DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon
SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. As you expect, I have some opening comments about the change of command in Afghanistan.
First, I fully support President Obama’s decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Like the president, I deeply regret the circumstances that made this decision necessary. General McChrystal is one of the finest officers and warriors of his generation, who has an extraordinary record in leading the fight against some of this country’s most lethal enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was this and -- these and other qualities that led me to recommend him for the ISAF command last year.
But like the president, I believe the poor judgment exercised by General McChrystal with regard to the Rolling Stone profile has made his continued service in that post and as a member of the national security team untenable. The statements and attitudes reported in the news media are unacceptable under our form of government and are inconsistent with the high standards expected of military leaders.
As I said Tuesday, our troops and coalition partners are making extraordinary sacrifices in the fight against al Qaeda and its extremist allies. Our singular focus must be on succeeding in this mission without distraction or division. I’m confident we will be able to achieve this goal in Afghanistan under the command of General David Petraeus, who the president is nominating to become the new ISAF commander.
As I’ve said before, General Petraeus has already established himself as one of the great battle captains in American military history. His judgment, intellect and proven record of success as a theater commander in Iraq make him the right choice to lead the military coalition in Afghanistan.
This mission is, of course, an international effort. We continue to value the contributions and views of our NATO allies and partners. And they support the appointment of General Petraeus.
No one -- be they adversaries or friends, or especially our troops -- should misinterpret these personnel changes as a slackening of this government’s commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. We remain committed to that mission and to the comprehensive civil-military strategy ordered by the president to achieve our goals there.
My primary concern over the past few days has been to minimize the impact of these developments on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. The president’s decisions fully and satisfactorily address that concern. This is the best possible outcome to an awful situation.
I would close on a personal note. General McChrystal and many of his immediate staff have served and protected this country in combat with great courage, valor, skill and devotion for many years. Their outstanding record of service remains intact for posterity, and is deserving of our lasting recognition and profound gratitude.
Finally, General Petraeus’ willingness, with virtually no advance notice, to accept this new challenge is testimony yet again to his extraordinary patriotism and character. It would have been easy to remain a Central Command commander, and to rest on his well-deserved record of success in Iraq. And yet, when the commander in chief asked, he once again saluted and accepted this new challenge.
Three years ago, General Petraeus described our effort in Iraq as hard, but not impossible. This also describes the challenge facing us in Afghanistan, and I am personally, deeply grateful to him for agreeing to return to the battlefield.
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
I, too, fully support the president’s decisions yesterday, both to accept General McChrystal’s resignation and to nominate General Petraeus as the next commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
General McChrystal is a friend. He’s a fine soldier and a good man. And he has served his country nobly and with great distinction for more than three decades, much of that last decade at war. He led men in places the rest of us could not follow, and he fought men in ways the rest of us could not fathom.
I was proud one year ago to support him for the Afghanistan command. And I think it’s worth noting his strong leadership and the foundation he has laid for future success there. But I cannot excuse his lack of judgment with respect to the Rolling Stone article or a command climate he evidently permitted that was at best disrespectful of civilian authority.
We do not have that luxury, those of us in uniform. We do not have the right, nor should we ever assume the prerogative, to cast doubt upon the ability or mock the motives of our civilian leaders, elected or appointed. We are and must remain a neutral instrument of the state, accountable to, and respectful of, those leaders no matter which party holds sway or which person holds a given office.
I think it is vital for us to remember that if we lose their trust and confidence for any reason, it’s time to go. The job we are called upon to do for the nation is too important, the lives we are sworn to protect too precious, to permit any doubt or uncertainty in that regard. General McChrystal did the right thing by offering to resign.
I think it is also critically important for us to remember the mission yet before us. There is still a war to be won.
As the secretary indicated, our focus must be on succeeding in this mission, especially as we complete the force buildup in Afghanistan and continue our efforts in Kandahar.
Indeed I travel tonight to Afghanistan and then on to Pakistan. I will meet with military and civilian leaders in both countries and spend a little time with our troops.
My message will be clear. Nothing changes about our strategy. Nothing changes about the mission. And nothing changes about the resources we are dedicating or the commitment we are making to defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies in the region. We cannot lose the momentum we have, together with our partners, allies and friends, worked so hard to achieve.
I look forward to working with General Petraeus, a man already well-heeled in leading this war, as he gets through the nomination process and prepares to lead it now from Kabul.
SEC. GATES: Anne?
Q Question for both of you, please. Each of you has responsibility for the tone and conduct of civilian-military relations, and General McChrystal was your handpicked choice to run the war. Is what happened here in any way a failure of management and oversight on your parts?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don’t feel so. First of all, I would say that in the three-and-a-half years that I’ve been in this position, I have not felt any tension or issues with respect to my relationship with our uniformed leaders or people in the ranks. This was the first time that I think in this kind of way we had seen this kind of problem.
There were concerns about General McChrystal’s comments in a Q&A session in London last fall. That was discussed with him at the time.
So I think that from my standpoint, this is an anomaly, not a systemic problem.
ADM. MULLEN: I recommended -- I strongly recommended General McChrystal to the secretary of Defense and the president, to assume this job. And so certainly from my vantage point, I feel some responsibility here.
That said, General McChrystal has been given guidance from here, from CENTCOM and certainly from the president that’s been very clear. And I have an expectation that a commander, certainly someone with four stars and this kind of responsibility, follow that guidance.
As I said in my statement and I think as has been evident in the last few days, he really committed a significant error in judgment. And the president rightfully so relieved him for that.
I am -- not just now but part of what I have been focused on, since I’ve been the chairman, is to make sure that there’s no question about the neutrality of the military, the apolitical aspect of the military, and the need to keep that in mind in absolutely everything we do.
He is a friend. He’s an extraordinary officer. He made a severe mistake. And I think the actions that were taken were appropriate.
Q Mr. Secretary, was McChrystal able to explain to either of you what he was thinking when he did this?
What was his purpose in allowing a reporter that access and making those kinds of comments in front of him?
SEC. GATES: Well, we can -- we can both address that. But I think we have the same answer, and that is, he really, in my meeting with him, didn’t try to explain it. He just acknowledged that he had made a terrible decision.
Q Can you talk about that at all, though -- what you think the breakdown was? Can you explain why a four-star general would make comments like that and what happened? You both know him so well. And people keep asking: What was he thinking?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I mean, I would limit my comments to what the secretary said. I’ve certainly spoken with General McChrystal many times since that article hit the street. But the -- it really is in the category of someone who knows he made a grave mistake. There’s nobody that feels worse and understands the gravity and the responsibility and the accountability better than Stan McChrystal. So in terms of the details of it -- and even to David’s question, it isn’t something that I -- you know, I really went through with him in detail -- he knew it was done. We needed to hold him -- the president held him accountable, and we need to move on. The most important part of this whole issue is the mission.
Q But does it baffle you -- (off mike)?
Q Gentlemen, can I follow up on Anne’s question, just addressing your role? You have both now recommended two gentlemen, two officers to be commanders in Afghanistan who had to be relieved. Can you address the issue of what this says about your judgment in this matter, and whether you are thinking about reevaluating the way you select officers for command?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, and I -- this is -- this is primarily my responsibility, because I made these recommendations to the president. And I think that the decision that I made a year ago or two years ago, to recommend General McKiernan -- it may have been longer than two years ago -- frankly was -- was at a time when the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan was -- was not yet as clear.
And by last summer, by a year ago, it was clear that we were in a very difficult fight and that -- and I came to have concerns that we did not have the right strategy for going forward. And therefore the decision to recommend that General McKiernan be relieved.
It seemed to me that between -- that General McChrystal’s background -- particularly in special operations, counterterrorism operations -- and his familiarity with counterinsurgency doctrine made him a logical choice, in terms of the kind of fight that we are in -- in Afghanistan.
Personally I believe that had it not been for this article and this serious lapse in judgment, General McChrystal would still be there and executing the strategy and the campaign plan that -- the strategy the president decided on and the campaign plan that McChrystal developed to implement it.
So I think that this unfortunate circumstance this week has virtually nothing to do with the conduct of the campaign in Afghanistan on General McChrystal’s part but rather exactly the reasons that the president articulated and that we’ve both talked about today.
I don’t know if you want to add anything.
ADM. MULLEN: One of the most difficult things we do -- I do -- and I’m actually fairly comfortable including the secretary in this -- is pick people. And it is not anything we take lightly. We spend an extraordinary amount of time on it. It’s not by any means our personal opinion; vet it with an awful lot of people.
Obviously, I knew Stan McChrystal very well because he worked for me for a year here. I had known him in combat in Iraq. I knew his background and what his focus was. And -- which was the reason that I recommended him -- strongly recommended him. And certainly, as I said earlier, you know, have responsibility in that regard as well and understand that.
There’s also part of this that when selected, when put in a position, there’s an expectation in terms of execution across the board, along the lines of every area of your responsibility. And I think General McChrystal certainly -- understood that and understands it. And again, it’s back to a significant error in judgment, and as far as I’m concerned, the appropriate action and outcome.
Q For both of you, two things. What does it say about the bench strength of the general officer corps now that you could only turn to General Petraeus and essentially demote him because he’s the only one really capable of doing this job? And you have two generals now, McChrystal and Petraeus, who have been out in the field for years continuously, far more than anyone else.
Are these men being left out there just too long? Do you need to strengthen your bench?
And in terms of General Petraeus, does he have any flexibility, in your mind, to make any changes in the strategy on the ground, if you will, the rules of engagement on counterinsurgency -- air strikes, ground raids, the kinds of things that McChrystal had put into place?
SEC. GATES: First of all, he -- I would add General Odierno to the list of those who have served a long time.
I go back to my opening statement, in terms of why General McChrystal was -- why General Petraeus was asked to do this. My greatest concern was that somebody who came new to this fight in a -- in a leadership role, who did not have a personal relationship with key Afghan figures -- not just President Karzai, but the minister of defense and the head of their military and so on -- who did not have the kind of relationships with the Pakistani military leadership, somebody who would -- who did not have familiarity with the campaign plan and the operations going on in Afghanistan, who did not know the brigade commanders and the generals who are in charge of training and so on -- somebody who did not have those assets I worried would take months to get up to speed.
And so, of course, there are other generals that we could have chosen, and we talked about other generals. But my concern was that we not lose time, and that we not lose focus during a transition period. And it was evident that there was only one general officer who was in the position to move in with hardly a missed beat, and take on and continue with this campaign.
Now the president has established the strategy, but from my perspective, General Petraeus will have the flexibility to look at the campaign plan and the approach and all manner of things when he gets to Afghanistan, assuming Senate confirmation.
ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I’d add, Barb, is the -- is the benches -- bench strength is something I pay a lot of attention to, and when you look at the number of general officers and particularly who have now commanded in combat over the course of the last several years, that that bench is much deeper and stronger than it was and, I think, portends very positive strength in the future.
Q Can I just clarify something? You -- I mean, you’ve both have heard and know that some of the troops out in Afghanistan are concerned about the rules of engagement, feel they’re being asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back, given the rules of engagement on the ground and in the air. Are you satisfied that those rules should stay in place? Do you want to see them changed? Does General Petraeus have the flexibility to change them?
ADM. MULLEN: Any new commander, General Petraeus included, will go in, assess his command and what it is going to take to achieve the mission and certainly has the flexibility to make changes that he thinks are necessary.
And so my expectation is, certainly that’s what General Petraeus will do widely and make adjustments. Specifically, he’s very aware of the issue of civilian casualties. He’s very aware of the tactical directive. I mean, he was involved in approving it. So now he will be on the ground to see how it’s being executed and make decisions or make changes that he would think would be appropriate in his -- in his assessment as he takes command.
But that does not necessarily portend changes. I just don’t know.
Q General Petraeus is credited of course with the successful surge operation in Iraq. Does that strategy in Iraq translate at all to the operations there in Afghanistan?
And for you, Admiral, you said that this change in leadership signals no change in strategy. But given the fact that the operations already under way have bogged down somewhat, and the offensive in Kandahar has been put off, should there be a change in strategy?
ADM. MULLEN: I’d just reiterate what I said. The strategy hasn’t changed in one -- in any way, and --
Q But should it?
ADM. MULLEN: Nor has the policy.
And we clearly are at an enormously difficult time in the execution of the strategy. At the same time, a third of the force that the president approved last December isn’t there yet.
We’ve made progress in Marja specifically. It hasn’t been unopposed. We recognize that. But there are things going on in Marja that weren’t going on several months ago with markets open, schools open, actually local leaders coming out.
That doesn’t mean the Taliban isn’t intimidating. And this is -- this is classic counterinsurgency. We haven’t put off the operation in Kandahar. And in fact, there are shaping operations there.
There -- again it’s an enormously complex operation. We understand that. We need to make sure we get the forces there to execute that, which -- a significant part of this last 10,000 will be included in that.
And in any operation, you make adjustments.
I had felt for many months it was going to be the end of the year before we really understood where we were in Kandahar. There’s a lot of work going on right now to execute that operation. And it involves not just the security side, the military side: It involves the ANSF piece, the governance piece, the corruption piece, all of which we’re putting in place. But it -- I do not want to underestimate or understate the challenge.
SEC. GATES: But I -- but I would say this. I do not believe we are bogged down. I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated. But for all the reasons the chairman just articulated, I think we are moving forward. The Kandahar campaign has, in fact, been under way for several weeks. And what General McChrystal was talking about when he talked about delay was to take more time to set the political framework around Kandahar before proceeding.
I spent probably 35 minutes alone with the president Tuesday afternoon discussing the situation with General McChrystal. And one of the central themes there was what I -- in that conversation was what I described in my opening statement that -- my concern that however we proceed that we minimize the impact of any change on the conduct of the war. I will tell you that it was the president’s idea -- it was the president who first raised Petraeus’ name. And it immediately, to me, answered a lot of the concerns that I had.
And then the admiral and I talked about it further Tuesday night, and then we talked about it more with the president yesterday morning. But I think we are headed in the right direction. And, like the chairman, I would not underestimate the challenge in front of us. I used Petraeus’ own phrase: hard but not impossible. But the key was that we not lose our focus and be further distracted for a period of months. And that’s why the selection of General Petraeus was so important, in my view.
Q Isn’t there an inherent contradiction between the idea of, you know, no changes at all, but also bringing in a commander who has the right to make changes? And what kind of message does it send to the Taliban that there’s such internal disarray in the U.S. armed forces that there needs to be this major change in command?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I don’t think there’s disarray in the United States armed forces. And the Taliban would be making a very serious mistake if they thought that, if they drew that conclusion from this.
What we have had is a decision that challenged the civilian leadership of the military, and the president’s decision to address that. We have followed it, literally within hours, with the selection of a successor commander. The overall strategy stays the same. But obviously a new commander is going to look and see if there are tactical things and approaches that he is going -- he may want to adjust. That doesn’t change the strategy; the president was very clear about that yesterday.
Q When you first read the piece, both of you, did you immediately conclude that it was insubordination that required relieving of the commander? And, you know, what -- most of these quotes are from aides. There are -- there is maybe the one quote about Eikenberry from General McChrystal.
He did not -- and they’re -- and they’re anonymous quotes. What about this was -- that McChrystal himself did that was so bad to warrant being relieved of office? And did you immediately conclude that he needed to be relieved of duty?
ADM. MULLEN: Honestly, when I first read it, I was nearly sick. It made me -- literally, physically. I couldn’t believe it. So I was stunned.
Secondly, General McChrystal is responsible for his people, and he has every bit as much responsibility for what was in that and what his people said as the individuals who said it. And the accountability that goes along with that -- and General McChrystal understands that completely, reflected by the fact that he offered his resignation.
So it was -- and then -- and then in the, obviously, essence of it, it was clear that it challenged civilian -- that there was in its -- in its totality, it challenged civilian control, which is a fundamental principle for us that is not challengeable. It wasn’t; it isn’t; and it won’t be in the future. And that’s why the action was taken.
Q I have one other question. Are you worried about the fallout from the McChrystal controversy; that military media relations -- which is always fairly tenuous to begin with, always full of tension -- will deteriorate; that officers won’t want to engage because they’ll say, “Hell, see what happened to McChrystal? He’s on the cover of Rolling Stone.” What do you tell that kind of mindset about the need to engage the press? I mean, is the press to blame in this case?
SEC. GATES: Not at all, in my view. General McChrystal has the responsibility for this. And I think that to let it impact the relationship I have with the press would be a mistake.
I have communicated the message ever since I got to this job, to both civilian and military leaders, that the press is not the enemy. And when there is a story that is critical, the first thing to do is to go out and find out if it’s true, and if it is, then do something about it, and if it’s not, gather the data to show that it’s not true, but don’t get into a defensive crouch. And I hope that people won’t do that.
I think -- I think that people clearly need to make smart decisions about how they engage, the circumstances in which they engage, what they talk about. And there is, in my view, a need for greater discipline in this process on our part and a greater understanding that somebody who is giving an interview in Europe may not understand that something they’re saying has an impact in Asia. And so we need to -- we need to be a little smarter about how we approach this. But I would say those are improvements that are needed on our part.
Q Can you explain to us --
Q You said earlier that you thought that this episode had virtually nothing to do with the strategy, but some people have suggested that the tension that came out from this episode may have something to do with the fact that the generals on the ground feel enormous pressure to show progress quickly -- we talk about the July 2011 date for beginning of withdrawal -- but to show progress very quickly in a counterinsurgency, which by definition is a long-term effort. What do you say to that?
I mean, you know, some people in this building will say that, that there is some inherent tension in the strategy itself that may have flowed out in that article.
SEC. GATES: The position that I have taken all along is that what we want to make sure is that in fact we do have the right strategy. But it also requires giving the effort enough time to be able to demonstrate whether or not it’s working.
We’re not asking for victory by December or by July of 2011. We’re not asking that Afghanistan be stabilized 13 months from now. What we are asking is that by December, we have enough evidence to demonstrate if you will the proof of concept that the approach that we’re taking is showing progress and that we’re headed in the right direction.
So I think the expectations on the civilian side are realistic and that we are -- and I’d let the chairman speak to this. But the reality is that at every step of the way, the military was deeply involved in the development of the president’s strategy and signed on to the president’s strategy.
ADM. MULLEN: Completely.
And from the standpoint of July 2011, the need to make progress by December and in that review look at the strategy and really validate that it’s the right strategy and clearly if not, from the military’s perspective, be able to make recommendations that it might change.
SEC. GATES: Now -- sorry.
ADM. MULLEN: But that would not -- which we’ve always got.
But that -- we’re not there. We’re not to July 2010 yet. There’s a lot to do between now and the end of this year. And then to get to a point where we start to return those -- some of those surge troops -- based on conditions on the ground, numbers, places -- we’re not even close to understanding that at this point. It’s too early.
And getting there using this strategy, with everything we understand right now, is still the right decision.
SEC. GATES: Now, mindful of the chain of command, my boss is going to have a press conference with Russian President Medvedev in about 10 minutes, so we have to dance out of here. But I think we have time for two quick questions.
Q Sir, you mentioned earlier about the importance of unity of effort and a political solution in Afghanistan. And yet, the chief U.S. envoy there, Ambassador Eikenberry, in that leaked memo, suggested that he didn’t back the strategy that the president is embracing. And there is -- there is still a lacking political solution.
My question is, was there any discussion about changing the U.S. envoy there? Do you have confidence that this strategy can succeed with Eikenberry there, given the friction that’s been in place already that the general’s spoken about between the military and the -- and the diplomatic leadership there?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, those cables were written better than six months ago -- almost seven months ago. A lot of water’s gone under the bridge since that time.
With respect to the civilian side, first of all, that’s out of our lane here. I -- but I would tell you that the -- my view all along is that the opportunity for a political solution in Afghanistan and for a reconciliation will only come when the momentum of the Taliban has been reversed and they see that the chances of their being successful are diminishing day by day.
And so I think that -- in that context, I think we all are cognizant of the importance of reintegration and reconciliation as part of the end of this process.
My view is the Taliban need to suffer more reverses before that can happen.
Q Mr. Secretary, talking about time lines, General Petraeus last week said that, in a perfect world, he has serious concerns about time lines, as many in the military do. Going forward, do you -- do you question his commitment to that? And might it come time in December or next summer when he says we need more troops? What do you do at that point?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- and we’ll both take a crack at it and end.
But first of all, General -- General Petraeus absolutely agrees with the president’s strategy. He agrees with the December review, and he agrees with the timeline to begin a drawdown in July of 2011 that is conditions-based.
When he gets on the ground, he will assess the situation for himself. And at some point, he will make recommendations to the president. And that’s what any military commander should do. And the president will welcome those recommendations.
But at the end of the day, the president will decide whether changes are to be made in the strategy. But I would tell you, as a going-in proposition, we are all on board for beginning this process of -- this gradual process of drawdown in July of 2011. That is the president’s decision, and that decision stands as far as all of us are concerned.