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Robert Gates on Afghanistan, his disagreements with President Biden and polarization in the U.S.

Robert Gates: The 2021 60 Minutes Interview
Robert Gates: The 2021 60 Minutes Interview 13:17

Few people know more about the depth and complexity of America's national security than Robert Gates, who spent nearly three decades at the CIA and National Security Council before running the Pentagon under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

Given the end of the war in Afghanistan, tensions with China, and deep divisions in this country, we thought it would be worth hearing from the only secretary of defense to serve under presidents from different parties.

Gates is 78 and lives in Washington state, where he says he moved to get as far away from Washington D.C. as possible. He told us watching the chaos of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan on television made him feel sick.

Robert Gates: It was really tough. For a few days there, I actually wasn't feeling very well. And I realized it was because of what was happening in Kabul. And I was just so low about the way it had ended, if you will. And-- and I guess the other-- the other feeling that I had was that it probably did not need to have turned out that way.

Anderson Cooper: Well, President Biden said, "Any withdrawal is messy."

Robert Gates: Certainly the military considers withdrawal the most dangerous part of an operation. But-- but they really had a lotta time to plan, beginning with the deal that President Trump cut with the Taliban. So that was in February of 2020.

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  Robert Gates

Robert Gates, who oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2011, told us President Trump failed to plan properly for the evacuation of Afghans who had helped the U.S. fight the Taliban. 

And Gates also believes President Biden didn't act quickly enough after announcing in April he was pushing back President Trump's deadline for the U.S. withdrawal by four months. 

President Biden: "It's time for American troops to come home."

Robert Gates: Once President Biden reaffirmed that there was going to be a firm deadline date, that's the point at which I think they should have begun bringing those people out. You'd have to be pretty naïve not to assume things were gonna go downhill once that withdrawal was complete. 

Anderson Cooper: So the former President and President Biden both share some responsibility in this?

Robert Gates: Absolutely.

As for the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces, Gates believes he and others before him, made critical mistakes in how the U.S. built and trained the Afghan military. 

Robert Gates: I bear some responsibility for this. It had started before I got there. But I think that we created an Afghan military in our own image. And one that required a lot more sophisticated logistics and maintenance and support than say the Taliban.

Anderson Cooper: The Taliban didn't have years of training from foreign advisors. They didn't know how to read. We were teaching Afghan troops how to read before anything else.

Robert Gates: Well, they needed to know how to read in order to operate the equipment (LAUGH) we were giving them. Instead of being light and tactical and basically self-resourced as the Taliban were, we created a logistics-heavy, sophisticated-equipment-heavy military. And when you pulled that rug out from under them, and you add on top of that the corruption of the senior military leaders and so on, it's not a surprise to me that the Afghan Army collapsed.

President Biden: We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. 

President Biden has given assurances that the U.S. can still target terrorists in Afghanistan.

President Biden: We have what's called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground – or very few, if needed.  

But Robert Gates is skeptical. 

Robert Gates: The military refers to it as over the-- over the rainbow.

Anderson Cooper: Because it's a fantasy?

Robert Gates: This notion that you can carry out effective counterterrorism in Afghanistan from a great distance, it's not a fantasy, but it's just very, very hard.

As evidenced by the botched drone strike in Kabul in the final days of the withdrawal. The U.S. military claimed they'd killed an ISIS terrorist. It turned out to be an Afghan aid worker and seven children. 

Robert Gates: If you don't have the kinda sources on the ground to have kind of real-time intelligence that allows you to target people, it's very complicated.  

Anderson Cooper: If they can't get that right a few blocks from the Kabul Airport, how're you gonna get something right over the horizon?

Robert Gates: Exactly. 

When he was secretary of defense, Gates would write personal condolence letters to the families of fallen service members. We wondered what he would say to them now and to all who fought in Afghanistan.  

Robert Gates: I would say that you accomplished your mission. There has not been a terrorist attack, a successful foreign-based terrorist attack on the United States since we went into Afghanistan in 2001. What happens now that we're gone remains to be seen.

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Before becoming secretary of defense, Gates spent nearly 27 years at the National Security Council and the CIA which he ran under President George H.W. Bush. Gates and President Biden have crossed paths for decades, as he wrote about in 2014.

Anderson Cooper: You wrote, Joe Biden "is a man of integrity. Still, I think he's been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." 

Robert Gates: I think he's gotten a lot wrong.

Anderson Cooper: You're talking all through the years--

Robert Gates: Yeah--

Anderson Cooper: --as vice president and as senator--

Robert Gates: He opposed every one of Ronald Reagan's military programs to contest the Soviet Union. He opposed the first Gulf War. That list goes on. Now I will say that in the-- in the Obama administration, he and I obviously had significant differences over Afghanistan. But he and I did agree in our opposition to the intervention in Libya and frankly on issues relating to Russia and China.

Anderson Cooper: But you think he made a mistake in Afghanistan in the way--

Robert Gates: Yes--

Anderson Cooper: --he handled the withdrawal.

Robert Gates: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think he believes he made a mistake?

Robert Gates: I-- (LAUGH) I've worked for eight presidents, Anderson. I-- I've never encountered a single one of 'em whoever-- whoever said, "Well, I really blew that one."

Anderson Cooper: Really? (LAUGH) Is that really true?

Robert Gates: No, never. They just don't do it.  You know, deep in their heart they may know it. But they will--

Anderson Cooper: Really?

Robert Gates: --never say it.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think it would be better if they did?

Robert Gates: I-- yes. I think it would make them more credible. 

Anderson Cooper: What's happened in Afghanistan has been devastating for President Biden. Domestically can Biden recover?

Robert Gates: Oh, I think so. I think that the submarine deal between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, I think is a great strategic move. It sends a powerful message all around the world.

Anderson Cooper: To China?

Robert Gates: All around the world, including to China, that the United States still has a lot of arrows in the quiver. And-- and that we will remain a force to be reckoned with in the western Pacific. 

Robert Gates on the future of Afghanistan 04:53

That deal to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines comes as China is increasingly threatening Taiwan. 

Anderson Cooper: If China moves on Taiwan, is that a field that the U.S. would fight on?

Robert Gates: There are two strategies that we need to focus on. One is deterrence, strengthening our own military presence in the region. And the second piece of the strategy is to strengthen Taiwan's ability to defend itself.

Internationally, Gates sees China as the pre-eminent military and economic threat to the United States.

Robert Gates: I think this is a place where President Trump got it right. He basically awakened Americans and I would say especially the business community to a China that-- the assumptions about which we had gotten wrong. And the assumption for 40 years was that a richer China would be a freer China, and that's clearly not going to happen. But there's another piece of this puzzle with China and that is the economic side. Chinese now manage something like three dozen major ports around the world. They are the biggest trading partner of more than half of South America. They are everywhere. And what are we doing in these non-military arenas to compete with the Chinese?

Robert Gates has always considered himself a Republican. But while he agreed with some of President Trump's policies, he remains highly critical of the former president.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think the former president will run again? President Trump?

Robert Gates: I hope not.

Anderson Cooper: Why do you hope not?

Robert Gates: I am a strong believer in institutions whether it's the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI. He disdains institutions and-- and I think he did a lot to weaken institutions.

Anderson Cooper: You called him a thin skinned, temperamental, shoot from the hip and lip, uninformed Commander-in-Chief. Too great a risk for America, you said. 

Robert Gates: I would not edit that at all. (LAUGH)

Anderson Cooper: What do you think the greatest threat to democracy is in this country right now?

Robert Gates: The extreme polarization that we're seeing. The greatest threat is found within the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol Building.

Anderson Cooper: When you watched the insurrection on the Capitol, what did you think? 

Robert Gates: The attack on the Capitol was the first time armed enemies of democracy had been in the Capitol since the War of 1812. I mean, seeing somebody parading through the Capitol carrying a Confederate flag, that never happened during the Civil War.

Anderson Cooper: What's worse, the event itself, or even now, all these months later, to have members of Congress trying to rewrite its history?  

Robert Gates: I don't understand such a denial. And these same people who were terrified on January 6th, and whose lives were in danger, to now basically say, "Well, these are just your normal tourists." The whole of our society seems to be coming unhinged. And there's just-- I've never seen so much hatred. 

Anderson Cooper: And the continued propagation of former President Trump's big lie about the election, how big of a national security threat is that for future elections?

Robert Gates: It seems to me that it underscores the theme that China is sounding around the world that the United States political system doesn't work and that the United States is a declining power.

Robert Gates doesn't believe America's power is declining, but after serving under eight presidents and seeing up close what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, he has come to accept the limits of America's military might. 

Anderson Cooper: You said, "One of the enduring lessons of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union is that lasting change in a country will come only from within." I find that to be an extraordinary statement from somebody who ran military interventions in countries. You're saying that in the end, from the outside, you cannot change a country.

Robert Gates: I believe that. And I think-- I think that, you know, there are a handful of exceptions. Germany and Japan after World War II-- it-- are examples. But we had essentially destroyed both countries. Total defeat.

Anderson Cooper: Foreign policy at the end of a rifle doesn't work?

Robert Gates: You know, one of my favorite quotes is from Churchill. "Democracy is not a harlot to be picked up in the street at the point of a Tommy gun." (LAUGH) And I totally believe that.

Anderson Cooper: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I'm not sure he could get away with saying that (LAUGH) today. 

Robert Gates: I don't think anybody ever accused him of being--

Anderson Cooper: Well--

Robert Gates: --politically correct.

Anderson Cooper: Well, that's-- that's for sure. 

Anderson Cooper: Is there a Gates doctrine?

Robert Gates: I am very much a believer in the importance of military power, and in the United States having predominant military power. I also am firmly convinced that the use of the military should be the very last resort in dealing with any international situation because no matter why and how it starts no one can predict what will happen.

Produced by Sarah Koch. Associate producer, Chrissy Jones. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig and Eliza Costas. Edited by Patrick Lee.

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