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DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Gen. Pace from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace
May 24, 2007 1:45 PM EDT
    SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. In the coming days, millions of Americans will be taking a long weekend to commemorate Memorial Day. It's a time to honor those who gave their lives in service to this country. It also is a time to thank those who are currently serving and sacrificing here and overseas, and to their families who make daily sacrifices in service to our country. And it's time to reflect on the dangers that threaten us, our freedoms and our liberties.
 
    Tomorrow I'll address the Naval Academy's graduating class, followed by the Air Force Academy commencement next Wednesday. These young men and women represent some of our nation's best and brightest who made a choice four years ago to serve at a time of war. We are deeply indebted to them and to all the men and women who have stepped forward to defend our nation.
 
    General.
 
    GEN. PACE: Thank you, sir.
 
    I would say that this weekend is not only a time for us to reflect on the sacrifices that those who went before us have made, but, you know, on the current sacrifices of those in uniform, but also for those of us in uniform to rededicate ourselves to defending the Constitution of the United States and to honor the legacy that has been provided to us by so many millions of Americans, who for more than 200 years have protected our freedoms.
 
    There is fear on the battlefield, but I think the truth is that soldiers and Marines in battle fear most that they would either let their fellow soldier or Marine down or that somehow they would let down the legacy that they've inherited. And this weekend's a chance for each of us who have the privilege of wearing the uniform to rededicate ourselves to our oath of office and to the legacy that we've inherited.
 
    Thanks.
 
    SEC. GATES: Go ahead.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, is political -- broad political reconciliation in Iraq too ambitious at this point, since that there's a new effort to work with smaller, more neighborhood groups? And I'm wondering, if that's true, then does that mean that getting some of the reconciliation, some of the political legislation passed, is that not as critical now as you perhaps once thought? And for the general, what does this -- what -- if this is true, then what does this mean militarily?
 
    SEC. GATES: I think it's all of the above. I would tell you that one of the concerns that I've had since taking on these responsibilities was whether we had focused too much on central government construction in both Iraq and Afghanistan and not enough on the cultural and historical, provincial, tribal and other entities that have played an important role in the history of both countries.
 
    I think the reality is that we need to continue our efforts to strengthen the central governments and the ministries in both countries. But I think reaching out and working with these other groups is also important, and I think we've seen some of the benefit of that in Al Anbar province, where the locals have assumed considerable responsibility and were working with the same goals in mind rather than across purposes as in the past. So I think you -- that's a place where I think you can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think you can work to strengthen central governments and also work to strengthen local leaders.
 
    Q     And how about addressing -- and what that means for the legislation?
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, I think, too -- and I talked about this a little bit at the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee -- I think that we still want to see progress on legislation. I said then that I didn't believe that passing the legislation would fix any of these problems, that that's going to take a while. But I think passing the legislation sends a signal to the Iraqi people that the different factions are prepared to work together to try and move the country forward.
 
    But I also -- what I also said in that testimony was that I think it's also important to pay attention to other steps that are being taken that suggest that the different factions are working together better, the prime minister reaching out to Vice President Hashemi and taking his counsel, the presidential council and the prime minister working closely -- working together more.
 
    So I think that there are various aspects of the reconciliation, each of which has some importance. Does that diminish the importance of getting some of this legislation passed this summer? No. But I think we also have to pay attention to some other factors.
 
    GEN. PACE: I would simply add that it means that the military leaders need to be attentive to and sensitive to leadership decisions both nationally and locally. And as the secretary pointed out, it was local leaders in Al Anbar who made the decision that they were tired of al Qaeda, that they wanted to partner with coalition forces in getting rid of al Qaeda. And to the extent that the local leadership has wanted to do that, our military has been able to do that, and together they've been able to change the atmosphere in Al Anbar significantly. So the military leadership should be paying attention to the political leadership's decisions and being ready to reinforce and help them as best they can.
 
    SEC. GATES: I would just add one more sentence, and that is, I think this same thing holds true in Afghanistan, where the importance of the village elders and others and the provincial governors is clearly important in progress. And when these guys decide – get impatient with the Taliban and others trying to muscle their way around their villages, and begin to work more closely with ISAF and with the Afghan National Army, then I think you begin to see real progress.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, the president earlier today said that you would like to see the United States in a different configuration in Iraq at some point. How do you envisage -- could you sketch out a little bit how you would like that configuration to look from a military point of view?
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, I didn't see the president’s press conference, but my impression -- I've heard that he talked about trying to get to Baker-Hamilton. And that's a transition, it seems to me, more to a train, equip, continue to go after al Qaeda and provide support kind of role. That kind of a role clearly would involve fewer forces than we have now, and forces with a different mission.
 
    I don't know if the general wants to add anything.
 
    GEN. PACE: Sir, I think that's right on. That's part of the dialogue right now, and exactly what we'll be looking at between now and September, when we have the assessment from the field.
 
    SEC. GATES: Jim.
 
    Q     Sir, do you envision that you would be able to move to that sort of different configuration soon after the assessment in September? Or is this something that's much further down the line?
 
    SEC. GATES: I think that remains to be seen. We'll have to see where we are in September and what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker come to us with.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, if, when General Petraeus delivers his assessment in September and that assessment does not meet your criteria for progress, would you be prepared to recommend to the president that an immediate draw-down of troops begins in earnest?
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, I think to sort of address this whole thing hypothetically three months before General Petraeus -- or three and a half months before General Petraeus does his report, and a couple of weeks before -- or a week, or at least a week before the fifth brigade is in, is premature, to say the least.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, do the figures that you see show that sectarian killings are going back up? And if they are, what does that say about the progress of the surge in reducing violence?
 
    SEC. GATES: The general may be more familiar with the specifics.
 
    GEN. PACE: It's difficult to parse out some of the deaths from other deaths. So let me just give you whole cloth, which is in Baghdad in January there was just over 1,400 murders, sectarian violence, et cetera. That number was reduced to 800 in February, and reduced to just over 500 in March, and remained fairly constant in March and April, just a little bit over 500 both months. This month it's a little bit higher, maybe about 20 or 30 higher than it was at this time last month.
 
    But inside of those numbers it's very difficult to parse out which death is caused by what kind of activity. But clearly the overall violence levels are down, whereas inside there may be a bomb one month that goes off that takes a larger toll than another one, et cetera.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, yesterday nine U.S. war ships entered the Arabian Gulf. Could you explain for us what the main reason behind this? And is it a show of force or?
 
    SEC. GATES: It's an exercise pure and simple. The two aircraft carriers were going to be in the Gulf together in any event to do exercises. The Marine Expeditionary Force and the third large ship is on its way to Kuwait to deliver those Marines who will go into Iraq, and so the commander saw an opportunity to have an exercise where the naval commander gets some experience in commanding or organizing and coordinating operations from three large entities. It's not intended as a show of force. It patently is a show of force just because that's a lot of ships and clearly a lot of military power.
 
    But the intent is pure and simple -- an exercise where we saw the opportunity to take advantage of a confluence of schedules for these three ships to -- three -- the two carriers and the MEF -- to have the opportunity to exercise together. I think that the exercise, the whole exercise of the three and the full group of ships is limited to about 36 hours.
 
    So, I don't know. Do you want to add anything?
 
    GEN. PACE: Sir, I think you covered it just right. And that part is complete.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary and General Pace, three weeks ago U.S. troops found manuals and cartoons that were in an al Qaeda safehouse, that showed how to torture, basically.
 
    You, yourself, have said al Qaeda is now public enemy number one in Iraq. 
 
    Can you first comment on the findings that you found when the forces went into this al Qaeda safe house? But if al Qaeda is public enemy number one, is that going to factor in to General Petraeus's recommendation in September, and could that mean that there'll be a recommendation to draw down and turn this more into a counterterrorism operation?
 
    SEC. GATES: I think that, first of all, our forces have been directed against al Qaeda on a continuing basis. I think the worry that we have is, clearly, what we have seen over the past year, that whatever progress is made, and particularly in the last few months, often is overshadowed when al Qaeda will launch a major attack that kills a lot of innocent civilian Iraqis. Most of the people who are being killed by al Qaeda's vehicle-borne IEDs are innocent Iraqis, they're not coalition forces. They also are Iraqi national army and police. And they clearly -- as we've talked about before here – they clearly intend to keep the violence stoked in trying to provoke sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi'a. And so they are a significant complicating factor in what we're trying to accomplish through the surge.
 
    I think that General Petraeus's report is going to focus on the overall situation in Iraq from a security standpoint, not just al Qaeda, but also progress that's been made in training and equipping the Iraqi forces, and also in bringing down the level of violence in Baghdad as a whole; and associated with that what progress has been made in the area of political reconciliation.
 
    So I think it'll all be encompassed in the general's report, but al Qaeda is -- this situation would look very different if it weren't for al Qaeda.
 
    GEN. PACE: If I might just add, al Qaeda has published their 100-year plan. Clearly, whatever military advice we give, both in Iraq and regionally, must take into account that this group of al Qaeda has targeted free nations to include the United States, and our long-term plan and our long-term recommendations must deal with that very real threat to the United States.
 
    Q     Secretary, we keep hearing so much about September. September, General Petraeus -- this is probably the most anticipated moment in the war since the, I guess, the Iraq Study Group. And I guess my question is: Are you expecting that when General Petraeus delivers his report or assessment in September, that it will be the decisive moment in where things go in Iraq? Or should you be lowering expectations a little bit as people are looking to September as the date when we're either going to get a thumbs up or a thumbs down on whether things are working?
 
    SEC. GATES: I think General Petraeus' report will be an important impact -- an important contribution to an overall evaluation of how we think things are going in Iraq. The decision on whether to change course in any way is going to be the president's decision, and General Petraeus' evaluation will be important, so will be the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs, and I would assume that the thinking of the secretary of State and secretary of Defense will have some impact as well.
 
    So it is an important part of the process, certainly. That kind of a look will take place. But it is not the sole factor that the president will be taking into account.
 
    Yes?
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, do you anticipate -- also General Pace – a surge in the violence this summer? And do you see -- is there any evidence that Iranians are playing a role in that?
 
    SEC. GATES: We have not -- well, I'll say what I know, and the general may have better information. I'm not aware of a particular surge in Iranian activity inside Iraq beyond what we've already seen. My own view is that we are dealing with a smart, agile, thinking enemy. They are technologically sophisticated, and therefore they know what's going on in this country. And I think we should be prepared for them to make a very strong effort to increase the level of violence in July and August. My hope is that anticipating it will allow us to thwart it.
 
    GEN. PACE: I agree. If you take a look at any situation, when you "Red Team" it, in our terms, and you go around to the other side and look back from the enemy's point of view, and you look at the importance that's being paid in some quarters in this nation to the reports in September and the like, from an enemy standpoint, attacking as best they can in July and August would make sense from their standpoint. And what the secretary just said is very true for our standpoint, which is we need to be prepared for that additional effort on their part, to defeat it and to turn it back.
 
    SEC. GATES: And I would say there is a parallel in Afghanistan. There'd been a rising level of violence in Afghanistan over the last several springs. We anticipated that there was going to be a significant new effort by the Taliban this spring, and we took a number of measures to counter that and to make it our offensive. And, frankly, I think so far this spring, those efforts have been successful. So you can -- you can anticipate these things.
 
    Yes?
 
    Q     The president was asked this morning about the dwindling public support for the war, and he said that some people just don't believe we're -- there's an enemy out there that wants to hurt us, and other people disagree with his decision to go in. But it seems there's relatively few people who don't think we're at risk, and people elected -- reelected the president after we went into Iraq. So it would seem more to the point is the loss of public confidence in the ability of the administration to successfully wage the war in Iraq. Given that, how do you -- short of something dramatic on the battlefield, how do you turn around public opinion?
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, I think the president has said publicly that if he had been one of those polled in November -- "Are you satisfied with the way the war's going in Iraq?" -- he would have been one of the 62 percent who said no. 
 
    I think that -- I think what the public is looking for is some sign that is evidence that the situation is getting better, that it's headed in the right direction, if you will. Unfortunately, we can't make that happen overnight. And it's not like a World War II, or most of the wars we've fought in the past, where you can try and bring about a decisive battle that says -- that gives you that message unambiguously. And so what we have to do is look at this over a period of time, and that, frankly, just requires patience on our part. I mean, we're as impatient for this thing to turn in a positive direction as anybody -- maybe more so. And, you know, I'd give anything to have to stop doing as many of these condolence letters as I'm writing. It's a terrible thing, and people are suffering. 
 
    But we can't turn it around overnight and we just have to have the patience to let this play out and see if General Petraeus's strategy is going to produce positive results. We think there are some positive things going on.
 
    I think we're being very careful not to indulge in happy talk or to be optimistic when there are grounds not to be. I think we're trying to be honest and realistic about how things are going. And it's just going to take some more time, and that's why I think General Petraeus basically decided that September would be a good time, early September, thereabouts, a good time for him to do his report for the president. 
 
    Q     Sir, with regard to that possible transition of mission away from what we're doing now towards more training and equipping, have you all figured out what that minimum number of American trainers needs to be? 
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, I go back to the answer I gave earlier. You know, I said three or four months ago in front of the Congress that I would be irresponsible if we weren't doing a lot of different kinds of contingency planning. Clearly -- and I spoke earlier about the possible need for some kind of residual force in Iraq. For some protracted period of time, I talked about that in front of the Congress a couple of weeks ago. So sure, we're looking at what that might look like, but I don't know what it is yet. 
 
    Q     You can't -- no estimates -- just a ballpark of – absent the counterterrorism mission, absent force protection -- of what the-
 
    SEC. GATES: That work is underway now. I don't know the answer.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, there are diplomatic meetings scheduled Monday in Baghdad with Iran. I'm curious what role you see Iran playing in stemming the violence in Iraq. Do you see them as being vital to stemming that violence? 
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, the Iraqis are playing -- the Iranians are playing a very unhelpful role in Iraq. These EFPs that we've talked about here are almost exclusively coming out of Iran. They're pretty sophisticated. I went up to Aberdeen Proving Ground last Saturday to examine several different models of MRAPs. And they were showing me some of the new EFPs from Iran and the capacity of these machines to try and stop these things.  
 
    So the Iranians are clearly playing a spoiler role in Iraq in trying to kill coalition troops. And they are providing training. They're probably providing other kinds of arms, and I think that their principal theme, from our standpoint, of the conversations that are going to take place in Baghdad is to see if we can somehow persuade the Iranians to play a more constructive role.
 
    Q     Sir, back on the strategy issue, another report in the last couple of days that there's a new strategy going forward and higher levels of Iraqi forces could be used and whatnot -- how do you characterize those reports with the new strategy, and is it a reflection at all of the reality of the Iraqi government is just maybe too weak to take on this fight?
 
    SEC. GATES: I'm going to let General Pace answer that question, because the first time I thought it was a new strategy being prepared was when I read it in The Washington Post yesterday. (Laughs, laughter.) We still haven't seen it.
 
    GEN. PACE: Me, too.  So I called Dave Petraeus. I said, "Hey, Dave --" (chuckles) -- and he said what he and Ambassador Crocker have ongoing is each of their staffs are taking a look at the current joint campaign plan that's put out by both the ambassador and the MNF-I commander, General Petraeus. And they're asking their staffs to take a look at the various lines of operation -- the security, governance, economics -- and do an assessment of where the plan said they should be, where are they and for the staffs to make recommendations to both Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus about what changes, if any, need to be made.
 
    When those recommendations come forward, those two gentlemen will make their decisions. If they determine that they need to make changes, they'll report that up the chain, but right now it's very much at -- below their level in their staffs doing the proper kind of homework they should be doing.
 
    Q     Do you see more of the flushing out of details, if at all, then, of a brand-new way forward?
 
    GEN. PACE: Yeah. This is very much a refinement to the ongoing campaign plan to see where did we say we wanted to be, where are we, what changes might we need to make in a tactical detail, so to speak, to be able to keep us on that path. 
 
    And then, that information, plus the assessment of what's going on in the Baghdad plan, will assist both of them in making their reports to the president and the secretary come September time frame.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary --
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, on the MRAP issue, can you bring us up to speed in terms of where the services' plans now stand in terms of (hard ?) requirements? You know, May 2nd, your memo said, bring me a plan. Where is that? And I have a quick follow-up on the trip to Aberdeen, if I have a chance.
 
    SEC. GATES: The -- well, I'll just a elaborate a little bit. There are a number of -- there are several different companies that have produced different kinds of MRAP vehicles. The folks at Aberdeen are testing those. They are working 24/7, three shifts a day, seven days a week. They are heavily instrumented so that they can – right down to the fact that when they test against a vehicle, they make sure they test every vehicle on the same soil so that that variable is removed in terms of the impact. And they're looking even at, in some cases, perhaps the seat for the troops in one kind of vehicle are
better in a different kind of vehicle. And so they're looking at all of that.
 
    I have asked the deputy secretary, Gordon England, to oversee a group that brings the services, acquisition and all the different elements of the department together so we can move forward as fast as possible. The requirement -- the only requirement that's important to me now is to produce as many of these vehicles and to get them into the field as fast as possible, and to ramp-up, to make selections and get the production under way and get these things into the field.
 
    In terms of what the long-term plan will be, I want to deal with what we can get done in the next six to 12 months first.
 
    Q     A couple of weeks ago, you said this building's not agile, it doesn't move well, it's a like a big behemoth. In this case, what can you do to light a fire under the, quote, "building" to get them to move quicker on this vehicle?
 
    SEC. GATES: Light a fire under the buildings -- (laughter) -- and some of the people in it. (Laughter.)
 
    Q     Are you satisfied with the Marine Corps' explanation for why they chose not to act on the original request back in 2005?
 
    SEC. GATES: I'm sorry?
 
    Q     I'm sorry. Are you satisfied with the Marine Corps' explanation for why -- regarding why they chose not to act on the original request for MRAPs back in 2005?
 
    SEC. GATES: I don't know anything about the March 2005 proposal or the Marine Corps' reaction to it.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, on another subject, the China Power Report is overdue, expected perhaps any day. I wonder if you've seen it, and if so, what your main concerns are about China's growing military capability?
 
    And, General, I hope you'll comment as well, in part based on your recent visit.
 
    SEC. GATES: I have seen it. My understanding is it will be out -- what is today, the 24th?
 
    GEN. PACE: Yes, sir.
 
    SEC. GATES: It will be out tomorrow. Well, it paints a picture of a country that is -- has steadily devoted increasing resources to their military that is developing some very sophisticated capabilities. I think it's a realistic appraisal of the Chinese view of their own security needs and what their strategies are. I'm happy to report that I don't think it does any arm-waving; I don't think it does any exaggeration of the threat. 
 
    But it paints a picture of a country that is devoting substantial resources to the military and developing, as I say, some very sophisticated capabilities. We wish that there were greater transparency, that they would talk more about what their intentions are, what their strategies are. These are assessments that are in this publication. It would be nice to hear firsthand from the Chinese how they view some of these things.
 
    Q     Any particular concerns that it raised, aside from the overall spending and technology increase?
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, I think some of the capabilities that are being developed are of concern, sure.
 
    GEN. PACE: From a military standpoint, when you look at a threat, you look at two things. The one is capacity and the other is intent. And from the due diligence side of the house, you look globally at what are other countries' military capacities, and you satisfy yourself that either you have the means to defeat those capacities or you don't; and if you don't, what do you need to do to change that, without ascribing intent or not to any particular potential adversary.
 
    The most important thing from my perspective is for the United States military to stay well out ahead of any potential adversary so that we are properly prepared, should somebody's intent change, to deal with that threat when it arises.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, the House has recommended a 3.5 percent pay raise for troops, and we hear the Senate's about to follow suit. OMB has called the higher raise, which is .5 percent higher than what DOD recommended, unnecessary. What are your thoughts?
 
    SEC. GATES: Well, we submitted a budget with a 3 percent pay increase. We think that that's about the right number. You know, we all wish that we had the luxury of doing more in certain areas. This is perhaps one of them. But there are competing interests for the dollars that we have. MRAPs, for example. If you were to look at the request that's been reported in the press of the Army in thousands and thousands of MRAPs, that's billions and billions of dollars. Where's it going to come from? Is it better to give a soldier a pay raise or be able to buy MRAPs? I mean, these are the trade-offs that we have to make, and it seemed to us that 3 percent was a fair increase in compensation.
 
    Thank you all very much.
 
    Q     Mr. Secretary, do you anticipate General Pace being renominated?  Is that your hope?
 
    SEC. GATES: That's in the future.
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