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Pentagon Spokesman Addresses Afghanistan, Mexico, Other Key Issues

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2009 – A senior Pentagon spokesman offered gratitude to Canada and touched on a variety of other topics in a wide-ranging news conference today.

Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the United States and the Defense Department appreciate the military support Canada has provided for operations in Afghanistan.

“The Canadian military has been an invaluable partner in southern Afghanistan,” he said. “Their nearly 3,000 forces are among the bravest and the most effective in [Regional Command South], and they have paid dearly for their efforts to help the Afghan people improve their lives, losing 111 troops in the process.”

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay is slated to meet with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon today, Morrell said. Gates and MacKay met last month at a NATO defense ministers conference in Krakow, Poland.

In today’s meeting, Gates and MacKay likely will review issues they discussed in Krakow, Morrell said, including the situation in Afghanistan, the status of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, and the upcoming NATO Summit marking the alliance’s 60th anniversary, slated to take place in early April at Baden-Baden and Kehl, Germany, and in Strasbourg, France.

Gates also will offer his deepest condolences to MacKay and the Canadian people, Morrell said, for the three Canadian soldiers killed in an improvised explosive device attack near Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 3. Canada’s troop losses in Afghanistan represent the highest level proportionally among all forces deployed in that country, Morrell said.

“We honor their sacrifices and appreciate their steadfast commitment to bettering the situation in Kandahar,” Morrell said of Canadian forces’ contributions in Afghanistan.

Morrell also addresses a variety of other defense-related issues.

On North Korea:

Morrell said he wouldn’t comment on intelligence reports concerning “what the North Koreans may or may not be up to” regarding their alleged preparations for another ballistic missile launch. However, he said, senior military members of the United Nations Command and the North Korean army are slated to attend a round of talks tomorrow to discuss issues of mutual trust and tension reduction.

“We are pleased that the [North Korean army has] accepted the U.N. Command’s proposal for these general-officer talks,” Morrell said, noting that such a meeting of senior-level officers hasn’t taken place since 2002.

On the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuality:

Morrell said he knew of no current Pentagon internal review of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibits inquiring into a servicemember’s sexual preference in the absence of disallowed behavior, but allows action to be taken against homosexual servicemembers who disclose their orientation by words or actions.

“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ remains the law of the land, and we are following it,” Morrell said. However, he didn’t rule out a review of the U.S. military’s rules regarding homosexuality in the future.

On the status of U.S. strategy reviews on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

“The only review, as I’ve said to you before, that I believe counts is the one that the president has asked for,” Morrell told reporters. The White House-level review, he said, is chaired by Bruce Riedel and is co-vice-chaired by Michèle Flournoy, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Gates has been briefed on the status of the White House review, Morrell said, noting U.S. Central Command’s review on Afghanistan and Pakistan is completed and would be provided to the White House as part of its review.

On U.S. requests for allied support in Afghanistan:

The Unites States’ NATO allies have increased their troop commitments in Afghanistan over the past 18 months, Morrell said, noting that Gates recognizes there probably isn’t much more military capacity to be had for NATO countries to send to Afghanistan. However, he said, there likely is significant civilian capacity available in the form of money, banking, governance and other kinds of experts, as well as trainers for the Afghan police.

On Mexico:

“The situation in Mexico is clearly a cause for concern,” Morrell said, citing the violence there among illegal drug cartels. Gates, he said, addressed the drug problem in Mexico during his appearance March 1 on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is slated to visit Mexico later this week, Morrell said, to see what else the United States can do to assist the Mexican military in its fight against the drug cartels.

State Department and Pentagon officials support the Merida Initiative, which involves U.S. intelligence sharing, law enforcement cooperation and training programs with Mexican authorities to fight drug trafficking and other transnational crime, Morrell said. Former President George W. Bush signed the initiative June 30.

On Kyrgyzstan:

Morrell said “a slew of alternatives” exist to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, a major logistics hub for the war in Afghanistan, which is slated to close to U.S. military use later this year.

On the Defense Department’s fiscal 2010 budget:

The budget process is under way and “very closely held,” Morrell said. Gates, he said, wants to change the Defense Department’s acquisition process to make it more efficient, to better serve the military, and to save taxpayer dollars. Gates believes the military services have to operate far more jointly in their procurement processes, Morrell said.

“So, that if one service has a particular capability, it doesn’t necessarily need to be replicated in the other services,” he explained. “The other services can accept a degree of risk in that area, because one of the other services has that [capability].”

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NATO International Security Assistance Force

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