DoD News Briefing with Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.
ADM. MULLEN: Good morning.
As you know, I visited the Middle East and South Central Asia last week, spending time with our troops and meeting with leadership. I can sum it up in this way. The main effort and our strategic focus, from a military perspective, must now shift to Afghanistan.
I say that with the full knowledge that we still have about 136,000 American troops in Iraq and that the fighting there isn't over. We remain committed to the mission we've been given in Iraq, make no mistake. And we will stay there long enough, in keeping with our agreement, to ensure the Iraqis can provide for their own security.
But Afghanistan has been an economy of force operation for far too long. The Taliban, aided by al Qaeda and other extremists and safe havens, across the border, are recruiting through intimidation, controlling through fear and advancing an unwelcome ideology through thuggery.
Just this morning, in fact, we learned of the assassination of the mayor of Mihtarlam City, north of Jalalabad. It's a grim reminder of the brutality with which the Taliban pursue their goals, as is the closing of schools and the imposition of Shari'a law.
I am gravely concerned about the progress they have made in the south and inside Pakistan. The consequences of their success directly threaten our national interests in the region and our safety here at home. This isn't about "can-do" anymore; this is about "must-do." And we must do more over at least the next two years, starting now.
The president's strategy gives commanders more manpower, more resources, but we need a commensurate commitment from the civilian side. And as I've said many times before, we need more, and more concerted, pressure applied from Pakistan as well. I'm encouraged by recent military operations in Buner, but it is too soon to tell whether those operations will have a decided impact over the long term.
Patience and persistence, as we've learned ourselves, remain vital. We stand ready, and we have stood ready, to assist the Pakistanis in their fight against this common enemy of ours.
Q Mr. Chairman, you mentioned threatening us at home. I want to ask you about Pakistan and about some of the benchmarks that we're going to talk about this week. Were there increased benchmarks that will require Pakistan to give the U.S. more information about the safety of the nukes?
And how concerned are you at this point, particularly considering the recent activity just 60 miles away from Islamabad, that the threats against the nukes might be growing? And can you discuss the benchmarks a little bit?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I am -- I remain comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure, that the Pakistani leadership and in particular the military is very focused on this.
We've invested -- we the United States have invested fairly significantly over the last three years, to work with them, to improve that security. And we're satisfied, very satisfied with that progress. We will continue to do that. And we all recognize obviously the worst downside of -- with respect to Pakistan is that those nuclear weapons come under the control of terrorists.
I don't think that's going to happen. I don't see that in any way imminent whatsoever at this particular point in time. But it is a strategic concern that we all share. And I'm comfortable that the military leadership in particular is capable of dealing with that particular issue right now.
Q What about the benchmarks? Will they be included? Will there be any benchmarks?
ADM. MULLEN: With respect to nuclear weapons specifically, I haven't -- there's been no decisions, Lita, on the totality of the benchmarks there is, with respect to Pakistan or Afghanistan. There's a concerted effort which is ongoing right now, with respect to benchmarks on the whole Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. And the details of that will be forthcoming in the near future.
Q Admiral, the Pakistani ambassador was pushing back on American criticism. He said, our American partners have slowed us down in the war efforts, by slowing down the flow of assistance.
Is that a fair criticism?
ADM. MULLEN: I've been working this over the last almost year and a half now. And we have exerted considerable effort to get coordinated and synchronized, to give the Pakistani military in particular, assistance.
There's no overt effort that's ongoing to slow down any assistance with respect to Pakistan whatsoever. We, the United States, have some complicated systems, the FMS system being one. We've really worked to streamline these support lines. They include helicopters.
We've talked about training, maintenance support, ISR, those kinds of things. And we continue to work our way through that.
And we've made considerable progress in the last 12 months, and we will continue to push on that very hard.
And I'm also mindful that this is assistance that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani government has asked for and no more.
Q So what about expanding training? Do you expect that to happen?
ADM. MULLEN: We continue to provide the training. It has actually grown somewhat over the last six to 12 months. And we'll see, based on what the Pakistani military would want for the future, whether it will expand.
In my last trip, I actually went out with two of their divisions. And the Pakistani military gets a bad rap for not doing anything with respect to counterinsurgency. And based on what I saw, that's just not the case. I saw two divisions doing some really good training in preparation for sending a couple battalions out to the west. General Kayani has specifically resourced this training throughout the army.
So they are shifting. It's just going to take some time. That's where the patience and persistence piece must kick in, as far as I'm concerned, from our perspective.
Q James Page from Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera has broadcast footage of U.S. servicemen at Bagram with Bibles printed in Pashtu and Dari and those servicemen talking about distributing those Bibles to Afghans. We don't know if any of them were distributed. What's your reaction? And what is the military going to do about this?
ADM. MULLEN: My reaction is twofold. One is that I'm not aware of the details of this and certainly want to know more about it. Secondly, it certainly is -- from the United States military's perspective -- not our position to ever push any specific kind of religion. Period.
Q How comfortable are you with the leadership right now of President Zardari in Pakistan?
ADM. MULLEN: I'm not going to talk about the specifics of individual leaders. Certainly there have been significant political challenges in Pakistan, and those are being addressed, I think, by the political leadership in my country -- and other countries, quite frankly. There is a summit this week, the second tripartite summit, and I look forward to positive outcomes coming from that. But there are -- have been significant economic and political challenges, as well as security challenges, in Pakistan. And the political leadership needs to address all three of those.
Q Mister Chairman -- Secretary Gates is in the region right now, and we heard this morning that he wants Saudi help in Pakistan. How the Saudis can help in Pakistan? Like reaching a deal with the Taliban in the west front of Pakistan?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think the Saudis as well as others -- they -- the international approach here is to recognize the crisis that we see here in Pakistan, and that international support for a broad spectrum of requirements is absolutely vital.
And certainly the Saudis have a relationship that's important. They also have influence.
So I would expect, and I have not been through this with Secretary Gates, I would expect his discussions would include, part of his discussions -- it won't be just Pakistan -- for sure would be inclusive of this. But as far as details are concerned, I just don't know.
Q You said that the Saudis have relations with the Pakistani government or with tribal leaders in Pakistan or with --
ADM. MULLEN: I wouldn't go -- I wouldn't --
Q (Off mike.)
ADM. MULLEN: No, I would not go into the details of that. I know that there are relationships between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And it would be along those lines that any discussions might take place. And again I haven't talked to the secretary. So I don't know the specifics.
Q Could you talk about how the Pakistani army and the Taliban are performing? Tactically what kind of fighting force are they in Buner?
ADM. MULLEN: Probably more than anything else, it's a question, as I said, of sustainment. We have seen, I've certainly seen, over the last couple of years, bursts of fighting and engagement and then a desire to assess them on the spot. And they're not sustained.
And so it's really -- I am not trying to be judgmental in any way, shape or form, though I'm following it very closely. Because I think the most important part of all this is, can these operations be sustained? And for Pakistan, not unlike other counterinsurgency efforts, there's a military piece of this. There's a clear piece of this. They're going through that now. But there also needs to be a hold and a build aspect of it.
I'm very concerned, as I know Pakistani leaders are, about the number of IDPs that are getting generated, for example. And there has to be a build piece on top of that, on top of the current strategy, in order to sustain it over the long run.
Q And the Taliban?
ADM. MULLEN: And their operations?
Their operations, I think, are pretty consistent with how they've operated in the past. They are more coordinated than they've been and, I think, operating at a higher level. But I wouldn't say anything more now than that.
Q You seem to be much more optimistic than you've been, over the last several weeks. In your previous interviews, you had talked about worrying about a tipping point. You had talked about being more worried than ever before about Pakistan. You don't seem to be reflecting that today.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I was asked about are we at a tipping point. I said no. Closer than we have been, yes. I remain every bit as concerned as I have been. What's happened since that discussion a couple weeks ago was that there have been significant movement with respect to operations on the part of the Pakistani military and the Frontier Corps. They've had some positive impact. Too soon to tell how long it's going to be sustained and where it goes.
Q Can I just ask you one very other quick question. Now that you, like the rest of the world, have seen the memos released on enhanced interrogation techniques under the Bush administration, and the world has seen the description of all of that, can I ask you, when you served under President Bush, were you aware of the details of enhanced interrogation techniques? And did you at that time or do you now believe that those -- now that they're in the public arena, do you believe that that is torture?
ADM. MULLEN: I have not -- I had not seen those memorandums before. I was specifically aware of the requirements of the Army Field Manual and very focused on that and sort of bounding the problem with respect to what the military does, and that's my responsibility. And from that point at no time have I ever supported torture, and that has been very clear and remains. I'd leave it at that.
Q But my question is actually -- I'm sorry, but the question is -- because so many people, including Senator McCain, have expressed the concern that these techniques could be used someday against Americans captured on the battlefield, and I'm sure that that would be a worry. So, do you believe that the things described by the Bush administration are torture?
ADM. MULLEN: I share Senator McCain's concern that these techniques could be used against us, and have for a considerable period of time. And I'd just leave it at that.
Q Yes, Admiral. Lita mentioned benchmarks. Secretary Gates referred to them as measures of effectiveness, for Afghanistan in particular. Can you just walk us through briefly how that conversation is unfolding about how the U.S. is going to look at the metrics that will determine whether you're succeeding or failing?
ADM. MULLEN: I think we'll look at the three big areas -- the economic piece -- the economic development piece, the governance and rule of law piece, as well as the security piece. And that there will be specific focus areas that I think are one of the great strengths of the overall strategy; that the president has said we will set benchmarks and then we will obviously measure ourselves. And I think we need to both do that and then do that regularly, because of the need -- I think the urgent need that we have to move this year.
Not unlike previous benchmarks, I will probably iterate them over time as we assess it, but to put ourselves in a position to really make an objective assessment by the end of this year about what to do next and adjust, as opposed to get benchmarks in place and do it 12 or 18 or 24 months from now. That's my goal. And then the specifics of it, there are a lot of people working on benchmarks right now, the specifics of what will be included. We're just not there yet.
Q How do you weigh the difference between some of these things have to be classified, apparently, some of them can be, you know, transparent for the public to assess for themselves?
Secretary Gates and Clinton mentioned the other day that these things are going to have to be largely kept under wraps.
ADM. MULLEN: Sure.
Q How does that work?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think -- I mean, I think we will, obviously, do both. And the goal of -- of the transparency part of this will be to project an objective assessment of where we are; whether it's classified, which obviously -- whether they're classified, which obviously wouldn't do that, or unclassified, which clearly would.
Q Mr. Chairman, you say the worst down side of the situation in Pakistan would be if the Taliban got control of the nuclear weapons, and you say you're gravely concerned. I'm trying to gauge how much more concerned you are now, if more so, than you were before the Taliban moved into the Buner region, for instance.
ADM. MULLEN: It's about the same. I mean, what's happened since I left -- they moved into Buner right as I was leaving, and then obviously that fight has taken place since that time. But I include Buner in sort of -- in the totality of the Swat deal, which badly unraveled, in my view. Buner is a part of that. Dir is a part of that. And so it really -- the question that's out there for me right now is can -- the Pakistani Military Frontier Corps have achieved some successes in recent days. Can that be sustained? So my concern remains the same. There has been a reaction on the part of the Pakistani government and military, and we'll see if that can be sustained.
Q And what more do they need to do specifically?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think they need to -- they need to persist, specifically. And then what the outcomes are in these agencies is going to be a big part of the story with respect to where to go next.
Q The current violence in Iraq, could that delay the departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraq in August 2010?
ADM. MULLEN: Obviously, there's been a significant increase in violence in recent weeks. That said -- and I was with General Odierno also on this trip -- we're watching all that very carefully, but we don't see at this point that violence being anything that changes the current outlook with respect to the overall plan to come down in August of 2010.
What the strategy and the decisions the president made is, it allows General Odierno to work with a significant troop level throughout 2009 to get to the election. He's really comfortable he has what he needs and that he can adjust accordingly, and that's from a firsthand discussion I had with him very recently.
Q A follow-up on a different subject: In February you said your staff was going to look into whether there should be a limit to the number of concussions service members can receive while deployed. Have you gotten any results back from that?
ADM. MULLEN: I don't remember saying that I was going to look at a limit. Certainly this issue of understanding the number of -- the specifics of TBI and how many -- you know, what it takes to get there and that focused concern of leadership to make sure we continue to evaluate that is ongoing.
My goal is not to get to a number and say if it's less than that you're okay and if it's more than that you're out. That's really a medical call. But we need leadership to be focused on this. And I'm particularly concerned when I run into soldiers or Marines who've been through multiple events and then -- and then there's one more that really puts them in a bad position from a medical standpoint -- and that leaders need to be focused on this, and medical officers and evaluators do as well.
Q Admiral, a couple of questions on the counter-offensive in Pakistan. Do you have any indication that the Pakistani military intends to move beyond Buner into Swat valley? And if not, what good does it do to drive a smaller number of Taliban out of Buner if they still control Swat valley? And are the military and government of Pakistan working at cross-purposes? Because while they're -- while the military's conducting this counter-offensive, the Pakistani courts are in the process of ratifying that pact with the Taliban, which would pretty much install the fundamentalist Shari'a law in the Swat valley.
ADM. MULLEN: I think you've -- you put your finger on those that -- from our perspective, from the American perspective, those strategic moves which we believe are at cross purposes.
Particularly if a deal like the Swat, impositioned by the courts of Shari'a law notwithstanding, unravels as it has so far, then the political support, if you will, is not consistent with what we need to do, I think, needs to be done there, from a security standpoint.
But that's also really for the Pakistani leadership, civilian and military, and the Pakistani people to work out. So I remain concerned very specifically about that.
I'm sorry, the first part of your question.
Q If the Pakistani military doesn't move beyond Buner and stops at Swat valley, what good does that counteroffensive do?
ADM. MULLEN: My interactions with General Kayani in particular have covered a broad range of potential operations, certainly not specifically focused on just Dir or just Buner or even just Swat. And then I wouldn't go into any kind of discussions about what he might do, except he's very aware that the problem just isn't resident there.
Q Specifically what specifically makes you feel comfortable about the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons? And is comfortable short of confident?
ADM. MULLEN: I'm comfortable, because I know what we've done, over the last three years specifically, to both invest, assist, and I've watched them improve their security fairly dramatically for the last three years.
I'm also comfortable that the Pakistani military understands the threat and specifically the downside of these weapons being taken, by the Taliban and terrorists, not only internally for their security, but what could happen from a proliferation standpoint.
And I've looked at this, you know, as hard as I can, over a period of time. So at this point, I'm comfortable. There is a limit to what I know. There is a limit to what is available.
This is a sovereignty issue. And I understand that. But looking at this very hard, again, I'm comfortable with where we are right now, and I wouldn't -- with where the Pakistani military is and where security is. And I wouldn't want to parse the word any more specifically than that.
Q Admiral, I'd like to follow up on that security issue of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
If they were to fall into the wrong hands, are you confident that you know where all of them are, all the warheads specifically, the nuclear weapons specifically, and how many of them there are, should the U.S. be tasked with securing them?
ADM. MULLEN: You're starting to push on what is clearly a classified level of information. I'm not going to talk in any detail about that, except to say broadly what -- just reaffirm what I said earlier, about the overall security and understanding where they are and what the Pak military forces do about them.
And it is in that confidence with the security sources -- I'm sorry -- security measures that are in place and the Pakistani military reassurance that I rest at this point, with the comfort level as I've described, as opposed to going through every detail about what about this, what about that.
Q So you can't say that the U.S. knows where they all are, independent --
ADM. MULLEN: I wouldn't say one way or the other.
Q Sir, if I could go back to your comments about approaching the tipping point, how do you define "tipping point"? What are the scenarios that you envision that fall under that category?
ADM. MULLEN: Actually, I haven't defined a tipping point, except to say what has clearly happened over the 12 months is the continual decline, gradual decline, in security.
What concerned me about the last visit was, I'd only been there two weeks before that, and it was fairly significant jump from the time from two visits ago until this most recent visit, and specifically I tie that to deterioration in the Swat deal. So it's been this gradual decline.
They're underpinned by an economy that has a significant amount of fragility to it, and there are political decisions which need to be made, have needed to be made over a significant period of time, to support taking on this growing threat, which I think is recognized now that political leadership is supporting that and the military's moving in that direction.
Q About concerns and frustrations. What are some of the specific frustrations that you were discussing?
ADM. MULLEN: The -- I mean, it is -- more than anything else, I guess, I'd capture it in this patience and persistence piece. Americans would like to see this move a -- move much more quickly. And this is their country, sovereign country, and the Pakistani people and the Pakistani leadership are going to move at their pace.
Q Admiral, earlier in the winter you wrote about the need to rebuild the trust between the U.S. military senior officials and Pakistani. How much has that trust level changed? Is it still a hindrance in light of recent events?
ADM. MULLEN: No, I think it -- I mean, I think it continues to work in the right direction. It's just going to take time. It's going to take a lot of time.
I use an example -- I visited -- on my way into theater I visited Egypt, and I met with my counterpart in Egypt and some political and military leadership in Egypt. And I was struck by the fact that we have had a relationship with Egypt since 1978, I think, since the Camp David accords.
And we've had -- and a significant amount of military -- of aid has gone year after year. But because of the length of that engagement and because of the relationship over that -- over three decades, when we have differences -- and there are always differences in a relationship -- we figure out a way to resolve them, because we have this -- this baseline underpinning.
We don't have that with Pakistan. It's been -- it's been on and off -- and I use that as an example. And it's going to take some time and some commitment over an extended period of time to get this right, particularly given the deficit that we built between us over that period of time when we sanctioned them.
So the long -- my long-term view is that's the relationship I'd like to have. We're just going through a very hard time right now in building it. And that's going to take a considerable effort, and then sustaining it after that, to achieve that same kind of outcome. Thank you.
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