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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
March 05, 2009
            MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. It's great to see you all today. I have a quick announcement and then we'll get right to your questions. 
 
            Secretary Gates welcomes Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay to the Pentagon a little later this afternoon. There will be an honor cordon, followed by a half-hour meeting, and then a very brief press availability with you-all. 
 
            The two men saw each other a couple weeks ago in Krakow for the Defense Ministerial, so they will likely pick up on some of the issues that they spoke of then, including the situation in Afghanistan, the status of President Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, and the upcoming 60th anniversary NATO summit in France and Germany. 
 
            The secretary will, of course, offer Minister MacKay and the Canadian people his deepest condolences for the three Canadian soldiers killed in an IED attack near Kandahar on Tuesday. The Canadian military has been an invaluable partner in southern Afghanistan. Their nearly 3,000 forces are among the bravest and most effective in RC South, and they have paid dearly for their efforts to help the Afghan people improve their lives, losing 111 troops in the process -- a higher proportion, I believe, than any other nation fighting in Afghanistan. We honor their sacrifices and appreciate their steadfast commitment to bettering the situation in Kandahar. 
 
            And with that, I will be happy to take your questions. Ann? 
 
            Q     On North Korea. How concerned are you about the threats issued by the North to South Korean aircraft ahead of the planned U.S.-South Korean military exercises? And can you give us your current assessment of what the ultimate intent is of the activity at the launch site that the North says will be for a communications satellite? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Let me take them in reverse order, if I could. I may ask you for some clarification on the first question. 
 
            But with regard to the second question, I'm not going to get into whatever our intelligence may be suggesting to us about what the North Koreans may or may not be up to with regards to space launches.   
 
            With regards to the second question, I'm not aware of any particular threats, as you've stated. I can tell you, though, that the U.N. Command and the North Korean People's Army are about to conduct a round of talks again tomorrow to discuss issues of mutual trust and tension reduction. This would be the 16th such general officer talks, but the first -- or the one that took place on Monday was the first held at this level since 2002.   
 
            So we are pleased that the KPR -- the KPA accepted the U.N. Command's proposal for these general officer talks. And they were preceded by a colonel-level meeting which took place -- I think it's taking place perhaps today -- to really lay out the agenda for the conversation that will take place tomorrow. 
 
            So there is a dialogue going on, first in a number of years, that we hope will go a long way towards establishing an enhanced trust between these two militaries on opposite sides of what has been a contested border over the years. 
 
            Q     What I was referring to was KCNA's statement: The North is compelled to declare that security cannot be guaranteed for South Korean civil airplanes flying through the territorial air of our side and its vicinity while the military exercises are under way. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: For the -- I understand we do have exercises coming up, I think, later in the month. This is -- these are annual exercises between the Republic of Korea and our -- U.S. forces in Korea, the Key Resolve and the Foal Eagle exercises in particular.   
 
            I'm not aware of any component of the exercise which would necessitate flying either Korean or U.S. aircraft into North Korean airspace, but I think if you want to speak to the specifics of the exercises, I'd direct you over to General Sharp's command in Korea. 
 
            Yeah? 
 
            Q     Geoff, will these general officer talks be at the same level as before, or will they move to a higher general officer level? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: My understanding is no. This is the second round of talks involving general officers. It's the, you know, second this week; the first round since 2002. 
 
            Yeah, Brian? 
 
            Q     Earlier in the week, the White House, in responding to some queries about this new legislation to lift the ban on gays serving in the military said that the White House has been consulting with the secretary and the Joint Chiefs. Can you shed any more light on what that means? Has there been any formal direction to study the issue? Basically, it was a very general statement -- just -- (inaudible). What does that mean? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I -- you know, Brian, I don't have anything particularly new for you on that. I noticed that the White House had a statement to that effect. I think I'd refer you to them in terms of what took place in that meeting. I wouldn't want to begin to speak for what the president did or did not ask of the secretary or the chairman. So I'm sorry, I just have to really refer you to the White House for additional questions on that. 
 
            Q     Just to follow on that, is the DOD conducting any review of the issue? Or have they been tasked to do so? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Right now, Don't Ask, Don't Tell remains the law of the land, and we are following it. I am not aware of any internal review that's under way in this department. That's not to say that one won't be asked of us, or -- but I don't believe that there is one currently under way. 
 
            Yeah, Tom? 
 
            Q     You mentioned the Afghan-Pakistan policy reviews in your opening statement. I know we've talked about this, but could you give us an update of where all the million pieces are and how they come together? 
 
            There was the Lute review launched under the previous administration. There's the Riedel-Flournoy piece, which, I'm wondering, supersedes it or not. General Petraeus is doing his. So how do you see them coming together? What's the timetable? And what is this building's equity in those? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah, again, I think this may be best directed to the White House, but I'll give you my sense of it, because we are obviously a stakeholder in all this. That the -- the only review, as I've said to you before, that I believe counts is the one the president has asked for and that is being chaired by Bruce Riedel. It's being co- -- vice-chaired by our undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, and the new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Holbrooke. 
 
            They, as you may have noticed from the different honor cordons and dignitaries that have been walking around this building over the past week or so, have been reaching out to -- in particular lately to the Afghan and Pakistan leadership. We had Minister Wardak, the Defense minister of Afghanistan, in town. We had Minister Atmar, the Interior minister of Afghanistan, in town. General Kayani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, was in town. And they worked for a number of hours with the -- some members of the policy review team, providing their input to this process.  
 
            I noticed that the White House announced that Vice President Biden is traveling to Brussels next week to talk with NATO about the Af-Pak review. This is all part of these ongoing efforts to make this as inclusive and collaborative as possible.   
 
            So in terms of where we stand in that process, I can tell you the secretary got his first briefing on sort of this -- the status of it today, this morning. As far as I know, I don't have any news for you in terms of when this will be unveiled, other than the fact, I think, that everybody has made clear that by the time the president goes to the NATO summit in Strasbourg, that the expectation is that he will be able to lay out to the allies the way ahead in Afghanistan. But I think there is considerable work to be done between now and then. 
 
            I don't know if that's helpful -- oh, in terms of where General Petraeus's efforts and the Lute efforts fit into all this, as you know, General Lute was the point person in the Bush White House or the Bush NSC for Iraq and Afghanistan. He worked closely with our former assistant secretary of Defense for Asia, Jim Shinn, and our assistant secretary for SOLIC, Mike Vickers, who remains in the job, on formulating that plan for the Bush White House. 
 
            It was never unveiled. And it was passed on to the Obama folks and they, I assume, have evaluated it and are making judgments about what, if any, of it they wish to incorporate. 
 
            The Petraeus CENTCOM review, I think, has come to completion. I think it's in the process of being briefed and ultimately being wrapped up. And I think that review will inform the Riedel- Flournoy-Holbrooke review. It is another means of improving that product. 
 
            But I think, ultimately, the product that will steer the policy of the United States of America with regards to Afghanistan will be the White House review. 
 
            Yes? 
 
            Q     Secretary Gates is meeting with the Canadian minister today. Can you give us kind of a sense of what the dialogue is in terms of what Secretary Gates is asking allies for in Afghanistan? Is he -- I mean, obviously, he needs more and more troops and more support and whatever, but -- characterize what he's kind of asking for these days. And is he getting to the point where it's just a question of resources really, that he wants more money instead of troops or helicopters or whatever? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I think the -- the "ask," if you will, will come ultimately, if there is to be one, from the president, subsequent to the completion of this -- of this review. So I don't know that the secretary has been making “asks” of his fellow defense ministers. Even when we were in -- in Poland a couple of weeks ago, and in subsequent meetings. He met with Minister Morin, you know, of France, on Tuesday. He meets with Minister MacKay today. In neither of those meetings did he ask for more -- in the Morin meeting, he did not ask for more troops. I don't anticipate that in the MacKay meeting he will ask for more troops. 
 
            I think his attitude about this is two-fold. Number one, that the -- it should be remembered that as he has gone about, as one of his fellow former ministers has said, you know, implementing megaphone diplomacy, the Europeans have responded; that in fact, nearly matched us troop-for-troop, prior to this latest plus-up we've made, over the last 18 months or so. 
 
            That said, he recognizes that on the military side there probably is not much more capacity. However, he does believe there is significantly more capacity on the civilian side, a side that we are lacking right now in capacity. 
 
            So I think he believes that where we should be pursuing this, with the Europeans, is on providing more help on the civilian side. That's with -- it could be money. It can be experts in a variety of governance-enhancing areas, whether it be rule of law or economics, banking, medical. And that can also be in the training realm, particularly with police trainers. Because while we can do an excellent job of clearing and holding, ultimately to build, you need to have a police force that can maintain a level of security in these areas so that it's conducive for development.   
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- can we get a sense of what he will say -- we need 20 retired mayors to go over. Or we need this many more police trainers or whatever.   
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't think the secretary is asking for 20 retired mayors. I think he asked -- I mean, this is a more elevated conversation than, I need 12 of these, 13 of those in assorted colors. You know, but again, I think, fundamentally the Afghan review is going to drive what the president chooses to ask of the Europeans.   
 
            (Cross talk.)   
 
            Al has already gone, right?   
 
            Q     Well, I had a short follow-up. Now I have another one.   
 
            MR. MORRELL: All right.   
 
            Q     Okay.  
 
            NATO after all is a military alliance. So if the secretary has concluded that compared to the U.S., clearly a much smaller NATO military contribution, in Afghanistan, is all that's available, and now they should send civilian capacity, doesn't that mean that NATO has become the two-tiered alliance that we were trying to avoid a year or so ago?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't think so. I mean, I think, you know, let me just refer back to my -- let's just refer to the numbers. I think we've got 35,000 -- 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. I think the coalition -- what are my coalition numbers here? I think we've got almost as many, not quite as many, coalition forces.   
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- different things; they don't all do combat.   
 
            MR. MORRELL: No, they don't. Well, there are clearly areas of the country where combat is more of a reality than other areas. I mean, obviously any troop contribution that's made, to RC South, is a combat troop contribution.   
 
            You know, you could talk to the Germans or the Italians or others in the north and the west. And they would tell you, their troops are in harm's way and are involved in combat, albeit not to the degree that forces are in the east and the south.   
 
            But I don't think that the secretary would agree with you that we are at the stage where we have a two-tiered alliance. There is -- you know, he is always concerned about talking more than acting. And so there needs to be more action.   
 
            But there has to be a recognition of where the capacity is. And perhaps there is greater capacity, in the civilian side than on the military side, as we go forward.   
 
            But again, I think these are things that will be evaluated as part of the policy review.  
 
            Why don't we just mix it up. Dan? 
 
            Q     Back to that, then, is he getting good signals or positive, encouraging signals from the NATO partners about this civilian support? I mean, does he personally -- (off mike) -- Poland? And is this -- is he hearing what he wants to hear? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I -- I guess I -- I don't know that people send signals the way people may think they send signals. I mean, oftentimes conversations are less direct than some might expect.   
 
            I think that when it comes time for an “ask” to be made of any of these countries, we are hopeful that they will respond as best they can. I think that President Obama is, as we've talked about before, extraordinarily popular in Europe, and hopefully he will be able to translate some of that popularity, some of that political capital into enhanced contributions to the efforts in Afghanistan. But that has not yet been determined in terms of what, precisely, he will be asking of our allies in Europe. 
 
            Yeah. Barbara. 
 
            Q     Different subject. Geoff, can I ask -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, let's just finish this, and I'll go to that. Anybody else on this? 
 
            Q     Just a small clarification. On the Canadians' losing more -- a higher proportion than any other, is that -- that's compared to anyone else? Because I was just wondering if it made sense based on, I mean, what the U.S. troop numbers have been in the past. But you're saying than any other country. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I mean, I think based upon -- we've had, you know, tens of thousands of troops that have gone through Afghanistan. And we -- we've had 1.8, I believe, million U.S. forces that have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. So our numbers are just so much larger. In proportion, I think they've had far fewer troops deployed to either theatre. But -- so on a proportional basis, my understanding is, the Canadians have suffered the greatest loss. 
 
            Yeah. Barbara. 
 
            Q     On Mexico, we see increasing reports every day of drug violence in Mexico and the government there cope -- trying to cope with it. Can I ask you to bring us up to date on the Merida Initiative and the U.S. military equities? Secretary Gates has spoken about that, you're engaged in trying to help them with equipment and training. Can you bring us up to date on the situation -- your equities in Mexico? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: The secretary spoke to this a bit on -- if you didn't see it -- a bit on Sunday when he appeared on Meet the Press. It is -- the situation in Mexico is clearly a cause for concern.   
 
            The violence there, the drug-related violence, the, if you will, cartel-related violence, the cartel-on-cartel violence -- this is all a cause for enormous concern. 
 
            I think the chairman is due to arrive there later this week, and will be meeting with his counterparts to see what more we can do to help them confront this -- this threat. The secretary has talked a number of times about how President Calderon is an extraordinarily brave man who has stepped to the plate and taken on a problem that many of his predecessors were reluctant to deal with. He is using the Mexican military to deal with what some would argue is an existential threat to his -- to his government. And so we have pledged, through the Merida Initiative, to support the Mexican military, the Mexican government, in their efforts to combat this threat. 
 
            I would remind you that it is largely a State Department initiative. It totals about $450 million. We are contributing about 10 percent of that. But the most encouraging thing, I think the secretary believes, in terms of our efforts in this area, is that the Mexican government is increasingly willing and comfortable to work with our military on ways to combat this problem. 
 
            And we're doing so in a number of ways, whether it be, as you mentioned, from providing equipment, you know, training and technical advice to Mexico, coordinated strategies to produce a safer and more secure Mexico -- because after all, Mexico's security is directly linked to our security, given the fact that we share a huge border. 
 
            Our support thus far has included personnel exchanges, training in the United States, information sharing. And we will be including -- we will be providing equipment such as helicopters, maritime surveillance aircraft, and non-intrusive inspection equipment to search for drugs and arms. 
 
            So I think there is a considerable effort under way, and the more engagement, the more cooperation, the better. 
 
            Q     I acknowledge this follow-up may be a little far out of your field, but I don't know if you can address it at all. There have also been a lot of reports that even indicate that terrorist-related groups have moved into Mexico, are now working with these cartels, arming them, training them. I didn't know whether -- it may be far afield -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I can't speak to that. I mean, obviously we have an enormous border that is more porous than people would like, and we need to work closely with the Mexicans, not just to deal with the threats associated with narco-trafficking but also obviously terrorism as well.   
 
            I don't know that to be a particular concern for this building, although we are concerned about most things in this building, but I'm sure our friends at the Department of Homeland Security may have some thoughts on it.   
 
            Q     Thank you. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah.   
 
            Right here. 
 
            Q     Could you just address what's going on with the Kyrgyzstan government? Are we in negotiations with them for other supply routes or other things besides Manas? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I'd really ask you to talk to the State Department on this, because in terms of -- things such as negotiations are handled from -- via the State Department. Even though it is a military base in Kyrgyzstan, the State Department would be the point person -- the point department to handle any negotiations, should that be where we head. I mean, I think the secretary fundamentally has made clear that we -- he does not consider this to be a done deal and that -- meaning the closure of Manas, even though we have been given notification to that effect -- we have 180 days in which to pack up and get out, if you will. That would -- that's, I think, up at the end of August. And so he remains hopeful that, in that window of time, that there will be movement such that this agreement could be extended or changed or amended in a way that's suitable to both sides.  
 
            But as he's said before, although Manas is an important base, it is not irreplaceable. And in the midst of all this, we have looked at a slew of alternatives, in terms of air transporting passengers, personnel into Afghanistan. And I think our folks over at TRANSCOM believe that we have a number of very good alternatives, should they become necessary. 
 
            Q     Are preparations being made to close down the base if you have to? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think we have plenty of time to go about that process, if that's ultimately what comes to be. 
 
            Q     Okay. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah, Jeff? 
 
            Q     Geoff, what are the potential risks for a premature election in -- presidential election in Afghanistan? And what message has the DOD, if any, sent to Karzai about his decision to push up those elections to April? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't believe this department has sent any messages with regards to this, I mean, other than the fact that the secretary was asked about it here a couple of days ago.    
 
            And I think this fundamentally is an issue for the Afghan government and the Afghan people to decide.   
 
            I think the secretary is -- appreciates the dilemma that President Karzai finds himself in, in that his constitutional term is up in May and yet the International Election Commission has recommended elections take place in August at the earliest. So he understands the difficulty that this poses for President Karzai. 
 
            That said, I think it is the belief of this department, this government, indeed, that the International Election Commission studied this, looked at it, determined that August was the best date to have a full, free and fair election in Afghanistan that you needed to improve the security situation in order to get a representative turnout. And so more time is needed -- and not just from the security standpoint, but from an organizational standpoint, from a campaign standpoint. 
 
            But clearly the forces that we are sending to Afghanistan, the additional two brigade combat teams that we're sending to Afghanistan, the earliest they would arrive is in the late spring. So, you know, as the -- as the White House said when those troops were approved, part of their deployment is predicated on their ability to impact the security situation in advance of the elections. If they were to arrive in late spring, that would inhibit their ability to improve security climate -- the security climate before, say, an April or May election. So we support the International Election Commission's recommendations on this matter. 
 
            Yeah? 
 
            Q     On contracting and President Obama's statements yesterday about creating a new contract -- (off mike). Can you give me a -- (off mike) -- of how the Defense Department plans to play a role in creating those new roles -- new rules, or what they've been asked to do by the White House? And at what level -- what -- how much does the secretary perhaps plan to or want to be involved in the contracting-reform process? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, fundamentally -- he's intimately involved with this process in the sense that he is spearheading a big effort that's under way right now to strategically rebalance the budget of this department. 
 
            And so I think the first and most immediate impact you will see on contracting, if you will, will be in the FY '10 budget. That process is under way -- and, as I've talked about before, very closely held, so I won't be able to sort of signal where that's going, other than the fact that he is prepared to make very hard decisions about programs that we would describe as having execution problems. And that is probably not terribly far off in the future. 
 
            Beyond that, he has stated to the Congress, when he testified before the SASC in late January, that he is committed to trying to fix the procurement process, the acquisition and procurement processes in this department. And there are a number of things that he mentioned. I can either refer you to that testimony or I can help list a few of them for you. 
 
            But, I mean, he talked about, then, the need for hard choices, the need to have greater efficiency in production lines, the idea of combining budget stability and order rates to take advantage of economies of scale to lower costs. 
 
            He -- philosophically, he is clearly one who believes in 75 percent solutions in greater quantities -- greater qualities of 75 percent solutions than smaller quantities of 99 percent solutions; and that we have to operate, the services do, far more jointly in how we go about our procurement, so that if one service has a particular capability, it doesn't necessarily need to be replicated in the other services, but the other services can accept a degree of risk in that area because one of the other services has that. 
 
            He also talked about the need to freeze requirements on programs that contract award and write contracts that incentivize proper behavior and complained about -- that many programs that cost more than anticipated are built on inadequate initial -- on an inadequate initial foundation, and the department should seek increased competition, use of prototypes and ensure technology at maturity so that our programs are ready for the next phase of the development. 
 
            So those are the broad strokes. In terms of how we go about implementing that, that is something that probably Bill Lynn, the new deputy secretary, is going to be intimately involved with. But the main focus of this department right now in this realm is on shaping the FY '10 budget. So I'd ask you to stay tuned for that. 
 
            Okay. Couple more and then I'm out of here. 
 
            Q     Quick clarification? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. 
 
            Q     There was an expectation that the F-22 decision was going to be made by March 1. That's obviously not the case. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't know that that was ever the expectation. 
 
            Q     Well, I think it was. But -- so is that -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: But it was a -- there was a very specified requirement with regarding March 1st, regarding the F-22. We'd been given -- we were authorized $140 million to spend on long-lead parts, advance procurement for additional F-22s. We have spent $50 million of that to buy things such as titanium.  
 
            If we were going to spend above and beyond that $140 million, which we did not anticipate doing and have informed the Congress we did not and will not, we would have to have notified them -- we would have to have certified just how many more planes we were going to buy. And what we've told the Congress is we will let them know where we are going with this program when the budget is rolled out, the FY '10 budget is rolled out. 
 
            Okay? Yeah. 
 
            Q     There's been talk about monitoring the situation in the Swat Valley after that agreement. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. 
 
            Q     Some time has passed. Is there any sign from your side -- has your concern increased? Has it been -- after meeting with the Pakistani delegation, have the concerns been addressed or allayed somewhat? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: You're talking about monitoring. What has been, a week or two? I don't know that sufficient time has passed for us to pass judgment on whether or not this latest attempt will work or won't work. 
 
            I mean, I think by and large what we're seeing and continue to see is progress in some areas and -- this is not -- I'm not confining this to Swat. I'm -- I'm speaking more to the -- the northwest territories and the FATA -- that there is progress in some areas and there's deterioration in others, in terms of the effectiveness of operations. And so -- and part of that is -- is the result of the fact that some assets -- Pakistani military assets -- were redeployed east to deal with concerns they had on the Indian border. 
 
            But by and large, what the secretary heard from General Kiyani is that they recognize that the militants -- the terrorists in their midst are as much a threat to them as they are to us. And I think he was very pleased with the level of commitment of General Kiyani, as the leader of the army, to -- to deal with that threat. 
 
            They need help, and we are ready and willing to help them in a variety of ways. It's a question of their comfort level, but we continue to work with them on trying to figure out ways that will enhance their capabilities and at the same time leave them comfortable with -- with the arrangement. 
 
            Okay? Thank you.
 
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