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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
September 24, 2008
                MR. MORRELL: The grand finale in the old briefing room. 
 
                Q     We hope. (Laughter.) 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Thanks for being flexible with your schedules today in getting together a little earlier than we had originally planned. I had a change in my schedule which requires me up at a meeting at 1:00. So let's get -- let's get right to it with questions. 
 
                Lita? 
 
                Q     Geoff, can you talk in a little bit more detail about the reviews on Afghanistan? The secretary said last week that -- he talked a little bit about the new -- checking on new military strategy, and I'm wondering if this also will include any political strategy also, because he spoke yesterday at length about the weakness of the Afghan government. So can you go into some details on that, and also if there are any projected timelines on any of those? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, my understanding, Lita, is that this is a review that, while it has components in this department, is being undertaken, as I think my colleague Gordon Johndroe talked about over the last couple days, at the White House. So that various departments within this government have been tasked to take a look at our Afghan strategy and are in the midst of doing that and will ultimately contribute their product to an effort that's under way at the White House. 
 
                Here in this building, I think there are two efforts primarily that are under way. One is being undertaken by the secretary's policy staff, led by Assistant Secretaries Shinn and Vickers, and also the Joint Staff. So they are working on a review of Afghan strategy, and the secretary will be getting regular updates from them in the days and weeks ahead, including the first of which this afternoon. 
 
                So I don't know precisely the tack they'll take. I would imagine, you know, we'd look at things like force levels, at civilian support, at tactics and strategy. But this is an effort that's just really under way within the last few days, and there's still much work to be done. 
 
                Q     There also likely, though, will be -- I think there was some discussion the other day about one that Petraeus is likely either has already begun or would likely begin when he starts at CENTCOM. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think, you know, obviously General Petraeus is -- when he assumes command at the end of October, will assume responsibility for the effort under way in Afghanistan and wants to make sure that we are pursuing a path to success there. And so he is, I believe, doing his own analysis on what's needed. And I don't quite know, frankly, how that effort -- which is still, you know, in its nascent stages because, obviously, he's just leaving Iraq -- will feed into the other efforts in this building. I imagine they work their way up through the chain of command and he'd feed into the Joint Staff product, which will be worked with the policy product, and the secretary will ultimately present something to the NSC. 
 
                Q     (Off-mike.) 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think you'd have to talk to the White House about what they're expecting in terms of timelines. I may learn more later today, but obviously we're in the closing months of this administration, so time is of the essence. I think, as the president talked about, we're sprinting to the finish. And this will be done, I would imagine, on a very tight timeline in an attempt to get a product completed so that we can, as Gordon talked about earlier this week, put this effort on the right footing to make sure that we are on the road to success in Afghanistan so that when our successors take over, they're in good shape.   
 
                Justin. 
 
                Q     Geoff, as you know, the North Koreans have ordered that all the surveillance equipment and seals be removed from their nuclear -- from their reactor in Yongbyon. What are the concerns there? And when -- how long does the DOD think it would take for the North Koreans to put together a weapon -- a nuclear weapon?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I'd really, Justin, direct you to the State Department. Ambassador Hill, as you know, is the point person on this effort to get the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program. And I would direct you to them to sort of talk about any of the particulars on how it's going thus far.   
 
                Q     What about extra steps in terms of missile defense? Is there any thought given to that as they heighten these efforts to produce weapons?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think we're always -- we are always on guard, and that's not different today than it is yesterday. But I think in terms of the day-by-day updates on how the North Koreans are cooperating or not cooperating are best directed at the State Department and not here.   
 
                Yeah? 
 
                Q     Geoff, as far as the Defense Department is concerned, is Kim Jong Il still in charge of North Korea?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I don't know that the State Department has a -- the Defense Department has a position on that. I mean, obviously, we do our own intelligence work, and that's not something I care to share with you from this podium. But I don't think we make judgments from this podium as to who's in charge and who's not in charge. We closely monitor the situation in North Korea, as do other departments within this government, and I don't think I have any -- anything new for you on that.   
 
                Yeah, Tony? 
 
                Q     A question about long-term budget issues. Has Secretary Gates or any other official in the building talked at all about the impact of financial meltdown and $700 billion bailout package for U.S. firms, what impact that may have on long-term defense spending?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: Tony, I don't know that it does. I mean, this department operates off of five-year budgets. I mean, the day-to-day fluctuations in the markets, up and down, are not how we base our spending or how we allocate funds.   
 
                So the current financial conditions are not, as far as I can tell, impacting how business is being conducted within this building. 
 
                I would note, however, that in good times and in bad, when the market is up and when it is down, the Congress has been consistent in its support throughout history of our nation's defense. And I don't see any reason why that would change now. 
 
                So especially -- you know, they have -- over the last few years they have certainly found the means to fund our nation's security as we wage two wars simultaneously, in addition to the global war on terror, and we expect that they will find a way to continue to do that, despite the ups and downs in the markets and in the financial situation, in the climate as a whole. 
 
                But I don't think anybody should -- any of our adversaries out there should at all be trying to take advantage of the fact that there are uncertain economic climate -- that there is an uncertain economic climate out there to mistakenly believe that somehow we will not invest the funds necessary to protect our national interest, because through good times and bad, the Congress has been supportive of this department and what it needs to get the job done. 
 
                Q     And one follow-up. What are you doing in the '(2)010 policy plan that you're going to leave the next administration to take money what would have been in a supplemental and beef up the '(2)010 through '(2)015 plan? Is there any -- are there increases afoot or that have been approved? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, you know, we haven't even gotten an '09 base budget done yet, although -- 
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- today. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: -- but we hope that in the next day or two that we will -- that the House and Senate will reconcile whatever differences they have and get a bill to the president that he can sign. 
 
                So I think it's a little premature for me to talk about FY '10 and beyond, other than to say that we are looking at ways to reduce our reliance on supplementals. And so that is the discussion -- that is the work that is currently being conducted among the budgeters in this building. How far we'll go I'm not prepared to say, because I think that's an ongoing project.   
 
                But I would note one thing, though, Tony: that we are going to be involved in persistent conflict for some time to come -- the secretary's talked at length about that; that's the reality of the world we now live in -- and we need to budget for it. So whether that's done in the supplemental or in the base in the years to come, we're going to need monies to fight these conflicts. But I think there is an effort under way to see if we can move away from supplementals and increasingly on base budgets to fund these conflicts.   
 
                Q     Does that mean, though, a potential increase in the '(2)010 plan -- annual increase? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I'm not going to go into how much or whether there will be or won't be. 
 
                I can just tell you, in a broad sense, that we are looking at ways to wean the nation off supplementals, to fund the conflicts we're in right now, and to look at more of a long-term perspective of, we're going to be in an era of persistent conflict for some time to come.   
 
                We need to budget appropriately. We need to commit a certain percentage ideally of GDP towards funding this department and the wars we're engaged in.   
 
                Yeah.   
 
                Q     Geoff, yesterday the secretary talked about the need to avoid any deterioration in U.S. relations with Pakistan. And I wonder if you could elaborate a little on his assessments of where those relations stand at the moment, given the number of cross-border incidents that have occurred, in terms of missile strikes and the commando raid but, and Pakistan officials' public reaction to those events.   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I don't know how much more I could elaborate. I mean, he testified for three hours yesterday, before the Senate, on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, Pakistan. So I think he said what he meant to say when he spoke to the Senate about this. And I would be hesitant to try to parse it any further.   
 
                Obviously I can reiterate a couple of things he said. And that is that he is, as many people in this building are, encouraged by the recent, far more aggressive military operations that the Pakistanis are taking in the tribal areas.   
 
                We saw, I think, you noticed, in some of the papers today, accounts of an operation which killed as many as 50 militants, in the tribal areas, that the Pakistani military conducted yesterday. So these are all encouraging signs to us.   
 
                We have been saying for some time now that this is a mutual threat. We both share this threat, as evidenced by the fact that the Marriott in Islamabad was bombed last week, killing more than 50 Pakistanis and, for that matter, Americans.   
 
                And so we need to collectively if possible address this mutual threat that exists in the tribal regions. And we are encouraged to see the Pakistanis doing more of that. And we want to be able to help them increase their ability to do that effectively. And whether that means doing more training operations, if they were ever to acquiesce and agree to do joint operations, that would be a good thing, I think.  
 
                You all heard Defense Minister Wardak of Afghanistan talk earlier this week of his idea of having sort of a tripartite border force, which would operate along the Durand Line and address threats, on either side of the border, as they arose.   
 
                This is, I think, as you heard the secretary say yesterday, news to him but not something that he would discount out of hand.   
 
                We're looking at all ways to try to address this mutual threat. 
 
                Q     But given the number of attacks against militant targets in northwestern Pakistan in recent weeks, and given comments by senior Pakistani officials, including General Kayani, about the need to defend Pakistan against foreign forces, is there a danger that U.S.- Pakistani relations could deteriorate because of public pressure that's on these officials to defend the country? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, without acknowledging whether or not such operations have or are taking place, I think you heard the secretary talk yesterday about his concern that we do things, whether it be in Afghanistan or with the Pakistanis, that are in our shared interest; that there is a recognition, acknowledgment of the fact that we need to, particularly when it comes to certain enemies we both face in the tribal areas -- they view, for example, al Qaeda as a clear enemy -- there is some sense that perhaps the Taliban is less of an immediate threat to the Pakistanis. So let's work together on those threats that we can both agree on. So those are the kinds of things.   
 
                But David, I wouldn't want to get into -- you know, he talked yesterday -- and he has on several occasions, particularly as he traveled this last week -- on this notion of -- he has a responsibility, he believes, to protect our forces in Afghanistan and believes he has the tools and the authorities necessary to do so. 
 
                Danny? 
 
                Q     Geoff, there have been a number of reports coming out of Pakistan in the last week, claims that Pakistani forces have fired on U.S. helicopters. And one of the claims was that Pakistani forces shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle. Do you have any information that would confirm any of these incidents? And just generally speaking, have there been any instances that you know of where Pakistani forces have fired on U.S. forces, either mistakenly or intentionally? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: With regards to those two incidents, I can't -- I don't have information that confirms them. I have information that refutes them. As far as we know, no American helicopters have been fired on by Pakistani forces. And as far as we know, no -- none of our unmanned aerial vehicles has been downed by Pakistani forces. I believe we did have a Predator go down in Afghanistan in the last week or so, due to mechanical malfunction or failure, but certainly it was not shot down. But we lose Predators more often than you might realize. They fly an awful lot. A lot is being asked of them. And occasionally they go down, but none, thus far, to enemy fire in Pakistan. 
 
                Q     Has there been any instance where, you know, perhaps forces on the ground fired on something, but perhaps U.S. helicopters were unaware of any -- I mean, is it -- is there any explanation that you're aware of that would account for these claims from Pakistan? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, the only explanation I can think of is that these are claims made by unnamed intelligence officials, who I wouldn't put much credence in. I mean, if you want to put your name on something and step forward and make an allegation, do so. But unnamed allegations we have a hard time taking seriously in this building. 
 
                And I would urge you not to put too much credence in such claims, either.   
 
                We'll step up to the plate and tell you what we know. We'll put our name on it. And what I know at this point is that none of those incidents took place as described to you. 
 
                Q     Change of subject, if I may. Just a -- the question of the planned military exercises between Venezuela and Russia off the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean, is that something that's of concern to the Pentagon or to the U.S. government or is that just seen as something that's routine? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, we do -- we conduct joint exercises all the time with allies in this region and in the Southern Hemisphere, around the world. Russia is certainly within its rights to conduct exercises with its allies.   
 
                So I wouldn't go so far as to call it a concern. I think it's interesting who you conduct exercises with. What's the old saying? You're sort of known by the company you keep. If they wish to hang out with the Venezuelan navy that's their business. Obviously, we have no problem with the Venezuelan people, but we obviously have an issue with their government. But I don't think it causes anybody any alarm in this building, just as I don't think -- you know, when you guys have asked me before about, you know, Bear bomber flights and the like, it just -- nobody gets terribly worked up about it. 
 
                Yeah. 
 
                Q     Just quickly, with the USS George Washington scheduled to arrive in Japan this week, can you please talk about the strategic importance of the port of Yokosuka to the U.S.? Just so you know, it's south of Tokyo. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: You're right, the George Washington, as I understand it, arrives tomorrow, if all goes according to schedule, and will join the 7th Fleet. This is a tangible symbol of our commitment to fulfill our treaty obligations to defend Japan as well as to protect sea lanes throughout that region. 
 
                We obviously have a long-standing relationship with many sister cities in Japan, Yokosuka certainly being among the best. And it is the largest naval facility, as I understand it, in the Western Pacific, and serves as one of the most strategically important overseas U.S. naval installations in the world. So we certainly value our long-standing relationship we enjoy with the city and the people of Yokosuka and are grateful for their hospitality and in welcoming back the George Washington to be stationed there for the foreseeable future. 
 
                Yeah. 
 
                Q     General Craddock was quoted, I think, yesterday as saying that he was going to seek authority for ISAF to begin to target and go after heroin processors in Afghanistan as opposed to opium producers and cast this, among other things, as a way to possibly minimize civilian casualties. Does this represent a shift in policy or approach in Afghanistan? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, no, I think -- you weren't with us last week, Ken, but I think -- I believe the secretary talked to this, that we clearly would like to be able to go after kingpins and large laboratories. There is a direct connection between the -- between the narcotics industry, if you will, in Afghanistan and the insurgency, that obviously exacerbates the threat to our forces and to the Afghan people. And so we would like to see if we could get our NATO allies to agree to sort of change the parameters under which we work so that we could be more aggressive in going after sort of the big producers, if you will, of opium and heroin. 
 
                The secretary noted, I think, yesterday in his testimony that there have been some encouraging signs in terms of cultivation, a 19 percent decline since last year. 
 
                But in the southern provinces alone, they're still producing more than meets the entire world's demand. So it's a problem, and we'd like to figure out if we could more aggressively deal with that problem.   
 
                But I don't have anything to report to you in terms of any breakthroughs. But as you know, he'll be -- the secretary will be going to -- will be going to Budapest next month for a defense ministerial, and perhaps this will be broached then. 
 
                Q     Any initial reaction from the allies?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I don't have any. I don't. Yeah?   
 
                Q     Your strategy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Could you just -- I know you spoke to it briefly earlier, but can you just speak a little more to what form you expect it to take, just as more in a process question? But also, there's a sense that it's kind of in a sense due in a couple -- couple, two or three weeks, and the feeling that there's a rush to come up with something new. Can you speak to that?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I can't. I mean, I'd really direct you to the White House because they're the ones who are orchestrating all this. All I can tell you is what this department is doing, as I have done, which is the policy shop, the Joint Staff, are both working on ideas that will be presented to the secretary. He's going to be briefed regularly on the process. I believe it is on an expedited basis because we are running out of time in this administration. And so I expect probably you'll see product sooner than later, but I don't have any precise timelines in the days ahead.   
 
                I do have to run to this meeting, but I'm surprised no one has asked me about the passage of the provincial election law in Iraq. Does anybody care to before I adjourn?   
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- passage of the provincial election law in Iraq? (Laughter.) 
 
                MR. MORRELL: This is big news, guys. I mean, we've -- obviously we've got to wait to see the details of this, and it obviously has to pass the three-member presidential -- the presidency council, but this has now passed the Council of Representatives. That's another hugely encouraging sign of progress in Iraq. This is exactly what we have been looking for. In fact, it's what the secretary had spoke to the Senate about yesterday.   
 
                We need more tangible signs of reconciliation. We need more political progress. We need more democratic activity. And that's what this is. And we will -- we believe that the sooner there is reconciliation, the sooner the Iraqi security forces can grow in size and capability, the sooner we can continue to draw down forces in Iraq. So this hopefully is another step in the right direction, and we applaud and the secretary applauds the Council of Representatives on the passage.   
 
                Now, of course, we need to see the election, which hopefully will take place sooner than later.   
 
                Q     Do you think you'll have any -- (inaudible)?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think the deadline is by -- the legal mandate is by the 31st of January. Obviously we'd like to see it take place sooner than later, as soon as possible. The original hope was that it could be done in October. I don't know if the delays that have taken place preclude a fall election now. But I can tell you that despite the fact there was a lot of wrestling going on within the legislature, the voter registration process is already complete. They had gone ahead with that despite the wrangling. And so I think that much of the groundwork has been laid to have a successful election soon.   
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- connected the provincial elections with a possible drawdown. Isn't it likely, though, that in the short run you may actually have -- (off mike)? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, historically for elections we have had our peak levels of forces. No one is talking about increasing the number of forces on the ground in Iraq for these elections. But you're right; historically we have had high numbers of forces.   
 
                In fact, if it takes place this fall, it will be during a time overlapping BCTs [Brigade Combat Team] coming and going, right-feet, left-feet. So we will have a high number of forces. If we get into late January, I don't quite know what the force levels will be then.   
 
                Q     But you're ruling out an increase in troops.   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I have not heard any talk about an increase for the elections.   
 
                Thanks.
 
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