MR. MORRELL: Hello, all. Good afternoon. Good to see you.
I want to briefly touch on the "don't ask, don't tell" review and the upcoming Iraqi elections and then offer an update on the secretary's calendar. And then we'll get to questions.
Later today Dr. Clifford Stanley, the new undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness; Jeh Johnson, the general counsel; and General Carter Ham will appear before the House Armed Services Committee to testify about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy review. This testimony is part of the secretary's pledge to closely consult with Congress on this issue.
Yesterday, as some of you may have seen, the secretary issued his terms of reference memo to the general counsel that establishes the intra-department, inter-service working group and will guide much of the comprehensive 10-month review.
The secretary has established a deadline of 1 December of this year for submission of the panel's final report.
Turning now to Iraq, this Sunday, as you know, Iraqis will vote in national elections for the third time since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, and the second time under the current constitution. These are the first national elections that are not taking place during a large-scale insurgency and widespread sectarian violence. This is an historic opportunity, and Iraqis recognize it as such. We expect participation to be broad across Iraq's ethnic and sectarian spectrum. What's more, unlike prior campaigns, no major political parties or ethnic groups are boycotting the elections.
The U.S. and international organizations, including the U.N., are assisting the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission as needed -- although, frankly, they haven't needed much. The Iraqi security forces have the lead in providing security. Our forces, of course, stand ready to assist them if called upon and in the event of an emergency. The bottom line is, this is the Iraqis' election, and all indications are that they are more than prepared to pull it off.
Now, I want to mention three items on the secretary's calendar. Earlier today at the Capitol, the secretary spoke at the memorial service for Congressman Jack Murtha. He told the crowd that he and Congressman Murtha worked together for over 20 years, and that he was saddened by the congressman's passing. Secretary Gates also said that he will always be grateful for Congressman Murtha's efforts on behalf of the men and women of America's military and intelligence community.
Tomorrow, the secretary will welcome to the Pentagon Gitte Bech, the minister of Defense for Denmark. She took over last month for Soren Gade. The secretary had an excellent working relationship with Minister Gade, and he looks forward to working closely with Denmark's new minister of Defense as well.
Tomorrow in what will be their first meeting, the two will talk about a range of issues including Afghanistan, where more than 700 Dutch -- pardon me, Danish troops are making significant contributions to the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission particularly in Helmand province. The secretary is thankful for their heroic efforts and sacrifices on behalf of the people of Afghanistan.
The ongoing work on NATO reform and updating the Strategic Concept, to meet the existing security needs and global threats, will certainly be a subject for discussion, as will ballistic missile defense, where Denmark has worked with us on upgrading our detection capability, in the region, as well as advocating for the recently announced phased, adaptive approach for European missile defense.
Finally on Friday, the secretary will meet with the United Nations special representative to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura. This will be their first meeting since Mr. de Mistura was announced as the new U.N. special representative to Afghanistan in January.
The secretary will express our continued support for strengthening the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and will discuss the importance of ongoing collaboration between ISAF, NATO, the NATO senior civilian representative and UNAMA.
And with that, let's go to questions.
Q What can you tell us about the status of the Nuclear Posture Review? And there's much discussion within the administration about whether or not the U.S. should be the first to use nukes.
Where does Gates stand on this? What does he advise the president?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I can tell you that we are nearing a final decision on the review. As I think some of you heard, the secretary actually briefed the president on it earlier this week, giving him an overview of where it now stands.
I think it is -- I'm going to be reluctant to go into really any detail, given that it is not yet complete and not yet ready to be rolled out.
I think it is safe, however, in calling it a transformational Nuclear Posture Review and that despite some of the press reports suggesting that there is interagency warfare over this review, I can assure you that that is just not the case; that there is interagency consensus, buy-in; and that there is strong support from the president.
But the bottom line is, it's not yet done, although it's close, and we hope to have something to release in the next several weeks.
Q Can you give us an idea, though, of what Gates's thoughts are on --
MR. MORRELL: I don't think it's appropriate at this time. I think this is -- this is -- this is all sensitive material. I don't think it's best to be discussed piecemeal. This is a comprehensive review. Let's roll it out in its totality, and we'll then be in a position to speak to its parts as well.
Q When are we going to get that -- when are we going to get those details --
MR. MORRELL: As I said, I think we're close, and hopefully in the next -- in the next few weeks we'll have something to share publicly.
Q Geoff, I would like to ask you about the attacks in Baqubah in Iraq. What's the -- what -- do you have any concern about these attacks? And do you think this building is reconsidering or is rethinking about its exit strategy from Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: Listen, we always have concern about violence in Iraq. This attack was particularly ugly. It -- I just saw the initial reports suggest that the bombers were dressed as police officers. They were targeting police stations. And one was so despicable as to target a hospital, where I guess he thought one of the police officials was at the time.
So no, it's disgraceful, it's deplorable, and we strongly condemn it.
And our hearts go out to the victims of this attack.
That said, neither this attack nor any of the previous attempts to derail the electoral process and to destabilize the government have been or will be successful, nor do we anticipate that it will derail our responsible drawdown of forces in Iraq. As you know, now we're below 100,000; we're about 96,000 right now. I think we're going to hold at about that level through the elections and in the weeks following so that we can be on hand to assist, you know, in providing for a security environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power.
But once that has been established, we are prepared to draw down dramatically to get to the president's goal of 50,000 U.S. forces on the ground come September the 1st.
Q I realize you said last week there's been no formal request by General Odierno for -- to keep a combat brigade in northern Iraq. Have -- can you -- can talk about whether there's -- whether there are any discussions under way?
MR. MORRELL: Listen, I really have nothing new for you on that subject. I mean, all I can tell you is that everything suggests at this point, despite the bombing in Baqubah, that we are on target to meet the president's policy goal of having us down to 50,000 troops in Iraq come September the 1st of this year. Everything is trending in that direction.
So it would -- it would take an extraordinarily dire turn of events for that to be something we were to consider. We are just not on that glide path. We are just not -- we are on the glide path to the drawdown as prescribed. We are not, we believe, headed in the direction of needing to keep more forces than the president has -- policy dictates past August.
So that's where I want to leave it right now, okay?
Yeah, go ahead.
Q On Afghanistan -- security in Afghanistan. Two-part question: One, as far as arrests of the top Talibans in Pakistan, you think now U.S. is after Osama bin Laden? Because I understand there's extensive research -- or search going on for Osama bin Laden. Now they believe he's also in -- somewhere where those others were captured.
And second, as far as security concerns in Afghanistan is concerned, suicide bombings are still going on, recently on Indian communities and hotels and all that. What kind of guarantee and security you think the U.S. military can give to those who are serving in Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: Okay. With regards to the first question, I'm -- as I've said several times already, I'm just not going to speak to particular captures or kills by the Afghan -- or pardon me -- by the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
With regards to our pursuit of Osama bin -- Osama bin Laden, it remains a high priority for this government, for this department in particular, for the intelligence services of the United States. That is -- that has been the case since 9/11; it remains the case.
With regards to the security climate in Afghanistan, if you're -- if you're referring, I guess, to the recent attack in Kabul, Kabul as you know is actually under Afghan security control. There are Turkish forces there in support of that mission. There are hardly any U.S. forces in that area except in the headquarters capacity.
Our forces are predominantly deployed to the south and to the east. And you give me the opportunity to laud the efforts of our forces and the Afghan forces and the coalition forces in Operation Moshtarak, which is now, I believe, in its 18th day and progressing extraordinarily well. We are -- we are basically in control of the entire Marja and Nad Ali areas. There are still pockets where we believe there to be some Taliban hiding out -- perhaps lying in wait. We are determined to clear out those pockets as well.
However, this is not a sequential operation, so there will be fighting -- although fighting has really diminished in most of those two cities, we expect the fighting will remain with us for weeks as we go about clearing those holdouts and -- but simultaneously, where the situation is now more secure, we are transitioning, as I mentioned last week, from the clearing to the holding-and-building phase.
I point you to the fact that the Afghan flag is flying over Marja for the first time in Lord knows how long. Markets are open; they're well stocked. Commerce is flowing. Displaced persons are returning to their homes. There is a greater sense of security. There is widespread participation in shuras. So things are trending in the right direction there.
I don't want to sound overly confident about things because, as I said before, there is still more fighting to be done, still more areas to be cleared. Undoubtedly, there are still more losses to suffer. And it's not just us. I'll point you to the fact that there was -- there were a couple of IED attacks in Helmand province this week which killed not American troops, not coalition forces, not Afghan forces, but Afghan civilians.
So it is clearly the intent of the insurgents there to try to undermine what is a burgeoning sense of confidence, among the residents of Helmand, in the security providers -- in the Afghan forces, in the Afghan government -- such that it is there at this point.
But I think we are trying to change the momentum, shift the momentum so that ultimately not even those attempts can dissuade people from supporting the government down there.
Q (Off mike.) As far as security is concerned, because they still I think need U.S. help -- (inaudible) -- Afghan security.
Do you think they are capable of handling all these security concerns?
MR. MORRELL: Afghanistan?
Q Right, and the U.S. is not changing any policy.
MR. MORRELL: Clearly they are not capable at this point of handling all their security needs, hence the fact there are soon to be 100,000 U.S. forces and nearly 50,000 coalition forces on hand.
That's why we are there. That's why we are making an extraordinary commitment, an extraordinary investment, in trying to build up the size and capability of their Afghan national security forces.
This is a long-term -- long-term effort. But what is critical to that effort is, just as we are doing things in RC [Regional Command] South and RC East, to change the momentum on the ground, we need to simultaneously be growing the Afghan security forces, as quickly as possible.
So it's a bifurcated effort. Both of them are very, very important. And we're spending a lot of time and energy on both.
Q Geoff, do you have any information on an investigation into the death of a Marine two weeks ago, in Afghanistan, possibly at the hands of some Afghan contractors who were employed by DoD?
MR. MORRELL: I think that the -- that ISAF can speak to the particulars.
I think -- I have heard of this, but I think they're in a better position to speak to the particulars. I'm just too far removed from it, Luis. Sorry.
Q At this point, I have a question about the liability of Afghan contractors within Afghan -- since we're talking about the Afghan security structure, obviously you rely on private contractors as part of that. Does this point to --
MR. MORRELL: I frankly am not familiar enough with the details of this incident to tell you what it points to or what it doesn't point to.
Q You're quoted in an article here by WLS, with many particulars. So --
MR. MORRELL: While I don't I think I had many particulars, I think I passed along what was passed on to me by the -- by ISAF, and I'm happy if I have them here in my book to recount them. Otherwise, I can try to verify with you afterwards if they accurately reported what I passed on from ISAF. Okay.
Q Have you heard from congressional offices --
MR. MORRELL: I have not. Not that I know of. Not that I know of.
Q And a follow-up on it as well. Today marks a milestone -- DoD updated its casualty count for Operation Enduring Freedom at -- to beyond a thousand for the worldwide counterterror mission. I think the count, as of today, stands at 1,003. Do you have any comments on that?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I would just point out I think sometimes it is misunderstood what that number represents. It does not represent the total number of killed in action or killed in Afghanistan, of course, where the number, I think, now is 925. It represents the entire OEF campaign, which obviously at times extends beyond Afghanistan.
That said, whether it's one or a thousand, every single loss of a soldier, sailor, airman and Marine is keenly felt by the entire military and by all those who work in this building and by all of our family and friends.
So no casualty, be it a thousand or be it one, is any more or less significant than any other. So our heart goes out to this -- to these losses, just as they much -- just as they did, and just as much as they did, to the -- to the first few.
And unfortunately, you know, we still have a lot more work to be done. And so they will -- that number will undoubtedly climb. And their service, their sacrifice and that of their families is enormously appreciated by us and, we certainly hope, the American people and the Afghan people.
Q Geoff, recently DoD IG [Inspector General] released some documents that indicated there may have been some unlawful monitoring of U.S. citizens. Is this something that this building is going to look at further, into some of those -- some of those cases?
MR. MORRELL: I'm just -- I'm just not familiar with the -- with the IG investigation you reference. I'm sorry.
Mike, do you have any?
Q Geoff, some of your colleagues across the river, senior administration officials, made it pretty clear that Kandahar was a target for coalition forces at some point this year. Do you have a better sense of timing of that operation, and precisely how challenging that may be in reference to Marja?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I -- clearly, Kandahar is the -- has been the spiritual heartland of the Taliban movement for years. It was basically the capital of the country when they ran it. It is a strategically important city within Afghanistan, and it is one that is occupied clearly by too many Taliban, too many insurgents. And so it will have to be dealt with at some point.
I don't think I'm the one who should be telling you or anybody else precisely when that will be, but I don't think it's any secret that it is on the to-do list for our forces in Afghanistan. It will likely have to be dealt with sooner than later.
I don't think -- you know, I -- we clearly, when it came time to the Marja offensive, made it clear when and where we were going to go. I think that will likely be the case for any initiative taken against Helmand as well. But I think it's best if that comes from my colleagues downrange, when they're ready to roll it out for their purposes. Okay?
Q Can I follow?
MR. MORRELL: Sure.
Q So in the Marja offensive, kind of a sudden operation. We've seen reporting to the effect that it might be a more gradual case in Kandahar. If we're going to announce where and when and all those details, that suggests that it wouldn't be a gradual move in Kandahar, it would be another sudden offensive like the one we saw in Marja.
MR. MORRELL: I guess I don't follow the logic.
Q That --
MR. MORRELL: We announced it, and yet it was sudden.
I don't know. Listen, regardless, I don't think it's appropriate for me to -- to be speaking about how fast or slow we are -- we are planning to execute it. I -- those are some operational details that I imagine we want to protect. And even if they are ones that we care to share, I'm probably not best -- in the best position to make that judgment. I'd refer you to my colleagues downrange and let them speak to you about how they want to discuss forthcoming offensives.
Yeah, go ahead.
Q Hi. Mike Evans from The London Times.
MR. MORRELL: Hey, Mike. Welcome.
Q All right. Thanks, Geoff.
Do you get any sense of the Taliban moving out of the Marja area and moving elsewhere? Do you get any sense that they are decamping somewhere where you'll have to deal with them in the future?
MR. MORRELL: I think, clearly, that a great many Taliban fighters who were residing in and around Marja fled in advance of the offensive. I think that's pretty clear. I think we knew that that would take place.
I think the foremost objective was not -- as we've always said -- was not to kill as many Taliban as possible: It is to protect as many people as possible. So if in announcing this operation many fled, that allowed for us to provide more quickly for the protection of the residents in Marja. So that was a good thing.
Clearly, some Taliban stayed and fought and died. And there are those who probably, as I said before, still remain, and they are going to be dealt with in due time. There is still more fighting to be done, there are more areas to be cleared, and that will take place over the next several weeks.
Now if they go elsewhere, I mean, obviously this is the beginning of a -- the year-to-18-month-long nationwide campaign, so it's not as though Marja is it and only it. There is more work to follow, and I don't think, at the end of the day, that there will be many places to hide.
But more importantly, it's going to become clear to them, as it is, I think, to the residents of Helmand, that the dynamic is changing, that the momentum is shifting, and that they want to probably reconsider sooner than later which side do they want to end up on. Do they want to end up on the losing side, or do they want to reconsider, lay down their arms, support the democratically elected government of Afghanistan and become a part of a normal functioning society?
Q A follow-up -- (off mike).
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q Where does this reintegration effort stand that you mentioned? There was an article in the Post on Friday about some of the Taliban fighters who were waiting; they'd laid down their arms but they were still waiting for the promises of government jobs to come to fruition; they were waiting on money. Who's in charge of that? Who's actually coughing up the money for this? And have we been successful so far on any of these efforts?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I would say that at the macrolevel, be it reconciliation or reintegration, this is an Afghan-led initiative. It is one that they are still working to develop an internal national consensus on.
I mean, obviously you've heard President Karzai talk about a forthcoming peace jirga, in which there could be invitations extended to the Taliban.
All I would say is that we are supportive of these Afghan-led initiatives. We stand ready to help them, in any which way they see constructive, because ultimately all these conflicts have ended not by capturing or killing all the enemy.
They've ended by a recognition on the enemy's part that there is no long-term viability in their movement, and they need to reconsider their positions. And at the lower level, what you're referring to, at the reintegration level, this is obviously something that our -- given the fact that our troops are closer to the situation on the ground -- that they are involved in -- we have work-for-pay programs, we have CERP [Commander’s Emergency Response Program] funds.
So each of these units that go into Marja, in Nad Ali and so forth, they are working with the State Department, with NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], to try to provide an alternative livelihood to folks who want to lay down their weapons and support the local government and ultimately the central government.
Q Can you give any indication of whether or not it's working or how many people have taken the military up on this offer?
MR. MORRELL: I think it's -- I don't offhand. I just know anecdotally that for example, the jirgas that have been -- that have been held thus far have been well attended, there's been vigorous participation, and that the programs nascent as they are that have been set up are getting good participation, and that people are indeed looking for work and looking for pay and looking for an alternative way of life to narcotics and guns for hire.
Q Geoff, if I could just follow up on my previous question --
MR. MORRELL: (Laughs.) He's regrouping on that.
Q You know, the -- these documents that were released by I -- DOD IG seem to be somewhat significant, including what seems to be inappropriate monitoring of, like, Planned Parenthood and such. You're not aware of the documents; do you know if they've been -- if the secretary was -- has seen any of these reports or --
MR. MORRELL: I'm not aware of them; how would I know -- how would I know if he was aware of them? I don't believe he's aware of them. I'm not aware of them. If you want to talk with me afterwards, I'm happy to try to get to the bottom of it. But I am up here armed with no information whatsoever on the subject you're asking about. So we can -- we can go around in circles on it, but I got nothing on it.
Q Well, who might be aware?
MR. MORRELL: I could be aware, once we talk offline. (Scattered laughter.) Mr. Whitman could be -- could be aware of it.
Oh, geez. Okay. Let's take a couple more, because I know that some of you guys want to get to the Hill, to this hearing. Justin and then Mike.
Q There was a report out of the Mideast, a media report -- I'm not sure if it's accurate; I want to get your take on it. It describes Ahmadinejad's meeting in Damascus last week -- late last week -- with the Syrian president and Hezbollah leaders as a, quote, "war council" to, you know, combat or counteract any attack coming from Israel. I wanted to get your take on that, if you'd heard that meeting described in that way, and --
MR. MORRELL: I haven't. And I frankly -- not to dodge another one, but it's really a question that's better addressed to my colleagues at State. I just -- I have nothing for you.
Q So a war council in Iran would be better addressed --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think President Ahmadinejad's travels to Syria and his meetings with other foreign leaders and what they may say in that context I think is probably, first and foremost, best addressed to the State Department.
Q May I ask a very sort of parochial question?
MR. MORRELL: Please. Wouldn't be the first. (Laughter.)
Q (Laughs.) There's still apparently an ongoing review of intelligence sharing between America and Britain as a result of the unfortunate legal case back in London to deal with former Guantanamo Bay detainees. I gather from -- earlier today from London that there is serious concern that this review may end up being a detrimental effect on -- to Britain. Do you get any sense of that?
MR. MORRELL: I don't. Listen, I don't know at a very high altitude what the status is of such a review -- if indeed such a review is under way. I certainly saw those reports months ago that you're referring to. I can just tell you, in a -- at a -- in a practical sense, at a much lower altitude, at ground level really, in Helmand, there clearly is an extraordinary amount of intelligence sharing that is going on, on a day-to-day, on an hour-by-hour basis, so that our forces and British forces are equipped with the information they need to be successful in their operations.
So every suggestion I have is that there is a close working relationship between U.S. and British forces on the ground in Afghanistan, and clearly intelligence sharing is a key component to that relationship. And as far as I know, there is a deep and abiding trust between our forces, our units, our commanders in Afghanistan. And I don't sense any tentativeness, any reluctance to share information, share intelligence, among them.
Q A question on "don't ask, don't tell." The Republicans on the House committee are saying that the study is flawed because it assumes from the get-go that Congress will change the law, which they say is not a foregone conclusion.
What is your response to that?
MR. MORRELL: Well, we've never -- we've never made that assumption. We have always been very explicit about the fact that it is the president's desire to repeal "don't ask, don't tell". And that desire is supported by the secretary of Defense, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
But it obviously is an existing law that would require legislative action, a repeal, to overturn it. So ultimately the ball will be in the court of the legislature, of the Congress.
Q Although Gates did say in his testimony, the question is not if, it's when.
MR. MORRELL: The question for this panel is, don't consider whether it's a good thing or not. Don't consider if this were to -- if this were to happen. Go about this from the perspective of, this is the president's desire. It is likely to happen.
We need -- we need to be prepared for that eventuality. We need to know more than we know now about what the potential impact would be. And we need to be armed with that information, so that we could work with the Congress, to help inform the process that they undertake, if they undertake it.
Right now we're not in the position to be able to offer any advice to the Congress -- on a legislative remedy to "don't ask, don't tell" -- if they wanted to pursue one. We just don't know enough about the impact.
So the secretary wants to take the next nine (months), 10 months and focus on figuring out the implications of a change in the law, for our forces, for their families, for readiness, for recruiting, for retention, for all the potential consequences of a change in the law.
Q But it does assume an eventuality. I mean, you said it yourself.
You said, "We see this as inevitable."
MR. MORRELL: Well, we're get -- we're getting a little cute here, because the -- this is -- this -- the legislature -- the Congress will determine whether or not the existing law is overturned, whether or not there is a repeal. All we are doing is preparing ourselves for that possibility and educating ourselves so that, if the Congress does choose to pursue a legislative remedy, we are able to inform that process in a more helpful way.
Q And so you see it as invalid, then, what the Republicans are saying, which is that when you asked them to go out and look at this, how it would impact the force? You're saying it is inevitable, and they're saying that that would -- that would somehow affect them and the work that -- (off mike).
MR. MORRELL: We are saying we want to understand what the impact of a repeal would be and be prepared for that possible eventuality. That's all we're saying.
At the end of the day, the president has made it clear: He wants to repeal this law, and clearly -- and as he said in his State of the Union, is going to work with the Congress this year toward that end.
The secretary, the chairman have come out in support of the president's efforts in his desire to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," but we are not in any way trying to circumvent the legislative process. We can't do it by fiat; the president can't do it by fiat. Ultimately, the Congress is the one who's going to determine what is going to happen to the existing law, not us. We just want to be ready and be helpful should they choose to take action.
Thank you all.
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