections...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But he said the tool was in the tactics, not the strategy.

GATES: Well, I -- I think that he -- he clearly felt that we would have to reassess where we are after the election. Now, in addition to having a flawed election in Afghanistan, we now have General McChrystal's assessment. When the president made his comments at -- at the end of March, his decisions, obviously, General McChrystal was not in place. We now have his assessment. He has found the situation on the ground in Afghanistan worse than he had -- then he anticipated.

And so I think what the president is now saying is in light of the election, in light of McChrystal's more concerning assessment of the situation on the ground, have we got the strategy right, were the decisions in -- that he made at the end of March, the right ones?

Do we need to make some adjustments in light of what we've found?

And once we've decided whether or not to make adjustments in the strategy, then we will consider the additional resources.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But did -- but didn't General McChrystal take these problems of the election into account?

He didn't even deliver his report until August 30th, which was after the elections. Dennis Blair, the head of National Intelligence, said back in February or March that we could foresee that there would be problems with this election.

GATES: Well, I think -- I think that the potential magnitude of the problems in the election really didn't become apparent until the vote count began in early September. So -- so I think it was really after he submitted his -- his assessment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So now we have a real dilemma.

Does that mean that the United States is re-thinking whether it can even -- whether it can bolster President Karzai's government or whether we have to give up on it?

GATES: Well, I -- you know, the Afghan people have gone to the polls and we have the two election commissions, one internal and one international, that could still come to conclusions, even if they throw out some fraudulent ballots or a number of fraudulent ballots, that there was a clear winner.

The key is whether the Afghans believe that their government has legitimacy. And everything that I've seen in the intelligence and elsewhere indicates that remains the case.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It does seem though you're caught in a dilemma right now. You've got your commanding general on the ground who's given you this report. He's said the troops -- more troops are necessary or you risk failure. That report has been endorsed by the head of Central Command, David Petraeus. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Congress and said we probably need more troops.

Yet the president is saying that we need to think about the strategy right now. And it really creates the impression of a rift between the civilian leadership, you, as secretary of Defense, the president and the uniformed military.

GATES: I don't think that's the case at all. I talked with -- I had an extensive conversation on the telephone with both General McChrystal and General Petraeus on -- on Wednesday. General McChrystal was very explicit in saying that he thinks this assessment, this review that's going on right now is exactly the right thing to do. He obviously doesn't want it to be open-ended or be a protracted kind of thing...

STEPHANOPOULOS: How long will it take?

GATES: Well, I -- you know, I -- it's not going to take -- I think it -- it's a matter of a few weeks. And people should remember that the debate within the Bush administration on the surge lasted three months, from October to December, 2006.

So I think it's important to make sure we're confident that we have the right strategy in place and then we can make the decisions on additional forces.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the clock really does seem to be ticking again, to go back to General McChrystal's report. He says that if we don't turn the tide in the next 12 months, we risk failure. So every week that goes by puts the soldiers who are on the ground at risk, doesn't it?

GATES: But having the -- having the wrong strategy would put even more soldiers at risk. So I think it's important to get the strategy right and then we can make the resources decision. Because, as I say, I don't expect this to be protracted process. The reality is that even if the president did decide to approve additional combat forces going into Afghanistan, the first forces couldn't arrive until January.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what are the options right now?

You have said in the past that you didn't believe what some people are recommending -- stepping up drone attacks, stepping up missile attacks, using Special Forces.

You don't believe -- or haven't believed in the past that that's sufficient to contain the Taliban.

GATES: I think that most people who -- the people that I've talked to in the Pentagon who are the experts on counter-terrorism essentially say that counter-terrorism is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists. And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground -- getting information from people like the Afghans or, in the case of Iraq, the Iraqis.

And so you can't do this from -- from a distance or remotely, in the view of virtually all of the experts that I've talked to.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So if that -- if that's not going to work, then -- and then you have General McChrystal, who said in his report that you need a full blown counter-insurgency campaign, counter-insurgency is the answer. That certainly seems to be endorsed by General Petraeus.

Is there a middle ground between those two poles?

GATES: Well, I think -- I think people are -- are, frankly, so focused on -- on the comment that -- in General McChrystal's report about additional resources that they're neglecting to look at the rest of what's in his report. And that -- and where he talks very explicitly about the fact that -- that a preoccupation with the resources or with additional forces, if you don't have the strategy right, is a mistake.

And -- and he, as I say, he understands this process that's underway.

But -- but what he talks about in most of that assessment is not resources, but a different way of using U.S. forces and coalition forces in Afghanistan. It talks about accelerating the growth of the Afghan national security forces. It spends a lot of time talking about how we stay on side with the Afghan people.

This is mostly what McChrystal's assessment is about.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's a resource-intensive strategy, isn't it?

He says that the troops have to probably be more lightly armed and engage more with the population. And it's hard to ignore that stark conclusion. Success is not ensured by additional forces alone, as you point out, but continued under resourcing will likely cause failure -- failure.

GATES: Well, that's what we're discussing and how do we avoid that?

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, as you said, you hope to have this done in a few weeks and you want to avoid failure, as well. But the president has not made any -- any decision at all on resources?

Has he -- has he ruled it out?

GATES: No, I haven't even given him General McChrystal's request for resources. I have the -- I -- I'm receiving the -- the report. I'm going to sit on it until I think -- or the president thinks -- it's appropriate to bring that into the discussion of the national security principles.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's what -- General McChrystal says we have to have more troops to avoid failure. Where we've had a lack of clarity on what success means in Afghanistan, you pointed out at the beginning of this year what it was. And he said we're not - we shouldn't expect a Valhalla in Afghanistan.

The president's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was asked for his definition of success last month and here's what he said.


AMB. RICHARD HOLBROOKE, SPECIAL ENVOY, PAKISTAN & AFGHANISTAN: I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we'll know it when we see it.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that good enough?

GATES: Well, I think -- I think we know it when we see it and we see it in Iraq. I think that success in Afghanistan looks a great deal like success in Iraq, in this respect, that the Afghan national security forces increasingly take the lead in protecting their own territory and going after the insurgents and protecting their own people.

We withdraw to an over watch situation and then we withdraw altogether.

STEPHANOPOULOS: This first required a surge in Iraq.

GATES: It did require a surge. And that's the issue that we will be looking at over the next several weeks -- the next couple of weeks or so, is do we have the right strategy?

And that includes the question of -- of is the -- is McChrystal's approach, in the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Command commander, the right approach?

And if so, then what -- what would be the additional resources involved?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to Iran. The president has put Iran on notice that they're going to have to allow inspectors into this secret site which U.S. intelligence discovered for enriching uranium. President Ahmadinejad says that President Obama is mistaken and the United States owes Iran an apology.

Is Iran going to get one?

GATES: Not a chance.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what happens next?

The president has said that this site is not configured for peaceful purposes. Now, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded -- of the U.S. government -- concluded that Iran had stopped its active nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Does the president's conclusion, that this site is not configured for peaceful purposes, mean that that intelligence estimate is no longer operative?

GATES: No, not necessarily. But what it does mean is that they had a covert site. They did not declare it. They didn't -- if -- if this were a peaceful nuclear program, why didn't they announce this site when they began to construct it?

Why didn't they allow IAEA inspectors in from the very beginning?

This -- this is part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning with respect to their nuclear program. So it's no wonder that world leaders think that they have ulterior motives, that they have a plan to go forward with nuclear weapons.

Otherwise, why would they do all this in such a deceptive manner?

STEPHANOPOULOS: U.S. intelligence had been tracking this site for quite some time before President Obama made it public.

Is this the only secret site that we know of?

GATES: Well, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to get into that. I would just say that we're watching very closely.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the United States government believe that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program?

GATES: I think that -- my personal opinion is that the Iranians have the intention of having nuclear weapons. I think the question of whether they have made a formal decision to -- to move toward the development of nuclear weapons is -- is in doubt. STEPHANOPOULOS: The U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said a couple of weeks ago that Iran is closer to what he called break out capacity on developing a nuclear weapon.

What does that mean exactly?

And how much time -- if they do, indeed, have the intent, how much time do we have before Iran has a nuclear weapons capacity?

GATES: Well, I think breakout in the -- in the ambassador's terms means they have enriched enough uranium to a relatively low level that if they have another facility where they could enrich it more highly, that they have a -- they have enriched enough at a low level that they could, in essence, throw out all the IAEA inspectors, change the configuration of the -- of the cascades and the enrichment capability and enrich it to a level where they could use it -- where they could make it into weapons grade uranium.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you say you personally have no doubt that they want weapons.

Can that weapons program be stopped with sanctions?

GATES: I think that what is critical is persuading the Iranians that -- or leading them to the conclusion that their security will be diminished by trying to get nuclear weapons rather than enhanced. And I think that because of the election, we see fissures in Iran that we have not seen before in the 30 years since the revolution. And I think that severe sanctions, if the Iranian -- first of all, we -- we have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure.

And so the first step is the meeting on October 1st with the P5 plus one, with the Iranians, to see if they will begin to change their policy in a way that is satisfactory to -- to the great powers.

And then, if that doesn't work, then I think you begin to move in the direction of severe sanctions. And their economic problems are difficult enough that -- that I think that severe sanctions would have the potential of -- of bringing them change their -- their policies.

I think -- you asked me how long do I think we have?

I would somewhere between one to three years.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn, finally, to Guantanamo. We have just a couple of minutes left. A major story in "The Washington Post" suggesting that the president's deadline of January 22nd for closing Guantanamo will not be met. And White House officials tell me that at least some prisoners will still be in Guantanamo on January 22nd and beyond.

How big a setback is that and how long will it take to finally close Guantanamo?

GATES: When the president elect met with his new national security team in Chicago on December 7th...


GATES: ...last year, this issue was discussed, about closing Guantanamo and executive orders to do that and so on.

And the question was, should we set a deadline? Should we pin ourselves down?

I actually was one of those who said we should because I know enough from being around this town that if you don't put a deadline on something, you'll never move the bureaucracy. But I also said and then if we find we can't get it done by that time but we have a good plan, then you're in a position to say it's going to take us a little longer but we are moving in the direction of implementing the policy that the president set.

And I think that's the position that --

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's where we are. So the deadline of January 22nd will not be met?

GATES: It's going to be tough.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And -- and how many prisoners will be there on January 22nd, do you know?

GATES: I don't know the answer to that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is it -- but, as you said, it's going to be tough and likely will not be met.

GATES: We'll see.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One -- one other deadline question. When you were working for President Bush, you used to keep a countdown clock on your desk, counting down the number of days you had left to serve.

Is that clock still there?

GATES: No. I threw the clock out. It was obviously useless.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're in it for the long haul?

GATES: We'll see. The president elect and I, when we first discussed this, agreed to leave it open.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Gates, thank you very much for your time today.

GATES: Thanks a lot.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And with that, let me bring in Senator John McCain.

Welcome back, sir.

MCCAIN: Thank you, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So Secretary Gates is sticking around for a while?

MCCAIN: I hope he's there for a long time.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We have a lot to talk about this morning. Let's begin where he left off on Guantanamo. During the campaign, you had a very strong position that Guantanamo should be closed, but you've also been very critical of the way President Obama has handled it. Do you still believe that Guantanamo should be closed?

MCCAIN: Oh, yes. But the mistake was -- and I'd respectfully disagree with Secretary Gates -- was that they didn't have a policy as to how to address these very difficult and complex issues. They are more complex than about any that I've ever -- the legal side of this, as well as trying to get cooperation from countries to take these people.

So the policy should have been formulated and put into effect, and then the announcement. Again, I just disagree with Secretary Gates. The policy should have been formulated and then implemented, and then you would have had a timeframe that you wouldn't have to say, "Hey, we can't keep one of our first commitments."

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you think it's good news that this deadline is slipping?

MCCAIN: Well, I don't -- I think it's -- I think it's bad news in that we would have liked to have achieved it, but I never thought it was a realistic goal, because they still haven't gotten the fine- tuned parts of the -- of the policy. In an issue like this, the details are really very important.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you fully expect there will be prisoners in Guantanamo after the deadline? MCCAIN: All I know is, frankly, what I briefed on, and apparently they're certainly not going to make that deadline. But we should continue to work towards the closure of Guantanamo Bay because of the image that it has in the world of brutality and harms our image very badly.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Let's talk about Afghanistan. You heard Secretary Gates there. I mean, you've been -- you've said that it puts American troops at risk to delay this decision, but you heard Secretary Gates. He says, number one, General McChrystal found the situation much worse than he anticipated, and the election was even more corrupt than they anticipated, which is why it's responsible to have a review.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I trust General McChrystal and General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen and their military assessment. I understand the president has other factors that he has to take into consideration.

But I would remind you that, when we decided to do the surge in Iraq, the Maliki government was in worse shape than -- than the present government in -- in Afghanistan.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there was more of a tradition of centralized control in Iraq.

MCCAIN: But there was no control. The country was in flames in sectarian violence. The Maliki government didn't have any authority outside the gates of his residence. It was far, far worse.

But then we implemented a strategy where we went in and provided an environment of security so that the political and economic process -- two steps forward, one step back -- and we -- and we succeeded. And it's because we gave people an environment where they could start living some semblance of normal daily lives. That's a counterinsurgency strategy.

MCCAIN: What the opponents are talking about is a counterterrorism strategy. You can't just sit off on the sidelines and kill people, as Secretary Gates said. You've got to have the intelligence. You've got to be there with the people. And you have to make a -- a real commitment.

Our allies in the region -- while we're waiting, our friends in the region are getting very nervous, as well as our European allies.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One of those opponents is the former commandant of the Marine Corps, Chuck Krulak, who wrote George Will just a few weeks ago laying out his ideas. And he seemed to echo something that we hear that General Casey -- General George Casey, the chief of the staff of the Army -- also talks about, and that is there is simply too much stress on our forces now for a big surge.

Listen to Commandant Krulak: "Not only are our troops being run ragged, but equally important and totally off most people's radar screens, our equipment is being run ragged. At some point in time, the bill for that equipment will come due and it will be a very large bill."

It's a valid concern, isn't it?

MCCAIN: I think it's a very legitimate concern. The fact is, recruiting and retention, they're at all-time highs. The fact is, this has been an enormous strain on these men and women and their families, incredible strain. But nothing helps morale more than victory, and nothing hurts morale more than defeat.

It took our military more than a decade to recover from the loss in Vietnam, and yet now that we've succeeded in Iraq -- and we've got a long ways to go -- then I am confident that our military will do what's necessary and they'll do it because they know the mission that they're carrying out is one of vital importance to our national security.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's going to take more than a decade to succeed, isn't it?

MCCAIN: I think you will see signs of success in a year to 18 months, if we implement the strategy right away.

By the way, I sympathize with the president. The base of his party, the left base of his party, is opposed. This is -- American people are weary of this conflict. And I -- I do have sympathy for the president in making this decision. It's the toughest decision a president has to make, to send people into harm's way, but I'd remind you throughout history, whether it be Harry Truman or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, leaders have had to make tough choices, and history has judged them very kindly.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Have you spoken directly to the president about your concerns?

MCCAIN: Yesterday.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what did -- what did you say to him?

MCCAIN: We had a good conversation, as we always do. And I pointed out what -- the point you made earlier, that, in Iraq, the Maliki government was certainly failing. And this -- this election in Afghanistan, it was corrupt. There is corruption from the -- the cop on the beat to -- to the -- to the president's brother, Karzai's brother, and that issue has to be addressed if we're going to succeed.

But we're not going to have a chance to succeed if we withdraw. And by the way, we've really got the status quo, which Admiral Mullen and General McChrystal say is not succeeding, or we can implement this new strategy, which is really an old strategy called counterinsurgency, or we'd better get out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You and the president...

MCCAIN: A half-measure -- a half-measure does not do justice. And time is important, because there's 68,000 Americans already there. And casualties will go up.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you concerned that the president is going to choose a half-measure? Or do you see the possibility for a meeting of the minds between you and the president on this?

MCCAIN: I'm very hopeful that the president will make the right decision, which is to -- to commit the necessary troops. And, again, as much as I respect Secretary Gates, I'm not sure how you make an informed decision if you don't take into consideration the resources that are necessary to exercise one of those options.

And, by the way, I think it's the worst -- one of the many worst- kept secrets in Washington. It's 30,000 to 40,000 troops.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And -- and he says that decision will come in a few weeks. So what's your betting on what the president's going to do?

MCCAIN: I -- I can't bet, but I know what the president said during the campaign about the war in Afghanistan, that we couldn't muddle through. I know the president, as short a time ago as March, said we could not allow the Taliban to achieve -- allow Al Qaida back again in Afghanistan to serve as a base for attacks on the United States and our allies.

And -- and, by the way, the Taliban are not -- are not popular with the people of Afghanistan. They don't want to go back to that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So one final question. Does the president get your argument?

MCCAIN: I think the president -- as I said, I think he has a very difficult decision. The base of his party, Americans are weary. understandably they're weary. And it's a very difficult decision for him. But I -- I believe he'll make the right decision.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator McCain, thanks very much for your time this morning.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

STEPHANOPOULOS: When we come back, it's all-star day on the roundtable. George Will is joined by the reporter who broke the McChrystal report, Bob Woodward, plus Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Friedman of the New York Times and our own Martha Raddatz. We'll also have the Sunday funnies later.


JOHNSON: I've got a little old sergeant that works for me over at House, and he's got six children. And I just put him up as the United States Army and Air Force and Navy every time I think about making this decision and think about sending that father of those six kids in there. And what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it? And it just makes the chill run up my back.

RUSSELL: It does me, too. I just can't see.

JOHNSON: I've got the nerve to do it, and I don't see any other way out of it.


STEPHANOPOULOS: An agonized Lyndon Johnson talking to his mentor, Senator Richard Russell, on May 27, 1964. At that time, there were about 20,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. A year later, about 200,000. When LBJ left office, more than 500,000 troops in Vietnam. It leads to the question: Are there parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam or is that kind of thinking perilous? We're going to talk about it on the roundtable.

I am joined, as always, by George Will, by the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, Tom Friedman, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, and our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Martha Raddatz.

And -- and, George, you actually write about this, this week, as well, with a different parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

WILL: In 1966, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February held very important hearings about the national argument that was then raging. George Kennan and others said, Don't do this. We don't know how to do this. It's nation-building. It's beyond our capacity. And besides, Vietnam is peripheral to our national interests.

At that time -- you're right -- there were 200,000 troops there already. But of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam, 55,000 of those deaths had not yet occurred. It all came after that. And I think that's why some people think we're at a similar inflection point.

No one thinks that there would be the kind of carnage in Afghanistan, but a slow bleed could be equally costly to the nation in terms of -- of its morale, if you will, and particularly to the Democratic Party, which will split on this issue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet, Bob Woodward, you've talked to a lot of people in the military. And I was struck by the lesson that General Petraeus says he learned from Vietnam. He says the biggest lesson is not to be a prisoner of lessons you may have learned.

WOODWARD: Exactly. And the good news in all of this is, I think President Obama and his national security team have decided to have a real serious series of discussions about this and there will be real options on the table.

As we all know from covering George W. Bush, all you had to do was find out what his gut was and then they would have meetings about how to implement what his gut was.

In this case, I don't think Obama has a gut, and he has opened the door very aggressively to other options, and they're not going to be rushed. I talked with...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you agree he doesn't have a gut on this?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I would disagree a little bit with Bob on that. I think he does have a gut, George, and his gut is that this is not going to be his Vietnam. He is not going to let his Great Society ambitions and aspirations be hauled down by Afghanistan, and I think that is where he starts.

I think the relevant analogy right now though is actually Iraq, because that's really what you heard from both Secretary Gates...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Gates said that.

FRIEDMAN: ... and from John McCain. And -- and here I would point to, I think there are four critical differences, George, between where we were in Iraq and where we are now pre-surge.

First of all, in Iraq, the surge began with the Iraqis, began with indigenous communities wanting to throw out the extremists within both the Shiite and Sunni communities.

Secondly, in Iraq, you had a free and fair election. People like Maliki, don't like Maliki, he was strong or weak, but no one actually disputed his legitimacy.

Third, in Iraq, the political class there has decided more or less to resolve their differences politically.

And, lastly, as Bob pointed out, we were talking before the show, Iraq has a lot of money, OK? So you can pave over a lot of differences. So when people say, "The surge worked in Iraq, it'll work in Afghanistan," I say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, let's look closely at the differences."

RADDATZ: But -- but I think General McChrystal has looked closely at the differences. And one thing I want to point out is this is no longer the McChrystal assessment. This is the assessment that David Petraeus, as you pointed out, and Admiral Mullen have all joined in. There may not be a repeat of history in Iraq, but John Nagl, who helped write the counterinsurgency manual, says there might be a rhyme, not a repeat, but a rhyme. And there are things that they can apply in Iraq that they -- that they did apply in Iraq that they can apply in Afghanistan. But one of the things they're doing here, George, is they're not talking about the troops. I mean, in Vietnam, they didn't really talk about those troop increases. They didn't really let the public know about those troop increases.

Anybody want to take a guess at how many troops we have in Iraq right now still? A hundred and forty-six thousand. And you also have to figure into that number, there are about 160,000 contractors. Now, the numbers they're talking about in Afghanistan are probably, the most, 40,000. But still, as Secretary Gates points out, in the last year, the troops have already...


STEPHANOPOULOS: And that brings up -- another way this rhymes with the Iraq debate, George, is that you see General Casey, General George Casey, the Army chief of staff, raising these concerns that General Krulak raised to you. Do we have the Army that we need to fight the war in the way that General McChrystal and others want to?

WILL: Well, that's the problem. Secretary Gates just said to you that what he wants to provide -- we want to provide in Afghanistan is an environment of security. That's a troop-intensive strategy. It's not hunting terrorists. It's counterinsurgency.

We're coming up on an anniversary, George. In 10 days, on October 7th, we will enter the ninth year of this war. If it isn't already -- it depends on how you count these things -- it will soon be the longest war in American history, and it's taking a toll.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It is taking a toll, but...

RADDATZ: And nine years -- actually, that's very key, George, because nine years -- and General Casey, I remember, said this on the Hill -- nine years is what -- when you can be successful. By 13, you're usually not successful in a counterinsurgency.

WOODWARD: But -- and we're talking about Vietnam and Iraq and so forth. This is Afghanistan. And the decider here is President Obama. And I'm -- and I'm going to disagree a little bit about where his gut is, because certainly no president wants another Vietnam, to say the least, or anything that resembles it. At the same time, as Martha points out quite rightly, the military has lined up and said, "This is what we want." And the value of the -- having all of the detail of the McChrystal assessment...

STEPHANOPOULOS: And the White House has felt a little bit jammed by the military.

WOODWARD: Well -- well, sure.

STEPHANOPOULOS: In part by the leak that you got.

WOODWARD: But -- but it's very -- you know, we now have the details. This is one of the Pentagon Papers that we got in Vietnam eight years later. We now see it contemporaneously, and you see what Obama is struggling with here, and he's got -- it's delicate. Maybe there will be an inclination to not give these troops, but he can't put himself in a position where he's at war with his military.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you saw Secretary Gates deny that there is a war with the military, despite this -- despite the phalanx of military officials saying now they want more troops.

But I wonder -- and I want to bring this to you, Tom Friedman -- John McCain rejects the idea of a middle ground. He says you're basically all in or -- or all out. But there's -- there's an interesting line in the McChrystal report where he says that a resource-intensive strategy doesn't necessarily mean that you have to fight everywhere, all the time, that you have to secure the entire country. They could pick their spots.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I don't really know, you know, where the balance is between the large and the small footprint, George. What -- what I personally am focused on is -- is one thing. Do you have an Afghan partner, OK?

Because it's -- it's that partner that connects your troops with that ultimate goal. And if that partner is rotten to the core, OK, you -- nothing is going to work.

And the question I'm asking and I think the administration is asking, in light of the election -- think how these last two elections, the one in Iran and the one in Afghanistan, have completely overturned our strategies -- is, do we have a partner that is good enough?

You can say what you want about the Maliki government. The conclusion in Iraq was it was good enough to build on. I think McChrystal was shocked when he got over there at how rotten the Afghan parliament was.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Rotten or weak, or both?

FRIEDMAN: I think both. I wouldn't -- you know, when the president's brother is accused of being the leading mafia drug-dealer in Kandahar, that's not a good sign.

WILL: But this also is the president's excuse if he wants to do the most difficult thing a president can do, which is change his mind in public. March 27th, he said, "I am today announcing a comprehensive new strategy." He picks the general. The general picks his strategy. And that's the box he's built.

But Mr. Karzai, by his corrupt election, may have given the president the excuse he needs to rethink.

RADDATZ: But -- but they knew about Karzai before. I know the election made everything worse, but they knew there was corruption in that government. They -- they wrote about it. McChrystal wrote about it. President Obama...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Vice President Biden walked out on the ambassador (ph) earlier this year.

RADDATZ: Walked out on him. Yes, when -- when -- when President Obama set out his strategy, he, in fact, set out a counterinsurgency strategy in many ways, what he talked about, the changes you have to make there.

If you're looking for something else -- I was struck by what Lyndon Johnson said. "I just don't know what else to do." And when you look at what else they can do, it's very limited. You've talked about drone strikes and intelligence. You've got Stanley McChrystal there, who is the best man in -- in counterinsurgency and intelligence and special operations. And if he doesn't think you can do it through drones and special forces on the ground, I don't know who to turn to.

WOODWARD: But, no, but -- see, he hasn't said that. He has taken the strategy they gave him, which is counterinsurgency, protect the population, get into the village, take care of the people, listen to them, and so forth.

What the White House is now saying is, we're going back and looking. Maybe that's the wrong strategy. As George says, maybe we have to change our minds.

RADDATZ: That President Obama laid out.

WOODWARD: Yes. But -- but -- but there is a middle ground here. And people think, oh, no, there's never a middle ground. And the middle ground has been presented by Vice President Biden, who says, have a strategy where you keep lots of troops there so Al Qaida can not come back into Afghanistan. We don't have to kind of remake the -- the government and take care of all of the people.

Our interests -- what are our interests here? To prevent another attack on the United States, to keep Al Qaida on its ass, as somebody was saying the other day, and I think that's, to a certain extent, where they are now, they -- they believe.

RADDATZ: But isn't that what we tried in Iraq?


RADDATZ: But you tried strikes. WOODWARD: Yes.

RADDATZ: You tried killing the enemy. You didn't get the support of the people, and that's what they're arguing...

WOODWARD: No, but, in fact, this is...

RADDATZ: ... here that you have to do.

WOODWARD: I spent years of my life on this. And, in fact, as Tom has pointed out, the...

RADDATZ: Me, too.

WOODWARD: Yes, that's right. But -- but -- but the -- the whole idea of the Sons of Iraq, reaching out to the people actually began with the Iraqis, not with the United States, and the top-secret operations that they conducted in Iraq, that General McChrystal, when he was head of the Joint Special Operations Command there, they killed thousands of the other guys.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They still face the question, though...

WOODWARD: And -- and the violence fell off (ph).

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... of -- of costs and benefits. Even if this strategy, of -- of -- of stepping up drone attacks is not perfect, what have we seen in the last week? We had threats -- Al Qaida threats from Springfield, Illinois, Dallas, Texas, and Queens. I think everyone now agrees that Al Qaida has been dismantled or largely disrupted in Afghanistan. So if the idea is just to keep them from coming back, maybe you don't need hundreds of thousands of troops.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think that's part of the point, you know, that's being made, George, by some of the critics, which is that we're -- we're now in 2009. This isn't 2001. Have we moved not from -- why did we go into Afghanistan first? It was because Al Qaida had taken over a country.

We have today another threat called the virtual Afghanistan. The virtual Afghanistan is this World Wide Web-like network that motivates recruits and energizes these young men, as you saw in Dallas. My favorite line from that story in Dallas of the Jordanian that they captured, right after he was about to...


FRIEDMAN: ... he was about to push the plunger was, they asked him if he wanted earplugs. And he said, "No, no, I want to hear it," OK? So there's -- there's -- there's a lot of threats out there.

But we have Afghanistan. That's not to say we don't have to deal with that. We now have the virtual Afghanistan, which is why I think Obama is doing the right thing, taking out a blank piece of paper and saying, "Where are we today?" And let's try to figure out what is the threat, what is the -- what is the strategy.

RADDATZ: But don't we think we need to know what the number of troops? This is the thing that has baffled me. I do not understand why he doesn't want to hear what the troop numbers are. I mean, it's sort of like ordering a meal and not asking...


STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, but it's a fiction. Senator McCain said that. It's 40,000.


WOODWARD: It's the right order.

RADDATZ: Yes. But why...

WOODWARD: If -- if you're going to build a house, you want to have a plan before you call in the carpenters, and that's exactly -- or how many carpenters you need.

RADDATZ: But they have -- I want to know how much it's going to cost, too, when I have that plan.

WOODWARD: Well, that's another issue, sure.

RADDATZ: And that's the cost -- it's not another issue. It's everything.

WOODWARD: That's something...


RADDATZ: You want to know if you want a partner. You want to know if you can resource those troops. Because if you have a plan and you don't know the troops -- and I think this is what's frustrated the people at the Pentagon. Why can't we talk about the troop numbers? And, clearly, we know a lot of the reasons we're not talking about them.

WILL: Well, we're going to talk about them, because Mr. McChrystal, General McChrystal, is going to have to go up to that building behind us and talk about it. Ike Skelton, chairman of the -- Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants him to testify.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Calls him the right man with the right plan.

WILL: All the Republicans on the House Armed -- on the Senate Armed Services Committee want him to testify. He will testify.

But, Martha, it's perfectly possible that the light footprint, do it off-shore, counterterrorism-type strategy won't work militarily. It's also, I think, very likely that the heavy footprint, 40,000, protracted counterinsurgency politically will fail in this country.


WOODWARD: But it's not -- we're mis-defining things, where we're saying counterterrorism is off-shore. We have 68,000 troops or soon will in Afghanistan. That's not off-shore. They're there.

And what the military is afraid of -- and in these debates, they're saying, "If we don't get what we want and we seem to step back, that means we're heading out, and that's the exit." And the argument -- and I think one of the decisions here -- is going to be very clear. This is not an exit strategy. This is a change.

And I think if you look at the way this is going, they -- General Jones today said very publicly, "We are going to go and develop the strategy." Then we're going back to McChrystal and saying, "Do you still need those resources if we come up with a new strategy?" So that preempts the numbers.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get to Iran, but just very quickly, because I'm struck listening to all of you, does anybody here think the president has actually made up his mind yet?


FRIEDMAN: No. You know, it's -- someone said to me last week, George, you know, problems have solutions, dilemmas have horns. He's on the horns of the dilemma.

WOODWARD: No, and even if he has an inclination and strong feelings about this, because he's lived it in the few months he's been president, he's going to listen. And this is what makes him unique.

Now, just on this idea of a middle course, there's always a middle course. If you go back to World War II, the initial plan for victory in World War II that the Army submitted to the political leadership said, "We need 200 divisions." You know how many they got? Eighty-nine.

RADDATZ: I don't think he's made up his mind, either. And I think he'll listen. But I -- what I'm hearing is it will be sooner, rather than later. And you know what?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, Secretary Gates said just a few weeks.

RADDATZ: You might want to back-time from the midterms next year. You might want to figure out your plan in how to get troops in there, if that's what you're going to do, and have things hopefully improve by -- by midterms.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think we'll see this decision well before Thanksgiving.


STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that's right. Let's talk about Iran for a second. George Will, the big revelation -- I guess it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, but the president calling Iran out on -- on Friday. And you saw Secretary Gates there, and you heard something similar, I think, from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu this week, a real sense, more than in the past, that sanctions now may actually get through and may work.

WILL: Severe sanctions, is what Secretary Gates said here this morning. We didn't learn about the tunnel last week. The tunnel -- the president was briefed on this during the transition. We didn't learn just last week about the activity around the tunnel. We haven't just learned, A, that Iran is building nuclear weapons or trying to or, B, that they lie constantly.

I thought the most striking and depressing aspect of this was that, when the president came out with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Sarkozy of France, who wasn't there? The Russians and the Chinese, without whom sanctions mean nothing.

Now, I know that Medvedev, the semi-fake president, the potential president of -- of -- of Russia, says he's open to this. But until we've heard from Putin, nothing matters.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He says they may be inevitable. And, Tom -- Tom, you actually wrote, the secretary seemed to be echoing something you -- you wrote about this week, these divisions in Iran, in the Iranian leadership now may create an opening for sanctions to work.

FRIEDMAN: Well, there's no question that the fracture within the elite there, I would say, has opened a slight, you know, opportunity for really, what George said, severe sanctions to work. And the critical factor -- I really agree with this -- is Russia and China.

If you've got Russia -- and that's why they're working on Russia now -- they think they can get China. China gets 14 percent of its energy from Iran. I think the chances are very, very low that this is going to work. But at least, you know, they've -- they've got this dance, you know, going with the Russians.


WILL: Severe means gasoline.

FRIEDMAN: Oh, absolutely.


WILL: And the -- and the Chinese have promised to give them gasoline.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, it's...

RADDATZ: And the dance will continue, I think, for several months. And the Iranians will let them in and let inspectors in, maybe show them computers, have the scientists...


WOODWARD: But -- but the key was what Secretary Gates told you today, namely they -- United States has to convince the Iranians they will be more secure without nuclear weapons. Now, come on, that -- that is, unfortunately, a fantasy. Everyone knows, you get the nukes and you're the big guy on the block, and that's exactly what Iran wants to do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that's across the board in Iran.

WOODWARD: Across the board. And so...

RADDATZ: And there are more secret sites.

WOODWARD: ... stopping this is -- is in the too-hard file.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think there's no question there's probably more secret sites.

RADDATZ: No question there's more secret sites.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, George, I've picked up in discussions with Israeli officials over the last few weeks a striking change in their tone. You know, at the beginning of this year, they kept saying, "Boy, we only have until the end of 2009 or watch out. Anything can happen." They seem to be pushing the timeline much more towards the end of 2010, maybe even 2011.

WILL: As long as they don't see deployed in Iran and elsewhere the 300 series surface-to-air missiles, which could immobilize the Israeli air force, which leaves them disarmed.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That comes right back to Russia, Tom.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, it's a Russia-China story. And -- and I think getting them on side in a truly meaningful way is -- is going to be very, very difficult.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is the calculation correct, though -- and maybe the missile defense decision helped here -- that if Russia comes along, China does, as well?

FRIEDMAN: That is -- that is the assumption. Yes, and you've got the whole Arab world there, basically. And the only thing the Arabs are afraid of more than an Israeli strike is the absence of an Israeli strike.

I guarantee you one thing, George: If the Israelis do decide to strike against Iran, there's going to be a lot of Arab radar off that day, OK? "Oh, Ahmed, you forgot to turn the radar on? Shame on you." That's really what they're rooting for.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's going to have to be the last word for today. You guys go continue this in the green room.

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