DoD News Briefing with Adm. Mullen at the Pentagon
ADM. MULLEN: Great to see you all again and, I know, it's been a while.
As you know, I just returned from a short trip, to Europe and to Israel. Terrific engagement all around; visited with staffs also of the European and Africa Commands. Found those staffs very engaged and enthusiastic about the good work that they're doing.
And they are doing some extraordinary work. Was particularly struck by the level of integration, across the agencies, that I found at AFRICOM. Not a single person there didn't know their mission or how they tie into the larger interagency approach to the continent.
I'm very comfortable with the way that command is standing itself up -- critically important mission -- and really look forward to seeing them just get better and more proficient.
My two days in Israel was very informative. I spent time with my counterpart, Lieutenant General Ashkenazi, and had the opportunity to meet with the defense minister as well.
I also took a very interesting tour of some of their bases and facilities up north on the Syrian-Lebanese border as well as down south near the Gaza Strip. I greatly appreciated the time that was afforded me and the candor of the discussions. As always, when I visit Israel, I'm reminded of the very real security threats they face and the tyranny of what I call "close-quarters geography" within which they face them.
Israel remains a vital and trusted military ally in the Middle East. Forging the personal relationships that must underpin that alliance was the principle reason for my visit. To that end, it was very successful.
We certainly talked about Iran and the degree to which the Israeli military views the Iranian regime as a threat to their security and to the security of the broader Middle East. That should come as no surprise to any of you.
I will not -- I won't discuss the details or the concerns they expressed, nor will I comment one way or any other about the speculation surrounding Israeli intentions. Those are matters for the Israeli military and the Israeli government to address.
I will say this, however: My position with regard to the Iranian regime hasn't changed. They remain a destabilizing factor in the region, and that's evident and actually more evident when one visits. But I'm convinced a solution still lies in using other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure. There is a need for better clarity, even dialogue at some level.
Let me also say just a word about Afghanistan. I am and have been for some time now deeply troubled by the increasing violence there. The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks and as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate. The United States and NATO leadership -- and I had the chance to meet with my NATO counterparts last week in Brussels -- are very focused on the challenges there, particularly in the east and the south.
We are exploring a number of options and opportunities to get a better understanding of the scope of the threat and the best means with which to counter it. I've made no secret of my desire to flow more forces, U.S. forces, to Afghanistan just as soon as I can, nor have I been shy about saying that those forces will not be available unless or until the situation in Iraq permits us to do so. It's a very complex problem, and it's tied to the drug trade, a faltering economy and, as I've said many times, the porous border region with Pakistan.
There's no easy solution, and there will be no quick fix. More troops are necessary, and some of our NATO allies have recently committed to sending more of their own, but they won't fully ever be sufficient. We need and are pursuing a broader interagency international approach, one that includes infrastructure improvement, foreign investment and economic incentives, and I'm hopeful these efforts will begin to pay off in the near future. But we all need to be patient. As we have seen in Iraq, counterinsurgency warfare takes time, and it takes a certain level of commitment. It takes flexibility.
We remain committed to a stable future for Afghanistan and her people, and I'm just as convinced today as ever that we will achieve it.
Finally -- and this is most appropriate, given the efforts I have just described -- I want to say a quick word about our troops. Yesterday we observed the 35th anniversary of the all-volunteer force. And I just don't think there's any better testament to the wisdom of moving to that force than the performance of our men and women in uniform today. They are extraordinary, the best I have ever seen, and the best, in my view, the world has ever known.
I've been doing this for a long time, and I remember when we were a draft force, and I'm telling you there's simply no comparison. That the all-volunteer force has reached the 35-year point and has done so in such spectacularly successful fashion tells you all you need to know about the quality of the men and women we bring in and that we keep in. And I'm proud of each and every one of them.
It would also be good to remember their service and sacrifice as we celebrate our freedom on this 4th of July.
Q Admiral, let me take a stab here at the Iran issue. Can you give us a sense -- although you don't want to say what the Israelis told you, can you give us a sense of what your message to the Israelis were while you were there about Iran and whether or not you can say now what your view is of the analysis that Iran may or may not have surface-to-air capabilities by the end of this year, as well as the ability to enrich enough uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb?
ADM. MULLEN: Two -- well, actually, several thoughts come to mind. One is, I cherish the time I have with my counterparts around the world and always keep those conversations private.
Now, what I said in my opening statement was really why I went. And it is the third trip, as has been pointed out, for me to visit with General Ashkenazi. I've made three trips to Pakistan. I've been in the AOR three times since I've been chairman. Part of this is style and also, obviously, seriousness of issues. And that engagement is critical. And that was really the reason that I went. I was actually in Europe on another -- to go to the changeover at NATO of the chairman of the Military Committee and extended that visit, some time ago, to visit with General Ashkenazi.
Certainly, the concern about Iran continues to exist. And you talk about the nuclear threat. And I believe they're still on a path to get to nuclear weapons and I think that's something that needs to be deterred. They are -- and I talk about my time up on the border. They are very involved with Syria, very involved with Hezbollah, supporting Hamas. And so the network that they support is also a very dangerous one and a very destabilizing one.
So we talked a lot about that specifically, the specifics of that. But I really don't want to go into any kind of details.
Q But you don't want to say -- on a path by -- do you think it's possible by the end of the year, or within that sort of a period of time?
ADM. MULLEN: Which?
Q Whether Iran will indeed have surface-to-air capabilities and the ability to enrich enough uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb?
ADM. MULLEN: No, I don't want to address that.
Q Sir, if I can -- you said in your opening statement that the preference is to use other elements of national power. So can you just give us your assessment of what the consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran would be? How do you believe the Iranians would react? And what are the potential risks there?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I try -- I think -- I don't want to speculate in that regard. Clearly, there is a very broad concern about the stability level -- the overall stability level in the Middle East. I've been pretty clear before that from the United States' perspective, the United States' military perspective in particular, that opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us. That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging. And also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict.
So I think that, you know, just about every move in that part of the world is a high-risk move. And that's why I think it's so important that the international piece, the financial piece, the diplomatic piece, the economic piece be brought to bear with a level of intensity that resolves this.
Q Admiral Mullen --
Q Admiral, you said that opening a third front now would be extremely stressful, you know, and hard on the U.S. Yet if Israel were to attack Iran, you're suggesting, then, that that would drag the U.S. into a confrontation -- military confrontation with Iran.
ADM. MULLEN: I'm not specifically again speculating about what the consequences of any action would be. It is a very, very broad, and what has been enduring for a while, concern about the instability in that part of the world. And destabilizing acts, destabilizing events are of great concern to me.
Q But that would be a likely scenario, that if Israel were to attack Iran, the U.S. would whether directly or indirectly take some of the blame for that attack, as it were, and could drag the U.S. into a military confrontation.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, again, I'm not going to, in terms of speculating what happens when certain events occur, we oftentimes don't get that right. And so I really don't want to do that.
I'm really very focused on trying to inject as much stability in that part of the world. And it is my view that Iran is at the center of what is unstable in that part of the world. And it reaches all the way, you know, from Tehran to Beirut.
Q Is Israel operating on a shorter timeline than the U.S.?
ADM. MULLEN: The discussions that we had last fall about, you know, when the projections would be there down the road, about what the possibilities were, indicated that they were. But again, David, these things evolve, both with time and focus, to really understand over time where we are.
And again I'm not, I mean, this is going at, you know, very specifically how the Israelis are thinking, what they're deducing, what their technical assessment is. And overall it's really up to them to talk about that.
Q Admiral, when the Iranians say that if they're attacked, they would shut down the Strait of Hormuz, and when the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet says that the U.S. would not allow that to take place, is that kind of rhetoric helpful? Or does that simply ratchet up the tensions between the U.S. and Iran?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think -- actually, I think Admiral Cosgriff, who made that statement, is making an accurate statement. It's hard to know whether it ratchets it up or not. I haven't seen it do that per se. Certainly that is a huge strategic strait and one that we are very concerned about. And –- but it's not a concern that we just arrived at. We've had that concern for many, many year. And so I would -- I rest comfortably in what he said in terms of the abilities that we have, recognizing what the potential is there.
Q Sir, did you come away from your trip to Israel more or less convinced that the Israelis would go it alone and strike Iran?
ADM. MULLEN: Actually, neither. I mean, I didn't go with any kind of preconceived notion there. Again, it really more than anything else was to have face-to-face meetings with my counterpart and a very clear understanding across a host of issues, to include Iran. But again, they’re -- I'm extremely reluctant to speak for the Israelis. They really need to do that.
Q Is that actually a bluffing game, though, that we're witnessing? If you look at the air exercises that took place, did you come away from feeling that there's a bluffing game taking place that could lead the region into a conflict?
ADM. MULLEN: The Israeli press reported fairly widely that the Israeli Defense Force -- that those exercises were planned and routine. And I'd leave the exercises at that. I'm -- this is -- it is high stakes, there's no question, in this part of the world. And I just -- I guess I'd just leave it at that with respect to that.
Q Let me just follow up to Jamie's question on the Gulf -- on the Strait of Hormuz.
ADM. MULLEN: Right.
Q Is it your assessment, though, that Iran actually has the capability and their leadership really has the intent to try and work with the IRC commander the other day to impose controls on the Gulf? Can they actually do this successfully?
ADM. MULLEN: At least, the analysis that I have certainly indicates that they have capabilities which could certainly hazard the Straits of Hormuz. But I'm back to what Admiral Cosgriff said. I believe that the ability to sustain that is not there.
Q Just one follow-up. Do you see -- is the U.S. going to be beefing up its naval forces in the next couple months to counter any potential Iranian moves in that direction?
ADM. MULLEN: Again, that's operational details I won't get into.
Q Admiral, you mentioned in your opening statement something about the idea of perhaps a need for dialogue over this issue. What did you have in mind? Are you thinking about some sort of military-to-military talks with Iran on some level?
ADM. MULLEN: No, I've -- when I talk about dialogue -- actually, I would say very broadly, across the entirety of our government and their government, but specifically that would be -- need -- that would need to be led, obviously, politically and diplomatically. And if it then resulted in a military-to-military dialogue, I think that part of it certainly could add to a better understanding about each other. But I'm really focused on the diplomatic aspect.
Q Do you think there is a lack of communication at the moment which elevates the risk of something happening here, military confrontation? Is that one of the risks that there is at the moment?
ADM. MULLEN: I -- we haven't had much of a dialogue with the Iranians for a long time, and I think if I were just to take the high stakes that were -- that we -- I just talked about a minute ago, part of the results of that engagement or lack of engagement, I think, is there. But as has been pointed out more than once, it takes two people to want to have a dialogue, not just the desire on one part.
Q Just to clarify, you're saying we need dialogue between the United States government and the Iranian government?
ADM. MULLEN: That's not -- I think it's a broad dialogue. I think it would cover the full spectrum of international -- and it could very well certainly cover the dialogue between us as well.
Q Those of us who have followed you pretty closely here in the building are well aware of your concern about opening up this third front and what that might mean for U.S. forces. I'm curious whether you have had the opportunity or have been requested to make that case at the White House or the National Security Council, if that is -- that discussion is so fresh that you've been asked to make that case on the other side of the river.
ADM. MULLEN: You know, again, not unlike my meetings with General Ashkenazi, I don't talk about what I do over at the White House. You know, the advice I give as the senior military individual is to the National Security Council and to the president. And that's advice I keep private.
Q Admiral, can you talk about the number and type of troops that are expected -- the extra troops that are expected to go to Afghanistan in 2009?
ADM. MULLEN: No decisions with respect to that. The president, at Bucharest, made a commitment. And as I recall, his phrase was "sometime in 2009." And I can't be any more specific with respect to that.
What I said in my statement is also important as a part of that calculus, which is I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. And there -- we're on an increasingly positive path in Iraq in lots of dimensions. And so I'm hopeful, towards the end of the year, opportunities like that would be created.
Q As battalions are pulled out of western Iraq, is it more likely that the units going to Afghanistan will be Marines?
ADM. MULLEN: Again, no decisions with respect to that. Certainly, the 24 MEU has had a tremendous impact in southern Afghanistan since they've been over there; 27 MEU has had a tremendous -- and 24 from the combat standpoint -- 27 MEU has had a tremendous impact on the training piece, which, again, is my first priority for additional troops in Afghanistan. But there's no plan yet that says it's going to be the Marine Corps in terms of what might be next.
Q Admiral, on Afghanistan, given the current trends, can you say that the U.S. and its NATO allies are, in fact, winning in Afghanistan? And if not, is NATO at risk of losing Afghanistan?
ADM. MULLEN: I -- as I said in my statement, I think in the long run, you know, that we will provide the kind of support for the Afghan people that will allow them to provide for their own security, the economy, et cetera. But it's going to be a long time, for lots of reasons, and I am confident that that will be the case.
But we are going through a time right now where violence is up significantly from where it was a year ago. Some of that is more contact because we have more troops in the south. Some of that is because of the very porous border where there is much more freedom this year to move across that border than existed a year ago, and we're addressing all those concerns. And we're right in the middle of the fighting season, if you will. And we've seen the Taliban revert to the kind of violence that is tied to IEDs, suicide bombings, those kinds of things, and I think we can expect more of that. And I think it's going to be a pretty tough fight for a while.
Q And just a quick follow -- on Israel and Iran. Can you even say whether the subject of an Israeli first strike is something that came up in your discussions?
ADM. MULLEN: No, I can't. I won’t do that.
Q Admiral, you’ve made --
Q Admiral, about the Taliban's resurgence, how is it that all these years later they have the popularity, the base, the capability to have this kind of surge in violence?
ADM. MULLEN: I'm not sure I'd agree it's the popularity. I think clearly they are an intimidating force, and they are well-armed, and that Afghanistan has been and remains an economy of force campaign which, by definition, means we need more forces there. So what we're going through right now is an ability to, in almost every single case, win from the combat standpoint, but not unlike the insurgency in Iraq, we don't have enough troops there to hold. And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan.
Q Admiral, you've made several trips --
ADM. MULLEN: Let me go back here.
Q Speaking of Afghanistan-Pakistan, you have advised publicly for strategic patience when it comes to the new Pakistani government dealing with the FATA.
What we've seen in recent weeks, particularly around Peshawar, is a much more kinetic activity by the Pakistani army -- sort of broke down talks with Baitullah Mehsud's group and sort of real warfighting. Do you see that as a positive development, in that the Pakistani army -- regular army is getting much more involved in the FATA? Or is that a negative development, that these talks which -- there was some hope that -- to tamp down the violence have broken down?
ADM. MULLEN: I think one of the things that's happened in the last week or so was the prime minister came out with a very strong statement focused on the seriousness of the extremist threat across the full spectrum with a lot of detail that I thought captured the problem very well, the challenge that he has or that the Pakistan government has.
Secondly, in that directive or in that statement, he gave General Kiyani the lead, not just of the army, but of the Frontier Corps and other forces, to respond to that. And the timing of that response has been pretty quick. So, as you've said, they've moved in and had some impact very early. It's important that this be sustained. And this will have -- this should have, from a military perspective, put some pressure on the insurgents in terms of their freedom of action.
So I'm encouraged by what I've seen. And yet, I do think we need to be patient. And as I think you've heard me say before, Peter, it's this incredible tension between adjustments by a new government, a military that's got to adapt to counterinsurgency versus the tension of having al Qaeda leadership there and the threat that is there with respect to plotting against the West, to include us.
Q Admiral, do you believe that it's time for the U.S. military, perhaps even Special Operations Forces, be able to conduct more aggressive operations inside Pakistan, inside that FATA region, not necessarily with Pakistani permission?
ADM. MULLEN: What I believe exists in the FATA is the kind of situation with respect to tribal control, tribal rules, a very complex set of governance structure there that fundamentally gets to the same kind of classic counterinsurgency challenges that we've had. And I think the government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan are going to have to address that issue. I'm anxious to assist wherever I can in that regard, from a training perspective, from an equipment perspective.
They're a good friend, a good ally. This is a critical part of the world. And that's why my view is this is also for the long term. And I think it's going to take some time.
This also is a sovereign country, and we just don't send troops into sovereign countries, as the question suggests. So I think it's important that our assistance be as robust as it can possibly be and that the Pakistan government and military move as rapidly as they can against this problem.
Q Other than equipment, training, is there anything the U.S. military can do to close off that border?
ADM. MULLEN: I think there are -- one of the -- again, the end state is going to be, I think, the border's going to have to be controlled by the Afghans and the Pakistanis. And there are border coordination centers there that are being stood up. I think that's important.
Clearly, we can address that more freely on the Afghan side because we actually have a presence in Afghanistan because of the fight there. And I guess I would just reassure you that we're doing everything we can, but constrained by the border that is there, which we have to honor.
Q Sir, do you have the authority that you or the combatant commanders need that if you had actionable intelligence against bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders or even Taliban leaders that you could operate in the FATA without seeking the permission of the Pakistanis? Do you think it's time to broaden that permission so that you wouldn't have to seek the permission of the Pakistanis?
ADM. MULLEN: I'm comfortable, as the military leader, that I have all the authorities I need.
Q But does that authority include operating in an effort to go after Taliban or al Qaeda leadership without Pakistani permission?
ADM. MULLEN: I'm not going to get into the specifics of this.
Q Sir, I want to go back to the Israeli issue. How concerned are you and other senior leaders in the building, in the E Ring, that Israel may undertake a unilateral strike against Iran by the end of the year?
ADM. MULLEN: Again, back to what I said before, from the standpoint of a -- my strong preference here is to handle all of this diplomatically, you know, with the other powers of governments, ours and many others, as opposed to any kind of strike occurring. And I am, as I indicated earlier -- you know, this is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable.
Q Admiral, can I just go back to Afghanistan? Are you confident you have the balance of risk right between Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we getting close to a point where you might say to General Petraeus or General Odierno, "You're going to have to take a bit more risk there, with fewer resources, because Afghanistan is getting to the state where we can't afford to wait and only take what you can give us." I mean, how confident are you that you have the balance of risk --
ADM. MULLEN: Constantly assess risk, I mean, literally on a daily basis in both places and recognize that they are tied together. And to the ability that I am able to move forces -- and you can't move a force overnight. It takes 30, 45, 60-plus days to do something. So I am confident that we are looking at that risk constantly, and right now the balance is about right. As I indicated earlier, you know, the trends in Iraq keep moving in the direction they are moving. I'm very hopeful it will free up forces.
Q A follow-up, Admiral --
Q Sir, a little different topic on Iraq. Can you address at all reports today that the U.S. is using spy satellites to look at Iraqi troop movement?
ADM. MULLEN: We don't -- again, that's another area that we don't talk about publicly, is what our satellites are doing. I've seen the report, and that's about all I'd say right now.
Q Do you believe that the U.S. is monitoring Iraqi troop movements in response to the kind of surprise move down in Basra in any form?
ADM. MULLEN: No, I wouldn't say one way or the other.
Q Admiral, you talk about a decision sometime in '09 on Afghanistan and additional troops. The Marines -- the two Marine units there will come out early in '09. Do you think they will be replaced with Army or Marines?
ADM. MULLEN: They're actually scheduled to come out later this year, one. The -- we shouldn't forget that as we come down with -- in our overall brigade size from 20 to 15 in Iraq, that the Marines, with those two additional battalions, essentially remain at surge levels. So it is that balancing piece, and whether or not we -- again -- and I constantly review options and to look to see what those options might include as soon as we can, and particularly given the -- you know, the increased level of violence and then the mechanics of actually moving from one place to another. We're in constant review of that. And there's been no decision that those units will be backfilled.
Q From a --
Q Two RCTs are already slated for Iraq. Two --
ADM. MULLEN: Say again?
Q Two Marine RCTs are already slated for Iraq.
ADM. MULLEN: Right. I already said that.
Q So they're a little strained.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, we're aware of the timelines that we're under, and timelines in which we have to make decisions.
Q Okay. Just to sort of clarify, it sounds like -- that we're committed -- the president committed more troops to Afghanistan in '09, but it sounds like you're saying you're hopeful to get some there by the end of this year. But are you -- you said you hoped that you'd have the opportunity to do something by the end of this year. Are you talking about an effort possibly to move that timeline a little forward and get some of the troops that were promised to -- in '09 there by the end of this year if indeed things in Iraq level out?
ADM. MULLEN: What I meant to say was that the -- if trends in Iraq continue on the trend lines that exist, that that will start to free up force requirements there, which would then make forces available to go to Afghanistan. I don't want to -- I don't have a specific timeline, and that's as much tied -- that's tied to a couple things, but more than anything else, it's tied to literally alert training -- alert notification, decision to send, the training that's associated with that and getting them ready to go carry out that mission.
One more question.
Q In light of Britain's Home Office today banning the military wing of Hezbollah, can you speak to any evidence you have seen of Hezbollah funding or supporting militants in Iraq?
ADM. MULLEN: I have been concerned for some time that Hezbollah has trained Iraqis in Iran. I don't have -- I mean, that's been a concern. It's been out there for a while, and I don't have anything on the story that was there today in terms of a specific camp. I just can't say that.
Q That's part of the reason why it was banned.
ADM. MULLEN: Understood.
Q Last question. Are you --
ADM. MULLEN: We have time for one more question. Yes. (Laughter, cross talk.)
Q We're not good at math. (Laughter.)
Are you confident that AFRICOM will have the component commands that it will need by October 1st in order to command the naval operations off the east coast and any other operational requirements that come up on the continent?
ADM. MULLEN: I actually am. I mean, my first visit to AFRICOM, I was incredibly impressed with what they're doing. I mean, they're literally a command right now -- sub-unified, but they're a command right now. So they've got an awful lot on their plate in terms of what they're executing as they stand this command up.
And I was taken -- I went around to every single director, and as I indicated, I was taken by the integrated view that they have, each individual. And I wasn't asking them questions. They were talking about their part of the mission across all our agencies and the passion and dedication and focus that they have on this continent in order to get this right for the future.
I really was encouraged by what I saw. And I give General Ward and his other leaders and the members of that command great credit.
Q But on the kinetic side, though, has the capability they need?
ADM. MULLEN: They're going to have the capability they need.
Okay, thank you.
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