DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. I have no opening statement today, so let's get right to questions.
Q QGeoff, as I think you're probably aware, there's been a lot of conflicting reports that have been coming out of Afghanistan. And I'm wondering if you could clarify to any degree some of the reports we're hearing where we're hearing that hundreds of families, thousands of people may be fleeing, that the Taliban may have taken over several of the towns in that area and yet the military there is putting out releases saying they're seeing none of this. The contradictions are pretty dramatic. Is there anything you can tell us?
MR. MORRELL: Lita, I don't know that I can offer much more clarity other than to tell you I've seen the reports you've seen. I've read the press accounts, as you've read them. And they do not jibe with what the commanders in the field are telling us.
And I think you'll notice that they went to the unusual step of releasing a press release to characterize the situation on the ground. And they talk about how -- this is from Bagram Air Field, that the Afghan National Police and coalition forces completed a patrol of the Arghandab district of Kandahar province today and found no evidence that militants control the area.
While in the area, coalition forces moved freely and met no resistance. Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded.
So that is what we're left with. The commanders on the ground are telling us that their patrols have seen no sign of increased Taliban control of any areas, and yet I know the press reports are saying otherwise. I defer to the commanders in this case.
I can tell you that the reality is that we're in the midst of the summer fighting season. This is precisely the reason we sent the Marines to RC South for this period, to take on what we knew was going to be an attempt by the Taliban to exert some control over that vitally important region. And every attempt they have made thus far has been put back, has been thwarted by the Marines and other coalition forces down in RC South. And if indeed there is a mounting of Taliban forces in advance of an attempt to take Kandahar, they will be put back again.
In talking to our folks, they do not have any imminent concern that Kandahar is about to fall to the Taliban. Quite to the contrary. They remain confident that they have the necessary forces in place to secure RC South. But there are going to be attempts by the Taliban to put up some resistance.
Q Just as a follow-up, have there been any U.S. forces specifically sent in as reinforcements into any of that area surrounding Kandahar --
MR. MORRELL: Well, in the wake of the prison break over the weekend, Lita, there -- I believe that ISAF has moved or is moving a battalion down to that area to deal with the aftermath of that event. As I think we've shared with you before, the U.S. is providing through ISAF a number of air assets to assist in the attempt to resecure the prison and round up those who have escaped.
I can tell you the Afghans have also taken an aggressive posture in the aftermath of that. I mean, President Karzai is clearly concerned and angered by it. He's dispatched Bismullah Khan, the famous warfighter and general, down to the region to personally lead the attempts to regain control of that situation. So the Afghans and coalition forces are aggressively dealing with the aftermath of an unfortunate event.
Anything else? Lita?
Q Well, I guess -- well, does the United States military see the situation there deteriorating to some extent in that region? With this prison break and with at least some of the initial reports that are coming out, isn't the Taliban successfully inflating what's going on, or perhaps some things are happening that the military may not be seeing?
MR. MORRELL: Well, listen, there have clearly been a number of events that have been cause for concern: I mean, the prison break, the -- in RC South, the attack on the border against our forces in RC East last week. You can go back to April, when there was an attempt on President Karzai's life. There clearly have been incidents over the last couple of months that have been cause for concern.
But that is not unexpected, given the fact that we are in the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan, and it's precisely the reason while the -- why the secretary dispatched the Marines there to reinforce the coalition in RC South, and it is why we are thankful that by late this summer we believe 700 additional French forces will be in place in RC East.
So there still is a formidable Taliban opponent that we need to take on in Afghanistan. But any reports which suggest that they have somehow gained a footing around Kandahar and are preparing to take that city are way overblown at this point.
Q Thank you --
MR. MORRELL: Oh, let me just go to Kristin. Pardon.
Q Switching for a minute --
MR. MORRELL: Can I just -- can I stay on --
Q That's fine.
MR. MORRELL: When we go off this, I promise I'll come back to you.
Q Okay. Thanks.
MR. MORRELL: Are you on this?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q There are reports out of NATO that helicopters are dropping leaflets talking about a possible military operation soon. Can you say anything about that?
MR. MORRELL: I can't. I mean, I trust that if NATO is releasing that, it's true, but I have not seen those reports. And if it's a forthcoming operation, I'd be hesitant to talk about it.
Q Well, someone at NATO apparently is. You don't know anything about it?
MR. MORRELL: I'd talk to NATO. I don't.
MR. MORRELL: Yep, Joe?
Q Have you been watching about the situation now in the south? Is there any plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in the south?
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge, Joe. I mean, I think we believe at this point that the 2,500 or so Marines that are in place, in addition to all the coalition forces that are there, are enough to do the job.
But you know, we're flexible. If the threat is such that we believe we need additional forces, the commanders on the ground will make that call, and there are enough forces within country, hopefully, to have some flexibility to move them around.
But this gets to a larger question, Joe, frankly, of -- and you heard the secretary in Brussels last week expressing his concern that for the first time since the two wars we're now engaged in commenced, coalition KIA, killed in action, exceeded -- in Afghanistan last month exceeded those killed in action in Iraq, and -- which is why the secretary, in a somewhat emotional and from-the-heart discussion with his colleagues in Brussels, really implored them to send additional resources to Afghanistan to do the job that's down there.
In Bucharest, in April, all the heads of state recommitted themselves to this mission. It is the number one operational priority of NATO. And yet we have to put our money where our mouth is and make sure we have adequate forces to do the job and secure that country.
Q So no U.S. reinforcements were sent down to RC South or to the Kandahar area to help with the situation after the prison outbreak and after these reports --
MR. MORRELL: There were additional ISAF forces. To my knowledge, I believe a battalion -- an ISAF battalion has been sent down. There may be some U.S. component to that. But the fundamental U.S. assistance, I believe, in the aftermath of the prison break has been through air assets.
Q And of the villages that ISAF walked through and you got the report from them saying that everything was fine -- how many villages did they go through? Where were they? Did they check on all seven of the villages that reportedly fell to the Taliban?
MR. MORRELL: All I can tell you is what happened in the release, Jennifer, which is that the Arghandab district of Kandahar province today is where they executed these foot patrols and found no resistance and no sign of Taliban control.
Q Can I just briefly follow up? Do you have, however, a national identity, number one, on the battalion that was sent?
MR. MORRELL: I don't.
Q And separate from the issue of Taliban control, many people are asking the question, actually, about Taliban presence. What is the assessment of the Taliban presence in the Arghandab?
MR. MORRELL: I think around Kandahar there has been an increased Taliban presence. That's what the indications are from the field. But I don't know, Barbara, that that is not to be expected during the summer fighting season. The poppy crop has been harvested and this is traditionally the time in which you now see an increased presence of Taliban fighters. And I think that jibes with what has historically been the case in that region. And it has not caused alarm for our commanders there. In fact, as you saw, they went to great lengths today to make the point that we've looked ourselves and find no evidence of what these reports are suggesting.
Q What have you found in terms of the incident on the Pakistan-Afghan border? What was the -- what were the circumstances that led to the shooting? And were 11 Pakistani frontiersmen killed, as the Pakistanis still say, as of yesterday?
MR. MORRELL: Well, that's what the Pakistan military says, and we have to take them at their word from that. We have no independent verification at this point just who the identities are of those who were killed, but the Pakistani military is somebody -- is an organization we work very closely with, and we take them at their word. When they tell us that some of their members were killed in that attack -- and if that is indeed the case, that is most regrettable and unfortunate, and we express our sympathy to their families.
That said, this is a matter that still has to be investigated, and we are now in the earliest stages of that investigation. It's going to happen at a -- on a trilateral basis, with the Pakistani military, the Afghanistan military and the U.S. military. I think CENTCOM has tasked a one-star general to lead that investigation or to be the U.S. lead in that investigation. I believe this is an investigation of co-equals in terms of the three countries involved. And we will hopefully get to the bottom of this, and the facts will bear out whether or not Pakistani military were indeed killed in this attack.
Again, as we said last week, every indication we have still is that this was a legitimate attack by U.S. forces acting in self- defense, that all procedures and regulation and coordination had been followed. But as the secretary said last week, if there is need for improvement or changes to any of those procedures or regulations or rules, we will certainly undertake those changes. And -- but we have not moved the ball forward significantly since last week, because the investigation is just getting under way.
Q Were there indications that there was any fire coming from that Frontier Corps barracks?
MR. MORRELL: I think that I'm going to let the press release that was issued last week speak for itself. I'm not going to delve any more deeply into the facts, other than to say, in general terms, our forces came under attack from anti-coalition forces who had come across the Pakistan border, then retreated back across the Pakistan border and sustained their fire against our forces, at which time air support was called in and the threat was eliminated.
Q Has any investigation been completed into the incident that General McNeill discussed, on Friday, about the major who was killed, during the tripartite, the U.S. major who was killed, shot in the head by a frontier corpsman during the tripartite talks sometime in the last six months?
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge.
Q Was there any investigation?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not familiar with it, Jennifer. If there were, I just -- it's something we'll have to take up afterwards. Right at this moment, it's not clear to me.
Anybody else on this.
Q In light of President Karzai's statement last week, how confident are you that Afghan forces would be able to go after militants in the FATA region? And what kind of support would the U.S. give to such initiatives?
MR. MORRELL: Well, we certainly understand President Karzai's concern about the situation on the border and border security. We share those concerns. The incident last week is one clear reason why we share those concerns.
Our forces came under attack from militants who came across the border. So we are acutely aware of how important it is to secure the border. But this is something that's going to have to happen with all three of us working together; with the Pakistanis, with the Afghans and with the U.S. and the coalition working to figure out how best to secure that border.
I would say this, that in terms of an Afghan military operation, across the border into Pakistan, that is not something that we feel is necessary at this point. Obviously Pakistan is a sovereign country. So we would discourage them to undertake such a mission.
And frankly, you know, there are significant internal threats to President Karzai's administration, at this point, that he and his forces are probably more immediately focused on than that.
But, and so while his forces are increasingly capable, we would encourage them to maintain their focus, within the borders of Afghanistan, and then work on a tripartite level to try to solve the border situation.
Q A question on the military analyst program: Is there an update on that investigation or a review that was under way?
Is the program active once again? I mean, is it still on hold, suspended, you know --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I frankly don't know, Luis. I wouldn't characterize that as an investigation. A review probably would be more accurate. But I don't know, frankly, where it stands at this point. And I do not believe, though, that we have recommenced military analyst briefings. But I'm going to have to get back to you on that.
Q Geoff, on the Supreme Court Guantanamo decision, by giving the detainees access to U.S. federal courts, does this not remove one of the major justifications for keeping them at Guantanamo and perhaps hasten the day when the secretary's desire to close it could become a reality?
MR. MORRELL: Let me give you an update on where we are in the wake of the Supreme Court decisions. As you heard last week from the secretary in Brussels, he had not had a chance to review the decision yet. Upon his return, he asked for a brief by the policy shop and by the general counsel's office. He is scheduled to get that brief, I believe, later this week.
But in light of that, and while we wait for that, I can tell you we continue to go forward with our military commissions in an attempt to hold accountable those terrorists who are in our custody in Guantanamo. So it does not in any way, at this point, impact the military commission process.
That said, this is the court's decision. It's the law of the land. And there will be an effort, I believe, on an interagency level and within this department to figure out what the impact is on how we handle detainees and adjudicate them.
But as you noted, the secretary has never been a fan of Guantanamo Bay. The president, Secretary Rice joined him in a call to -- or he joins them in a call to shut it down.
The problem we have, as he's expressed to Senator Feinstein and the rest of the SASC when we were up there -- or maybe it was the Senate Appropriations Committee when we were up there last was that we're stuck. We do not have a suitable alternative to move the detainees we have in custody in Guantanamo or those that are not suitable to be transferred back to their original countries.
We have, as he said, a real NIMBY problem, "Not in my backyard." Nobody seems to want to house or confine these detainees within their state. So until somebody comes up with a suitable alternative, a safe and suitable alternative for detaining these deadly, dangerous terrorists, we are stuck with the situation we have, which is that we've got to house them in Guantanamo.
Q So there's no longer -- I mean, that's the last problem, then, is just to find a place to put them? Are you saying there is no longer any particular reason to have them in Guantanamo, except that there's nowhere else that will take them?
MR. MORRELL: Well, that is one of the main problems that we are confronted with. I wouldn't say that's the only problem, but that is certainly one of the problems that we're most immediately confronted with, is -- let's say you didn't have any objections to the implications that would have in terms of access to U.S. courts, which may have been addressed by this decision.
MR. MORRELL: From a strictly security standpoint and confinement standpoint, nobody seems to want to volunteer the facility that would hold these people. So as the secretary had initiated efforts within this department some months ago to try to find a suitable alternative, it, like others, did not go very far, because of that fundamental question of where to put them.
Q Just to follow on --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah,
Q -- on Guantanamo, so we can understand -- (inaudible) -- the upcoming motions and arraignments still on time?
MR. MORRELL: Yes. No change to the upcoming military commissions cases. In fact, it looks as though the high-value detainees that were arraigned, I guess last week, week -- last week, I -- the week before, maybe, week before -- will -- I think the judge has said the trial on the merits could go as early as September. And that remains the case.
Q Poland's chief negotiator on missile defense has said that the United States has started negotiations with Lithuania about placing one of the missile defense sites for Europe there.
MR. MORRELL: That's where that report came from. I couldn't figure out where that was coming from.
Q And what can you tell us about the negotiations with Lithuania?
MR. MORRELL: I can tell you -- let me just give you an overall update on where we stand on missile defense. We are still in the process of working out sort of the finishing touches, I believe, on the SOFA with the Czech Republic that would allow our forces to operate at the radar site that we hope to build in the Czech Republic. We believe we'll finish those up soon and are on track for the U.S. and the Czech Republic to sign a missile defense agreement next month.
That said, we continue to have serious negotiations with Poland.
In fact, as you know, Secretary Gates met with the Polish Defense minister, Minister Klich, when we were in Brussels. They had a good discussion, and talks continue at lower levels as well. We are hopeful that we can soon reach a deal with the Poles, but we have always said that there are other options available to us.
There are several other European nations that could host the interceptors, and Lithuania is one of them. That said, we have not entered into negotiations with any other country and hope that that does not become necessary.
Q Where do you think this perception came from that the United States and Lithuania have begun negotiations?
MR. MORRELL: I think you'd have to ask them, but I -- you know, we have -- we have always been mindful of the fact that there may be the need for -- responsible planning requires us to look at backup options. And so we have over the course of this effort always kept in mind that there may be the need to look for our -- look to our second or perhaps third choice to host the interceptors.
Q So not even informal talks with the Lithuanians?
MR. MORRELL: No.
Q Okay. So what's the deadline for the Polish deal?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know that we set a deadline for the Polish deal. I think as long as the discussions continue to go well, as they have, we are committed to them. And that remains the case. Yeah. So I wouldn't say there's a deadline, but obviously, the sooner the better. It seems as though the Czech Republic, although it will ultimately require ratification of their parliament, seems ready to proceed with missile defense for Europe, and we hope the Poles will be our partner as well in this effort.
Q Are you willing to wait until the end -- near the end of the -- you're getting toward the end of the administration now, and if you don't secure a deal with the Polish government soon, it might not happen at all in the next administration. Is that something factoring into the decision-making?
MR. MORRELL: Sure. Absolutely.
Q So is it incorrect to say that by the end of the summer if you don't have a deal with the Polish you're going to be looking somewhere else?
MR. MORRELL: I'm hesitant to say that at this point. I don't want to put a timetable on it. But clearly, time is of the essence. We want to get a deal done. We believe it is imperative, given the security threat that we believe is looming for Europe based upon Iranian -- the Iranian missile threat, that we move on this as soon as possible. And that is why we continue to aggressively pursue talks with the Poles, but that is also why we do not close the door on perhaps having to pursue a backup option.
Q Just to clarify on this, you're saying there's no formal talks with Lithuania, there's no informal talks with Lithuania, but then you're also talking about a -- you know, exploring a backup. Are there some sort of conversations or interrogatories or something that's gone out --
MR. MORRELL: I don't believe so. I think that we, from a tactical precision analysis point of view look at where you could possibly put the interceptors and still effectively provide an umbrella of coverage for as many of our allies -- all of our allies -- as possible, and that is -- in doing so, we have identified a number of countries that could work as a host for the interceptors, and Lithuania is among them.
Q Which are the other ones?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to go into it from here.
Q Geoff, on this, was the secretary satisfied in his talks with the Polish defense minister that their government is committed to reaching an agreement, or is that government still sort of deciding whether they want --
MR. MORRELL: No, I think they want an agreement, but it's a question of what price. And that's what a negotiation is all about, and that's what we're in the midst of right now.
Q What's -- what price in what sort of way?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think it's been very public what they wish for. They wish for a greater air defense -- they want to enhance their air defenses in light of the fact they believe they are taking on an increased risk by hosting this European missile defense system. And they are asking for a significantly -- they're asking for our assistance in significantly modernizing their air defenses. And so we're in the midst of a conversation, a negotiation on trying to determine what is needed and what we can afford to do to get a deal done with the Poles.
Q Thank you.
MR. MORRELL: Okay, Daphne?
Q Did some countries actually offer to host part of the --
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into what -- whether somebody offered or didn't offer to. I can just tell you we've identified other options if it comes to that.
Q I have a non-missile defense question.
MR. MORRELL: Yes.
Q Secretary Gates has talked repeatedly in the last few weeks about the need to modernize the tanker fleet.
Yet the program has been, as you know, held up by a Boeing protest to the Government Accountability Office on Northrop's selection. GAO is set to make its recommendations this week.
My question is this. When the decision first came up, the Pentagon hierarchy was very strong in its defense of the Air Force selection. Can you give any insight, into whether the Pentagon still maintains that the Air Force decision was justified, based on what you know today?
MR. MORRELL: There has been absolutely no change in this building's position on that contract.
As the secretary has said time and time again, Tony, this is the number-one acquisition priority of the Air Force. It has to be. It is 10 years overdue.
The average age of this fleet is 47 years old. These planes desperately need to be replaced not yesterday, not the year before but 10 years ago. Any further delay would be a real problem.
And we believe that the acquisition, the contracting process, that eventually produced Northrop Grumman and EADS as the winner of this deal, was a fair and transparent one. It was very deliberate.
And we believe it provided the American taxpayer -- we believe it provided our warfighters with the most capable aircraft and the taxpayer the most cost-effective solution to this very real need of replacing the tanker fleet.
Q The officials, who care about this decision, have reviewed it fairly regularly, not just at the end of February. You've reassessed since then.
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge. That may have been the case. But I think our people felt very secure about the contracting process.
Obviously the eyes of the world were upon the Air Force, as they were pursuing this contract and in light of what had happened with the previous attempt to award this contract.
And so I think they were very painstaking in their efforts to be fair and transparent about this process. And they believe in the end that it produced the right outcome.
You know, I know there's been a lot of concern, in Congress, about this and the impact that this contract may have on the loss of jobs in particular states.
And the secretary has told Congress time and again that the only factors that they are allowed to consider when letting these contracts is cost and capability and that if they wish to change the contracting criteria to include the impact on jobs, they should beware of the potential impact that would have on U.S. military companies, because they do an awful lot of business overseas and you run the risk of opening the door to retaliatory trade restrictions that would ultimately have a far greater impact on domestic jobs than perhaps this one contract will.
Q One follow-up. If the GAO comes out Wednesday or Thursday and says the Air Force's decision was proper, would this building be inclined to tell Boeing to lay off further actions in the national interest of the warfighter and taxpayer?
MR. MORRELL: Listen, I think we've made pretty clear what our position is. We need to pursue this as quickly as possible. We cannot afford any further delays in this. We need to get new tankers in the sky as soon as possible to support our warfighter. That's where we are and I suppose that's where we're going to be tomorrow as well.
Okay, last one.
Q Do you have a comment on the French decision to rejoin NATO's integrated military command, please?
MR. MORRELL: On their decision to rejoin -- we certainly welcome it. How about that?
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Okay, thank you.
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