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DoD News Briefing with Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

Presenters: Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen
January 11, 2008 11:30 AM EDT
            ADM. MULLEN: Good morning, and thanks for being here today. I'll try not to talk very long and -- because I'd much rather get to your questions. 
            But I would like to say a few things about the very busy week we've had. I think some things bear reflecting on. 
            The week started with news that five Iranian attack boats had harassed and threatened the officers and the crew of three our U.S. Navy warships while those ships were transiting the Straits of Hormuz. 
            You've all covered the story, and I'm sure I'll get some questions about some of the details. But the incident ought to remind us all just how real is the threat posed by Iran and just how ready we are to meet that threat if it comes to it. 
            And I've said it before and I'll say it again today: I'd much rather prevent a war than fight one. We'd all prefer Iran to take a more productive, positive role in the region. And I support the use of economic -- the USE of economic and diplomatic measures to help bring that about. The problem of Iran is not and should never be considered a purely military problem, but our own military restraint in dealing with that problem should in turn never be confused for a lack of capability.   
            We've been operating in the Gulf for a long time, and we will continue to operate in the Gulf for a long time. We have friends and partners there, many of whom I will meet with next week at the Chiefs of Defense Conference in St. Petersburg, hosted by Admiral Fallon. 
            We take our responsibility to these friends very seriously. We also take very seriously any threat to our own security. We will defend ourselves and our ships, and we will do so with deadly force if need be. 
            There's been a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking in the wake of this incident, second-guessing by some people about whether or not those ship commanders acted appropriately, and even a report today that perhaps the radio calls were not from Iranian boats. I've read the reports. I've even spent a little bit of time out there at sea myself.   
            I can tell you in my judgment those commanders and their sailors got it exactly right. Given the overt and very threatening behavior exhibited by the Iranians, they followed procedures exactly the way they should have. And while, thankfully, no shot needed to be fired, there's no doubt in my mind that shots would have been fired had the situation demanded it. 
            Also this week, as many of you know, coalition forces in Iraq began a new operation, called Phantom Phoenix, to add to gains achieved during the last six months. As we have improved security in Iraq and made areas in and around Baghdad hostile for al Qaeda, many of them have fled former sanctuaries and are now moving north in an effort to survive. We're trying to deny them that opportunity. 
            You've seen, as I have, that it's an aggressive operation. The initial airstrikes took out numerous buried explosives that would have been targeted at our troops as we push into these safe havens. I think it's just another reminder that we face a very determined enemy in Iraq and we need to stay constantly engaged.   
            Also, yesterday the president announced the selection of Lieutenant General Will Fraser, the assistant chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to serve as the head of the monitoring mechanism for ensuring implementation of the Middle East peace plan road map. General Fraser is an officer of uncompromising integrity and matchless leadership. He's a good friend, and I think very, very highly of him. And I'm delighted the president has seen fit to offer him this critically important opportunity. All of us on the Joint Staff congratulate him. 
            Finally, I'm heading south next week to the CHOD conference I mentioned, but also to visit the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, the Joint Interagency Task Force in Key West, the detention facility in Guantanamo, and spend some time with my counterparts in Colombia and El Salvador. I'm very much looking forward to renewing old friendships, discussing new challenges and learning more about our engagement in Latin America. 
            Q     Admiral, I'd like to ask you about the proposal from Afghanistan to send additional forces. As you weigh the pros and cons of that proposal, what would tip it in favor of doing it, given the already considerable strain on the Marines? 
            And also, if I may ask you what your thinking is on the possibility of giving the U.S. military broader authority to operate against al Qaeda inside Pakistan? 
            ADM. MULLEN: For the first part, in Afghanistan it's been widely reported that there is a proposal on the table. The secretary has stated that he is considering it, and that still is the fact. We sat with him this morning, we discussed this and all aspects of it, and it's still -- there's still been no decision make -- made at this point, and it really is up to him.   
            I think the issue of forces in Afghanistan speaks to the challenges that we have there, and there's -- we had a year that we've described as, in some cases, uneven. We actually -- there was a tremendous amount of success, and I was just there over the holidays, specifically in the vicinity of Musa Qal'eh, and we've had a tremendous amount of success there.   
            One of the individuals in the room this morning when we talked with SecDef was General Dan McNeill, who happened to be here on other business. And to listen to General McNeill, consistent with what he said -- what he has said in the past, that we had some pretty significant military impact on the Taliban this year.   
            That said, as I said in my testimony not too long ago, that we are an economy of force -- we are in an economy-of-force operation there, and if we're able to create additional forces, we think it can have a big impact. That doesn't mean we have nor does it mean we will. Again, this is up to the secretary.   
            The second question -- or the second part of the question about FATA and -- that continues to be of grave concern to us, both in the near term and the long term. The safe havens are ones that we've worked on, hard on focusing on. We are mindful of this, that Pakistan is a sovereign country and certainly it's really up to President Musharraf -- President Musharraf and certainly his advisers and his military to address that problem directly.   
            But we know it's having a significant impact, not just in Afghanistan. There are certainly concerns there. There are concerns now about how much they've turned inward, literally, inside Pakistan, as well as the kind of planning, training, financing and support that the worldwide effort is -- that the worldwide effort demands be sustained according to how al Qaeda looks at this. So, extremely, extremely concerned about that, and I think continued pressure there will have to be brought.   
            Q     If I could just follow up on the Afghanistan part, not the military but the financial part of making the country better, the secretary's been concerned that NATO isn't doing enough on the military side. If you could talk about the economic part of this, how much more aid do you think is needed? Are the Europeans doing all they can and should, all they promised?   
            ADM. MULLEN: I'm not deep enough in that, Tom, to really stand here and tell you that we're doing everything we possibly could, not other countries. I do know that when I visited there and actually sat with the ambassador and the country team and talked about how that -- the progress there, and actually there's been a substantial amount of progress. But one of the comments that the ambassador made to me was, we need to be mindful of how extraordinarily poor this country was and is. And if you were to compare it with other economies of the world, particularly in some of the parts of the world that are very poor as well, it would be right near the bottom as well.   
            There have been some significant improvements. There have been some significant infrastructure changes. The ring road is a good example: 75, 80 percent of that. We're focused on trying to get one of the big dams up, which we think will have a big impact, particularly down south, in terms of providing the kinds of economic benefits that that would -- potential economic benefits.   
            The -- we actually have a group from the Missouri National Guard going over -- 48, I think -- to provide support from an agricultural standpoint. And we're not the only ones doing that. The PRTs are having an impact, but we've got an awful long way to go and we -- not just the United States, I think, NATO. And there are, as I recall, upwards of some 42 contributing countries, across the full aspect of all capabilities that we'd like there, so many outside NATO. And in the long run, I believe, the economy is what's going to -- we're going to have to lift that up and help it in a way that provides the kind of jobs that would get to, in a secure environment, a much more stable and growing economy for the people that are living there.   
            Q     Admiral, can I just go back to the incident in the Strait of Hormuz? Going back to your CNO time as well, can you tell us if there have been similar incidents that you're aware of?   
            What made this one different, if anything? And can you shed any light on the issue of the radio transmission and where it came from? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I can't shed any -- I'll get to the second part first -- I can't shed any light as far as the radio transmission is concerned. 
            The -- there have been other situations where certainly ships transiting the Straits of Hormuz have been approached. To my knowledge, I have not seen one as both provocative and dramatic as this.   
            Now, we have been focused on this small boat -- small fast boat concern for several years. It's clearly strategically where the Iranian military has gone. I've spoken to -- I think there's been a strategic shift in terms of the IRGCN versus the I -- the Iranian navy, the IRIN, in terms of assuming operational command and control for the Gulf. There's a projection they were going to do that over a number of years. That is a -- that was a big concern to me, because of the history and the background with the IRGC.   
            This fit that mold, as far as I was concerned. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was five boats, it was pretty dramatic maneuvering. Just going back to my life at one point in time, which included being CO of a couple ships, it is -- it -- they were maneuvering in very tight quarters, and I can imagine myself in that position being certainly alarmed about what the potential was and what I might do. And then I just reiterate what I said. I think those commanding officers and their crews handled themselves exceptionally well. 
            Q     Today, five days after the fact, what is the analysis on what the Rev. Guard boats and their crews were up to? Were they testing defenses? Were they simply just harassing the military? Did it appear that they were, you know, preparing for a long-term strategy? What have you learned -- what has the U.S. military, the Pentagon learned about what they may have been up to there? 
            ADM. MULLEN: Well, I would argue that for the years that this strategic shift towards their small fast boats has taken place, we've been very focused on that. And so I'm not sure they were preparing for it as much as executing something that we thought they had the capability to do. 
            When you get into a situation like this and you're in the military, clearly when you go through this kind of incident there's going to be testing. We're going to learn about each other. And there's no -- there's no taking that off the table. So I'm sure we learned about them and they learned about us. 
            What bothered me most about it is that it was so proximate to those ships and in what appeared to be, by all accounts from what I can tell, without responding, including dumping boxes in the water. We've been concerned for years about the threat of mining those straits, and sometimes at sea it can be pretty difficult about what they really did put in the water, depending on the range and the other kinds of conditions.   
            So we've learned from them, they've clearly learned some things from us, and to me, it is in execution of a strategy we believe they've had for some time. It just heightens the awareness. And one of the messages is, we're not anxious to see a miscalculation here, which could occur, and certainly not anxious to get into combat with them. But as I said in my opening statement, please do not misread restraint for lack of resolve. And those ship COs will defend themselves. 
            Q     And regardless of the origin of that radio transmission, in real time was it any less threatening to that commander on the bridge than if it indeed had come from one of those fast boats? 
            ADM. MULLEN: No. In my view, no. I mean, there are transmissions that cross -- that come out on Channel 16 when you're in range routinely. And sometimes the origin is tough. But quite frankly, if it were them, if the assumption is that it were the Iranians, that, to me, gets to a level of sophistication that also is something that we ought to be concerned about. 
            Q     To be clear, so you're saying if it were an Iranian shore station coordinating with boats that were out at sea, that would show a new level of sophistication?  
            ADM. MULLEN: Certainly. I mean, certainly to be able to coordinate, or if it were one of them at sea that had a -- you know, a Channel 16 -- that had a radio. 
            Q     I wanted to just ask you -- you've heard this transmission. 
            Based on your experience, I mean, does it sound like something that came from a boat? Does it sound like it came from someplace else?   
            And then the other thing I want to ask you is, you know, whether or not that's the case, is there anything that can be done to lessen the chance of miscalculation, other than just telling the Iranians to back off? Are there any other procedures that can be employed to sort of ratchet down the tension here between the U.S. and Iran, operating in that area?   
            ADM. MULLEN: I think the important point there is that restraint was shown and that shots were not fired.   
            Q     (Off mike.)   
            ADM. MULLEN: And second, I mean, back to -- I've heard -- I've only listened to the radio transmission once. And so as it is oftentimes, even if you're out there on the bridge, it's hard to tell where they're coming from. So I'm -- I just haven't analyzed it from that point of view.   
            Q     Is there any reason why the full videotape of the entire episode can't be released?    
            ADM. MULLEN: I know the secretary's got it. We're considering it, and I can't say it will be addressed this afternoon, but I know that request is there. From my perspective, first of all, I haven't seen the full video myself. But I've been told about it and I'm told there's nothing, you know, particularly inconsistent or alarming with it from that perspective.   
            So the request is there. Actually I literally was told that as I was walking down here so, and I haven't been asked to give a recommendation. I will here shortly and I just need to talk to the secretary about it.   
            Q     Have there been any transits of the strait since Sunday by U.S. ships? And have there been any challenges or any interactions, incidents with the Iranians?   
            ADM. MULLEN: I don't know. I don't know.   
            Q     Can I get back to Afghanistan and sort of a follow-up to Bob's question?   
            You have, even before you took this current office, expressed a lot of concern about -- (inaudible) -- on land forces. Can you address the issue of whether this decision to go ahead and recommend a deployment of Marines to Afghanistan is any reflection that the Marines actually are lessening their strain? And is this at all a reflection of maybe Anbar going well enough that we're going to start seeing some drawdowns in Anbar, freeing up Marines to go to Afghanistan?   
            ADM. MULLEN: I really don't want to get in to too many of the details here, again, because this is under consideration. The ground forces, you know, writ large, remain under tremendous strain -- both the Army and the Marine Corps -- best exemplified by the one-to-one rotation that they're in. And clearly that is a really important consideration here, in my view, with respect to making this kind of decision -- always will be. But how much it's tied to what's going on in Iraq, all those things actually, many of those things, were discussed in recent -- a couple months ago, when the Marines came forward and said they wanted to send their troops to Afghanistan.   
            So I would just tell you, from my perspective, that the strain on the force is something that's front and center in my mind all the time -- and all the leadership. We're very anxious. We consider every RFF, every request for forces we get, from any combatant commander, very seriously and try to take in the full extent of what the impact of approving or not approving any particular request can be.   
            If we had these forces readily available, back to sort of the economy of force approach, if we had them readily available, I think we would have decided earlier. That's been -- that is a really tough -- it's a really tough situation. And at the same time, we believe that additional forces, in Afghanistan in particular -- back to economy of force -- can have a big impact. So those are kind of the -- it's the mission versus the strain, very specifically. 
            Q     And this may be again, as a follow-up, a bit too detailed than you want to get into, but the request for forces is -- are we expecting these to go to RC South? I mean, the previous extension that happened last year with the 10th Mountain, I believe, was RC East, so you got the U.S. --  
            ADM. MULLEN: Right. 
            Q     And if it is RC South, are we looking to buck up the Brits in Helmand and Oruzgan, where's there's a lot of violence, or -- because I think the (CJ source?) talks about some openings in other provinces nearby that are needed. Do you have any -- can you talk at all about where these guys might go? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I can't. And in fact, Admiral Fallon and General McNeill and General Craddock and then specific -- you know, General Rodriguez -- and it's not just combat forces, they're also training forces, which are very important as well right now that -- General Cone -- so exactly the each’s of all that, again, I -- based on what the secretary decides, this will either come out or not. But it's really my approach to this is, these are the individuals that figure this stuff out. I try not to micromanage that.  
            Yes, sir? 
            Q     Thank you. Returning to the question of Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that was asked earlier, is it -- from a military standpoint, is it now a situation where Afghanistan and those parts of Pakistan are essentially one conflict now, with no real division between them, because of the way al Qaeda and the Taliban are fighting it? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I've had no discussions with commanders that that's the case. Clearly, that border is a particularly challenging border. The tribal aspects of it -- the tribe that dominates in that region is certainly on both sides. I think, probably more than anything else, it speaks to the complexity of the challenge that we have there, the difficulty that we've had in that we -- not just us, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan and the leadership. There are very few people that don't understand the acuteness of the challenge there, the -- it's how you get at that that we are -- we continue to try to figure out the best way to do that. 
            Q     Do you think the enemy regards it as one sort of seamless concept -- 
            ADM. MULLEN: Well, I wouldn't speak for the enemy, but certainly it's back -- sort of the tribal piece. And there is a tribal aspect of this, which I think is very important for us to understand, on how they think. 
            Q     You said that there's grave concern about what's going on in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But what can you do about it that hasn't already been done? And is there any sign that the Pakistani military is open to a different approach? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think clearly General Kiyani, who is the new head of their Pakistani army, and in -- and I have not spoken with him specifically about this, but I know Admiral Fallon and he have discussed this -- we're looking for additional ways or different ways to address this. That's not going to happen overnight. And he's a brand-new chief, and he just took over. But I know his concern is as ours. And our -- those military-to-military both contacts and relationships remain both vibrant and vital, and we know that we're going to need to continue to try to address this. Again, this is -- in the FATA, this is principally a sovereign country concern. 
            Q     Quick follow-up.   
            ADM. MULLEN: Tom. 
            Q     A quick follow-up. Do you personally favor the proposal idea to have U.S. military operate in those tribal regions, presumably with Pakistani cooperation -- (inaudible)? 
            ADM. MULLEN: Clearly this is up to the government of Pakistan. And as in many -- as in any -- many relationships, to assist them where it makes sense makes a lot of sense. 
            Tom, real quick. 
            STAFF: One more. 
            Q     Thank you, sir. As you continue your conversations with NATO CHODs on filling their promises to the ISAF force, how would a decision by the U.S. to send more troops affect that? Would it make it harder to get NATO to send more -- (inaudible) -- relieving the pressure? Or would it make it easier because you're saying, "Look, we're already stressed; you can too"? How will you move that forward now? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think that's quite frankly to be determined -- I think -- it's a great question. There's not a clear answer to that. I think that's a question that gets answered in execution and in how these forces continue to be provided and who provides them. 
            We continue to be concerned about meeting the commitment of what NATO has signed up to. I believe strongly that success in Afghanistan, in ISAF, for NATO, is a bellwether for whether NATO succeeds in the long run as an institution. 
            Q     Can you take one more on -- (off mike)? Admiral Mullen, last summer -- or last fall, rather, you spoke -- quick one? Last fall you met with Army officers out in the (Midwest ?), heard some very specific concerns about strain on the force. 
            ADM. MULLEN: Yes. 
            Q     And of course, this year we're drawing down forces slightly in Iran -- or Iraq, rather, and the Army and Marine Corps continue to grow. Those moves aside, what steps are being taken to try to alleviate that stress? 
            ADM. MULLEN: General Casey in particular, both General Conway and General Casey are looking at this with a laser and are very focused on it, engaged with their troops -- the troops and their families. And yet, as I've said, the mission is -- we must be mindful of the mission, we must support the mission and we'll continue to do that. 
            That said, we want to understand and we're reviewing options and opportunities to take that stress off. We're in a very -- we're in a transitional state here because we are growing the force and it will take another couple years to grow the force enough to start to release some of this. We've got the first of the five BCTs coming out of Iraq and due to get down to 15 brigades in the summertime, and we'll see where it goes after that.   
            The leadership is very, very focused on that, and it is that combination of how do you support the mission plus make sure that you don't overstress the force. There are a tremendous amount of reenlistment initiatives that have been put in place by both the commandant of the Marine Corps and the Army. I just saw yesterday for the -- I saw the recruiting numbers for last month, and they were all exceptionally high. I just -- I was talking to the secretary. He was just at Camp Pendleton, and the Marines have recently met their numbers, and in fact their high school graduate number went up to 97 percent. 
            So there are some good signs. I mean, there are a lot of initiatives, a lot of leadership focus. There are some good signs. This force, though, the ground force is still being pushed really, really hard. 
            Q     How soon do you see a return to 12-month deployments? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think that's based on conditions on the ground. 
            Got to go. Thanks. 
            Q    Thank you.
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