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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the DoD Briefing Room, The Pentagon, Arlington Va.

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
September 23, 2009
            MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Pleasure to see you all. 
 
            I have no opening statement, but I had intended on calling on Andrew Gray for the first question, given that this is, I believe, his final -- would have been his final Pentagon press conference. But he loses.  
 
            I will nonetheless, despite his absence, note the fact that he's given three good years here, and we're going to miss him. It would have been more elaborate than that, but in his absence, I'm not going to go on. 
 
            So you, Anne, have at it. 
 
            Q     And Larry. 
 
            Q     Or Laura. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Or Laura. 
 
            Q     (Laughs.) 
 
            MR. MORRELL: AP, go at it. (Laughter.) 
 
            Q     Okay. A couple rapid-fire questions for you. When is the McChrystal troop request coming? Did anyone from DOD ask him to slow- walk it? And is the military prepared to launch more Special Ops and Predator missions in Pakistan if the president decides to go with that strategy? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: So I usually take the time to call on everybody multiple times. So we can do these one at a time. I would come back to you if you had multiple questions. But we can do these, as best I can remember them, in order.   
 
            Q     (It seems like one ?) -- (off mike). 
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- question -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, let's see if I can remember them. The first one is -- listen, I have noted with some consternation all the sort of breathless reporting about the status of General McChrystal's resource request. And I'm a little bit befuddled by it, because the secretary was very clear last week to you-all in this room that he was still working through the process by which it would be submitted. 
 
            That said, I can offer, I think, a little bit of guidance today, by means of telling you that I expect by week's end that the secretary will have received General McChrystal's resource request.   
 
            But I want to make it perfectly clear that once he has it, he intends to hold on to it until such time as the president and his national security team are ready to consider it. It is simply premature to consider additional resources until General McChrystal's assessment has been fully reviewed and discussed by the president and his team. 
 
            That process is under way. It has been frankly for a couple of weeks now. But there is certainly more work to do, more discussions to be had. And so while that is going on, the troop request will reside with Secretary Gates.   
 
            Q     Can you talk to the Pakistan part of the question?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: What was the Pakistan part of the question?   
 
            Q     Is the military prepared to go ahead with more special ops and drone strikes, in Pakistan, if the president decides to go that way?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think you know well, Laura, that I have never, or nor has anybody ever, from this podium ever discussed whether operations of that type are or are not taking place in Pakistan. So I have nothing to add today to that question.   
 
            Go ahead.   
 
            Q     So the president is still reviewing, national security is still reviewing, General McChrystal's assessment. It's been about a month that they've had it in their hands now, three weeks.   
 
            MR. MORRELL: No, it's not. It's been --  
 
            Q     (Off mike.)   
 
            MR. MORRELL: The secretary got the assessment on Monday, August the 31st. It was worked in this building. It was presented to the president, I think, the following week.   
 
            In the two weeks since, the president, the secretary and the chairman have had discussions about the assessment, about the situation in Afghanistan. And the entire national security team has met to discuss it.   
 
            But as you all know, the president and significant numbers of his team are in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. And then he will be heading on to Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit.   
 
            But I can assure you that once he gets back to town the discussions will resume in earnest, and I am confident that there is a commitment on everyone's part to work this complex issue as quickly as possible, but without rushing it. It is far more important that we make sure that the strategy we are pursuing is the correct one and the president and his team are comfortable with it. That, in the long run, is what is going to lead to success in Afghanistan and the safe return of our forces. 
 
            Q     I guess what I'm still a little unclear on was what you mean when you say that the secretary intends to hold onto the request until the president and National Security Council are ready to consider it. Does that mean -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: National security team, yeah. 
 
            Q     National security team, whatever. So -- until they're ready to consider it. I don't understand exactly. Do you mean that they're -- at this point they're saying, "We have too many other things on our plate; we're not going to deal with this"? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: No. There is a natural progression to this process, the first step being, we have an assessment from the commanding general in Afghanistan; we are going to consider that assessment. We are also going to consider other inputs when we are discussing where we are in Afghanistan, how far we've come since we pursued this new strategy back in March and where we are headed.   
 
            And once those discussions have been completed with regards to where we are and where we're going in Afghanistan, that then becomes the appropriate time to inject a resource request into the discussion, and it will then be considered. 
 
            But there's no sense in complicating a discussion about strategy with the resource request. We want to do them in order. It will be done, and I don't think this was -- this is going to take unduly long, nor has it taken unduly long, despite some of the near-hysteria you see in some of the news accounts. I think the secretary's very comfortable, as is, I would tell you, the commander downrange, at how this is progressing. And it's going in order; it's going according to everybody's prescribed methods; and we'll get there. 
 
            Yeah, Louie. 
 
            Q     Geoff, why is the secretary asking for this document to be sent down this week if the intent is to hold on to it for -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I think -- Louie, I think it's clear that there has been a lot of focus put on General McChrystal here, and I think the secretary would much rather the focus be on him than on General McChrystal and -- Terry? Terry? If you don't mind, please. That he is much more comfortable with the focus being on him and having you-all know precisely where the resource requirement -- or request fits than having there be constant questions made of the command as to the status of their -- their resource request. 
 
            Q     Does he intend to actually look at this or just let it sit in a corner for three weeks or however long? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I presume the secretary will look at it, but I, frankly, haven't asked him. I mean, I think -- I think he is of the mind that it will reside with him until we are ready as a group to evaluate it. And we're just not there yet. 
 
            Yeah, Justin. 
 
            Q     Clearly, the president is deliberating this assessment from McChrystal. And as we understand it, he's deliberating other inputs. But this sort of leaves us scratching our heads because we've only heard really one true strategy. We've seen McChrystal's assessment, his strategy, and we've heard it before. We heard Obama announce his strategy in March. Can you give us any guidance on what the other inputs he's assessing may be? And is there any truth to reports that they're looking at doing an air campaign, for the most part, and drawing back some of these forces, as has been reported? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't think I'm the best person to address what the other options or alternatives or inputs the president may be considering with his team. I think I would direct you to the White House on that. But I would just try to give you a little perspective, maybe, and that is that if you go back to March, March 27th, when the president announced this new strategy, he made it clear the end, the goal, was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda.   
 
            The means to achieve that goal, as articulated in the Af-Pak review, was counterinsurgency -- is counterinsurgency. 
 
            The fact that the president is going to have a discussion six months after unveiling that new strategy about how it's going, what we've achieved thus far, what the situation is on the ground now, especially in light of the national elections -- which were clearly a triumph against some real security obstacles, but have led to a real question about the legitimacy at least of some of the ballots -- that given all that has happened, where we now stand and, therefore, how we pursue this objective into the future. It may very well be that COIN is the ultimate method they can -- decide to continue to pursue, but there's going to be a discussion about it. And I don't think anybody thinks that's unreasonable. 
 
            But in the meantime, I think there is this sense -- a mistaken sense -- that the war is somehow in suspended animation while there is a discussion taking place back here in Washington. And nothing could be further from the truth. We've seen -- probably our highest operational tempo over the course of the war is taking place at this time. You are seeing the fourth of the 82nd, the last of the 21,500 troops that the president has authorized, continue to flow in; are nearly a hundred percent in place now. And the secretary, as you noted, last week has approved thousands more enablers to assist in the counter-IED effort. 
 
            So as this discussion takes place back in Washington, hard work continues to go on on the ground in Afghanistan. And frankly, my sense in my correspondence with the commander and talking to his staff, is that he is singularly focused on working the situation in Afghanistan, and is largely oblivious to all the chatter and rumors and leaks and other debate that is taking place back here in Washington. 
 
            I mean, Stan McChrystal is an old pro. And he's a hardened warrior, he's been battle-tested, and he's not naive as to the ways of Washington. 
 
            He's been around this town long enough to know that debate and discussion will take place. And it doesn't impact him or faze him as he wages a very important war in Afghanistan.   
 
            And so I would urge you to really question these unnamed sources you have which suggest there is some sort of dissension, concern, urgency that is being articulated by some in uniform, because I do not get that sense from the commander, and I do not get that sense from the secretary. We're going to move with speed, but we're not going to rush it, and we're going to get it right. 
 
            Q     Well, just to follow, what we're really concerned about is discussions that there's other options out there, other methods for this war. Aren't we far too invested in COIN as it is to change the strategy now, with 21,000 that the president has already approved this year? How do we -- how is it possible you could change that strategy? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I would -- I'd refer you back, Justin, to the president's remarks on March 27th, when he unveiled this. He talked about how we will -- consistently assessed, we will measure and we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals. He made it clear, when he unveiled this strategy six months ago, that we weren't going to blindly adhere to it, that we would constantly reassess and see how we are doing and if adjustments needed to be made.  
 
            This is a natural reassessment point. This is a natural time to review how far we have come, what still needs to be done and what the best way of achieving our ultimate goals is. 
 
            I think the fact that there's a review taking place doesn't -- you know, doesn't -- as some of you would suggest, that all of a sudden, you know, COIN is imperiled and that we're going to offshore this. There's a discussion that's going to take place.   
 
            But I think the White House is the best place to talk in terms of what the things that are on the table for consideration are and those sorts of things. 
 
            Now, if you ask me about sort of the remote nature of this, all I can tell you is, the secretary's thinking overall on this remains a work in progress. He is still evolving. His thinking is still evolving.   
 
            But I think he has been crystal-clear on what he thinks of trying to achieve our goals in Afghanistan remotely or offshore, as some would say.  
 
            And I would only refer you to his comments, I think, in reference to the George Will piece that suggested that a couple of weeks ago. 
 
            Okay. 
 
            Q     Can you clarify this, because I didn't really -- when you say the secretary's thinking is still evolving, just help me -- evolving on what in particular? What are you referring to?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: On the situation in Afghanistan and how to proceed. 
 
            Q     Really? I mean -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Really! 
 
            Q     -- explain a little bit more about what he -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Shouldn't be that -- it shouldn't be that surprising. He's -- this is -- I mean, he's not participating in this discussion as a -- 
 
            Q     I -- (off mike) -- I'm -- the reason I ask this is, since March -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: -- as some sort of pro forma exercise. I mean, this is useful to him as well as it is to the president.   
 
            As I -- he has been very forthright with you all, frankly, over the years, but particularly over the last several months, about his views on more forces in Afghanistan and some of his concerns, and also now how some of those concerns have been mitigated. 
 
            But I would tell you this: Perhaps unlike some others who are involved in this process, his view ultimately on more troops is still a work in progress. His thinking is still evolving. He has not come to a final determination on what he believes to be the best way forward. That's just where he is.  
 
            Q     To what extent is this reassessment that the president and the NSC are doing a result of the McChrystal report and the sort of dire assessment that he gave and what he said about what would be required to achieve the counterinsurgency, which was more troops? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't -- 
 
            Q     He said it in that report. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I mean, as -- I just read you the quotes from late March -- I mean, there is always the intention throughout the course of this strategy to review it. The president said that after the elections there would be a reassessment, and that's what's taking place now. 
 
            Q     Well, just one last thing. I don't -- how can -- while he may be constantly thinking, one can only assume, since March, both the secretary and the chairman have repeatedly gone out in public and endorsed counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. They could not have been more clear of their support.   
 
            So I'm just wondering, after months and months of repeated statements of support, his concern about sending mixed signals to the troops and to the public. People are confused about, why did we hear so much about this as the strategy, and now it's -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: That is the strategy and remains the strategy. There is a discussion taking place about whether it should continue to be the strategy or whether adjustments should be made. Doesn't necessitate that there will be a change in strategy.   
 
            The president deserves to have a thorough discussion with his advisers about the situation in Afghanistan, how this strategy has worked thus far and what the prospects of future success are, especially in light of other developments, such as the addition of the forces that he's authorized, such as the influx of enablers to help with IEDs and of an election that is still, frankly, in dispute. 
 
            So there's a lot that's changed, and a lot that needs to be analyzed. And I think it's only appropriate for the commander in chief and his national security team to discuss these developments, and adjust, if necessarily -- if necessary, accordingly. 
 
            Yeah, Al. 
 
            Q     Geoff, you talked about a -- the natural progression of things. How does it make sense for the general to send in a resource requirement based on a strategy that's still under review? If the White House decides to alter the strategy, then that presumably would alter what McChrystal needs. So why send in this request for the secretary to put in his pocket? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Obviously, when General McChrystal (underwent ?) -- developed his assessment, he did it according to the goal and the means that had been prescribed from the commander in chief and the secretary and his senior military leadership.   
 
            So the assessment clearly does reflect the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and the means of counterinsurgency. And I think that if there are adjustments -- there may have to be adjustments made in terms of what's required to achieve the mission if it changes.   
 
            But there's -- right now, he is operating under the assumption that he is -- his job is to defeat al Qaeda. And he is going to do it. And he has made certain recommendations based on that.   
 
            But I would, without going into the details of how this request is constructed, I would tell you that it's not your typical request for forces; this is a more analytical look at the situation and what's needed and the risks associated with certain troop levels, and there's an alternate recommendation. 
 
            Q     Is the secretary going to share those numbers with the president and other members of the team? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: At the appropriate time, there will be a discussion of the resource request. 
 
            Q     Yeah, but I mean -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: But we are not going to put the cart before the horse. We're going to discuss the strategy, and then we'll discuss the resources necessary to successfully achieve the mission via that strategy. 
 
            Q     But don't they need to know the specific numbers of what the general wants, if they decide to continue on the path that they're on? This is -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: If they decide to continue on that path, the numbers will be discussed. If they don't decide, the numbers will still be discussed. 
 
            Q     But how do you make that decision about whether to continue? They have -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: That is not how this process works. There's going to be a very thorough and in-depth discussion of strategy. That's the focus. Resources are not the focus. The strategy, the situation, how best to achieve our goals: that is the focus. 
 
            Okay. Look, I think we've belabored this; have we not? I mean, is everybody sort of -- (laughter) -- you're never done. 
 
            Q     Another question? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yes. On this? Yeah. 
 
            Q     Geoff, what should -- what should troops make of this whole hullabaloo? I mean, you've got, obviously, folks who are -- 68,000 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan right now. You've got more waiting to go over. What should they make of this whole brouhaha? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Listen, my sense is -- and I haven't been on the ground in Afghanistan in a little while, but my sense is that they have better things to do than to pay attention to sort of the Beltway debate and -- and the discussion that's taking place right now. They have life-or-death matters to deal with day in and day out. And they know that there is a chain of command and that there are people at that top of the chain of command whose job it is to deal with those kinds of issues. And so I don't think it is a distraction. 
 
            As I told you, I know it is not a distraction for the commanding general and his team. But I do think that all this -- all this -- sort of the rumors and the gossip are -- are unhelpful. I mean, I dealt with yesterday a parade of e-mails and calls from reporters saying, "Oh, I hear General McChrystal's going to resign." Just absurd. Absolutely ridiculous. And anybody who knows Stan McChrystal knows as much, and they shouldn't even bother asking the question. 
 
            But that kind of talk is not helpful. And I mean this guy is a pro. You give him a mission, give him a goal, give him the means to do it, he'll do it. It's -- this is not about his feelings. This is about achieving a mission that is essential to the national security of this country. 
 
            So anyway, I urge you all to be a little more skeptical of all this chatter you hear. 
 
            Yeah, Kevin. 
 
            Q     The strategy in Afghanistan is supposed to be whole-of- government strategy. So, given all the talk about the troops, playing off of Jim's question, but the non-troops, everybody else in the U.S. government are supposed to have a role in this Afghanistan success. What's the secretary's thinking? Is he pleased or does he want more or less of that non-military function to take some of the burden sharing off the troops? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Sure. 
 
            Q     And is that something that he's bringing to these discussions? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I -- listen, I'm not going to discuss what the secretary's input into these discussions is. But clearly, he believes that it requires more than military might to succeed in Afghanistan. We do need a whole-of-government approach. We do need civilian support. We do need expertise that can only be found in the private sector or in non-military government agencies. So he has always been -- I mean, go back to the Landon lecture in November of 2007. He has always been a strong proponent of greater civilian resources being brought to bear in Afghanistan. 
 
            Q     (Off mike.) 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah, last one. 
 
            Q     A quick question on strategy. Can counterinsurgency strategy work in a country where a government lacks credibility? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think that's -- well, listen. Listen, hold on. Hold on. Hold on. I love how we repeat these things as if they are fact. But I would urge you to sort of very much scrutinize that notion.   
 
            There are allegations of fraud that are clearly being investigated, right? And we want to let that process take its course. But I would urge you to talk to your colleagues in Afghanistan and talk to Afghans, particularly Afghans out of urban areas, and get their take on the elections. And I think that they are far more comfortable with how they proceeded than perhaps others are.   
 
            I'm not -- I'm not suggesting that all these allegations of fraud shouldn't be thoroughly investigated and resolved, but I'm just saying this automatic assumption that they are -- that they lack legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans I don't think is necessarily an accurate one, and I would urge you to do more reporting on it.   
 
            But clearly, what you are asking is a fundamental question which will be part of any discussion that takes place among the president and his national security team. Absolutely. The elections and their outcome are clearly part of the impetus for the discussions that are taking place right now. 
 
            Okay? 
 
            Q   And the use of a counterterrorism strategy, is that also -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to -- listen, I am not -- I am not privy to nor am I comfortable, if I were privy to that information, dispensing it from this podium. The White House should be speaking to what the president is considering, what the options he want (sic) brought forward -- brought forward to the discussion are. 
 
            So I'm not going to get into that.   
 
            Q     Yeah -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I mean, I just referred you, though, previously to what the secretary's public statements have been on that particular strategy when it was raised in the context of an op-ed.   
 
            Q     On this topic -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. 
 
            Q     -- could you give us a readout about the meeting on Monday between Secretary Gates and Minister Barak, and if you have any kind of information about the joint drill between Israel and the U.S. in the Mediterranean? Israeli defense officials were quoted this morning that it is the largest of its kind. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I frankly, Joe, know of no such joint drill, but if -- we can certainly get you more information on that, if indeed one is taking place. 
 
            I would tell you with regards to the secretary's meeting with Minister Barak, which you know happen with some frequency, that it -- I don't think that subjects that have not been previously discussed were brought up. I think there is a -- you know, that they're -- they discussed the sort of typical range of issues that they do.   But I think that everybody thought the discussions were productive, and I -- that's about all I have for you. 
 
            Q     What kind of topics they discussed? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, they discussed a range of security challenges that the Israelis and we frankly face in the Middle East, obviously Iran being one of them.   
 
            Okay? 
 
            Q     (All right ?). 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Every -- exhausted? No?   
 
            Al. 
 
            Q     Geoff, the secretary has spoken on several occasions with some emotion about the troops and about the casualties. And with casualties up so much in Afghanistan -- about 25 percent of total U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have happened in the last nine months, over 200 in the last three months since the increase in operations -- how big a factor is that in this review of how to go forward? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, you know, I hear people on -- I hear some of the talking heads and others, frankly, and people who obviously have our respect and deserve our respect, talk about sort of the urgency for the sake of the fact that there are troops dying at a higher rate than perhaps ever in this conflict. 
 
            And that is not lost on anyone in this building -- I can assure you that -- and certainly not the secretary of Defense. 
 
            That said, I believe the secretary believes that what is ultimately in the best interest of our troops, what will ultimately provide for their well-being and their safe return, is to make sure we have a strategy that is working. And so he believes it is appropriate to take time here in Washington to review it and assess it and make sure we are all comfortable with proceeding down the same course. That ultimately is going to bring us success in Afghanistan, and that ultimately is going to bring about the safe return of our forces.   
 
            But the fact that we are losing them at a alarmingly high rate, given the history of the conflict in Afghanistan -- although, thankfully, at a -- you know, less than half the rate at which we lost troops during the worst years in Iraq -- that is not lost on anyone in this building. Nor is the cause of most of those casualties something that is not apparent to everyone in this building -- 85 percent of U.S. and coalition forces are the victims of -- those forces killed in action are victims of IED attacks. 
 
            So that is why the secretary has been so determined to get thousands more enablers, experts and route clearance and explosive ordnance disposal and intelligence, and in addition to this, thousands of new armored vehicles over and ISR, to make sure we can defeat this IED network just as we did in Iraq. 
 
            Q     But does that impact on the strategy discussion? In other words, are the principals considering whether, if they continue on the same path -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Al, it -- that would impact the strategy discussion in the sense that the secretary of Defense signs the deployment orders; he signs the condolence notes. The president of the United States gives the order.   
 
            There are no two people in government who appreciate the gravity of the decisions that are being discussed and will ultimately being -- and will ultimately be made than the secretary of Defense and the president of the United States. The secretary understands that this is a hugely consequential decision for the president, and he wants to make sure that the president -- and himself, frankly -- are very comfortable with it before they send thousands more young men and women off to battle. 
 
            I think that's only reasonable. 
 
            Okay? I think we're done. Thank you all.
 
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