DoD News Briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: I don't have a opening statement today, but there have been a couple of thematic articles in the press that I'd like to provide some clarity on.
First of all, with respect to General Petraeus's next assignment, the president is pretty clear that he wants General Petraeus to stay right where he is through -- at least through late fall and maybe the end of the year.
Second, there's been some discussion about the possibility of changing the rotation, duration for forces in the CENTCOM area, moving back from the 15-month deployments. I will make no decision changing the duration of these assignments or of these tours until General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon and the chiefs have made their recommendations to the president and the president's made his decisions.
(To the admiral.) Do you want to say anything at the outset?
ADM. MULLEN: No, sir.
SEC. GATES: Bob?
Q Mr. Secretary, on Pakistan, you and other officials in the administration have made pretty clear in recent days that the government would like to do more, if possible and if welcomed by the Pakistanis, to help them in the insurgency they face. I wonder if you could tell us a little more specifically about what types of assistance you're either considering or proposing in the way of either combat training or combat activity? And also, have the Pakistanis actually requested any assistance? And has Admiral Fallon proposed something along these lines while he was there this week?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them, to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations, should they desire to do so.
We have an ongoing dialogue, and I'll ask the chairman to speak to that in a second.
I would just say that, you know, in a way I think that the emergence of this fairly considerable security challenge in Pakistan has really been brought home to the Pakistani government relatively recently, and particularly with the tragic assassination of Mrs. Bhutto. So I think it's not particularly surprising that they have not fully thought through exactly how they intend to proceed and their strategy going forward. I expect that that will happen.
We are in a regular dialogue with them. And maybe I'll ask the chairman to speak to that.
ADM. MULLEN: We've had a pretty considerable training program with them for some time, and assistance in areas that are, first of all, requested for assistance, and then we work hard to try to support that. Very active military-to-military dialogue.
Speaking very specifically of Admiral Fallon's trip, he visited with General Kayani and they had a very good visit. I'm not aware of any details that Admiral Fallon proposed.
I think certainly if there is a desire on the part of the Pakistani armed forces and the Pakistani government to have us assist, we would certainly try to do that. They're a strong ally with respect to this challenge that we have, the security challenge the secretary talked about. There are no plans at this point to send any additional training troops that I'm aware of. And the dialogue's going to continue and the engagement is going to continue.
Q Mr. Secretary, if I could just follow up on that. I take it from both of your comments that in fact the Pakistanis have not requested any additional assistance. Would that be right?
SEC. GATES: That's my impression.
ADM. MULLEN: And that's my understanding, too.
Q Could you explain why using American combat troops to pursue al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan is off the table? Why is that so -- why are the Pakistanis so against that? And has the U.S. ever pushed that with the Pakistanis?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think it's obviously been a subject of ongoing dialogue.
Pakistan is a sovereign country. It's -- they clearly have the right to decide whether or not forces from another country are going to operate on their soil. We will continue the dialogue, but we would not do anything without their approval.
Q A quick follow up -- do you think that the fact that General Kayani is recognizing the problem of Islamic militants and is more focused on that means that in the future, there may be an opportunity for sort of more direct action? Not just training, but direct action by the United States inside Pakistan.
SEC. GATES: Or partnering with them and working the problem together. That's part of the continuing dialogue.
Q You said ready, willing and able to conduct joint operations should they desire to do so. So you're talking about U.S. combat troops, Pakistani troops in the field, together, operating against al Qaeda in the territories?
SEC. GATES: If the Pakistanis wanted to do that, I think we would.
Q You would. And have you proposed that specifically to the Pakistanis?
SEC. GATES: I haven't. I don't know that anybody else has.
Q The U.S. government?
SEC. GATES: I don't --
ADM. MULLEN: I'm not aware that it has been proposed.
SEC. GATES: I think most of the partnering that has been talked about at this point with the Pakistanis has been limited to training.
Q Would you be concerned at all about the public reaction in Pakistan to even joint operations to the presence of U.S. combat forces in Pakistan, or is that for the Pakistani government to worry about?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think it's not a matter of -- I would say for them to -- I don't want to just pass it off as that's a problem for them to worry about. I think that they have to evaluate the reaction of public opinion in Pakistan and how they would react to such cooperation, and I think we would take very seriously and clearly defer to their judgment about what works for them.
Q So you don't have any independent concern about putting U.S. troops in another Muslim country and what broader reaction that might engender?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think, you know, I'm a little out of my element here and I probably should let the admiral speak to this. But I think that, I mean, you're not talking about significant numbers of U.S. troops for the kinds of things, if you're talking about going after al Qaeda in the border area or something like that. So in my way of thinking, we're talking about a very small number of troops, should that happen, and it's clearly a pretty remote area. But again the Pakistani government has to be the judge of this.
Q Admiral Mullen, if I could just ask, what kinds of troops could potentially be involved in such operations? And what would they bring to the Pakistani military in terms of, you know, enablers or capabilities that they currently lack in going after those targets?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think it really focuses more on what we would -- at least at this point, the kind of training assistance that we could give them, some of the capabilities that they would ask for. A specific may be night operations, the ability to operate at night at a higher level than they can right now, for example. But from my perspective, this really does come from the training piece.
This is a ground force -- the Pakistani army is a very proud army and they've had successes in the past. And the security threat certainly is changing. And how their government is going to address this, I think, is a really important question for all of us. So it really is in the assistance mode, at this point, that we're focused on, and how we can do that, and how if asked we could enable them to be more effective.
Q Admiral, could you give us a baseline for what sort of training program you currently have, we currently have with the Pakistanis?
ADM. MULLEN: I can do it broadly.
There's been a considerable amount of money that has been invested over the last several years with respect to Pakistan, not exclusively military. There's a fairly significant development program. There's actually a reimbursement program for coalition assistance operations of considerable -- basically funds that we give to the Pakistani government for assisting in the war on terror.
There's a reasonable foreign military financing program, a training program between younger officers at our war colleges that has resumed since the sanctions were lifted in 2002, which is really important because we went for a long time, some 12 years, without that kind of assistance and relationship. And I think it's important that we rebuild that, as an example. So, specifically it's in those kinds of areas and those kinds of numbers that we're talking right now.
SEC. GATES: I think -- I think that it's important to remember that we are talking here about possibilities for cooperation. We're not aware of any proposals that the Pakistanis have made to us at this point. This is clearly an evolving issue. And what we have tried to communicate to the Pakistanis and essentially what we are saying here is we are prepared to look at a range of cooperation with them in a number of different areas, but at this point it's their nickel and we await proposals or suggestions from them.
Q Just to clarify, then, no U.S. troops are currently working with the Pakistanis within Pakistan?
AMB. MULLEN: To say there's no U.S. troops, I mean there's the normal security assistance kind of mission, and I'm not aware of other U.S. troops that are there working with the Pakistani military.
Q Mr. Secretary, if I could just follow up on two points. You said in regards to combat forces -- I believe you said we would not do anything without their approval, the Pakistanis. Nonetheless, can either one of you -- can you tell us, is it in fact still U.S. policy -- which I'm treading carefully here, I believe the president has said, if I'm quoting accurately -- if you had actionable intelligence about a high-value target, such as Osama bin Laden, you would, in fact, go across the Pakistani border if necessary to get him? So that is my first question; is that the one exception to the policy of no combat forces?
My other question is, you've talked a lot lately about al Qaeda turning its face towards Pakistan. Can you talk a little bit more about this evolving threat that you see? Do you see that al Qaeda is trying to bring down the Musharraf government, that they are banding and organizing with other extremist groups such as Bakhtu al-Masood (ph) or other Taliban or extremist groups in the country? If you could just help us understand this growing threat that you talk about.
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals. I would just say that anything we would do in Pakistan would be consistent with and in accordance with agreements that we make or have made with the Pakistanis.
In terms of the threat, I think the answer to your question is basically yes. We are seeing -- al Qaeda has threatened to try and destabilize Pakistan, has threatened to assassinate Pakistani leaders. We have the impression that they have allied with other groups, other extremist groups, in the -- in the border area, including perhaps Masood (ph). It's -- you know, some of this lacks real clarity. But they clearly are much more active and working with other people.
I don't know; do you want to add anything?
ADM. MULLEN: No, Sir.
Q Can I just ask, when you say that, do you feel that that growing threat pretty much now is existent solely within Pakistan's borders, or is there anything for the United States to be worried about? Does this growing threat, in fact, posing a growing threat to the U.S.?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think we're all concerned about the reestablishment of al Qaeda safe havens in the border area. And I think it would be unrealistic to assume that all of the planning that they're doing is focused strictly on Pakistan. So I think that that is a continuing threat to Europe as well as to us.
Q Mr. Secretary, at the end of the year, there were a lot of positive indicators in Iraq.
Now that we're into the new year, some of those numbers are going the other way. And I realize it's always difficult in Iraq to make conclusions based on short-term trends and U.S. commanders have been very cautious there. But do you think that people were a little -- some outsiders were a little too quick to want to declare victory in Iraq, given what we're seeing just in the last couple of days and weeks?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't -- first of all, I don't think anybody in the administration was ready to declare victory. I think everybody has made it pretty clear we think that there's still a lot of work to be done, and General Petraeus has been very explicit on a number of occasions that there will continue to be tough days and tough weeks.
A couple of the trends. One was, the first couple of weeks, there -- of January, there seemed to be -- there was a spike in EFPs above the level that we have seen in December. Since that time, the numbers have gone back down again.
The other -- the other phenomenon, and one of the reasons why I think there's a lot of activity, is that we are aggressively going after what we hope is the last al Qaeda area -- area in Iraq where al Qaeda is very active and has caches of weapons and substantial numbers of -- or numbers of people. So we're engaged in a fairly major offensive, the first one in, at least, weeks, and so you're seeing a lot more activity in that regard.
As the newspaper indicated this morning or as I guess one of the briefers here yesterday indicated, there has been an increase in the level of violence aimed at the concerned local citizens, and I think the military person who was speaking about it talked about the need to deal with that.
So I think those are some of the considerations just from the last two or three weeks.
(To Admiral Mullen) I don't know if you want to add anything.
ADM. MULLEN: I'd just emphasize that the operation up north to chase out and finally eliminate, if possible, al Qaeda has been -- we're in, I think, our third week of that. And with that is going to come some levels of increased violence. We expect that. I would just echo what the secretary said, is there is a lot of hard work left, and we do expect some violence to spike on occasion.
In talking with General Petraeus recently, I mean the overall trend if you go back a long ways is still down, but we watch it very carefully. And I, like him, try to be pretty conservative about predictions.
SEC. GATES: Jim?
Q Mr. Secretary, you said earlier that the U.S. would not do anything in Pakistan without their approval, and anything you would do would be consistent with and in accordance with agreements that the U.S. has with Pakistan. Do you know, have U.S. military ground forces or any intelligence service conducted ground operations inside Pakistan with Pakistani approval?
SEC. GATES: I'm not going to speak to military operations or intelligence operations.
Q Sir, just to Admiral Mullen, if I could. Hugo Chavez reiterated his call for the world to treat the FARC as just another opposition group. You were just down in Colombia. What did the Colombians say to you about Chavez? And could you characterize your talks down there?
ADM. MULLEN: Very good talks. I had not -- actually, it was my first visit to Colombia. I was taken back with the progress that they've made to really return the Colombian country to its people. They've had a significant impact on the FARC. The FARC is a declared terrorist organization and remains so. And I have been very impressed with really the counterinsurgency that the Colombian ground forces have been able to execute in a very positive way. They've still got a significant amount of work to do.
And there is concern with what Mr. Chavez is doing with respect to trying to have them recognized as a legitimate organization. And as the president of Colombia reminded me, it's been his entire life that he has not seen a peaceful day, and that this has been a threat of great and continuing concern.
I was really taken back with how well the Colombians -- and the support that Colombia has received from us in Plan Colombia since about 1999, it's really had a very, very positive impact. Still have challenges.
They're also losing upwards -- injuring upwards of 750 soldiers a year. Half of them are losing limbs. In addition, they're also losing a soldier a day in this fight.
So I've -- it was a terrific trip. We've got some areas we can continue to assist them in, with some really positive results.
Q Are there things that you could use in Afghanistan? I mean, it's a narcoterrorist problem in Colombia. There's narcoterrorism in Afghanistan.
ADM. MULLEN: I think there's a transmission of lessons learned there that we ought to be, we need to be paying attention to with respect to what's going on in Afghanistan, although I have not gotten into the details of that.
SEC. GATES: And I would say my guess is that that was one of the real considerations in the appointment of Ambassador Wood as the ambassador, moving him from Bogota to Kabul.
Q General Barno suggested yesterday that U.S. forces in Afghanistan shift their focus to the south and assume responsibility for the region around Kandahar. Is that idea one that is being considered within your level, within the Pentagon?
SEC. GATES: No. I think that those kinds of decisions need to be made by General McNeill and General Rodriguez. My screwdriver's not that long.
Q Two weeks ago, you were asked about the Air Force's older F-15 fleet, and the fact that 40 percent have serious structural defects. So the question was whether to mount these expensive repairs, buy more F-22s. And you said, well, that very day, I'm going to have a meeting about it; I don't have the answers right now. Do you have the answers now and can you give us a better sense of how you'll proceed?
SEC. GATES: I have the answers but until the president's budget is released, I'm not going to give them to you.
Q Back to Pakistan for a moment, if I could, given, as Admiral Mullen has said, how the Pakistanis attack the problem in the tribal areas is of concern to everyone and also, as commanders have said, that the Pakistani military really doesn't have a lot of experience in counterinsurgency and hasn't really focused on that kind of approach until recently, do you believe it would be helpful to have joint operations of some sort with American forces, who have more experience in that area?
ADM. MULLEN: I think General Kayani has indicated publicly that he knows he has this challenge; he knows that he's got to move into the counterinsurgency type of capability. And I think as time moves on here, the issue of assistance is back where we started. If asked, we'll certainly give it. We've learned an awful lot about that. We think we could add a lot to the solution, to solving this problem.
And then I would also offer I think that this is a -- you know, this is a fairly long-term challenge with respect to this kind of assistance, should it be offered. And the long-term relationship is one that's very, very important.
Q But is it your judgment that U.S. forces in joint operations would be helpful in this situation?
ADM. MULLEN: If -- again, if asked to assist, I think we could do a lot.
Q Go ahead.
Q Mr. Chairman, earlier you said there are no plans under way to send more trainers to Pakistan. But is it accurate to say there is planning under way if Pakistan requests these trainers?
ADM. MULLEN: There was a story that Admiral Fallon has got some planning activities going on specifically. I don't find that -- and I haven't -- I'm not into the details of that. It -- something like that is not out of the ordinary in terms of the normal kinds of "what if" drills that we go through and how could we assist. But it really -- my understanding is that it's gotten absolutely no farther than that. And it goes back to where we started here: that this is really -- would be at the request of the Pakistanis, should they ask for assistance.
Q (Off mike) -- would it be accurate to refer to this as a planning order, or is it more accurate to say contingency planning?
ADM. MULLEN: It's been reported as a planning order that Admiral Fallon has specifically inside his own command. I really haven't seen it and don't know much more about it than that right now.
Q Mr. Secretary, there have been some critics who have questioned whether the talks with Iraq on a status of forces agreement could lead to security guarantees that might tie the hands of a future president in terms of how long to leave U.S. forces there. Is that a valid concern?
And the other thing is, they say that any agreement should go to Congress for congressional approval. What do you say to that?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we haven't even -- we've hardly even started to talk about it among ourselves at this point. I think it's pretty clear that such an agreement would not talk about force levels. It would not involve -- we have no interest in permanent bases.
I think the way to think about the framework agreement is an approach to normalizing the relationship between the United States and Iraq.
As I say, I have -- there haven't even -- I haven't been involved in any discussions of what kind of form the agreement would make -- take or anything else. I do know that there's a strong commitment inside the administration to consult very closely with the Congress on this, but, you know, without any idea of what the form of an agreement is going to be right now, I think it's premature to talk about congressional agreement or executive agreement. I think we just don't know.
Q After the Serena bombing last week, the former Afghan foreign minister said that if the U.S. doesn't do something to enable the government to gain the trust of the people, it's going to weaken any U.S. military strategy. In advance of our view of Afghanistan and, you know, generally -- what is the thinking in terms of recommendations coming out of that? I mean, what do you see as the real points, you know, that you need to hone in on?
SEC. GATES: In terms of?
Q In terms of a strategy -- you know, in terms of strategy with our -- with our policies and -- I'm sorry, our military --
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- I think that we and our allies are in agreement that we need a strategy in Afghanistan that addresses both the security situation and governance and development. And the strategy papers that are being put together address both of those, and I would say that, you know, the military planners already have their campaign plans to a considerable degree, and so what those strategy paper -- the one draft that I have seen really focuses more on the kinds of issues of how do we help the Afghan government maintain its legitimacy with the people?
After all, they had a -- they've had a free election. There is -- the poll numbers that I've seen indicate that there is still strong support for President Karzai, so I think that government still has brought legitimacy, but how can we help them extend services and so on into the provinces, how can we help them with economic development?
The strategy papers that we're working on address all those issues.
Q Is there any thinking at all – as we send Marines, they're there for seven months, and you know, that's right around the time we're going to start drawing down troops in Iraq. I mean, is there any talk of, you know, some sort of a surge into Afghanistan that goes beyond, you know, the current troop levels there?
SEC. GATES: Beyond the Marines that are being sent there?
Q Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SEC. GATES: Not at this point. Not at this point.
STAFF: We probably have time for another (off mike).
Q Okay. Last week you talked a little bit about how you'd like members of NATO to take more advantage of counterinsurgency tools both in Kabul and in Germany. And I was wondering, could you give me a little bit of detail on what exactly do you think needs to be learned? What are the skills that are missing right now that need to be learned?
SEC. GATES: Well, I'm -- first of all, I'm no expert on counterinsurgency, and I think that that's actually a question probably better addressed to General McNeill in terms of where he sees the shortfalls. So I -- you know, I'm really --
(To Adm. Mullen.) I don't know; you want to take a crack at it?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think the -- my recollection of the schools the secretary was talking about in some -- in one case in particular was really focused more on the OMLT training in Hohenfels in Germany, which we would want everybody to take advantage of if that's possible. And then I think in terms of the individual skill levels in making judgments about particularly counterinsurgency on the ground there really is better left to General McNeill since he's dealing with the troops -- the tactical commander, and he's dealing with the troops day to day.
SEC. GATES: Last question.
Q Mr. Secretary, this week the Canadian government issued a report from an independent commission that said that the Canadian military should only stay in Kandahar, the Kandahar area, if NATO can come up with another thousand troops in February 2009 to help reinforce what's going on down there. Can you see a scenario where the U.S. Marines who are headed to that area could stay beyond seven months to help the Canadians and the others down there?
SEC. GATES: No, the Marines have -- this is a one-time plus-up, this 3,200 Marines that we're sending over there. But I have started a dialogue with my NATO colleagues about falling in behind the Marines when the Marines come out, for others to go in and take on some of the responsibilities that they have -- that they will have carried out.
My hope is that, using the vehicles of the meetings in Vilnius and the summit meeting in -- the NATO summit in Bucharest, plus the fact that we're talking about some months from now, may elicit a more positive reaction and provide the kind of additional support that the Canadians -- that, based on what you just said, the Manning report has just called for -- Manley report.
Q Do you think it's achievable to get that kind of additional troops in there by that time?
SEC. GATES: I certainly hope so.
Thank you all.
Q Did you enjoy your meeting with Bono?
SEC. GATES: (Laughs.) Yeah. Very serious guy. He's -- I was impressed.
Q Can we just ask you very briefly what you all talked about?
SEC. GATES: Sure. (Laughter.)
First of all, I have to tell you --
Q Did you know who he was?
SEC. GATES: -- it's a matter of age that I thought U-2 was an airplane. (Laughter.)
The -- he was particularly -- well, to be honest about it, he had read my speech at Kansas State and had liked a lot what it said about also strengthening the non-military side of the U.S. face abroad. He clearly was interested in Africa, in AFRICOM.
Q Did he express concerns about AFRICOM and what many humanitarian organizations worry about, the militarization of assistance?
SEC. GATES: He did share some of the concerns that he has heard. I think that he -- we gave him some information on AFRICOM and he was not -- he was not hostile to it. I would say that he was open-minded about it and just recommended that we take care in how we proceeded.
Q Did he --
SEC. GATES: He seemed very well-informed, too.
Q Did he give you anything in return, any information, a couple of albums maybe, a CD, a poster? (Laughter.)
Q We do want to know, do you have a favorite Bono U-2 song?
SEC. GATES: (Laughs.) No. (Laughter.)
Q I'm disappointed --
Q They're all great.
SEC. GATES: But my daughter nearly had an aneurysm when I told her who I was meeting with. (Laughter.)
Q I would have -- (inaudible) -- for you. (Laughter.)
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