MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to see all of you here today. I'm sorry to keep you waiting.
Secretary Gates, as many of you may now know, has recommended, and President Bush has now approved, sending thousands of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan this spring. This extraordinary one-time deployment involves approximately 3,200 Marines. They will help commanders in Afghanistan build on the military successes of 2007. They will also retain the initiative gained during -- or the initiative, rather, during the 2008 fighting season, and they will enhance the training of the increasingly capable Afghan National Police and army.
The bulk of the additional forces, approximately 2,200, will be provided by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. In March the MEU will deploy to southern Afghanistan, where they will be under the command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or as we call them, ISAF. The deployment, which will last about seven months, fills a long-standing ISAF request for a maneuver force in Regional Command South. There the MEU will conduct full-spectrum combat operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda so as to provide the Afghan people with a safe and secure environment in which to rebuild their lives.
A Marine battalion consisting of roughly a thousand troops will also deploy to Afghanistan in April but under the auspices of Operation Enduring Freedom. That battalion will focus exclusively on the training and development of the Afghan national security forces. With the help of those additional trainers, the Afghan government will be able to accelerate the development of its security forces, which are already assuming the lead in many security operations.
This large influx of additional U.S. forces reflects our nation's steadfast commitment to Afghanistan security. As a member of NATO, we are doing our part to provide ISAF with the forces necessary to ensure the hard-fought gains of the past six years become irreversible. In the run-up to NATO's April summit in Bucharest, this department will work intensively with allies and partners to make sure all the outstanding ISAF requirements are filled and the need for future extraordinary deployments such as this one is minimized for us and for all nations helping to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan.
Finally, we would like to extend our condolences to the victims of yesterday's terrorist attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul. It is another example of how the Taliban and al Qaeda target innocent civilians in Afghanistan and why it is so important that the U.S. and our allies defeat these terrorists where they live.
And with that, I'll be glad to take your questions.
Q Just on the Afghan deployment, you're saying -- you mentioned that there's a hope that this minimizes the need for, I guess, future deployments, but when we were there, it was made clear that the commanders thought they needed 7,500 forces. Is there ongoing consideration that the U.S. would provide additional forces down the road, or is there to be – thought that this might promote additional resources from other NATO countries?
MR. MORRELL: Well, we've just announced the one, and you're already talking about additional. I think what we have to announce, we've announced. I think we've made it clear this is an extraordinary one-time deployment of additional forces lasting at a duration of seven months. So I think in terms of what more the U.S. is going to do, I've announced it from this podium here and now.
With regards to what hope we have that that deployment would influence our NATO partners to see how much deeper they could dig within their own resources to offer more troops to the fight, we certainly hope that us doing so will inspire them to do so.
Q But there isn't any suggestion from the commanders that this will meet all of their needs -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: The secretary has on many occasions identified or repeated the needs that have been identified to him by commanders in Afghanistan. The rough calculation of that is about 7,500 additional troops. We have gone a long way toward meeting that outstanding requirement with this deployment that we've just announced, an additional 3,200 forces. It is our hope that our allies in NATO and other partners who are involved in the efforts in Afghanistan will see what more they can do to add forces to bring down the shortfall that will exist even after we deploy these additional Marines.
At the very least we would hope they would take a serious look at back-filling this deployment after the Marines leave at the end of this year.
This is a seven-month deployment. They'll be getting there March, April depending on which forces we're speaking of, and they will be leaving around the end of the year. So one thing that would be helpful would be for our NATO allies to look at what they could do to backfill the fact that these Marines will be leaving at a set timetable, you know, roughly around the end of the year.
Q Do you know whether this MEU is going as a MEU with the package, with its own air and so forth, or not?
MR. MORRELL: That's a good question and maybe something you can -- we'll get you an answer on. My original understanding was that this was a MAGTF and it would have its own air and ground, but we can certainly get a more firm answer for you. I can tell you the MEU will be, as I mentioned, in RC South, therefore under ISAF command.
The Canadians are taking over there from the Brits in February of this year, so they will be operating most immediately under Canadian command in RC South. And as I mentioned, it's also a maneuver force so it has the flexibility to move wherever in Regional Command South that the Canadians deem is necessary to go after the enemy. I mean, this is a fighting force that will greatly enhance the capabilities of the Canadians and our allies who are down there taking it to the enemy.
Q Geoff, you mentioned that the Marine battalion will be under OEF. Is there any discussion of or, well, tell me, why are the trainers not under ISAF command? Secretary Gates has spoken out of his hope that that mission could be filled by allies.
Would there be more receptivity to NATO providing trainers if that mission was also under ISAF?
MR. MORRELL: If the trainers we were sending were under ISAF?
Q Well, I mean, aren't all the trainers under OEF, not under ISAF right now?
MR. MORRELL: And so what's the issue? I'm --
Q (Off mike) -- put them under NATO, why -- and why not?
MR. MORRELL: We announced that the decision has been made to put the trainers -- the thousand of additional trainers will be under OEF. They will be wherever -- I guess it's General Craddock deems them necessary to sort of fulfill the needs of the -- I think the primary function will be to train the Afghan National Police. They may be also involved in training the army, but their primary focus, as I understand it, will be training Afghan National Police. So wherever the need is most, they will be deployed there. I think they have the freedom to be deployed around the country to wherever they need to be trained.
Q Well, I mean there's --
MR. MORRELL: (Inaudible.)
Q Well, I just -- no, it's just my stupidity. But I just don't understand why that mission is also not part of the NATO mission, why that --
MR. MORRELL: Frankly, I don't know.
MR. MORRELL: I don't know. This is the way it's been detailed. I assume there is a good rationale for why the trainers would be under OEF and the fighters are under ISAF. We obviously want to maximize our resources. We're putting 3,200 in, but we had -- we're straining even harder to find those forces and get them there, so I assume we want to have maximum impact from those forces. And this is the way we think we can do it best.
Q Jeff, the 24th MEU was slated to be the CENTCOM theater reserve force. Does CENTCOM still want to maintain the theater reserve force? Will there be a replacement?
MR. MORRELL: There will still be a CENTCOM theater reserve force. This deployment will not impact Admiral Fallon's ability to have a reserve force on hand for any and all contingencies. So he will have that flexibility to deploy a contingency force, an emergency MEU, if that were to become necessary.
Finding these forces has been difficult. The Marines, I believe, have made a decision that they can, at least temporarily, continue this heightened operational tempo for a little longer to meet the needs expressed by the commanders in Afghanistan.
So they're digging deep to find these additional resources. Some of them were provided by the fact that we did not have to -- when we pulled out those two battalions from Iraq shortly after the Petraeus announcement in September, you'll recall that two battalions came out of Anbar, and that provided -- originally there were two battalions in the pipeline to backfill those battalions that were leaving Anbar. And without that requirement in Iraq existing anymore, it provided the flexibility to deploy those two battalions that were in the pipeline to use some of those forces to meet the need in Afghanistan.
So we are reaping the benefits to some extent from the success we have been seeing in Iraq. And if the drawdown -- well, let me just leave it at that.
Q Is there the potential that this deployment could also affect the seven-month tours down the road in Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: For these deploying forces?
Q For future deployments of Marine forces into Iraq.
MR. MORRELL: My understanding is that there may -- that these deployments may require a brief additional period of boots on the ground, but not -- but not much. Or we may be breaking a little -- we may be cutting down a little bit of dwell time. Let me get you the firm answer on that. I think it will require either us to have forces deployed slightly earlier, although not an unreasonably amount earlier -- an unreasonable amount earlier, but I -- I'm going to correct myself -- I do not believe they'll have to deploy any longer. These are seven-month, as I mentioned, deployments.
Q Will they be Marines?
MR. MORRELL: These are all Marines.
Q Is the break in dwell time -- (off mike)?
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: No, for all the Marines. This is just for the Marines in question.
New topic if we're through with this.
MR. MORRELL: Any more Afghanistan? Yochi? I'll come back.
Q The chairman had referred not long ago to Afghanistan as an economy-of-force mission. Does that remain the thinking, or does this indicate that there's a belief, perhaps a growing one, that economy of force is no longer enough to win in Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: No, Yochi, I think this reflects our desire and our ability to fill a long-standing, expressed requirement of commanders in Afghanistan. This is not any new thinking. This is a requirement that has been on the table for some time. Commanders in Afghanistan have been telling us and our NATO allies that they need these additional forces.
We are now at a point where we have the means to provide at least some of those additional forces. So I would urge you to sort of get off this notion that this is any sort of new -- that this reflects any sort of new thinking or new situation in Iraq (sic). These requirements have existed for some time.
That's why I take issue a little bit with this notion that -- of it being called a surge. This is -- I mean, a surge, I think, at least in the Iraq definition of things, was a plussing up of forces for an indefinite period of time. This is a plussing up of forces, and a significant one. It reflects -- represents about a 10 percent increase in our forces in Afghanistan. We're going to go up to -- from about 27,000 total to about 30,000 total, of about -- what will now be about 54,000 total allied forces in the country.
But this is for a very finite period of time. I mean, we've made it clear this is seven months. This is a one-time deal, and that's it. Beyond that, we're going to need our allies' help to either backfill this deployment or to perhaps match us in the numbers we're putting forth now, although I think on this timeline it's going to be difficult for them to do that. It's probably going to have to be more looking at what they can do to backfill down the road.
Q So it's a finite seven-month commitment, irrespective of conditions on the ground?
MR. MORRELL: That's what I'm announcing. This is a finite commitment of forces. It's going to last seven months. We're doing this one time. It's an extraordinary development. But it's not -- it does not reflect any new developments on the ground. It reflects our means and ability to meet what has been a long-standing desire of the commanders there.
Q But not finite because you hope that NATO will backfill?
MR. MORRELL: Finite in terms of what we hope to do, what we can and have pledged to do. Our commitment is finite with regards to this deployment. Okay?
Jeff, still on this?
Q Yes. Do you know if it's possible to say whether General McKiernan will replace General McNeill as commander of troops in Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: You know, we don't talk about personnel matters from this podium until they are official. It is perhaps the best parlor game in this building to sort of figure out who's going where and when and replacing whom, and I'm not going to get into that game from up here. But rest assured, Jeff, when there is an official announcement and there are any personnel changes, we will get them to you as soon as possible.
Q You had mentioned the two battalions in Anbar. Is it possible to find out, have they already left the country or are they slated to leave in the first six months of this year?
MR. MORRELL: No, those battalions left before Christmas.
Q Okay. We're (not/now ?) talking about the MEU and the battalions.
MR. MORRELL: We're talking about the MEU and the battalions.
Q Thank you.
MR. MORRELL: Yes?
Q Can you identify --
MR. MORRELL: Is this still on this?
MR. MORRELL: Okay.
Q Can you identify the battalion that's going over? And then, secondly, as far as the 24th MEU, is there a concern that by getting there in March that might be a little late? I mean, the spring offensive could start in March; you'd want them to be there a little -- for a little while --
MR. MORRELL: No, I'm sorry to interrupt. I think this a time to maximize our ability to take on the Taliban should they choose unwisely, I may add, to attempt a second spring offensive. So our planners have carefully considered when would be the best time to deploy these additional forces, and by getting the MEU in place in March, they believe it provides more than adequate time for them to be ready for the fighting season, which probably doesn't begin, I'd -- I'm not the expert here, but in earnest, until a little later, as the snows melt and the temperatures warm and traditionally the fighting has begun.
And as far as the battalion is concerned, I think we could get that for you, but I bet you the Marines are probably best equipped to identify precisely where those guys are coming from.
Q It's been reported -- (off mike) -- and is that correct?
MR. MORRELL: I wish I could help you. I don't know which battalion it is, but I'm -- it's announced now, so I think there may be more of a willingness of the Marines to identify just who is going. Okay?
Tom? Switching subjects -- everybody in agreement? All right.
Q Can you give us a readout on the secretary's meeting with the visiting Polish minister of Defense, in particular whether he was able to convey the government's newest positions or the basing question -- what they might require, what promises, what security guarantees and so on?
MR. MORRELL: I just -- that's one of the reasons I was late, I apologize. I was attending the secretary's meeting with the Polish Defense minister. I can report -- just want to give you a couple scene setters.
First of all, they met privately, the secretary and the minister of Defense did, for about a half an hour before sitting down to lunch with their advisers, which lasted probably another 45 minutes or so, Tom. I would describe their conversation in private and at the table as frank but productive. They had a discussion about a range of issues, whether it be the Polish government's plan to draw down forces in Iraq while plussing up forces in Afghanistan, to, of course, as you mentioned, missile defense, which probably took up the bulk of the conversation.
As you know, Poland is a long-standing, good ally of ours. We enjoy a special relationship with the Polish government and the Polish military. And it was -- the secretary conveyed our desire to continue such a relationship with them. This discussion was mostly focused on the fact that the new Polish government after taking office in November wanted to take some time to sort of review and assess what the previous government had done when it comes to negotiations on missile defense. They've now done that.
The Polish Defense minister is here, meeting yesterday with officials at the State Department; today here at Defense; I believe tomorrow in addition to some more defense-related conversations, they're going to be over at the White House for some NSC meetings.
But I think we are now at the point where we sort of -- they understand what the previous government has negotiated. They have some domestic concerns which they are trying to address, while at the same time we are trying to figure out how to work with them to continue to move forward on what we believe to be a program of vital importance not just for us but really for Europe.
And that's the key here, Tom. This is first and foremost -- putting a third site, putting these interceptors in Poland does far more to benefit Europe and our allies there than it does for us. And what we are trying to do is help people realize that this is not a unilateral negotiation by any means. This is not an issue between the Poles and the U.S. This is an issue for NATO. This deploying interceptors in Poland will provide NATO with the ability to protect itself from a missile threat virtually everybody recognizes exists today.
MR. MORRELL: Anything -- any follow-up, Tom?
Q Well, I guess I'm specifically wondering whether he laid out any new sort of demands or requirements for the U.S. to meet. When we left this last fall, they were sort of debating it. The government was thinking about taking it to parliament. The new government came in. As you said, we've heard some rather -- not pessimistic but some statements from Warsaw that they were going to slow down the process. So the --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, and those statements, I think everybody would acknowledge, are not helpful. I mean, it's -- proceeding with this process in as expeditious a manner as possible is to the benefit of everyone, including the Poles.
I'm not going to speak about anything more specifically they laid on the table in terms of demands, although it's my understanding the Polish Defense minister may have been having a gathering of reporters after his meetings. So perhaps he will articulate them publicly.
I just think it's worth remembering that this -- that we've enjoyed a special relationship with the Poles for quite some time. In fact, you know, we were instrumental in them becoming members of NATO. They are the biggest beneficiary within Europe of defense aid. Nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars under the Bush administration has been provided to the Polish military in military aid. That far exceeds any other country in Europe. And because of that special relationship, we believe that we can overcome whatever differences may exist on this issue very quickly.
Yeah, on this?
Q On this.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q So now that they've done their assessment and the minister has told the secretary what their assessment is, what's the bottom- line impact on the timeline?
MR. MORRELL: The timeline -- our timeline is as soon as possible. And I think we think the Poles recognize that it is better to do this sooner rather than later, provided we can address some of their concerns that remain.
So we are working hard with our folks here in policy and some of the other technical experts to address whatever concerns they have.
I mean, I think it's worth remembering also that during the Riga summit of 2006, NATO collectively agreed that there is indeed a growing missile threat to Europe and that the alliance needs to move forward through research and development to fashion a missile defense system. So this is something that has already been agreed upon. And assuming we work this out in a timely fashion, it will be to everyone's benefit, not just the Poles and not just Europe. Down that line would be America, but this is primarily for our allies in Europe.
Q And what are those concerns that you're working to address?
MR. MORRELL: I -- you know, I think if -- if the Poles wish to articulate any concerns they have, and I take it they have done so publicly before, they can. I don't think it's for me to announce them from up here.
Q Geoff, it's been more than a week now since the--
MR. MORRELL: Are we done on missile defense? (No response.) Sorry, Mick -- (inaudible).
Q It's been more than a week now since the confrontation on the Strait of Hormuz between the Rev Guard boats and U.S. Navy warships. Has the U.S. military or intelligence services been able to determine the origin of that mysterious, threatening-sounding transmission that was received on the bridge aboard the Hopper?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know, Mick, that anyone has pinpointed the precise origin of those threatening radio transmissions. I believe it's a question probably best put to the Navy. I presume they are working on just that. Although I also understand -- and my knowledge on this subject is rather limited -- that it may be an impossible task to figure out where a transmission over a common channel may have emanated from.
That said, I can't help but note that there is a fixation on what is really an ancillary issue to what happened. And what happened, the threat posed by those five Revolutionary Guard boats, was first and foremost not from the verbal threat that came over the radio transmitter.
The first and foremost threat posed by those boats was the fact that there were five of them, secondly that they were acting in an aggressive manner. The fact that the drivers ignored repeated warnings, from three U.S. warships peacefully passing through the Strait of Hormuz, and yet continued to behave in an aggressive way, going in and out of our wake in what we believe to be dangerously close to our vessels. And the fact that they dumped these white objects -- some have described them as boxes -- from their boats into the path of our boats. The combination of those factors first and foremost constitutes the threat posed to those, to our ships.
Now, simultaneous to that, as you mentioned, they get this radio transmission. That certainly adds to the tension of the situation but that in and of itself is not what was alarming about the situation. However it does go, I think, to point out that if it were, as some have suggested, a prankster or somebody who happened to be broadcasting this threat in the midst of this confrontation with the Iranian fast boats, to us, that illustrates all the more reason why the Iranians should behave in a responsible manner while they are interacting with our ships.
We do not want a situation where a mistake or a misunderstanding between us would somehow lead to an escalation of force, a situation in which either side were opening fire, and a full-scale military confrontation at sea. We do not want that so we are urging the Iranians to act in a responsible way when they are near our ships at sea.
Q Can you also explain why it seemed anyway that the U.S. military and Pentagon officials so aggressively pushed the events that happened on that Sunday, in the Strait of Hormuz, involving the Rev Guard boats and the U.S. warships? And there was seemingly no revelation about the previous incidents in December, in which warning shots were actually fired. Because critics claim it's a matter of timing, to coincide with President Bush's trip to the Middle East.
MR. MORRELL: That's absurd. The -- I will remind you that this story was leaked, to someone in the press, and broadcast.
It was not officially announced by anybody in this department.
Let me come back to your second point about trying to differentiate this incident from previous ones. But this notion that in any way this was hyped or -- this was in any way hyped is absurd. This was a cause of real concern internally because we had not seen Revolutionary Guard boats behave in this aggressive a manner in this number before, in combination with all the other things I just outlined -- ignoring warnings, dropping the boxes and of course the fact that there was a threat simultaneous to that added to the tension. The combination of all those things is what differentiates this incident from previous incidents.
Now, why this one was of such a concern that the CENTCOM commander thought it necessary to share with the secretary is -- he's the best judge of that. This is in his AOR; he thought this was an alarming situation that the secretary should be made aware of, he was. This was while we were still -- he was still on vacation, his last day before we picked him up in Washington State. This was brought to his attention immediately because the commander believed this one was of real concern. I believe he probably he thought was a real concern or of greater concern than the previous incidents, which I do not believe were brought to the secretary's immediate attention, because of the combination of factors I just went over.
Q But in this incident a week ago Sunday, the Hopper came very close, we understand, to opening fire in the direction of these Rev. Guard boats. Yet on December 16th, the commander of the Whidbey Island actually ordered that shots be fired in the direction of these ships. It had escalated beyond what the incident a week ago Sunday had come to.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, but I think, Mick, you're missing what I've sort of discussed here, which is that the totality of the situation -- I'm not familiar intimately with the Whidbey Island incident. I believe that there were fewer boats involved in the Whidbey Island incident. You can talk to the Navy for more precise numbers. Fewer boats behaving probably in a less aggressive manner, but keep in mind one thing: The key here is that the secretary wants -- and this is why he never after this said to his commanders, we need to review policies and procedures -- he wants his commanders to have the flexibility in the field to exercise their own best judgment, and he trusts, whether it be the Hopper or the Whidbey Island, that those commanders exercise their best judgment given the circumstances they found themselves in.
Q You have mentioned that some Marines may have to -- (word inaudible) -- dwell. Is it possible to find out how many Marines you're talking about and which unit?
MR. MORRELL: We've ended this conversation, so we don't take anymore questions on that topic, I apologize.
Q Have you ever -- (off mike) --
MR. MORRELL: We'll have to see, Jeff.
Q Okay. Thank you.
MR. MORRELL: I don't know.
Q Geoff, back to the Marines.
MR. MORRELL: This is really a question for the Marines. I mean, this is now out in the public. I think everybody would feel far less restrained in terms of their ability to talk about it on the record, so I would first and foremost address that to the Marines.
Q (Off mike) -- because I know announcements about brigade level and above come from the Defense Department, so that's why I ask you.
MR. MORRELL: I'm sorry -- announcements about -- specific units I think you can ask them now that it's out.
Yeah, anybody else?
Q Persian Gulf?
MR. MORRELL: Dave, yes?
Q I apologize if you've addressed this before, but back during the Cold War, of course, the U.S. and the Soviet Union operated under the Incidents at Sea Agreement, where there were regular consultations and, I believe, emergency fora where you could discuss things like this, where we could with the Soviets.
Does the department see the need for that kind of arrangement with Iran, so that these kinds of incidents don't spin out of control?
MR. MORRELL: Dave, I would --
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: I would say this. We want to do whatever is necessary to avoid any and all misunderstandings, miscalculations, mistakes. So first and foremost, the best way to avoid that is, let's all behave in what is a commonly acceptable -- accepted, rather -- manner, a responsible manner. That's the first way to avoid that.
Now, is there a need for additional communication between the two militaries? If that's a need, I presume we will look into that. But I think that it is our desire to do whatever it takes to avoid any possible misunderstandings that could lead to an escalation of force.
Okay. Anybody else? Anything? That's it? Joe? Nobody? Okay. Thank you all.
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