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DoD News Briefing with Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

Presenters: Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen
February 01, 2008
            ADM. MULLEN: Morning. Good to see you. I'd just like to, first of all, say congratulations to the Barnes family. I understand Julian and his wife had a baby boy and so congrats to them. 
            First, as many of you know, we conducted another defense senior leaders conference this week attended by the civilian leadership of the department as well as combatant commanders and the Joint Chiefs. It was a very good, productive couple of days, healthy exchanges, and I appreciated the opportunity to get together and talk about some of the key security challenges that we face together. And I want to thank all them for their participation; they'd come from around the world. 
            The discussions were candid, covered a broad range of topics, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fiscal year '09 budget submission, which goes to the Hill Monday, and the long-term health of our forces. We didn't resolve every issue, but I can tell you we had vigorous discussions and worked them very hard. These challenges we face are complex and interconnected. The more global, more strategic view we need to continue to focus there and that's the view we tried to take this week, and it was very instructive and helpful to me.  It's always instructive when you're willing to consider other perspectives, particularly those out in the field who are executing our operations every single day. 
            One of the things I find -- that's why I find all the talk about a freeze or a pause in Iraq so interesting. 
            I know General Petraeus has said publicly he wants to be able to assess the situation after the surge brigades come home.   
            Conditions on the ground will, of course, continue to remain an important factor. Today's bombing in Baghdad, which took nearly 70 lives, is a stark reminder of that. But to the best of my knowledge, neither he or Ambassador Crocker have made any specific recommendations about future force levels in Iraq. They're working it, thinking about it, and that's their job. Admiral Fallon and his staff are also working it, as are the Joint Chiefs. 
            We will all present our independent assessments in the Spring, and the president will make his decision. All of us, at all levels inside the military, remain committed to getting this right for the Iraqi people, for the American people and for our troops and their families. 
            We aren't working in opposition to each other. In fact, there's quite a bit of collaboration going on. And we all know what the stakes are. But we are working with and from different perspectives, and that's how it should be. Right now we need some time to gain these perspectives, and we'll continue to work very hard on it. 
            Speaking of perspective, let me just offer a word on the studies this week by various groups about the future of Afghanistan. Maybe of you have reported on them. And I haven't had a chance to read through all the studies, although I've been through the summaries. And it's clear to me that a lot of work went into each effort, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate the challenges we're facing in Afghanistan and the uniqueness of that struggle. It's not Iraq, but it is also not forgotten. 
            I remain committed, the U.S. military remains committed to our mission in Afghanistan and to helping our NATO allies defeat what I've described as a classic growing insurgency. 
            Yesterday another study, this one on the state of the National Guard and Reserves, was also published. I want to thank retired General Arnold Punaro and his team for their efforts and their time.  I haven't had a chance to read it in detail, but I look forward to doing so, and I am familiar with its summary recommendations to some degree.   
            Regardless, I think it's really important for us all to remember that the National Guard and Reserves are vital to our national security. They represent a key operational reserve capability at the federal level and perform critical state functions. They have been truly brilliant in fighting these wars and in transforming themselves in recent years. They and their families are national treasures, sacrificing right along with the active force in this long war. I've been over there, and I've seen what they're doing. We couldn't do it without them.   
            They're remarkable, and I appreciate their service. 
            And to the degree this report offers us opportunities to improve that service and their quality of life, we all stand to gain.   
            Q     My name is (Name inaudible) from German television ZDF. 
            I have a question concerning Afghanistan and the letter, of the American ministry of Defense, apparently sent to his German colleague, in which he asked for more military support, especially in the South. What is the context of this letter? And in what, and how far is that connected to the Canadians threatening to withdraw their troops if the other allies don't step in anymore?   
            ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think the overall context of the letter is really consistent with what Secretary Gates has spoken about in recent weeks, which is this very strong desire to engage our allies with providing the forces that we need to move ahead in Afghanistan. And he's worked that very hard. I know it's been worked very hard inside your own country.   
            This is a time where there's a summit here coming up next week that the ministers will meet, as well as that being a buildup to a summit in Bucharest. So all that's focused on generating the kind of forces that we need to continue to move forward in Afghanistan, which is a big challenge.   
            Q     I would like to follow up on that. The initial response from the German government has not been positive, and Germany is one of the countries that has some of these caveats that restrict how their forces are used in Afghanistan. Are you disappointed in the reaction you've gotten from the German government?   
            ADM. MULLEN: Well, actually I haven't spoken to my counterpart there in that regard. Clearly the challenge continues to be to provide the forces that NATO said, has committed to, and that's obviously up to the member nations. We also would like to see as many caveats lifted as possible to be able to conduct the mission. And it's a mission that's growing in terms of it’s, the essence of it being, as I indicated earlier, a counterinsurgency. And we're going to need more of that kind of capability. And I know Secretary Gates, in his meetings, and I, when I meet with my counterparts, make that point.   
            Q     Same subject Admiral?   
            Q     Admiral, just again on the pause that has been discussed over the last few days, you mentioned time to get perspective. I think General Petraeus has talked about taking a breath.   
            How should the American public interpret this? I mean, there are some people who look at this and see some disappointment that perhaps Secretary Gates's hope, that there wouldn't be, continue to be, a drawdown at the same pace, wouldn't continue.   
            How should the public take this talk of a pause?
            ADM. MULLEN: I think Secretary Gates hasn't changed his position. He's recently restated that that hope is out there. But the hope is not going to drive a solution set. All of us, including Secretary Gates, are very focused on making these recommendations based on conditions on the ground. We haven't had any discussions with respect to this with General Petraeus, and that's going to be to what our recommendations would be. 
            It's January. The surge -- or I'm sorry, it's February -- the surge -- the other four brigades don't get back for another five months, and one of the things that General Petraeus said in his testimony here, a lot can happen within a six-month period and events will drive these things. So I'm very confident that there's a terrific process in place. I think we need to have some patience to let it work and not presume the answers, and the leadership right up through the president has said we're going to take his -- we need to understand his recommendations in light of the conditions on the ground. I think we've got to wait for that. 
            Q     But is it -- but are you seeing something in Iraq now, such as the increase in the violence in the last month, that leads you to feel there may be a need for at least a breath? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I don't see that at this particular point only -- and specifically with respect to the increase in violence because we've expected an increase in violence tied to the movement to the north to continue to try to route al Qaeda out of that particular area tied to this -- the Phantom Phoenix approach. And so -- and every single loss is tragic, we understand that, but we're in a very tough fight still there, and so that -- the increase in violence and the resultant very tragic casualties that are associated with that are part of where we are right now. 
            I'm also a little reluctant to take one month and project that to a dramatic increase which would be sustained over time. 
            Q     Return to the German issue for a moment. The spokesman for Chancellor Merkel today said basically no that they would not be able to honor the secretary's request expressed in that letter. How much of a setback is that? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think it's -- in a way that it becomes part of the process, and I think that's to be discussed both at the Secretary's level and at the heads of government level. And each country has to assess its ability to do this. We have in, I think, recent weeks certainly made the case that we need more forces. We've committed American forces ourselves, the 3,200 Marines, and so we're not just -- it isn't just rhetoric from our point of view. And we need that kind of assistance from those other countries, including Germany. 
            Q     Following on in Iraq, Admiral. As you say, the other four brigades are not meant to come out until another five months. Doesn't that strengthen the argument for a pause? Can't you really only make a determination on how to proceed once those brigades have drawn out? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think that clearly that will -- again, that will depend on how General Petraeus and his commanders on the ground see that requirement at that particular point in time. If you look at the surge return right now -- and we said we'd get home by the summertime -- it's spaced in a way that one brigade has come home, there's actually a couple month pause in this one before the rest of them come home. 
            And again, I've really got to hear from General Petraeus on this. How he might -- if he proposes both a pause or, you know, what his proposals would be will include, I'm sure, a distribution of the return of forces if that in fact is his recommendation. 
            Q     But -- 
            ADM. MULLEN: But he is not -- again, he's given no indication to anybody in the chain of command that that's where he is, and I think we just need to wait for him. 
            Q     Just to follow up, I guess what I'm asking is: Isn't April really too soon to make a determination about force levels when you still have several brigades about to come out? Isn't April really too soon to make that determination? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think April's close enough to -- I mean, we're within reasonable time in time and distance to July in order to certainly make that -- make an assessment.   
            And if it's an assessment that, in fact, warrants, you know, moving it to the right, then so be it. 
            Bob, I'm sorry, I didn't see you -- 
            Q     Admiral -- 
            ADM. MULLEN: -- in the back row there. No, you go ahead. 
            Q     Okay. Admiral Mullen, given the likelihood of a pause, could you characterize your discussions with the COCOMs and your colleagues this week regarding the impact on the strain on the Army, the impact a pause might cause on the strain on the Army and the Marine Corps in their continued presence in Iraq? 
            ADM. MULLEN: Didn't talk about it in terms of a pause, specifically. We actually -- we did have discussions about the stress on the ground forces and specifically the Army and the Marine Corps, and in fact, General Casey spoke of the need to move from 15-month deployments as rapidly as possible, to increase the dwell time. General Conway, particularly with this -- with the added forces going to Afghanistan now, said -- you know, said that this continues, basically, the pressure on his force, which could have been relieved had these two battalions not been sent into Afghanistan, relieved somewhat. It stays in somewhat of a steady state position because of the deployed forces. 
            Both of them said that -- talked to the stresses. We looked at the indicators. Both of them were very committed to being able to continue to do this, and both of them spoke very specifically about a key factor here, which is the real fragile piece, are the families who are supporting here as well. And so we're watching all those indicators regularly engaged. 
            So it was really along -- it was along those kinds of lines that we talked about where we were. Again, I think we're going to have to assess where we are with stress on the force as well as clearly where we are with conditions on the ground and what we would do next. 
            Q     Given the -- given that – did you come to any kind of determination -- any sort of like preliminary timeline, a point at which if there is a pause, at which -- a time at which you -- that strain would become sort of an irreversible sort of thing, a point at which you just have to drawdown in Iraq further? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think -- you know, General Casey has talked about this in terms of crossing an invisible red line, and our -- one of our goals as far as stress on the force is concerned is to not cross that line. And it's very difficult to determine exactly where that is. That's why we're looking at so many indicators. That's why every leader is engaged with troops and their families to understand this, and at the same time, to not forget that our mission is to continue to fight the wars that we're in, continue to move forward there and generate more success. Clearly that is the vector that we're on right now in Iraq, and it's a very delicate balance. And I don't see that balance changing in terms of being delicate here over the next six, eight, nine 10 months at this point. I think it's too early to say that, which is one of the reasons we're so focused on it. 
            Q     Do you think that six or eight or nine months -- that the present force could be maintained in Iraq for the next six, seven, eight, nine months before we might reach some sort of invisible red line? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think it can. But again, this is something we constantly assess, and most of all we'll focus -- we will focus this on continuing to support that mission, well aware of the delicate, fragile situation with our families as much as any, and then we'll see where we are. 
            Q     The same topic, but let me ask it a slightly different way. You have talked about and the secretary's talked about basically three different presentations -- Petraeus, Admiral Fallon and yourself, all with this new perspective. Secretary Gates has talked about your perspective as being the global threat analysis, but obviously here we're talking about some of your Title 10 responsibilities as well, your concerns about stress on the force.  
            So can you talk a bit about where you are in your process and your analysis now as from the Joint Staff, and how much your recommendation to the president is going to be a global threat analysis and how much of it is going to be a concern about Title 10 issues, training and supplying and making sure that the force is not overstretched? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think it will be a healthy mix of both of those things. And to your point, clearly General Petraeus will focus on what's going on in Iraq, Admiral Fallon more broadly what's going on in the region, and my charge is to look at the global -- globally assess and look at the risks that are associated with it.   
            It does eventually come down to -- for each of us, I think -- to the commitment to Iraq and the commitment to Afghanistan, because those are forces. I don't -- I honestly don't pull apart those two responsibilities, because they're constantly in front of us and, as I indicated, it's a very delicate balance right now. 
            Q     The reason that I ask is because, as you mention, both General Casey and General Conway have been very vocal in their concerns about stress on the force. 
            ADM. MULLEN: Sure. 
            Q     That Casey wants to get down to 12, and that Conway's worried about this new Afghan mission.  
            ADM. MULLEN: Sure. 
            Q     It would sound like the chiefs are siding on let's pull down faster, and Petraeus and the regional commanders are saying we want to keep it at 15. Is that an inaccurate position? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I guess I would -- I would -- their comments are very much aligned with their day-to-day responsibilities. 
            But I have seen no indication from the service chiefs representing themselves as the members of the Joint Chiefs that they've made any decision with respect to this. 
            Q     Thank you, sir. We'll be seeing the Defense Department's budget on Monday. Putting aside what the specific number is, a budget's really a strategy document, too. So what will the budget say broadly about the future of the American military, its strengths, its weaknesses, its needs and risks?   
            And you've spoken before about the need of sustained spending on national defense. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that these high levels can be sustained? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think I'll take the second part first, which is -- well, I'm not going to talk a lot about the budget. It -- as you know, it's getting rolled out on Monday. I think, you know, a significant piece of this clearly will be the growth in the force, both in particular the Marine Corps, the Army, as well as our SOF forces, which oftentimes in that growth, we focus on those two services, but we've also got a substantial amount -- a substantial investment in growing our Special Operations Forces as well.   
            I believe that we need to have a broad public discussion about what we should spend on defense. I've been very clear about my belief that a 4 percent floor, a 4 percent of GDP floor is really that, and I am concerned and I -- this comes from my evolution as a service chief, where we worked very hard to efficiently and effectively invest for the future, and in that development, I've gotten to a point where I think -- I really do believe -- this 4 percent floor is important. And it's -- and it's really important, given the world we're living in, given the threats that we see out there, the risks that are, in fact, global, not just in the Middle East, and that we as a nation need to be very careful about how we're going to invest in defense in order to handle these kinds of challenges which are going to -- while will persist for the foreseeable future. 
            Q     Can you talk about the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, what it is that the U.S. military would like to see in that? And also, these concerns that some people have expressed that it could wind up tying the hand of a future president.   
            ADM. MULLEN: We're still in the early stages of this so how, what it's going to look in its final, as a final product is, I just don't know right now. We need to be able to have, as we do in any status of forces agreement, protections for our people, so that piece of it's going to be key. We need to be able to, particularly this year, continue to be able to conduct combat operations.   
            We believe we need to have -- before transition away from them, part of it needs to address detainee operations. And then we also believe there's a piece of it that's got to be tied to train and equip. Those are sort of some of the big pieces that we have right now. Most importantly, I think, it will be a very strong anchor to the long-term relationship that we believe is very important with Iraq.   
            Q     Will it have security guarantees extended to the Iraqis in terms of, you know, pledging to defend it against external attack, that sort of thing?   
            ADM. MULLEN: Again I haven't seen all of that with respect to -- I just, I'm aware of sort of the four big pieces that I talked right now. And how this actually works out in the end, I just, I think it's too early to tell that.   
            Q    Admiral, can you tell us, was it a U.S. strike that killed Abu Laith al-Libi? Were there any U.S. military personnel -- two different questions -- involved in that? And what have you heard from General Kayani or any of the Pakistani leadership since the public statements from this podium last time about being willing to offer training or even joint operations?   
            ADM. MULLEN: I haven't heard anything personally from the leadership, although it's my intention to go to Pakistan in the near term to spend some time with the leadership, first of all. Secondly I think the strike was a very important one. It was a very lethal one. And then thirdly I'm not going to talk any more about the operational side of this, of how that in fact occurred.   
            Q     Can you tell us what your assessment is about the impact of al-Libi being killed? Does it make any difference? And what difference does it make? 
            ADM. MULLEN: He was a key figure, clearly, for al Qaeda, and we believe that's important. The other thing -- I mean, elimination of someone like that is a very important outcome in terms of this long war.   
            We remain concerned, obviously, about the safe havens there. Being able to have an impact in the safe haven, I think, is an important one.   
            We're very committed to working with the Pakistanis on this. We're very -- that's one of the reasons I'm going to see General Kayani and the rest of the leadership, to ensure -- one, establish a personal relationship; two, make sure that I understand his concerns and, in fact, work very hard to support them. As the last time we were up here with respect to that, we will only do what is requested by Pakistan. 
            Q     Can I follow up? 
            Q     Back to the budget for a moment. This year defense spending adjusted for inflation will be at its highest level since the Second World War, as you know. Given that the administration has suggested it will freeze entitlement spending, and given that we're probably about to enter an economic recession, how do you make the case to the American public that three-quarters of a trillion dollars ought to be spent on defense for the long haul? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I think that's an important case we have to make in the discussion. And that's one of the reasons I'm looking at a public discussion and public debate about what it should be. And I think it needs to be informed by the environment, security risks that are out there and what it's going to take to meet those security risks, which includes the full spectrum from the kind of irregular warfare and terrorist threats that we have right now to the other end of the spectrum in terms of the conventional threats that are potentially emerging in the longer run.   
            And that balance is a very difficult balance. And at least from the military's perspective, I mean, my number-one mission is to protect the United States of America. And I need to be able to talk about that, work to make that case. And then I think we get -- not just the military, we get the budget -- back to, I think, Tom's point, you know, investment is a strategy -- and we get the budget and the military that the American people want. 
            Q     Could it be done for less money? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I won't get into specific numbers right now. I think that's part of the debate that we have to have. 
            Q     Thank you, sir. Two quick questions, one going back to the most wanted killed in Pakistan. Do we believe now that since this 12th most wanted on the U.S. list was killed in Pakistan, do we believe that most of the most wanted, including Osama bin Laden, is also in Pakistan? I mean, do the U.S. have now access to get into those areas where nobody could got yet? And second, that how much threat do you think you have as far as nuclear weapons going in the hands of the al Qaedas? Because we still don't have or U.S. does not have still access to A.Q. Khan. 
            ADM. MULLEN: I'm very comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure and that the Pakistani leadership has taken steps to ensure those -- that security.   
            And then with respect to al Qaeda, and you said number 12, there are certainly many more than that, than 12, who threaten us. And so while this particular strike was very successful and we're very pleased with the outcome, there's still a great deal more work to do. 
            STAFF: We have time for one more. 
            Q     Sir, you will be discussing on your trip with General Kayani and others in Pakistan as far as ongoing missions and catching all the top, including Osama bin Laden, as well as the nuclear weapons during your trip? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I'll tell you, to the degree I can, when I get back what I talk about with him. 
            Q     Sir, in your assessment of Afghanistan by the Joint Staff, I mean what is the consideration, perhaps, in the meeting this week also of a need to really significantly increase the effort there, the military effort, to better accommodate the reconstruction effort? What's the debate with regard to that? And can you clarify a little bit what the Marine mission will be there? 
            ADM. MULLEN: We're sending essentially -- in the 3,200, we're sending two groups of Marines. One is a -- was -- is a Marine air- ground task force normally called a MEU, which it will have a combat mission and will be assigned to ISAF in terms of -- and so their principal mission will be combat. We're also sending another battalion, which will meet a part of the training requirement which is there, which overall, we're still well short of -- back to the earlier discussions about we need countries to work as hard as they can to provide that kind of capability as well. 
            So it's the training mission for one of the battalions, and the heart of the MEU is another battalion, and they'll be on a combat mission. And that's how that breaks up in terms of the missions that the Marines, the 3,200 Marines, will be carrying out when they get there starting in March. 
            Q     Can you speak to the broader question of perhaps in the long term, in the longer term this increase of forces, whether that might be considered? 
            ADM. MULLEN: We -- Secretary Gates has previously said, I mean, that we were about 6,000 or so short in terms of the mission, so this gets -- at least as currently requested by the combatant commander -- and so this gets at about half of that. One of the concerns, and where we would like NATO to step forward, is to generate forces to relieve the Marines either in the fall as they rotate out or as soon thereafter as possible. So this isn't -- as we see it right now, there isn't a looming requirement for thousands and thousands of more troops.   
            Also back to what part of your first question is, the impact of our Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the impact of the OMLTs that are training teams as well, generating as many of those will have a huge impact on the eventual outcome there as well. And that is not the military side, that's the development side, the training side, the government side, the rule of law, all those kinds of things. 
            Q     Last week yourself and Secretary Gates said that you would be willing to have more numbers of joint operations in Pakistan if the Pakistanis requested that. Have they said to you either that they would be willing or interested or not interested in doing that, first of all? And second of all, have you seen any indication that support for President Musharraf within the military has declined since he took the uniform off? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I haven't -- to the second part, I haven't seen that.   
            And with respect to the joint operations, it is very -- it's exactly what we said before. Should the Pakistani government want to have that kind of assistance, then clearly we could do that. But that's really up to them. And that's kind of where -- that's where it is. And I mean one of the reasons I go is to have discussions like these with the leadership, to see where they really are.   
            The signals that I see are generally consistent with the Pakistanis in the lead and we can assist where asked. And we're going to have to work that over time. 
            Okay, thank you. 
            MODERATOR: Thank you. 
            Q     Have a nice weekend.
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