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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
September 15, 2009

MR. MORRELL:  Pleasure to see you all.  A few quick scheduling announcements, then we'll get right down to your questions. 

 

                Tomorrow morning, Secretary Gates addresses the Air Force Association during their annual Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition at the National Harbor.  He is pleased to be able to speak to this distinguished group and will begin his remarks at 9 a.m., followed by questions from the audience. 

 

                Later that afternoon, back at the Pentagon, the secretary will lead a meeting of senior military and civilian personnel, including the combatant commanders, to continue discussing the fiscal year 2011 budget.   

 

                On Friday, the secretary's honored to host the national POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at the Pentagon parade field.  And later that day he welcomes the minister of defense from the Czech Republic to the Pentagon to discuss a range of security issues. 

 

                With that, we'll get to questions.   

 

                Anne (sp). 

 

                Q     Does Secretary Gates share Chairman Mullen's assessment today that the war in Afghanistan requires -- will probably require more forces in addition to other resources? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  How did I know that's what you would ask me?  The secretary's thinking on this is a work in progress.  And I think he's been rather candid with you about it over the past few times he's engaged with you all.  He has been thinking long and hard about this for weeks now.  And as he discussed with you last week, his thinking has evolved on it.   

 

                You know, he had spoken for months about how he was -- or is, frankly, concerned about having too large of a foreign footprint in Afghanistan, for fear that it could alienate us from the Afghan population.  He shared with you the fact that General McChrystal has gone a long way towards mitigating some of those concerns, with his explanation that it's not so much the size of the force but the behavior of the force that determines whether or not it is accepted by the Afghan people.   

 

                But that's a long preamble to arrive at the point of telling you that he is undecided on this issue and is still debating it himself, still analyzing it himself, and has yet to come to a final resolution.  

 

                This is -- this is a process that is under way, and he's begun to have -- you know, obviously, much of this is predicated on what actually is asked for when General McChrystal forwards on his resource request.  But even before that, he has begun discussions with the president and others about the assessment that's been turned in and how that impacts the way ahead in Afghanistan. 

 

                Q     Just to follow? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  It's probably terribly unsatisfying that it's -- that he has yet to make up his mind, but he hasn't made up his mind yet on this matter.  But he is weighing a lot of -- a lot of things and still thinking hard about it. 

 

                Q     Well, actually -- (off mike).   

 

                MR. MORRELL: Okay. 

 

                Q     How long can that period of reflection and making up his mind go on?  I mean, you've got a number of things happening. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, he's lucky in the fact -- oh, he's not lucky -- I mean, how long can it go on?   

 

                Frankly, we still don't have a request for resources yet.  So when that arrives, obviously, that will necessitate probably a hightened focus on such matters.  But that has yet to arrive.  And in the interim, he is thinking about this.  And as I said, his thinking is evolving. 

 

                Q     There were some senators who mentioned today it would be helpful to have Petraeus and McChrystal come testify, as happened in Iraq before there were any major shifts in terms of troop numbers.  So is there any consideration to bringing those guys here? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I have not heard discussion about whether it would be appropriate to bring General Petraeus to testify, but I have hard very emphatically that the secretary does not believe now is the time to bring General McChrystal back to testify.  I mean, he is dealing with a very difficult fight right now in Afghanistan.  The secretary believes his focus and attention should be there and not back here in a political process.   

 

                The secretary will -- you know, that's part of his job, is to work those matters with the Hill, and he will do so.  That's, of course, meaning no disrespect to the members of the Congress, but I think he believes that General McChrystal's time is better spent right now back in theater focused on the conflict at hand. 

 

                Q     Just to follow? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah. 

 

                Q     Quick one.  According to some reports, Talibans are back in Kandahar and also some other parts of Afghanistan.  So what are we doing now as far as dealing with Talibans and security for the Afghans? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, we're doing a lot.  I mean, you've seen the bulk of the 22,000 additional forces that President Obama authorized and sent over in the spring of this year have gone to Regional Command South.  And you've seen with the recent deployment of the Strykers, when speaking of Kandahar, in particular, they have deployed around Kandahar city itself.  You also see a great deal of Marine activity in Helmand province.   

 

                So there is an increasing focus on Regional Command south, the traditional heartland of the Taliban.   And, you know, I know there have been some reports out there suggesting that the focus should be on Kandahar city itself. 

 

                I think that is obviously a goal of ours, to be able to secure a significant Afghan population that resides in Kandahar city -- I think 800,000 people, making it the second-largest Afghan population center.  

 

                But that requires a significant amount of resources, and the judgment was made to focus on the areas around Kandahar city before turning our attention to Kandahar city.  But the people of -- who reside in Kandahar city should fully expect that we will -- we will, at -- when the time is appropriate and when we make gains outside of the -- of Kandahar city, do more to provide, with the Afghan forces, for their protection. 

 

                Q     Geoff, are we winning the hearts and minds of Afghans? Because they were not very much happy with the -- President Karzai's government in the past. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, you're combining many issues here.  Whether -- President Karzai's popularity and the confidence that he has of the Afghan people is a separate issue, and obviously there were election results which certainly suggest that a great many of the Afghan people clearly do support President Karzai. 

 

                Whether or not we're winning hearts and minds, that too is very much a work in progress.  I think there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that, even as we have pushed more forces into Afghanistan and they have begun to move out in -- to protect the population, we are seeing in -- from community to community a support from the Afghan people, and they are increasingly turning away from the Taliban.   

 

                But this is all predicated on whether or not they believe we are here to stay and provide a lasting basis of support for them.  And so our word is only as good as our actions, and they want to see them not just for a day or two; they want to see them for a long period of time.  General McChrystal understands that, and that's why we are trying to develop sort of tactics that will facilitate that sort of long-term relationship-building that winning this -- winning over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people requires. 

 

                Yeah, Joe. 

 

                Q     Geoff, do you have any details about the airstrike yesterday in Somalia?  There are some conflicted reports in the region about a French role in that airstrike.  Could you verify that? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't.  I have no comment on this matter whatsoever, frankly.   

 

                I don't.   

 

                Anybody else?   

 

                Julian (sp). 

 

                Q     Let me try on that.  The -- does the Obama administration -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  You want to see me repeat myself, don't you? 

 

                Q     Well, I'm going to have a crafty question that you're going to have to answer.  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay.  That'll be a first.  Let's go. 

 

                Q     Oh, thanks. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  (Laughs.) 

 

                Q     (Off mike.)   

 

                Q     Does the Obama administration have a policy to try to reduce the civilian casualties during the sort of global war on terror strikes?  Are they conducting them in a different way to minimize the potential civilian casualties? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Again, I'm not going to speak to any activity that may or may not taken -- have taken place in Somalia.  I will tell you this, though:  As we go about conducting this war on terror, this war on violent extremists around the world, we obviously go to great lengths to try to minimize, if not hopefully avoid, civilian casualties.  We aren't interested in bringing harm to anybody except to those who wish to do us harm.   

 

                But that is -- that comment is made separate and aside from whatever may or may not have taken place in Somalia. 

 

                Jeff (sp). 

 

                Q     Geoff, a minute ago you said the election results show that a good number of Afghans do like President Karzai.  Does that mean the U.S. government feels the election results are legitimate? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think there's a process under way, Jeff (sp), that's still very much under way.  So I don't think we've arrived at any conclusion yet.   

 

                There's the International Election Commission, there's the Election Complaints Commission that are still very much in the midst of their work, trying to determine whether or not allegations of fraud are legitimate.  They're in the process of working that out.  I think we're going to let that take its course before we weigh in on such matters. 

 

                Ultimately, Jeff (sp), I will tell you this, though:  It is far less important whether or not we view the results as legitimate as whether or not the Afghan people do.  That is the most important thing:  that they have confidence in their elected officials.   

 

                And so if it -- if this process of reviewing ballots to try to determine whether or not fraud may have played a role in this election, if this process ultimately helps the Afghan people come to a greater sense of confidence in their government, then it would seem to be a good one. 

 

                Q     On a separate matter, can you give us a preview of what the secretary expects to talk about tomorrow? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think you will see him talk about the progress that has been made by the United States Air Force, particularly over the last couple of years under this new leadership.   

 

                Obviously he'll note the extraordinary contributions they've made to the wars we've been fighting, since September the 11th, and how those contributions were absolutely vital to our success in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terror.   

 

                He will note I believe in particular the progress that's been made on the nuclear assurety front.  He will note the strides that have been made in the unmanned aerial vehicle front and the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that are provided to our warfighters by the Air Force.   

 

                But you know, the bottom line is, this is -- this is by no means a lecture.  The Air Force and its -- the members of the association certainly understand where the secretary stands on his priorities, with regards to airpower.  And this is not an attempt to underscore any of those.   

 

                Or this is an opportunity for him, to address a very important group of people and to commend the Air Force, on the job they have done, note the progress they have made.  And I'm sure there will be areas that he wants to stress, that still need work.   

 

                But I think this is significant that Secretary Gates is going to talk to this group, a group that clearly has had issues with many of his particularly budget decisions, over the past year.  And I think the fact that he's reaching out to them is classic Bob Gates.   

 

                He is not one to -- he wants to explain his decisions and bridge gaps wherever they may exist.  And obviously this is -- this is an opportunity to do so with a -- an important group of people. 

 

                Yeah, Tom. 

 

                Q     When the delegation from the Czech Republic comes on Friday -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah. 

 

                Q     -- will they be given any decision on whether this government is moving ahead with the third site there in Poland?  And if not, what is the status of that review?  And when can we expect a decision? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  You know, I think every time I've been privy to our discussions with the Czech Republic and the secretary meeting with his counterpart, I can assure you that this issue has come up.  I have no reason to believe that it won't come up again.  I can't tell you, Tom, whether or not there will be any news to impart to them at this discussion on Friday afternoon.  This is a matter that, as I understand it, is still under review, and I can't tell you how close we are coming to some resolution of it.  But we will certainly keep you posted. 

 

                Q     Geoff, you said the secretary's thinking is still evolving on more troops for Afghanistan.  But does Admiral Mullen's kind of pronouncement today not make it harder for him to disagree with the military's uniformed leadership? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't know that it makes it harder or easier.  I think the secretary clearly has a great deal of respect for Admiral Mullen.  That's one of the reasons he recommended him to be reconfirmed and serve a second term as the chairman.  And I know that they have spent a great deal of time talking about this and will continue to, I'm sure, before a final decision is made by the president.   

 

                I can just tell you that the secretary, I think, is still more in the evolution process in his thinking than having arrived at a decision as to whether or not, yes, significant numbers of additional forces are needed, or no, they aren't. 

 

                The one area I can tell you -- I mean, I think we think so much of it in terms of numbers of forces.  I can tell you where he has certainly made up his mind, and that is the kinds of capabilities that are required right now.  He believes that we have to provide more counter-IED capabilities to our forces in Afghanistan as soon as possible.  By that I mean route clearance teams, explosive-ordnance disposal teams, Medevac teams, intelligence assets -- not to mention the hardware that's required, such as MATVs, more ISR.   

 

                But that is something he's -- clearly has arrived at a conclusion on.  And so he is working right now to figure out how to provide those additional capabilities so that the forces that have already been committed to Afghanistan have the protection that they deserve and require against a growing IED threat. 

 

                Q     So his thinking is not, yes, send forces, no, send forces, it's really about the number; I mean, when you talk about the significant number that could be added to the mission there.  The debate in his mind, in other words, is about the significance of the numbers, as opposed to should we send them. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I think he's always talked about this in terms of the size of the footprint.  So, clearly, size -- numbers -- have been of concern to him.  That said, he clearly wants these additional counter-IED capabilities brought into theater.  And I should preface that by saying we don't know yet how, if at -- how that impacts the bottom line, the total number of forces in Afghanistan. There are still a number of moving parts that will ultimately determine whether or not you add or whether it doesn't impact the 68,000 that have been authorized thus far.  

 

                Part of that is as a result of the fact that General McChrystal's in the midst of a force optimization review, trying to determine whether or not he has certain assets which he no longer needs, whether there are duplicative capabilities that he can send home the excess of.  Meanwhile, you know, frankly, some of our units deploy, yes, at less than a hundred percent.  So we are still working out how, exactly, we do this.  

 

                The other area in addition to -- I mean, obviously he has long been a proponent of building up, as Senator Levin has so strongly endorsed, the capabilities and the strength of the Afghan security forces.  Where he has -- but I think he would caution people from drawing too clear a delineation between trainers and combat forces, because, frankly, as we learned in Iraq, our best training is done not in some sterile environment behind the wire but rather out amongst the population, operating shoulder to shoulder with our Iraq -- our Iraqi or Afghan counterparts. 

 

                And that often leads to combat situations.  So I'd -- I think I would caution against sort of defining people too clearly as trainer, combat force.  So those are -- and you know, that's the kind of -- that's how we will best do training in Afghanistan as well. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Optimization review would be presumably complete by the time General McChrystal asks for more forces, if he does.   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think that's probably an ongoing thing.  I think we'll be constantly looking at whether or not he has the proper assortment of troops and whether there are excess or needs and that kind of thing.   

 

                I mean, this is -- you know, listen, stylistically Stan McChrystal is a different commander than his predecessors.  I mean, whether it be the tactical directive or the driving directive or, you know, the alcohol ban at NATO headquarters or, you know, as part of his optimization review, this is a guy who's talking about -- you know, who's closing down concession stands, because these things are distractions from what the mission is.   

 

                He is a no-nonsense warfighter and wants everybody focused on the mission at hand: to achieve success for the Afghan people and for Americans back home, so that we are more secure here.   

 

                Yeah.   

 

                Q     Has Secretary Gates spoke to Senator Levin about his -- Senator Levin's proposal?  (Off mike.)   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  He has, yes.  They had a meeting, well, at least before the announcement.  I think it was last week sometime.   

 

                Q     And did he kind of make the case that you just outlined there, in terms of --  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I'm not going to get into what specifically they discussed, other than that they had, as they always do, a very good and candid conversation about the situation in Afghanistan.   

 

                I know you've got something.   

 

                I'll come to you, promise.   

 

                Q     A follow-up on --  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Welcome back.   

 

                Q     Thank you.   

 

                On the -- equipment – the new anti-IED equipment that you're sending over, are you talking about Task Force ODIN kind of things?   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, it's the Liberty ships.  It's the Project Liberty -- the MC-12 aircraft, right.  It's certainly -- it's sort of -- we are attempting to replicate the success that Task Force ODIN had in Iraq, in Afghanistan.   

 

                So for those of you who were with us, when we went down to the Fort Worth area, on the 31st of August, we stopped off in Greenville, Texas, and visited the L-3 factory there, where the secretary saw them putting the final touches on the first MC-12, which is basically a Beechcraft, I think, a King Air, I think is what it is, that will be deployed to Afghanistan.   

 

                So we're buying 51 of these aircraft.  I think the majority of those will be going over to Afghanistan, to increase our eyes in the sky, to help our commanders, you know, study patterns of life among terrorists, among IED emplacers, and dissect them and ultimately dismantle them, destroy them.   

 

                Okay, let's go to Tony.   

 

                Q     I have a couple programmatic questions.   

 

                Is it possible that the secretary will make some news tomorrow on the tanker program, in terms of the way forward?   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think if you're interested in the tanker program, you should probably come to the speech tomorrow.   

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  The second engine, this long-running saga; you know, there was a failure Friday of the Pratt engine in durability testing.   

 

                Does that raise cautions within the Pentagon here that their approach to stressing just a single engine might not be the prudent approach while this investigation is going on? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  No.  Not at all. 

 

                Q     Why not? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  There is -- there is no wavering among anybody in a decision-making position here at the Pentagon about the preference to proceed with a single engine rather than an alternate engine as well. 

 

                Listen, the mishap that took place, I guess over the weekend, involving the F-135 is unfortunate, but not expected.  We're in the test phase, development phase of these engines, and those things happen. 

 

                Q     You mean unexpected.  It's not unexpected.  You just said "expected." 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I said -- okay.  Is not unexpected.  Thank you. Okay, being considerate of my misstatement.  Is not unexpected. 

 

                And that said, it is cause for concern, but not about our approach vis-a-vis a single engine or two engines.  It's a concern with regards to how Pratt & Whitney is developing this engine and with regards to, frankly, how the program office is managing that development.  And that is precisely the reason why Dr. Carter, in his capacity as head of AT&L, has formed this -- this JAT -- what is it; the Joint Assessment Team -- which is going to take a hard look at how Pratt & Whitney is going about its business, and assess the problems that are taking place and recommend options to get us back -- back where the original schedule and cost targets have us -- or had us going. 

 

                So he should get a report back from them -- I think they've already started an ambitious schedule, and I think they're due to report back to him early next month.  So he is not satisfied at this moment with how Pratt & Whitney is handling this; nor is he satisfied with how the program office is handling this. 

 

                But he believes that if we all buckle down and focus harder and devote our energies to the one engine that we believe we need, and getting that engine right, we can get back on schedule and back on cost.  And that's where our energies should be focused. 

 

                Q     So where's the leverage on Pratt Whitney (sic) if they know they're the single engine maker?  And -- you can read them the riot act, but if they know they're the monopoly, what's their incentive to get their act together on cost and schedule?  I -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, listen.  You know, reputations are at stake here, Tony.  I mean, there are -- there are other contracts.  There are other programs in the future, no doubt, that they'd like to be a part of.  And obviously, their performance in this program will -- you know, is important in terms of their overall reputation with this department.   

 

                They have a great deal of incentive.  These are people who take pride in their work.  They want to succeed.  They know how important this -- the F-35 is to our country's national security.  They know what is needed of them.  I think we have -- we believe they wish to do right here.  And we want to figure out ways to get them to do it and to get our people to perform in a way that helps them do it. 

 

                So that's what our focus is on right now.  I think all the talk of a second engine, an alternate engine, is wasted energy.  The second engine is not going to fix the problems with the first engine.  I mean, buying two of everything is not going to be the solution to all of our problems and development programs across this department.  We have all got to focus harder on getting this engine to perform to the level that we know it can.  And so that's what Dr. Carter and his team are focused on at this point, yeah. 

 

                Okay, these are the last three hands up.  That's it. 

 

                My friend, yes. 

 

                Q     Thank you.  Kyoto News from Japan. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yes, sir.  Good to see you again. 

 

                Q     Good to see you.  Last time you encouraged the new administration of Japan to go on with the refueling missions.  That made some headlines in our news.  And the Japanese ambassador in this  city said -- responded, like, saying, "We don't speak through spokesmen" -- to countries.  I'm not intending to make any friction, sir, and -- but do you have a comment on that?  And can I just make -- to make sure, again, please tell us the position of the Pentagon about this refueling mission by Japan. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, listen.  I -- let's take this separate and aside from the change of government that's under way in Japan for a moment, and just tell you that we, as a member of a coalition that's operating in Afghanistan; we, as an old ally of Japan's, believe that their contribution to the war on terror, to the world's efforts in Afghanistan is vitally important, and we would like to see them continue it. 

 

                It is a real benefit to our warfighters and thus it's of real benefit to the people of Afghanistan. 

 

                I wouldn't read too much politically into this statement.  I think I'm stating something that's rather obvious.  They have made an enormous contribution, and we'd like to see them continue that contribution.  

 

                Obviously there are domestic political considerations for the Japanese government.  They will have to deal with those.  I'm just telling you with that -- with disregard for whatever those political considerations are, we in this building very much value their contribution. 

 

                Q     You're saying that you're not pushing or asking for -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I am not asking.  I haven't had the conversation with secretary of "Geoff, please ask the Japanese to continue this mission."  That's not what I'm saying.  I am stating something which I think is obvious to all of us:  that their contributions have helped, and we would very much like to see them continue it.  Okay? 

 

                This the last two.  Here we go.  Yeah. 

 

                Q     Jeff, thanks.  Are you aware of the reports -- interview given by General Musharraf in which he has put the international community and the U.S. in doubt because he said that most of the U.S. aid went not fighting global war on terrorism but -- for to build up their military and also against India? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I -- you know, I think I heard of those reports a couple days ago.  I don't think we have any reason to believe that that could be the case, but you know, I'd urge you to talk to General Musharraf to see if he has any more specifics that he can offer you. Okay?   

 

                Yeah. 

 

                Q     I wanted to ask on this report about illiteracy in the Afghan national forces.  And the secretary's drawing parallels to Iraq, saying, you know, the ways -- the U.S. way out requires leaving behind a capable, you know, national force.  So given this, you know, the report about illiteracy, is this something that's already been planned for?  Is this new, you know, news to you guys?  And if so, how  does the military deal with, you know, eight out of 10 people in a unit being illiterate when it's trying to, you know, set a timeline for making -- you know, for determining that they are capable and they are trained and ready to go -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah.   

 

                I think it's of concern to us.  I think -- you know, obviously, the more educated a force is, we believe, the better it is.  Particularly, it is -- it's better in terms of their ability to train and pass down best practices and develop strong leadership, particularly an NCO corps. 

 

                So it is of concern to us that the illiteracy rate among the Afghan forces is as high as it is, and I think it is -- the secretary, as you know, is an educator, in addition to being a very educated man. And I think he sees there being real value in trying to get the Afghan forces more literate. 

 

                That said, there is a lot on their plate right now.  I mean, we are trying to grow them as rapidly as we can, and you know, I think our focus is on getting them to be able to perform well in the field militarily.  Obviously there are certainly physical fitness requirements as well.  But I don't think lost in all that should be the need to have a larger component of the force to be more literate. So I think that's something that we'd all like to see improved. 

 

                Q     Can I ask a quick one?  (Our M-ATVs ?) -- are they still supposed to arrive in Afghanistan next month? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  As far as I know, we're still on schedule.  I think the secretary's actually going to take a trip out to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in the coming weeks to see firsthand how production is going on there; to keep the pressure on, because these vehicles are very much needed by our forces in Afghanistan as soon as they can be produced.   

 

                So this is a high-priority item, and he's going to make that clear with a visit to the manufacturer -- not that we have any problems with how they've performed thus far.  We just want to reinforce this is something our warfighters really very much need. Okay?  Thanks.

 

 

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