Media Roundtable with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. The chairman just got back from a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he'll lead off today. And then we'll take your questions.
ADM. MULLEN: Good afternoon. I actually had good trips to all three countries and different reasons for visiting each place. But the constant theme that ran throughout the trip was the importance of the partnerships.
In Iraq, a real highlight was walking the streets of two cities, Dura, in the Rashid district of Baghdad, and Hawija. In both places local commanders told me you wouldn't think of doing so just a few months ago. It was really violent. This week when I was there shops were open, people were out, life was coming back. Security is undeniably better, even in Baghdad where violent attacks are down. But that security is very fragile. Hawija was not as safe as Dura, and even in Dura the local mayor understood the tenuous nature of his economic and security process. Clearly there's still a long way to go.
But what makes this progress real are these partnerships, even the troops will tell you that, and it's getting out there, meeting the people, listening to their needs and trying to address them -- the whole emphasis on counterinsurgency our Army and Marine Corps have been focused on. The troops are proud of what they're doing, and they know they're making a difference. A big part of the difference is the partnership with the Sons of Iraq, numbering at some 91,000 now; doing a great job taking back their cities. One of them, when asked why he joined, for the money or for the security, said it was for his country. It was really nice to hear. And I think that says a lot about what's starting to happen there.
And I'm convinced this is going to be the real measure of success: The degree to which the Iraqi people take charge of their own lives and their future. They're beginning to have hope, and in Iraq hope really can be a strategy.
I did not come home with any firm recommendations about the future force posture there. I need to process what I learned, fold it in the assessment the Joint Chiefs and I will be providing the president next month. I am mindful of having seen it for myself that we shouldn't carelessly sacrifice the gains we've made in security, and I still believe conditions on the ground count a lot.
I also remain concerned about the toll the current pace of operations' length of deployments are taking on our people and their families, and I believe we need to find the right balance over time.
In Pakistan, I was grateful to meet with President Musharraf, General Masheed, who is my counterpart, and General Kiyani, the chief of the army staff. All our discussions were cordial and candid and helped build upon the relationships, the partnerships we're developing in Pakistan, the real reason for my trip there.
The Pakistan military is in a tough fight against terror, especially in the border regions, and they're working very hard to better prepare themselves for that challenge.
I reiterated my sincere desire to help them in whatever ways I could, whatever ways we could, when and where asked to do so.
And I finished the trip in Afghanistan, where I had the chance to get operational updates, from commanders in the East and the South, about the progress and the challenges they face. That progress is still mixed and it varies from province to province. The Taliban remain a significant threat to a more secure and stable Afghanistan, as does the growing trade in opium. But here too I found hope and a willingness, on the part of the Afghan national army and police, to better partner with coalition NATO forces.
The American troops I met with in Afghanistan -- one unit was in an extremely remote location -- shared the same commitment to mission as those we have in Iraq. To a person, they realize they cannot, we cannot, truly succeed without the support and the strength of others by our side. But they too are getting tired and they too are concerned about lengthy deployments.
We need to reduce these tour lengths as soon as we can. It matters a great deal, in my view, to the future readiness of our all-volunteer force. Again a terrific trip: I learned a lot, as I always do. Thank you.
Q Can I just start by asking about China?
The Chinese government recently introduced, announced another increase in military spending around 17, 18 percent. The U.S. has expressed concern before about Chinese military spending. Is that something which relates to the size of the increases, the size of the budgets, or the fact that you don't feel there's enough explanation about what that money's being spent on?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think it's all of the above. It's the programs we see. It is the lack of transparency.
And so I think that, you know, as you well know, we've proposed engagement with the Chinese, and a strategic dialogue, so we can have a better understanding of what an 18 percent increase in the budget means and what their strategic modernization programs mean, who they think the enemy is and so on, and for us to provide equivalent information.
But I think, as you saw in the Chinese military power document, there's a wide range of activities under way. And we think having an ongoing dialogue with them about the meaning of all that would be very useful.
I don't know, Chairman, if you --
ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I would add to that, in addition to that 18 percent or the number that's tied to that, is there are other parts of what we consider research and development kinds of investments that are not included in that. And it's linking the investments to strategic intent -- that's what continues to be of concern, and that's the transparency piece.
Q Is the rise itself, that kind of double-digit growth, rise, bearing in mind that it's still a very small number compared to America's own defense spending?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think, first of all, part of the issue is what we don't know. I think that there's general agreement that the Chinese military budget that we see is only a portion of what the Chinese spend.
So I think I saw one of the Chinese military spokesmen say that it was largely for salaries and so on. If so, it was a really good year for the Chinese army soldiers. But I think it's a big part of what we don't know, or what they don't describe and include in that budget, that's as much of a concern as the percentage increase.
Q Admiral, you've made two trips now to Pakistan in a fairly short period of time. Can you just talk a little bit about what you think the prospects are for more U.S. military involvement in operations there, both possibly with the Pakistan army and/or whether or not you discussed additional U.S. strikes into Pakistan, particularly along the U.S. (sic) border? Or did the Pakistanis essentially close the door to any more of them?
ADM. MULLEN: This was my second trip in about a month. And actually I'd had a long-planned trip to go to Iraq and being that close, made the offer to visit again. And really, the most important part of it was to engage -- continue to engage in the relationship, the military-to-military relationship. I've spent time with General Kiyani and General Majeed, really, on these two visits. So more than anything else, it was to do that.
I -- we were there -- we discussed support when they -- you know, the kind of support, training support, if they would -- if they want it, the kind that might help them, but I didn't bring any plans to add any certain number of troops to do anything. And we really didn't discuss any -- have any significant discussions about operations on the border specifically with any kind of attacks.
Q But did they say they wanted it or did they express any interest either way?
ADM. MULLEN: We really didn't discuss that. My discussions in particular with General Kiyani were, you know, at a very high level, focused on a long-term relationship. They are a very important ally of ours in this -- in the war on terror. They have -- they certainly understand they have some significant internal problems with the suicide bombings which continue and that, again, we'll assist and work hard to train their trainers if they want us to do that. And that's kind of where we left it.
Q Secretary Gates, I want to touch on the partnership theme that Admiral Mullen mentioned. There's a tempest growing, as you know, on Capitol Hill over this aerial refueling tanker contract that went to Northrop last weekend, the French company EADS. To what extent might the congressional debate, the backlash and potential to block this sale, this contract, might erode the carefully crafted partnership with our European allies that you and Admiral Mullen have worked on very closely?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- first of all, I think it's important not to anticipate the nature of the debate on the Hill and where that might lead in terms of specific actions.
I think that -- I mean, the reality is that we sell aircraft and ships and weapons systems all over the world. The four countries that I just visited in Asia and in the Middle East -- Australia, Indonesia, India and Turkey -- all have an interest in acquiring American aircraft, as an example. So there is a global aspect to this business, and I think that there is an understanding of that on the Hill.
Q Just one follow-up. The undercurrent at today's hearing that Congressman Murtha held was, it was almost un-American to award this contract to a European country, especially a French -- France, basically. There's an undercurrent of hostility lingering. What do you -- what's your view? Might this cripple our relations with France if in fact --
SEC. GATES: Well, I've for obvious reasons distanced myself from this whole decision process. I believe, based on briefings that I've received, that it was a fair competition and a merit-based decision. And I think any questions beyond that I would just defer to the Air Force.
Q Secretary Gates, the strike on Somalia two days ago -- did the missiles that were fired -- did they strike their target? And was the target Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan? Do you have a report back from the field?
And Admiral Mullen, what message did you give to President Musharraf, and why did you meet with him?
SEC. GATES: First, I would give Admiral Mullen a lot of time to answer that question simply by saying you know we don't talk about military operations.
ADM. MULLEN: Actually it was a courtesy call on President Musharraf. We -- the discussion was really just about reinforcing the relationship and the commitment to the mutual struggle that we have. And it really was tied to my visit, and it really -- it wasn't any more significant than that. I didn't go there with a message to take to President Musharraf.
Q Admiral Mullen, being that we're in the middle of a war and a political season, I want to ask you a couple of questions about your views on all of this. What's your feeling right now, being in the middle of a war, troops in the field, about retired generals, very senior commanders, now lining up, number one, to endorse different presidential candidates?
Number two, you spoke recently to remind people in this building about civilian control of the military in this country. I was very curious why you felt you needed to remind people of that.
And third, do you feel the United States military is ready to accept a woman or an African American as their commander in chief?
ADM. MULLEN: The third one -- let me start with the third question. And absolutely, the United States military is ready to accept whoever the American people elect as their president and follow that president as we have any president that's been in office.
The reason that I talked about, I think, the importance of the -- of civilian control of military -- and that being -- that really is bedrock right now. And we are in the midst of a political season, and it's going to go on for -- certainly until we elect a new president and a new administration takes over. And I think it's important in this to remind people of that in terms of that being so critical to our success as a military and actually as a country.
And then, specifically, certainly any retired individual from the military, if they're American citizens they're certainly free to both express their views and also align themselves with who they want to politically. That is -- that's something that certainly isn't new. I, quite frankly, worry sometimes that those views actually do potentially impact on -- as -- or get stated as views that are supported by the military, by the active-duty military, but certainly their right to do so is nothing I question.
Q Well, I can I just follow up very briefly? I mean, now you -- let's just be blunt. You have the Democrats talking about some concept of mandated withdrawal timelines from Iraq, whatever they may be.
Senior commanders, including yourself, are operating under the policy of conditions-based withdrawal. If there is a change of administration and that policy comes into effect -- and it's not hypothetical, it's been very bluntly stated -- can you, can the other senior commanders simply accept it, change course, and move on?
ADM. MULLEN: Certainly I'm -- there's a lot of time between now and when a new administration takes over, and I'm very firmly in a position that decisions -- my recommendations will be made based on conditions on the ground. Should we get direction -- actually, any direction with a new administration, I will assess that and make my recommendation, and then the president, whether it -- whoever that might be, he or she will make that decision and we'll move accordingly. I certainly -- my -- where I am -- what I've talked about publicly is that I think a precipitous withdrawal, any withdrawal which puts us into a situation where we sacrifice the gains in Iraq, where Iraq falls apart in that part of the world is something that would concern me greatly.
Q You're against a timetable?
ADM. MULLEN: I am against a timetable at this particular -- yes?
Q Mr. Secretary, back to the tanker issue. First off all, do you think that the Air Force should have considered the U.S. defense- industrial base and jobs creation when making the decision on this contract? And secondly, if Congress begins to pressure the Air Force to reverse course, are you prepared to go to the mat, so to speak, for the Air Force to support their decision fully?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, as I understand it, the competition was carried out under rules established by statute. And if there's a desire to change the rules of the game in terms of how these competitions are carried out, then clearly the Congress can do that through statute. I think it's premature to talk about what I would do if the Congress acted or moved in one direction or another. I think that we'll just have to wait and see how it develops.
Q Do you support the Air Force's decision?
SEC. GATES: As I said, I was not involved in that process, for obvious reasons, and I believe that it was a fair competition.
Q A question about Colombia, sir. I wonder if you could tell us, did the U.S. military have any role in helping with the intelligence that led to the strike in Ecuador against the FARC commander? And is there any change in the status of our trainers that are in Colombia based on the mobilization on the Venezuelan border, any of the other sort of changes that are going down in the wake of this strike?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would just say that we are very supportive of President Uribe's efforts to deal with the FARC terrorists. We have a good relationship with them.
He has -- the Colombians have been successful, and we are certainly -- we certainly applaud those successes.
In terms of impact on our trainers, I'm not aware of any, but Admiral?
ADM. MULLEN: No, there isn't any at all with respect to my -- at least to my knowledge, there's no impact at all on our trainers tied to this event.
Q Just to follow up, do we routinely help with the intelligence in addition to training with the campaign against the FARC?
ADM. MULLEN: We've had an operation -- I mean, we've supported President Uribe in Colombia for many, many years sort of across the board from a training perspective and other perspectives. And I'd stay away from -- the details of any additional support, except to applaud their success in terms of impacting significantly on the FARC in lots of ways.
Q Mr. Secretary, back to China for a moment. After the U.S. shot down the failed spy satellite, the Chinese government indicated a desire for more information. You indicated at the time that if there was more information to provide, you would do that. Was there any sort of formal exchange of information after that? And as sort of a follow-up, did the Chinese seek any reassurance the U.S. is not developing an anti-satellite capability, and were you able to provide any real reassurance along those lines?
SEC. GATES: I don't know what may have transpired in diplomatic channels, but I'm not aware of any request that has come to us for further information from the Chinese or in terms of any further assurances.
Q Well, sort of more broadly speaking, how would you -- you know, the Pentagon made a point, the briefers here and General Cartwright made a point of saying this is a one-time deal; these weapons were especially modified for this mission, they're being modified back. But how do you reassure somebody that we're not -- we don't have essentially an anti-satellite capability; when we changed it once, we could clearly change it again if you wanted to shoot down a satellite.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- you know, I just think that there is a significant difference in the -- between the Chinese anti- satellite test a year ago January and what we did. We were very open from the very beginning about what we were going to try and do, the purpose of it, that it was a one-time effort to deal with what we regarded as a potential emergency. We did it in a way that minimized the amount of debris in space, and where much, if not all, of that debris would burn up in a very short period of time.
The Chinese didn't offer any information about their test, no advance notification.
It took place several hundred miles further into space than ours, significantly greater amount of debris and debris that will be up there for many years. So I think there's just a very significant difference.
After all, the United States, as I recall, back in the mid-'80s, did some experiments with ASATs and essentially walked away from it. And I think that we clearly have no intention of developing a further ASAT capability. And these other, the other parts of our missile defense, from the Aegis to others, have not been modified to have that capability. And as you've suggested, the systems that were used in this most recent endeavor have or are being reprogrammed back into their missile defense place.
Q Mr. Secretary, I'd like to follow up on Julian's question about Colombia.
What is your read, or what is the U.S. analysis, on whether these two sides, Colombia and Venezuela, could actually engage in an armed conflict? And if so, would the U.S. government or military have any role whatsoever in assisting Colombia?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, my personal view is that there's relatively little likelihood of a military conflict between them. And my further impression is that the Colombians can take care of themselves.
Q Have you approved the Army's revised request for MRAPs?
SEC. GATES: I'm not quite sure what the revised request is.
Q Well, all right. We've had some numbers.
Inside Defense is reporting that the revised request is split between 10,433 and 15,884, with a short-term need of 11,953. I just wanted to see if perhaps it would be getting from JROC to you.
SEC. GATES: No. I haven't made any recent decisions having to do with MRAPs. I think that the latest I recall is a requirement in the area of about 15,000 overall for both the Marine Corps and the Army and the other services, and a contract level at about 11,000 or something like that. But I'm not 100 percent sure.
ADM. MULLEN: And having just come out of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the soldiers on the ground praised the MRAP, they are moving -- we are moving rapidly to get many more out there. A lot of people have worked to get this right. We've moved it quickly, and I can't say enough about that -- including the secretary and the leadership, to make this a reality very, very rapidly. And we'll get the number right.
SEC. GATES: When I visited Forward Operating Base, I think it was, Falcon in Baghdad just a little while ago, I will tell you, there were some very big smiles on the part of the enlisted troops who were both driving and making use of these.
Q Mr. Secretary, Lieutenant General Odierno was here yesterday and he was asked a question about Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq in late February. And in answer to that question, at some point Lieutenant General Odierno said, quote, "Obviously, there’s pressure that has to be put on them, the PKK, so we can start to talk and have negotiations with these terrorist elements." I was wondering if it is a U.S. practice or policy to have talks with PKK terrorists.
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't know what General Odierno said or did not say, but I will tell you that when I was in Ankara last week, we talked a great deal about the importance of accompanying the security measures to go after these terrorists, the PKK terrorists, with efforts to try and address some of the civilian concerns among the Kurdish population, where they recruit people, where the PKK recruits people. And I think that both President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan have both put forward proposals in the cultural, economic and political arenas to begin doing that.
So I think it's a matter of doing both. I don't think that anybody -- certainly nobody I talk to was of a mind to have any conversations with the PKK. I think that the real objective is to peel away from the hard-core terrorists those who might be reconciled and brought back into the political fold.
Q Mr. Secretary, going back to Pakistan. Has there been any increase in the U.S. assistance to the Pakistanis in border areas, and specifically trainers working with the Frontier Corps and other forces in that area?
SEC. GATES: Let me defer to the admiral on that.
ADM. MULLEN: The simple answer is no, there haven't been.
Q Sir, on Pakistan. I'd be interested to hear from both of you. Do you believe that the Pakistanis have the capability to address the security challenges that they're facing? Are they working up to that capability, and if they are and they're still not effectively dealing with it, then do you believe that they really have to accept some sort of assistance from us or someone else?
SEC. GATES: Go ahead.
ADM. MULLEN: Again, I think that we will work very hard to assist them where they ask for assistance. And this is a sovereign country, and we respect that. And very specifically, they've -- not unlike us, they've been manned to a -- and trained to a conventional fight for many, many years. They now know they've got an internal extremist challenge that they have to adjust for, and I think it's going to take them some time. I think we need to show the kind of patience and support when asked to allow them to adjust, and I've had discussions with the leadership along those lines. And given that it's going to take some time, there's not going to be an overnight solution. I believe they can do it.
STAFF: One more.
Q Sir, can you give us an explanation about the latest U.S. troop deployment in the east of the Mediterranean?
ADM. MULLEN: Just from the standpoint of the -- we routinely operate in the Mediterranean, and we operate east and west and have for a long time. The -- we have had the USS Cole there. When you put a ship in a region, one of the important parts of that is you're sending a message of both strength and deterrence, and it's what I call presence with a purpose to have that kind of impact.
So it's consistent with what we've done in the past. It's a very important region. We're anxious to support stability in that region as much as possible, and therein lies the reason for operations there at this point in time.
SEC. GATES: Thank you very much.
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