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DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen
September 03, 2009

                SEC. GATES:  Good afternoon.  I want to start today with an update on where we stand with General McChrystal's assessment on Afghanistan, and then turn things over to Admiral Mullen for his perspective. 

 

                First, some context.  Soon after taking office, President Obama approved the deployment of some 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help cope with the anticipated Taliban spring offensive and to provide additional security for the Afghan elections last month.  Our allies and partners also sent significant additional troops to provide for election security. 

 

                In late March, the president announced a comprehensive new civil, military and diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in order to prevent them from launching another major attack against our country. 

 

                A new military commander, General McChrystal, was appointed to implement the military component of the new strategy.  When General McChrystal took command in June, I asked him to report back to me in about 60 days with his assessment of the security situation and his thinking on the implementation of the president's new strategy. 

 

                I received that report two days ago and informally forwarded a copy to the president for an initial read. 

 

                I've asked General Petraeus, the commander of Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chairman to provide me with their evaluation of the assessment and the situation in Afghanistan, and will send their views plus my own thoughts to the president early next week.  I expect that any request for additional resources would follow after this process and be similarly discussed by the president's national-security team.   

 

                All of this is being done as part of a systematic, deliberative process designed to make sure the president receives the best military information and advice on the way ahead in Afghanistan.  As I said earlier, what prompted my request for this assessment was the arrival of a new commander in Afghanistan, not any new information or perceived change in the situation on the ground.  My request and General McChrystal's response both are intended to help us effectively implement the president's March strategy, not launch a new one. 

 

                Admiral? 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I would just add a couple of thoughts.  First, on process, as the secretary indicated, he's asked the chiefs and myself to review General McChrystal's initial assessment and provide our thoughts, our advice.  The chiefs and I have already met twice in the tank this week to discuss it, and we're planning at least one more session later on.  My intention is to wrap up our review by Friday.   

 

                Our job -- and it's one we take very seriously -- is to provide the secretary and the president our best military advice.  And we're going to do that with a clear eye not only on the needs in Afghanistan but also the needs of the force in general and on our other security commitments around the globe. 

 

                Second, it's clear to me that General McChrystal has done his job as well, laying out for his chain of command the situation on the ground, as he sees it, and offering in frank and candid terms how he believes his forces can best accomplish the mission the president has assigned to him.   

 

                And that is what this whole thing is about: the mission assigned, the strategy we've been tasked to implement.  There has been enormous focus on troop numbers and timelines lately, lots of conjecture, lots of speculation.   

 

                I understand the interest in those things, and it's legitimate. Those numbers represent real units, real people and real families. But the troop piece of this is just that.  It's a piece, critical, but it's not total.   

 

                What's more important than the numbers of troops he may or may not ask for is how he intends to use them.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that he intends to use those forces under his command to protect the Afghan people, to give them the security they need to reject the influence the Taliban seeks.   

 

                Now, you've heard me talk for much of the last two years about Afghanistan.  You know how much I remain concerned about the situation there.  There is a sense of urgency.  Time is not on our side.   

 

                I believe we understand that.  And I believe we're going to regain the initiative, because we have a strategy.  We have a new approach in implementing that strategy.  And we have leaders on the ground who know the nature of the fight they are in, leaders who know that the other people and the other families who matter just as much, in this fight, are the Afghans themselves.   

 

                Our mission is to defeat al Qaeda and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again.  We cannot accomplish that alone.  We'll need help from other agencies and other countries.  But we will also need the support of the local population.   

 

                So in my view, the numbers that count most are the number of Afghans we protect.  As one villager told a visiting U.S. lawmaker recently, security is the mother of all progress. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Lara. 

 

                Q     Thanks.  A question for both of you.  New polls show that public support for the war in Afghanistan is eroding.  They're coming just as you prepare to go to Congress to ask for funding to fulfill General McChrystal's anticipated resource request.  How concerned are you that the fading support will make it harder for those requests to be fulfilled, and how concerned are you both about this idea, that the war is slipping through the administration's fingers, is taking hold with Americans? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I don't believe that the war is slipping through the administration's fingers.  And I think it's important -- first of all, the nation has been at war for eight years. The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising.   

 

                I think what is important is for us to be able to show, over the months to come, that the president's strategy is succeeding.  And that is what General McChrystal is putting in front of us, is how best we can, at least from the military's standpoint, ensure that we can show signs of progress along those lines. 

 

                But I think it is also -- there is always a difference between the perspective in terms of timing in this country, and certainly in this city, and what's going on in the country.  And I think what's important to remember is, the president's decisions were only made at the -- on this strategy were only made at the very end of March.   

 

                Our new commander appeared on the scene in June.  We still do not have all of the forces the president has authorized in Afghanistan yet, and we still do not have all the civilian surge that the president has authorized and insisted upon in Afghanistan yet.   

 

                So we are only now beginning to be in a position to have the assets in place that -- and the strategy or the military approach in place to begin to implement the strategy.  And this is going to take some time. 

 

                By the same time (sic), no one is more aware than General McChrystal and certainly the two of us that there is a limited time for us to show that this approach is working, and certainly for the secretary of State and the president as well, because there is this broader element of the strategy that goes beyond the military. 

 

                But I would just say we are mindful of that.  We understand the concerns on the part of many Americans in this area, and -- but we think that we now have the resources and the right approach to begin making some headway in turning around a situation that, as many have indicated, has been deteriorating. 

 

                Q     And the Chairman doesn't --  

 

                SEC. GATES:  I'm sorry.  Go -- 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  The only thing I'd add to that is, this has been a mission that has not been well-resourced.  It's been under-resourced almost since its inception, certainly in recent years.  And it has -- and part of why it has gotten more serious and has deteriorated has been directly tied to that.  President Obama has approved the troops, approved the civilians that, as the secretary indicated, are literally in many cases just arriving on scene. 

 

                I talked about a sense of urgency, and I do believe we have to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint over the next 12 to 18 months. 

 

                I think the strategy's right.  I -- we know how to do this. We've got a combat-hardened force that is terrific in counterinsurgency.  And to listen to General McChrystal, he believes it's achievable, and I think we can succeed. 

 

                That said, it's complex.  It's tough.  We're losing people, as everybody knows.  And yet that's the mission that the president has given us in the military, and it's the one that we are very fixed on carrying out. 

 

                Q     And you don't feel that -- or you don't fear that Congress is going to -- how do you feel that Congress is going to respond to the resources request that may come? 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  Well, I mean, that's not -- that -- I mean, Congress will respond, you know, as they see fit with respect to that. I'm very aware of the debate.  You know, I'm in -- I'm raised -- I'm a Vietnam veteran.  I'm raised in a country that actually cherishes that debate.  That said, from the military perspective, again, we have a mission that we're doing the best we possibly can to carry out. 

 

                Q     You have -- Secretary Gates, you've said repeatedly in the past that you're concerned about the size of our footprint in Afghanistan.  But amongst -- in the middle of all this talk of urgency, of -- that we have to prove ourselves very quickly, are you changing your view on the size of that footprint as it becomes clear that General McChrystal's going to ask for more troops, perhaps as many as 25 -- 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm not going to speculate about what resources he's going to ask for.  I would just point out that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has nearly doubled in the space of the last year.  And I would say, giving due credit to our allies, the number of allied and partner troops has nearly doubled in the past year to 18 months.  So there has been a significant increase, a major increase, just in the last few months.  

 

                I have expressed concern about the footprint.  I have expressed concern, as the chairman referred to in his remarks, about impact on the force and other worldwide responsibilities.  By the same token, I take seriously General McChrystal's point that the size of the imprint -- of the footprint depends -- is more -- is -- depends in significant measure on the nature of the footprint and the behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans. 

 

                And if they interact with the Afghans, in a way that gives confidence to the Afghans that we're their partners and their allies, then the risks that I have been concerned about, about the footprint becoming too big and the Afghans seeing us in some role other than partners, I think, is mitigated.   

 

                But you know, I'm -- I'm very open to -- to -- to the recommendations and certainly the perspective of General McChrystal.   

 

                Yeah.   

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  Can I just add a couple of thoughts on that?   

 

                One is that he -- General McChrystal has placed great emphasis on reducing civilian casualties.  And they have been dramatically reduced.  He's placed great emphasis on literally how we travel throughout the country, in terms of being mindful of those citizens that live there.   

 

                And -- and those kinds of things that he considers strategic vulnerabilities, to our ability to focus on the people and to partner, as the secretary has described; he's made those changes since he's arrived.  And those were significant steps in the right direction.   

 

                Q     Can you talk about how this will work, General McChrystal's request or report to you, for troops, and whether he wants a troop increase?  Will you be presented with options?  Because I think in the end, if General McChrystal says, I need more troops, how can you turn him down?  Or just give us a sense of that and how this will be presented, in what way?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I -- I -- assuming that he makes some sort of a request, it would be my expectation that we would handle it very much as we have handled every other request for resources previously, in both Iran and Afghanistan, at least since I became secretary.   

 

                His recommendations or alternative courses of action would -- would follow the chain of command.  They will go to General Petraeus, as the commander of Central Command, who will offer his view.   

 

                That will then be forwarded to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chairman.  And they will evaluate it and add their point of view.  And I will then add mine and provide that to the president.   

 

                There will be a discussion in the interagency and a debate about the pros and cons of various things.   

 

                And I would tell you -- and I'll just use -- I'll use the Iraq security situation as an example -- a lot happens in this dialogue up and down the chain of command.   

 

                And I really do invite the chairman to add in when I'm done here.  

 

                When General Odierno came in with his original timelines on what he -- where he felt the risk was acceptable to him, in terms of when we would end the combat -- the presence of combat units in Iraq -- there was a dialogue back and forth between General Odierno and General Petraeus and between him and the chiefs.  And there emerged a consensus that we probably could take somewhat more risk than general Odierno originally had been comfortable with.  So that's how we moved from General Odierno's original proposal of December 2010 to August of 2010.   

 

                I expect if there is a recommendation from General McChrystal, there will be the same kind of dialogue that we have had repeatedly with respect to Iraq, in the chain of command and then as it moves to the interagency. 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  We sat earlier this week -- I mean the chiefs and General Petraeus and General McChrystal -- to really have that kind of dialogue and for us to really understand it from his perspective.  But at our level and at General Petraeus's level -- he's got a region. It's not just about Afghanistan.  He's got -- we have lots of troops in Iraq, and there are challenges and tension between those two theaters in terms of troop distribution.   

 

                And then the chiefs have a global responsibility that certainly includes the health of the force. 

 

                And so, that doesn't mean that General McChrystal or General Petraeus don't consider that, but that's really our responsibility to focus on that and to weave that into the overall discussion, and then make a recommendation based on how we see where General McChrystal is and how we see the overall mission. 

 

                And certainly, it's going to include risks, and risks associated with various options, you know, if we get to that point.  We're just not there yet.  We really are trying to understand both the assessment and then there will be a resource piece of this which will follow. 

 

                Q     Yes.  Can I just follow up on the footprint that Elizabeth was talking about?  One of them -- that was an argument that General Abizaid had originally in Iraq, and he's been widely criticized for that; that he didn't want a big footprint of American troops and didn't build up enough, or was worried about the footprint.  Have you thought about that? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  No, because, frankly, I wasn't here for that discussion.  But I will say this.  I think that -- 

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- take part in the Iraq war. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think there is a real mistake -- I think it is a real mistake to -- to compare Iraq and Afghanistan, and I see that at lot.  And I think that there are some -- there are real limits to analogies between the two, in a number of different ways.  For example, Iraq has had a very strong central government for a very long time.  That is not the case with Afghanistan.  And that is a huge difference between the two. 

 

                So again, as I told Elizabeth, I think that the footprint issue can cut several different directions.  I have been concerned about the size of it, and I would expect those concerns to be addressed.  That's one of the things that I asked -- when we were in Belgium, that I asked General McChrystal specifically to address. 

 

                Q     Well, then, Mr. Secretary, specifically on Afghanistan, then, what is the genesis of your concern about the footprint? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  History.  And as a number of articles have pointed out, where foreign forces have had a large footprint and failed in no small part has been because the Afghans concluded they were there for their own imperial interests, and not there for the interests of the Afghan people. 

 

                So how the footprint fits into this, as General McChrystal suggested, I think also has to take into account how the Afghan people look at that presence.  And if they -- and this has been my issue, something that I've worried about ever since I took this job -- first, that we weren't paying enough attention to Afghanistan, but second, that trying to figure out is there a -- is there a tipping point where the Afghans begin to see us as part of the problem -- a part of their problem rather than part of their solution?   

 

                I think that the way that the -- the approach that General McChrystal has taken in terms of civilian casualties and in terms of the way we -- our troops interact with the Afghans has given us a greater margin of error in that respect, because I think it does affect the way the Afghans look at our troops. 

 

                Q     And if the new -- could I follow?  And if the new mission is to protect the Afghan people, isn't that, by its very definition, very manpower-intensive? 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  It -- and it is actually General McChrystal's implementation of the new strategy that focuses so heavily on the people.  And it is clearly a requirement to be distributed throughout the country, obviously, where the people are, and then the need, as we build up the Afghan security forces over time, certainly to hand that off to them. 

 

                But it is -- it is very direct, very face-to-face, and I think we understand that.  He has made that literally job one for our forces since he's taken command. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah. 

 

                Q     I'd like to get your response to George Will's column, in which he says this week it's time for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan.  He says -- he writes, "America should do only what can be done from offshore using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces."  He goes on to say we should just focus on the 1,500-mile border with Pakistan.  Is it time to get out of Afghanistan, given your concerns about footprint?  How do you respond to that? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I have a lot of respect for Mr. Will, but in this case I do disagree with him.  I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan.  And I think that the notion that you can conduct a purely counterterrorist kind of campaign and do it from a distance simply does not accord with reality. 

 

                The reality is that even if you want to focus on counterterrorism, you cannot do that successfully without local law enforcement, without internal security, without intelligence.  And the way -- and General McChrystal probably knows more about counterterrorism than anybody in or out of uniform, and the way he has been so successful has been an iterative process in which we have killed or captured terrorists, exploited on the ground what we found and then used that for the next target. 

 

                The notion that you can somehow have a campaign that focuses solely on the border and has no interaction with local Afghans along that border or elsewhere in the country, for that matter, or assume that the status quo in Afghanistan would not -- that there cannot be a status quo in Kabul, that if you just walk away, that the situation there won't deteriorate, I think is unrealistic. 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  The only thing I'd say about the -- that kind of approach is, there's no way to defeat al Qaeda, which is the mission, with just that approach.  You can't do it remotely, and you can't do it from offshore, for some of the reasons that the secretary laid out. 

 

                And so again, I certainly don't think it's time to leave.  We've got new leadership, new strategy, resources moving in.  And I think this approach has great potential, but it's going to take some time to start to turn this. 

 

                Q     And just to follow up, the -- you talk about General McChrystal's concern about how U.S. forces are perceived by the Afghans.  

 

                In light of the revelations of what was occurring at the U.S. embassy with this guard group that was having parties -- photographs have now come out showing behavior that would be offensive to most Muslims -- what do you think should be done about that situation at the embassy? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I won't -- I don't think we have the information to be able to say what ought to be done.  But if those allegations are true, those activities are not just offensive to Afghans and Muslims; they're offensive to us and inexcusable.    

 

                Tony. 

 

                Q     Can I get your reaction to remarks yesterday by the Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin?  He suggested that Russia wants to be in the planning strategy of Afghanistan.  What's your reaction to that, given the history of Russia in Afghanistan -- or the then-Soviet Union in Afghanistan? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that -- first of all, I think the Russians have a very clear interest in the success of our endeavor in Afghanistan.  They're very worried not only about violent extremists but also the flow of narcotics into Russia coming out of Afghanistan. 

 

                The Russians have been cooperative and helpful, in terms of our northern distribution network.  And we welcome that.   

 

                And -- and I think that both on a bilateral basis and through the U.S. -- through the NATO-Russia Council, there -- there are ample opportunities for a dialogue and learning from one another.   

 

                Q     What about the ghost of history there, their invasion and obviously the sour note they left with the world in Afghanistan? Might that come back to haunt any Russian participation?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think -- I think whatever Russia's role on the ground, in Afghanistan, might be really is up to -- up to the Afghan government.   

 

                Yeah.   

 

                Q     I wanted to follow up on polling concerns, about perhaps falling public support and mounting concerns on the Hill.  One of the reasons that's cited for that, as you'll well know, is not just casualties but that there's still not a strong sense, among the American people, of what the mission there is.   

 

                The president has defined it.  But I wonder whether you all could speak to that and also whether General McChrystal's report this week shed any new light, in terms of what exactly the military needs to achieve in the next 12 to 18 --  

 

                SEC. GATES:  Let me address that and then invite the admiral.  I think that it's important to -- to keep our perspective.  The fact is that 9/11 represented the first foreign-based attack on the Continental United States, with significant casualties, since the War of 1812.   

 

                That attack emanated from Afghanistan under Taliban rule.  The Taliban did not just provide a safe haven for al Qaeda.  They actively cooperated and collaborated with al Qaeda.  They provided a worldwide base of operations for al Qaeda.   

 

                So it seems to me that we're in Afghanistan less for nation- building than we are in giving the Afghan state the capacity to oppose these -- to oppose al Qaeda, to oppose the use of their territory by other violent extremists, and for them to have that capacity that can be sustained over a period of time.   

 

                The reality is, terrorists lurk in a number of countries.  But the problem is manageable, because the governments of most countries are opposed to their activities and have the intelligence, law enforcement and internal security capabilities to sustain that opposition and to be effective.   

 

                It seems to me that in the context of the president's goal of disrupting, dismantling and destroying al Qaeda, we seek an Afghanistan that is our partner in that endeavor and that can sustain that endeavor after we're gone. 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  My only comment is that the intelligence continues to support that al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates, one of whom are the Taliban, very specifically still target this country, our people, as well as other Western countries.  That has not abated and it is not going to go away, based on anything that I've seen.  And what the secretary has described is they thrive in ungoverned spaces.   

 

                Q     During the Iraq debate, General Petraeus had been very effective and very public in testifying on the Hill, alongside Ambassador Crocker, writing op-eds, being a public face for the war. Two questions.   

 

                One, Mr. Secretary, do you think the administration needs to do more publicly to clarify what the message is and to keep kind of reminding skeptical voters by upholding the importance of the war?   

 

                And Mr. Chairman, do you have any plans currently for General McChrystal or others from that command to come back to the U.S., testify and try to serve as a public surrogate in the way that General Petraeus did during the surge debate? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  First of all, I think that the president's message in his speech at the VFW was crystal clear about what we're doing and what we're about.  I think that, clearly, press opportunities like this and other opportunities for us to talk about this and why we're in Afghanistan and why it's important are important.  

 

                I think, you know, all you have to do is look at the front page of any newspaper or turn on the television to see that Afghanistan right now, at least as far as the media and the government are concerned, are at the forefront.  There are a lot of people out there talking about this and debating the issue already in terms of the way forward.  And I think -- I think that -- I think there is clarity in terms of our strategy.  I think -- I think the president has described it.  I think I just described it.  And we will continue this effort as we go forward. 

 

                Last question. 

 

                Q     Ambassador Holbrooke has said that progress -- asked what progress would be in Afghanistan, he said, "Well, we'll know it when we see it."  Can both of you address more specifically, how do you measure progress on this goal of defeating or dismantling al Qaeda? 

 

                And as a part of that, is denying a safe haven in Pakistan part of this mission as well, or removing the safe haven that some would say is thriving there now? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, first of all, one of the most significant new elements of the president's strategy that he announced at the end of March was in fact recognition that this is a regional concern, a regional problem.  And the chairman has spoken often about the Pakistani part of this.  And he mentioned earlier in this -- in this press availability that this is a piece that is independent, really, of --  that this is not part of General McChrystal's writ, if you will, but it is certainly an integral part of the president's overall strategy and our integrated civilian-military approach.  So I think that -- I think we do take that into account. 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  And I mean -- 

 

                Q     Are we making progress? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, the administration has developed -- let me answer that in two ways.  The administration has developed measures of effectiveness.  Those have been shared with staff on the Hill.  They will be shared with members, when the members come back next week.  The deadline to have those completed is, I think, September 24th.  And those -- and my view has been, and I assume that it's the case, that those that are unclassified will be made public. 

 

                So one of the things -- and we have -- we started this ourselves; this is not something imposed by the Congress.  This is something so we can evaluate how we think we're doing and not keep rolling our goals in front of us, but in fact try and genuinely measure whether we're -- whether our approach is making headway or not.  And I think that that's a very important thing. 

 

                But I think -- I think that in this one respect there is a comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is, success is the Afghan national security forces assuming a greater and greater role in controlling and protecting the -- their own territory as we recede into an advisory capacity and ultimately withdraw. 

 

                ADM. MULLEN:  I would only ask to specifically -- or say specifically with respect to the safe haven, the current safe haven in Pakistan, I think the way we get at that is through a growing and sustained and trusted partnership with Pakistan.   

 

                And one of the ways I measure progress is if I look at Pakistan over the last 12 months and the success of their Frontier Corps, the success of their military in terms of its operations in Swat and the movement in that direction to address the extremists in their own country, and that kind of continuing pressure that eventually will provide security for their own people so that, in fact, their own people -- who now protect al Qaeda -- turn them out, and that applied -- sort of almost a pincer approach with pressure from the Afghanistan side.  And that's going to take some time to create that.   

 

                But I think strategically we know how to get that done. 

 

                Q     Thank you.

 

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