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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel en route to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
May 28, 2014

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Okay. Good afternoon. Obviously this will be on the record. The secretary will have a couple of comments to open up with and then I'll do the moderating. I'll call on you and we'll see if we can get everybody a chance. Thanks.


Good afternoon. John has already told you I think that -- unless you want to get into the next 10-12 days' agenda, I'll do that. But I think you wanted to stay focused on events of the day. So let me just make three overview comments about news today, yesterday.

First, the president's announcement yesterday on Afghanistan. You all know that those of us who have responsibilities for our role in the world, our security, our alliances, relations, have been working with the president on a final decision that would relate directly to you post-2014 Afghanistan role.

We announced that, as you know, in the president's statement yesterday. I think, our commanders think, General Dempsey has commented on this publicly, General Dunford, General Austin, others who had significant input into advising the president on this, think this is the right decision.

The fact is since certainly NATO Madrid 2014, America-NATO-ISAF's role in Afghanistan -- combat mission role, was going to end by the end of 2014. So that's not new.

We started then working from that point as to what was the mission post-2014, and what would that mission require in the way manpower, capability, capacity. It was to be, as the president noted, and we have been working on this the last two years, a train/assist/advise mission, as well as a continued counter-terrorism mission.

One additional point on this. It has always been the focus of the United States’ role in Afghanistan to help the Afghanis build their institutions, their capabilities, their capacities.

The object being to help the Afghan people build a free, transparent, democratic government, a government, a nation that is capable of defending itself, of supporting itself, and securing itself.

We can do that. We are committed to do that, as the president said, over the next two years. And what the president announced yesterday in the way of our manpower and what we'll continue to provide the Afghans in our partnership, we have the capacity to do that.

On the NATO-ISAF side, that is a very important element of this, as it has been. You know we'll be in Brussels next week for a NATO ministerial. This will be one of the central points of discussion.

There will be a meeting later in June on working through the specifics of NATO's contributions to post-2014 missions on the numbers. I think you are aware that Italy, Germany, and Turkey have all agreed to be framework nations in this regional approach for 2015 in Afghanistan.

And this will continue to also be a NATO mission. I suspect and I have been told by many of our non-NATO-ISAF partners that they want to continue to have a role in Afghanistan. So there will be a specific conference on this part of post-2014 after the NATO ministerial.

On the president's speech today, again, we, in the national security apparatus specifically, Department of Defense, our leaders, gave our input to the president as the president asked for input from all of his inter-agency leaders.

I think what the president presented today in that speech was a comprehensive, thoughtful, focused, clear articulation of what America's security interests are around the world, what our role continues to be, needs to be, engaged leadership, a point that, as you all have heard me make many times, a continuation of capacity-building, of capability-building with our partners in all parts of the world.

I thought the president's focus on threats in every corner of the world, and how we deal with those, with our partners and our alliances, the importance of those alliances, strengthening alliances, like NATO, and he mentioned other global coalitions and alliances, are also part of this.

And one particular point he made is important. That you don't lead with your military in foreign policy. The military is an instrument of power. It's an important instrument of power.

But our foreign policy is based on our interests around the world. It's based on who we are, international law. It's based on our standards, our values. And I thought he articulated that very well.

And I thought it was really a very, very good and comprehensive presentation about our foreign policy and our role in the world, and just as important, our continued role in the world.

On the issue of health care, let me start with DoD. I think John mentioned that about a week ago I started asking our leaders in the military about our hospitals, DoD's hospitals, about our facilities all over the world.

And I suggested that we think about this and come together with some concurrence within our military and our leadership of a thorough review of all of our facilities.

And we have many. I think we have 56 hospitals, each of the three services have responsibilities -- for those three hospitals, our surgeons generals of our services. We have clinics. We have facilities all over the world.

So I said we've got to focus on three primary things. One is access. Are our people getting what they need and when they need it? Are they getting safe attention and medical care? And is it quality? Is it consistently the high standard of quality that we commit to our military men and women and their families around the world?

These are big operations. They're imperfect operations. But this is part of leadership and oversight to assure -- and constantly assure, and reassure our people that we are doing what we need to do in order to fulfill a commitment we made to them in health care.

So yesterday I directed that complete review of all our facilities. Today I will be signing the formal declaration and directive with some specificity on that review. I met this morning with the deputy secretary of defense, and secretaries of each of the services.

In two cases, Secretary James and Secretary McHugh were both at their commencement graduations, so their undersecretaries were in attendance, as well as the undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Dr. Woodson, our assistant secretary for our medical affairs, and other key leaders.

And we spent some time this morning going over the specifics of that directive. I have asked the deputy secretary of defense, Bob Work, to oversee this, manage this. I want weekly reports on this.

We're going to start this immediately. We have timelines on each of these pieces. And if you want to go into more specific questions on this, I'll be glad to do it.

Okay. Questions?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. Lita?

Q: Mr. Secretary, in wake of the president's speech, can you talk a little bit about the U.S. counter-terrorism effort, about how many of those close to 10,000 troops do you think the U.S. will be able to devote to the counter-terrorism portion of the mission, a third, a half, whatever?

And how do you prevent Afghanistan from becoming another Iraq? Won't the insurgents just wait everyone out, wait until they leave and sort of regroup?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, on the counter-terrorism piece, we are working through those numbers. Obviously we want to work with our NATO-ISAF partners on getting their commitments on more specifics on what they want they want to contribute, numbers of troops, kinds of troops.

Then we'll make some decisions, all of us, on assignments, so that final decision on a breakdown hasn't been made yet.

On the question of how do you prevent Afghanistan essentially from unwinding from the progress as we transition to Afghanistan's full independence and capability, I would answer it this way.

First, the progress that has been made by the Afghan army has been remarkable, by any measurement, any standard, any metrics.

Now they are not yet where they need to be. But the tremendous progress that has been made is significant, because we're building with them, helping them build their own institutions and their own capabilities, their own capacities to deal with threats that will continue. We know that. That's first.

Second, that is truly the essence and the core of what our focus is going to be working with the Afghans in the mission, the objective over the next two years. To continue to help them make the kind of progress that they have made, they'll continue to make.

We feel, all of us who have some responsibilities, starting with the commanders on the ground who are closest to it, and we listen very carefully to our commanders and our senior officers and enlisted on their evaluations, what they think.

And they have great confidence in the kind of progress and capability that the Afghans have now, but will continue to build into.

So, you know, there are no guarantees in anything in life. But we are confident that the decisions that we have made and the decisions that we have made specifically over the next two years will help the Afghans get to where they need to be to support themselves, defense themselves, govern themselves, and secure their country for their future.

Q: Can I follow up on that? Are the commanders on the ground, though, not also concerned about the sustainability of the progress that has been made? And do you feel that this will be enough troops to keep them going in the direction they're going, the Afghans?

SEC. HAGEL: Our commanders do feel that the number of troops that the president announced yesterday is adequate, is the right number to address not only the sustainability, but more than the sustainability, we're going to have to do more, and add more, and help the Afghans more than just sustain, but build onto and strengthen what they have been able to accomplish.

And our commanders believe we can do that with the troops that the president announced yesterday.


Q: Mr. Secretary, do you think that is 2016 a hard out or is this going to be dependent on conditions on the ground? Question A.

And question B, the president spoke about the need for more transparency in operations, particularly ones led by the military. How are you going to put that into effect?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, as to your first question, I think the president made it pretty clear what our policy is going to be, what our focus is going to be in 2015 with the capabilities that we have committed to, which NATO and ISAF partners will make their decisions on their numbers by the end of next month.

So I think the president answered that, and what we intend to do and what our commitment is over the next two years.

As to the second question, the president mentioned again in his speech at West Point the transitioning to more transparency. He has made that a centerpiece of his presidency.

We're working through that now. We're working with the Congress on this. We're working interagency on this. And that's something that is as high a priority for the president as anything else. And he said that.

So we are doing that.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. Karen?

Q: Thank you.

I want to just follow up on the question of transparency. This was something that the president spoke about in his NDU speech last year, and has mentioned on other previous occasions.

Can you give us any indication of any progress that has been made? Congress says they're not being consulted, that they're still waiting for the consultation that was promised last year.

And separately, the president also spoke about increasing assistance for the opposition in Syria. Could you tell us what the military's role will be in that?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, as to your first question, we do discuss these matters with appropriate committees in Congress. These are not issues that we discuss. Our broad intel decisions are made for obvious reasons.

This is the national security of this country. We're talking about Title 50 issues and Title 10 issues. And let's not forget what this is all about. We're dealing with some very bad people in the world. Our first responsibility is the security of this country.

And how we best do that, as the president has said, where he wants to take this in a more transparent way, we are doing that.

On Syria, the president spoke directly, again, about -- mentioned some of the countries in that area, continuing to find new opportunities, Secretary Kerry mentioned this today, to work with the moderate opposition.

We're continuing to do that. Obviously our humanitarian assistance will continue in large ways. We're working with our partners in the area to strengthen their capacity; we'll continue to do that.

I think -- and another point that should be made here, and I know Secretary Kerry mentioned this in his remarks today, the success we've had so far not complete on getting the elements of chemical weapons, precursors, out of Syria.

That's a pretty significant accomplishment. And we'll get the other 8 percent out. That's working its way toward a resolution to finalize that.

So all of these things are coming together. But I would add one other thing in answer to your question. The president has made it clear, he made it clear long ago, that the answer in Syria is not going to be a military solution.

This is a complicated problem. And you understand the complications, not just in Syria, but in the region. So we continue to work with our partners and those who are on the border, to strengthen the moderate opposition, find new ways and new opportunities to do that.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. We'll do one more. Gopal?

Q: Mr. Secretary, two questions related to counter-terrorism. One, today the president mentioned that he was requesting Congress $5 billion for a counter-terrorism fund. What's the need for this fund and what will this money be used for?

And, second, and a follow up to Lita's question on counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, do you see that mission, the counter-terrorism mission continuing beyond 2016, even after all of the major U.S. troops are out of the country?

SEC. HAGEL: The president's announcement today on the $5 billion counter-terrorism fund, I think he mentioned that would be part of the overseas contingency operation, OCO, account that we have not yet requested a specific number from Congress. We wanted to wait until we had more specifics to give him.

But the use of that fund would be for counter-terrorism efforts around the world. As you know, the president made a very significant point, and went into some -- I think some extended commentary about counter-terrorism in different parts of the world, and how in many respects it is connected.

It's not isolated country by country. And we're dealing with networks, and not just regional networks, but global networks of terrorists. So this fund would be used to deal with all of our efforts on counter-terrorism.

As to your second question, I think, and I know the president believes this and has said it, and anyone who has been in this business understands, we're going to be living with terrorism for many years.

Now how do you build -- this is the essence of building capacity and strengthening partners and alliances and capabilities, how do you build capacity for not just the short term in dealing with terrorism, but for the long term with the sophistication that we're seeing evolve in terrorist networks, capabilities?

They get smarter too. So we're looking at both short-term and long-term capabilities. The resources, where are those resources going to be required? What kind of resources? Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, capability, people, agility of our force structure.

You've heard me talk about that. I talked about it when Dempsey and I and -- Marty Dempsey talks about all the time, our chiefs do. We've got to have a military that do our part, that's modern, that's agile, that's ready, that's capable.

And that all factors in to the larger scope of what the president in general terms was talking about today.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Take one more. (Inaudible)? And this will be the last one.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about Guantanamo, particularly given this force-feeding lawsuit that's under way right now. In February, the president of Uruguay offered to take in the detainees at Guantanamo who were cleared in 2010 by the inter-agency taskforce of which DoD and the Joint Chiefs was a part.

Why haven't you signed the paperwork? What's the hold-up? Particularly given that this detainee who is involved in this force-feeding lawsuit is one of the...

SEC. HAGEL: As you well know, the Congress assigned the secretary of defense the responsibility of notifying them of a decision to release detainees. In that decision-making process that I have a responsibility for, my name goes on that document, that's a big responsibility.

And so what I do -- what I am doing now, in the case of the six detainees that the president talked about in his news conference with the Uruguayan president, as well as other detainees we're looking at, I have a system that I have developed, put in place to look at every element of, first of all, complying with the law.

Risks, mitigation of risks, does it hit the thresholds of the legalities required? Can I -- as secretary of defense, with the responsibility of signing off on these detainees, can I assure compliance with all of those requirements?

There is risk in everything. So I suspect I'll never get a 100 percent deal. But what I'm doing is I'm taking my time, I owe that to the American people, I owe that to the president, to assure that any decision I make is, in my own mind, and by the standards that Congress gave me, that I, in fact, can certify and notify that this is the responsible thing to do.

And I'll be making some decisions on those specific individuals here fairly soon.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. See you when we get there.

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