Friday, Aug. 02, 2002
(Defense Department Special Briefing on yesterday's meeting of U.S., Egyptian and Israeli government representatives on reconfiguration of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai. Also participating was Marybeth McDevitt, Egypt Country Director, ISA NESA)
Staff: Good morning. We have Mr. Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary for policy, here for a sole-subject briefing on the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai and the trilateral talks that were held yesterday.
Feith: Good morning.
Yesterday, a meeting occurred among representatives of the U.S., Egyptian and Israeli governments to discuss the Multilateral (sic) [Multinational] Force and Observers in the Sinai. The United States invited the parties to this conference to discuss the reconfiguration of the MFO and the requirement that the United States has to reduce, to some extent, the U.S. participation in the MFO in light of the requirements that we have, that are -- you know, requirements on our military resources that we have, especially given the war on terrorism.
This issue of looking at the level of U.S. participation there is one that has been around for a while. When this administration came to office, Secretary Rumsfeld looked globally -- began to look globally -- at U.S. deployments and missions and wanted to examine them to see if we're structured as efficiently as possible. And the urgency of this reexamination of our role in various missions and deployments around the world, and in the Sinai deployment in particular, obviously increased a great deal as a result of the September 11th attacks and our involvement in the war on terrorism.
This particular meeting that we had yesterday was -- the idea of a trilateral meeting -- grew out of a suggestion that President Mubarak made some weeks ago when he visited Washington. We had been talking separately with the Israelis and the Egyptians about this, and President Mubarak said it would be a good idea to get everybody together. And the statement that was issued -- the joint statement of the U.S., Israel and Egypt that was made after the meeting made one or two points that I want to highlight.
It expressed appreciation for the contributions made by all participants in the MFO, especially the United States Army. It pointed out that the United States -- and this was an important point in the meeting -- we strongly reaffirmed our commitment to U.S.-Israeli peace, to the peace treaty, to the MFO itself; the importance of its mission, you know, historically; the importance of allowing the MFO to continue to fulfill its mission. It said that all sides agree upon the need to ensure that the MFO continues to carry out its mission in the most efficient manner possible. And it said the sides agree to conduct further expert-level discussions to determine how best to maintain the effectiveness of the MFO while rationalizing the participation of United States forces. Both Egypt and Israel expressed their understanding of the competing requirements faced by United States forces around the world, especially in light of the war on terror.
Our thought is that the -- there will be discussions among the United States, Egypt, Israel and the MFO leadership to discuss what the missions are, how the United States can reconfigure its participation. We're going to continue to participate. We're not talking about ending U.S. participation in the mission; we're talking about looking at the whole MFO, how it can reconfigure itself, how it can continue to fulfill its mission more efficiently. The MFO mission has been underway for over 20 years. So it's certainly perfectly reasonable now, after that period, to say, you know, what are the premises, what are the particular functions that the people in the MFO force are fulfilling? Can they be fulfilled in a more efficient manner to allow the United States to be able to reduce without, you know, undermining the mission? There is also discussion about the assistance that the United States will continue to give in -- financially to the MFO, and the efforts that the United States is going to make to find other countries that might want to come in and contribute and pick up some of the functions that the United States could turn over.
I think, with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.
Q: Doug, you say you're not ending U.S. participation, but aren't you going to -- aren't you going to -- haven't you informed the Israelis and Egyptians you're going to sharply slash it? I believe the Secretary indicated you all wanted to cut it to a very token presence, perhaps 25 to 50 as opposed to the current between 800 and 900 or the 1,900. Aren't you going to sharply cut --
Feith: No decision has been made on the exact nature of the cut. We have talked about our desire to reduce -- to make a substantial reduction. But these were real consultations in that we were talking with the Egyptians and the Israelis before the U.S. government has actually made a decision. We wanted to make sure that our decision would be informed by what the Egyptians and the Israelis thought about this. So, we don't have a number yet that we've decided that we want to go down, although, as I've said, we have said that we would like to make a substantial reduction, you know, if we can.
Q: In other words, you won't say now that you do intend to make a substantial reduction, what you're saying is you'd like to or --
Feith: Well, I would -- I would say we intend to, but we intend to do it as part of a consultative process that has actually been underway for over a year. A key element of that process was the trilateral meeting that we had yesterday, and there will continue to be consultations because we're going to be having this expert-level follow-up meeting, and there will undoubtedly also be, you know, other bilateral discussions that we'll have with the Israelis and the Egyptians. And it's an ongoing discussion that we're having of the subject.
Q: Do you have any idea of when you will? When this will all come about? How long this is expected to take?
Feith: I don't know precisely at this point.
Q: You went in there obviously with a proposal to say how much you'd like to bring it down to, so those governments already know. So, can you tell us what that range is of what you're considering the cut is? And then, if you end up being higher than that, no big deal, but what's your big range?
Feith: I don't want to get into the details of the proposal, but we have developed ideas, and we're discussing them with the Egyptians and the Israelis, and we'll take their thoughts -- what we're trying to look at are what are the particular functions that the MFO is performing? And how might one set the MFO up so that key things that are really of value can continue to be performed with -- you know, in a more efficient way, with fewer people?
Q: Would it be fair to say fewer than a hundred U.S. participants? Is that what you're looking at?
Feith: We're looking at whatever makes sense and reduces the burden on everybody to the maximum extent. We all have an interest in doing this most efficiently.
Q: How many troops are there now? Are they all Army? Are they all regular Army, or do you have Reserve and National Guard? And looking at the scenario, and you say you'd like to get other countries to participate, but what -- if you had to place a number on the needs, a rough number of how many U.S. troops you think you would need in the MFO, what would that number be?
Feith: Let me see if I have the precise information for you. We have essentially three elements that the United States is contributing. There is a headquarters element of more or less 30 people; there is a support battalion of a little over 300; and there is an infantry battalion of a little over 500, and those are the main contributions. So, there is then also international --
(Aside to staff.) Oh, there we go. Thank you.
They are National Guard, Army National Guard. There --
Q: All of them?
Feith: I believe all of them.
Staff: But not the support battalion.
Feith: Oh, the support battalion is not National Guard?
Staff: No. Just the infantry battalion.
Q: And the headquarters element?
Feith: The headquarters element is?
Staff: Regular forces.
Q: What state do they come from?
Staff: The National Guard, just finished -- Arkansas. I believe Oregon, but I'm not positive. So, Arkansas just departed.
Q: Oregon is going over now?
Staff: I believe. I'd have to confirm that. [During July, the 1-186 Infantry, 41st Separate Infantry Brigade, Oregon Army National Guard replaced the 2-153 Infantry, 39th Infantry Brigade, Arkansas Army National Guard, as the U.S. infantry battalion.]
Feith: And the -- and then there are around 800 or so members of the MFO contributed by other countries.
Q: How many, though, would you like to have? How many U.S. do you think you'd be comfortable with?
Feith: We're talking about that. I mean, it's -- I don't want to make an announcement about that right now. We're seeing -- as I said, we're trying to do this rationally, in consultation with the Egyptians and the Israelis, to figure what's required to fulfill the mission.
A large part -- I think everybody agrees that a large part of this mission is political in nature, rather than military in nature. I mean, it's a confidence-building presence that the MFO provides. It is not the case that this observation force is keeping the peace in a military sense between Egypt and Israel. I mean, it is not as if you have two, you know, hostile countries being separated by this force. What you have are two countries that have a peace treaty, they're at peace with each other, and the force, which is an observation force, not any kind of peace enforcement military force -- the observation force is serving a monitoring role and helping to, as I said, contribute to confidence in a peace treaty that already has lasted for over 20 years. And you know, a substantial amount of confidence has been built up in that period.
Q: One quick follow-up, if I may. If we say -- can we say at this point that the U.S. intends to withdraw most of the 850-plus, would we be correct? Now "intends" is the key word.
Feith: I don't want to get into the specific proposals. We want to make as substantial a reduction as it is rational to make.
Q: When does the expert-level talks begin? And are the other nations in the Multinational Force looking to rationalize their presence on it?
Feith: I don't know exactly when the technical -- when the experts' level discussions are going to take place. We're talking about scheduling them as quickly as we can. I mean, I hope that it'll be, you know, within a matter of a few weeks.
The -- as for other countries, our discussions with other countries on this subject have mostly been to begin sounding out other countries as to whether they would be contributing -- you know, willing to contribute -- additional forces to come in behind the United States. In other words, when we go out, they come in.
The support battalion, the support element, is important because it provides support in various ways for all of the MFO. That clearly is going to have to be replaced. There are several options for how it might be replaced, and one of the options is to go and see if we can get other countries to contribute those elements, and we're trying to recruit them.
Q: I believe you're scheduled to host a meeting of Iraqi opposition groups later this month. Can you tell us what you hope that meeting will accomplish, in just broad terms?
Feith: We are practically out of time. I'm late for a meeting. And that was not really the topic of this briefing.
Q: It would be helpful if you could just take 30 seconds, just give us an idea of what generally -- I mean, I'm not asking anything secret; it's been announced. So --
Feith: It's been announced we're going to be having the meeting sometime next week, I believe. And it will be, I think, a useful exchange of views. We have lots of -- we have lots of thoughts and we have lots of questions, and I'm sure that everybody in the meeting will learn something.
Q: There was a report in The Washington Post today that you- all have agreed to finance one of the
Q: Mr. Feith -- (inaudible) -- will reduce?
Feith: Maybe, maybe not.
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