DoD Media Roundtable with Secretary Gates and Gen. Pace in the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: A couple of very brief introductory comments:
I would like to thank the Senate and Chairman Levin in particular for confirmation of Secretary of the Army Pete Geren a little while ago. I've been enjoying working with Pete. It's a little-known factoid that Pete's grandfather designed all of the best buildings at Texas A&M University. (Soft laughter.) And I don't know how Pete strayed from the true and the narrow, but ended up not at Texas A&M.
GEN. PACE: Sir, thanks.
We had a change of command at U.S. Special Operations Command on Monday. General Doug Brown had four years of command down there and 40 years of service to the nation, retired, and Admiral Eric Olson took over Special Ops Command. It was a great opportunity to remind ourselves what an incredible job our special operators have been doing for this nation since this war began. As we sit here in air conditioning, they're in 114-degree heat, strapping it on every day to take care of our nation's problems, and we deeply appreciate all that our Special Operations forces are doing for us.
SEC. GATES: I understand that one of your number is leaving after today, after 10 years of service here. So, Pam, we'll give you the first question.
Q Oh, thank you. And if I could take this opportunity to invite you to --
SEC. GATES: Unless, of course, you don't have one. (Laughter.)
Q -- no, I do -- (chuckles) -- to sit for an interview in my new beat covering intelligence. If you wouldn't mind, I would like you to commit to that right now, on the record, with cameras rolling.
SEC. GATES: Well --
Q No? (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES (?): Commit to what?
Q An interview in my new beat on intelligence. I was talking about that.
SEC. GATES: We'll certainly take it under advisement. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you very much.
The question that I have, sir, actually has to do with that. You told us in May and you told the Senate in May that al Qaeda had reconstituted itself, and then that's obviously come out this week with the NIA (sic) reporting.
At the time you also told us that you had asked for a report on the status of al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates around the world, and I was wondering if you could give us some insight into what you've heard on that. Which countries have new al Qaeda affiliates? Which countries have those cells that are looking to affiliate themselves with it?
SEC. GATES: I think that the area where there has been the -- in just recent months and the last little while -- the emergence of al Qaeda has been in North Africa. And they actually -- this is one of those -- when I mentioned that a couple of months ago, what I was talking about was that I had asked for a map that showed me what countries had al Qaeda cells in them, then in a different color, what countries had terrorist cells of groups that were affiliated with al Qaeda and then a third category, countries where there were terrorist cells that wanted to be affiliated with al Qaeda but hadn't gotten approved yet.
The Maghreb was an area in the second category. There has basically been a merger or whatever you want to call it of several terrorist groups there under the rubric of al Qaeda in the Maghreb. And I -- and it seems -- I think that's probably the newest area where it has emerged as a reasonably coherent organization.
Q Which category would you put Iraq in, and which color? Would you say that it's terrorist cells affiliated with al Qaeda or actual al Qaeda cells? And can you explain the relationship between al Qaeda in Iraq and this group, the umbrella group we hear about, the Islamic State of Iraq? And what is the relationship between al Qaeda in Iraq to al Qaeda's bin Laden leadership in Pakistan?
SEC. GATES: I think -- let me describe it as I understand it. I think in many respects al Qaeda has become a franchise organization. And we, I think, have pretty good evidence that, for example, al Qaeda in Iraq takes strategic guidance and inspiration from the al Qaeda in the western part of Pakistan, Osama bin Laden's organization, Zawahiri and company. They get advice. They clearly are connected. But they also have, I think, probably substantial autonomy. And I think that that's probably true of these other al Qaeda-related organizations such as the one that I just mentioned in the Maghreb.
And in a way, I think what we saw -- and I'm not an expert on it, but this is my understanding. I think what we've seen is, subsequent to the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, 2003, that almost as a means of survival and given the primitive conditions in which Osama bin Laden and the other leadership lived for quite some time and basically being on the run, the kind of centralized control that they had had prior to 9/11 became almost impossible, for a variety of reasons.
And so I think what you've seen is the evolution of al Qaeda into a much broader organization, but one in which there are a number of autonomous or semi-autonomous organizations that are under this overall umbrella led by Osama bin Laden.
Q Mr. Chairman, the interim report concluded that the progress of the Iraqi security forces in becoming more independent over the last few months has been inadequate. Given the importance of that and alternating getting American troops home, how do you intend to rectify it as the months go ahead? And does -- will it include going back to the idea we heard last year of increasing the size of the training teams at the tactical level to really give them the ability to push the Iraqi units out front more?
GEN. PACE: Well, it's certainly one of the things we'll be looking to General Petraeus for his recommendation when we get to September. We have about 6,000 U.S. troops give or take a few who are currently in the training mode over there. We do need to do more training with the Iraqis. We do need to have more opportunities to have embedded units with them.
So as we look at the progress to date, as we see where we are in September, we'll -- that'll be part of the overall analysis that he'll come in with, it'll be part of the analysis that Admiral Fallon will come in with, it'll be part of the analysis that the chiefs and I will recommend to the secretary, and all of that will become part of a dialogue as far as where are we in September, what's working and needs to be reinforced, what's not and needs to be changed.
Q Do you think, just to follow up quickly, that the training effort at the tactical level has had to take a backseat to some degree because of the focus on protecting Iraqi civilians in the last few months?
GEN. PACE: No, I don't think -- I wouldn't put it that way, but I do think that we have an opportunity to assess whether or not the size of the teams we currently have with the Iraqis is adequate, and do we have enough teams with enough units in the field. That is not independent of the ongoing fight, but I don't think it's been described by the battle in Baghdad right now.
Q Just one quick follow-up on David's question. If you could just trace for us a little bit the exact numbers.
And I guess, Mr. Secretary, if you could address what you say to Congress, who seems to think that the Iraqis are actually backsliding, because the numbers we had as early as, I think, March is that there 10 battalions operating independently, and it seems as though here that has either diminished or at least not increased. And so what do you say to Congress about how this isn't working so far and why it hasn't?
And can you be a little bit more specific about the numbers?
GEN. PACE: Yeah, I can tell you the numbers that are in my head. Last March, I think I said there were -- I did say and there were 10 battalions that were operating independently, and I think at the time I said there were another 88 operating in the lead. Today, the numbers I saw were six battalions operating independently and another almost 100 that are operating in the lead.
And so the question becomes, okay, how do you go from 10 to six, and why those changes? And the answer is, quite simply, that as units operate in the field, they have casualties. They consume vehicles and equipment, and need to come out of the line and be resupplied, just like our own units. So the fact that a number may be changing within a very narrow band shouldn't be of over -- overly of concern.
On the other hand, we do want to see the number go into double figures and start moving more toward more Iraqi units being able to operate on their own and more units that work operating side by side with us, moving into the lead. It is a valid thing to chase, but we shouldn't put too much weight on minor variations in those numbers.
SEC. GATES: I -- this subject hasn't come up in my conversations with members on the Hill. But if it had, I'd have said what he said.
Q Mr. Secretary, I wonder if you would talk to us a little bit about the long-term or midterm vision for Iraq. I understand a decision on the surge, you know, waits till September; we'll see there. But post-surge, when we talk about this more limited role for U.S. forces, like the Iraqi Study Group has talked about, how large a presence is that? How many forces are we really talking about? And how will they be positioned?
And today we heard from General Mixon about his plans that he's submitted for potentially scaling back forces in MND-North and how it would take about 12 to 18 months to do it. Why? What are some of the logistical challenges associated with moving troops out of Iraq?
GEN. PACE: On the logistics side, the system itself is designed right now to be able to increase or decrease about one brigade per month. Can you surge U.S. military and commercial capacity beyond those numbers? Sure. But for a normal planning factor, we're looking at either adding or subtracting about one brigade a month.
Q Why is it difficult? What are the challenges in withdrawing troops, especially when there's obviously still fighting on, so there's the force protection --
SEC. GATES: Can I -- let me just introduce whatever he is going to say with this historical perspective. When we pulled out of Kuwait in 1991, '92, it took about a year to get out of there, in a completely permissive environment, where we had some of the best ports and some of the best airports in the world to help us with the logistics. So it -- and you're talking about not just U.S. soldiers but millions of tons of contractor equipment that belongs to the United States government and a variety of other things.
This is a massive logistical undertaking whenever it takes place. And so that's sort of just to provide a little perspective with what -- but go ahead.
GEN. PACE: Just one example of the myriad kinds of things that commanders on the ground need to think about. If you have 20 brigades on the ground and you have whatever the ground is divided 20 different ways, and you go down to 19, you have to redistribute that ground amongst 19. When you go to 18, you have to redistribute amongst 18. And what you want to be careful of is that you don't get yourself into a mix-master, where you're changing boundaries every month amongst 20, 19, 18, 17 brigades. So you want to have a good feel for what your end state is going to be so that when you start arranging your forces on the battlefield, you're not causing additional strain and misunderstandings amongst boundaries.
And quite candidly, for the people in City A, who are going to be working with one commander one day and perhaps another commander another day, you don't want to keep changing who they're looking to for their partnership. That's just one example of the myriad number of things that we either add or subtract from the battlefield the commander has to think about so he doesn't inadvertently do something that he didn't intend to do.
SEC. GATES: In terms of the long term, I think that that will depend on at least two broad considerations. One is the actual situation on the ground, not only in September but as we go forward. But second, it will also depend, I think, on whether we have a long- term kind of security agreement with the Iraqis that establishes, like we have with every other country, where we have soldiers on their sovereign territory. That will influence the numbers to a considerable degree, where they're located and things like that.
And so I think those are the -- the answer to your question, I think, is still in front of us in terms of both what -- whether and -- whether there is a long-term security agreement and then what it looks like, and then also the actual situation on the ground. But I think in terms of the number of troops, we don't know the answer to that at this point.
Q Mr. Secretary?
SEC. GATES: Yeah.
Q General Mixon gave some fairly specific numbers. He said at the beginning of January, he could basically cut his force in half over 12 to 18 months, go from six brigades down to three. I assume he doesn't say things like that publicly until they've already been discussed privately. Are you getting similar projections from the other sector commanders in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: That's the first I've heard of that. (Laughter.)
Q Mr. Secretary, in February, you told a Senate panel that you thought we would have an assessment available by early summer. And in March, you expressed disappointment with an officer who said that we would know by fall whether the surge strategy is working. Now the White House and this department are asking the American public to wait until September.
So are you -- do you understand why many people in the country might feel misled by some of the mixed messages coming out?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, what I said in February was that we would know by early summer whether the Iraqis were fulfilling their part of the bargain on the security side. I was very explicit in telling the Congress that we would know whether they had met the commitment for the three brigades for appointing their commander or Baghdad and the subcommanders for the East and the West. I said, we will know those things by early summer, and we did.
And with reference to the surge and the fall, I have said early on that I didn't think we would be in a position to evaluate whether the surge was working until late summer. And I think I've said that pretty consistently. I think that's where we are with September. I don't think there's really any inconsistency there at all.
Q (Off mike) -- understand why the public is sort of -- I mean, you've seen the numbers. I mean, the overwhelming majority of the American public wants to see some kind of change in strategy now.
SEC. GATES: Well, I understand that. But what I'm trying to say is -- what I am saying is that I think there has not been any inconsistency in what I have been saying, that we would know by early summer whether the Iraqis had carried out their part of the commitments they had made on the military side, the security side, and that we would -- but we would not know or be in a position to evaluate the surge until late summer. That was long before the supplemental was signed and we knew we had a September report.
Q Mr. Secretary, today in Baghdad, U.S. forces were engaged by Iraqi police. A fierce firefight resulted. Six of the Iraqi police were killed. And the Americans were in the process of taking into custody an Iraqi police lieutenant believed to be responsible for attacks against Americans. Now what does that say, not about the ability of Iraqi security forces but the reliability of the Iraqi security forces?
And then for you, General Pace, how does an American soldier or a Marine fight alongside these forces when they don't know whether they're friendly or they're the enemy from one minute to the next?
SEC. GATES: I think we've been pretty straightforward in saying all along that the Iraqi police were a challenge, that we were reasonably content with the progress of the Iraqi army and their reliability, but that the sectarian nature of some of the Iraqi police and especially some of the senior officers was a concern.
And I think General Pace will confirm a number of Iraqi senior police officials have been removed because they were regarded as sectarian, and they've been removed by the Iraqi government. So it is a challenge, and I don't think anybody's ever made any bones about the fact that the training and the capability and the reliability of the Iraqi police was very uneven and in some areas a real concern.
GEN. PACE: With regard to today's event, it's still early reporting, so what we know now is certainly going to change as both the U.S. folks on the ground and the Iraqis take a look into what specifically happened, but as I understand it, it generally unfolded the way that you said.
And it points to a couple things. Number one, we are going to go after these networks that are killing our soldiers and Marines regardless of where that network leads. Sometimes it leads to Iranians, sometimes it leads to Iraqis, sometimes it leads to al Qaeda. Wherever the network takes us, we are going to track them down and deal with them.
In this particular case, as the first reports are, when they went to arrest this lieutenant, some of the police who were with him began firing on our folks. That turned those individuals into enemy and legitimate folks for our troops to take on in combat.
The fact of the matter is that there are elements of the Iraqi police and elements of Iraqi army that are infiltrated, and the Iraqi government is working very hard to work their way through that. They've taken police brigades out of the field. They've revetted all of the members. They've gotten rid of as much as 25 percent in some units, put in new recruits, retrained and put them back in the field.
So the Iraq government and our coalition forces are doing all we can to ensure that we improve the quality. But the bottom line is going to be that we are going to defend ourselves, and we are going to go after those networks that are attacking our guys.
Q Can I follow up on that, on this police incident? The official statement out of Baghdad indicated that it was perhaps even more serious than that; that this Iraqi police lieutenant was said to be affiliated with the Iranian Al-Qods Force.
So I'm wondering a couple of things. Do you now see evidence that the Iranians -- the Al-Qods have infiltrated Iraqi police? Because all indications are, by the official statements, that's what occurred here.
And if I could just follow up on a couple of other quick points, we've had another barrage of mortar attacks against the international zone. I'm wondering what you make of this most recent spate of mortar attacks.
And Mr. Secretary, I'm sorry to also follow up, but I was very struck by you referring to Osama bin Laden very much in the present tense. So I'm wondering what recent evidence you may have seen or information indicating that he's still alive that leads you to refer to him so much in the present tense.
SEC. GATES: Very quickly, I assume he's alive until I know he's dead.
Q Have you seen anything?
SEC. GATES: No. But I haven't seen anything that he's dead, either. So --
GEN. PACE: Again, first reports on the lieutenants -- what I understand is what you understand. But again, first reports -- we may understand something different tomorrow. And we'll find out.
Q Well, could you tell me what your understanding is of the connection between the Iranian Al-Qods Force and the Iraqi police?
GEN. PACE: Because it happened this morning, I know no more about that than you just said. And we're waiting to hear from the folks that are going to investigate this on the ground. I would not want to presume anything. And especially when it comes to that kind of detail, we want to be very precise and very specific about what we know, what we don't know, and what we analyze from what we know. I don't have those details yet. Therefore, I do not want to at all hypothesize
With regard to the mortar attacks, it is, I believe, a continuing part of the desire of al Qaeda to create as much mayhem as they possibly can. And by lobbing mortars in from areas, they try to do two things: one, to disrupt the functioning of the area that's being mortared, and two, they try -- they hope that there will be counter- battery fire that will be indiscriminate, that will cause damage from where the mortars are being fired. And we're not going to do that.
So we're just going to be very careful to make sure that when we go after the mortar teams that are going -- that are firing on us, that we pursue them in a very precise way, so that we don't assist the al Qaeda in what they're trying to do on both sides of that firing line.
SEC. GATES: I think that the -- I think both al Qaeda and Jaish al-Mahdi have had the capacity, have -- had the capability to shell the international zone all along.
My personal opinion is that they have picked this up in recent days as part of an intensification of the campaign, frankly, leading up to this fall in the United States, but also to make the Iraqi government look weak. So I think that that -- that's my opinion about why, I think, the -- there's been an increase in shelling of the IZ.
Q Mr. Secretary, on Turkey. We've seen reports out of Turkey today by Turkish security officials that there are now 200,000 Turkish troops on the border with Iraq. First, do you have any indication whether or not that's an accurate number? And second, what is -- what do the maneuvers by the Turkish military on that border tell you about the chances for Turkey's intervention in northern Iraq in what is a relatively peaceful part of the country?
SEC. GATES: I will let General Pace correct me, but I have not seen anything that would indicate there are numbers of Turkish soldiers along the border of that size.
Q It's an overestimation?
SEC. GATES: Based on everything that I've seen.
I don't know if you've seen anything different.
GEN. PACE: I have not, sir.
And the truth of the matter is that the Turkish armed forces on their side of the border have always had sufficient forces to be able to take actions without having it be reinforced. So I would not -- I wouldn't look to a numbers change, a plus or a minus, as being an indication of any change in their capability because for the last multiple years they've been very capable, as they were doing before 2003, of taking action inside of Iraq.
Q Yesterday, we saw the benchmark report that gave very poor marks to several initiatives that you've said are important like de- Ba'athification and the oil law. The purpose of the surge, in part, was to buy time for those reconciliation measures to go forward. If it's unrealistic to expect any significant progress on those measures by September, does the purpose of the surge change? What's the purpose of the surge?
SEC. GATES: The purpose of the surge was to create enough space that the process of reconciliation could go forward in Iraq. Clearly, the legislation that you're -- that you mention is important, and the Iraqi government is working hard on it, on several different pieces of that legislation. I don't know whether or how many of those items, whether it's de-Ba'athification or the hydrocarbon law or others, will in fact be enacted or sent to the Council of -- enacted by the Council of Representatives or at least sent to the Council of Representatives by the time General Petraeus does his evaluation.
I think one of the things we have seen -- and I -- it's too early to know whether it's a direct consequence of the surge, but clearly something in recent months has changed in the political equation, particularly in the Sunni areas, in terms of the Sunnis being willing to work with us in terms of going after al Qaeda.
You all are very familiar now with what's happened in Al Anbar. We're seeing signs of the same thing in Diyala province.
And so whether the surge created the political space and the confidence in those sheikhs and those tribal leaders that they had the support -- the sufficient support of coalition forces to sustain turning against al Qaeda, it gave them the confidence to turn against them, I think it's premature to draw that conclusion. But it does at least raise the question.
So, you know, I think we'll have to see in September where we are in terms of what they've actually accomplished, what's happened in this ground-up kind of political progress that, at least as far as I'm concerned, has come as something of a surprise to everybody.
Q If I could follow up on that. If by September al Qaeda is far weaker, if you diminish their power, does that change the political -- the military calculation of the timeline? Does the timeline therefore, instead of becoming a timeline for drawing down, become more of an advantage than a disadvantage?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that's a calculus that we'll be looking to the ambassador and to General Petraeus to make. But I think that it does go to the point that was made by one of the briefers in Baghdad in the last few days of al Qaeda being an accelerant in terms of the violence. So if al Qaeda has been significantly weakened, then their capacity to launch these very high visibility kinds of attacks that we've seen, that take so many innocent Iraqi lives, would be diminished.
Q Mr. Secretary, yesterday's benchmark report gave the goal of reducing sectarian violence a satisfactory rating. How do you reconcile that with the almost daily reports that we see of attacks that cause a great number of Iraqi civilian casualties, in fact, if you measure that against the number of Iraqis killed in recent months, how do those two things square?
SEC. GATES: Well, let me give you how I interpret it, and then invite General Pace to comment.
The large-scale violence, the large-scale attacks that have killed significant numbers of Iraqis are essentially, I think, intended to create as much mayhem as possible in a general neighborhood or area.
When they talk about the sectarian attacks, I think they're talking about targeted attacks on people from the -- from a different sect, in other words, Sunnis targeting -- Sunni insurgents targeting Shi'a leaders, Shi'a neighborhoods, Shi'a councils and so on. I would say a targeted attack was the one that took place in the hotel against the sheikhs, or Shi'a death squads targeting specific Sunni neighborhoods and so on. And I think that's the distinction.
The vehicle-borne IEDs that lead to 50 or 100 deaths are basically, I think, intended to cause just as much mayhem as possible. They obviously try to put them in neighborhoods where they'll cause the most trouble. But I think when they're calculating the sectarian violence, they're talking about the targeted kind of violence by death squads and militias.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, let -- the general may clarify.
GEN. PACE: No, I'm not going to clarify. I'm just going to reinforce. The numbers in rough order were -- sectarian violence, Sunni against Shi'a, Shi'a against Sunni -- in January were about 1,500 per month. In June, they were down just below 500 per month, a significant decrease in the number of Sunni-Shi'a, Shi'a-Sunni.
What you point out is exactly right. There have been a lot of bombs going off by al Qaeda trying to instigate more Sunni-Shi'a, Shi'a-Sunni. That has -- they have not -- the sectarian populations have not responded to that. They have continued to decrease the number of attacks against each other. So you can have more bombs going off in a terrorist way and still have sectarian violence coming down, the way that we are counting the --
Q Okay, so the question is, are you so narrowly defining the question of violence in Iraq -- I know you say sectarian violence -- to create an impression that that's a satisfactory situation when in fact, the level of violence overall, the aggregate level across Iraq, is, as I understand it, relatively unchanged?
GEN. PACE: That's why we're tracking all kinds of violence and why all those numbers are available and why we don't just focus in on sectarian violence or on IEDs or on vehicle-borne IEDs or on other kinds of violence. All the numbers for violence are --
Q (Off mike) -- considered satisfactory progress if it's not --
SEC. GATES: Well, there's a specific benchmark about sectarian violence and not violence overall.
Q Thank you very much.
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