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DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen
June 16, 2011

            SEC. GATES:  I'll begin this afternoon with a brief personnel announcement.  We thought about the lectern, and I would announce that I was firing myself, and -- (laughter).

            I have recommended to the president that he nominate Admiral Jonathan Greenert to become the next chief of naval operations.  Admiral Greenert is the current Vice CNO of the Navy, where his portfolio includes significant personnel programs and budget responsibilities.  Following two decades as a submariner, Admiral Greenert commanded the Navy's 7th Fleet in the Pacific and later Fleet Forces Command.  Admiral Greenert, if nominated and confirmed, would succeed Admiral Gary Roughead, who will retire this fall.

            At the appropriate time later on, the departmental leadership will have the opportunity to pay a full tribute to Admiral Roughead's nearly four decades of service and his leadership at the helm of the Navy for the past four years.  I would just say that I've very much enjoyed working with Gary and have greatly valued his counsel and wisdom on both Navy issues and broader strategic matters.

            That's my only news today.  But since this will be my final press conference as secretary of defense, I would actually like to take this opportunity to say a few words to the Pentagon press corps.  And don't worry -- it's all good.  (Laughter.)  These past few weeks have truly been the long goodbye, particularly for the traveling press, so I'll keep it short.

            Even though I had held senior jobs in the U.S. government and was president of a major university, before becoming secretary of defense, I had never had sustained a regular on-the-record interaction with the news media.  When I first took office, I worried that relations between the Pentagon, the military and the press, while always difficult, were mostly characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment.  So I made it a point when speaking to military officers, from cadets to generals, to remind them that a vigorous, inquisitive and even skeptical press was a critically important guarantor of the -- of freedom under the Constitution and not to be treated as the enemy.

            I gained even more of an appreciation for the important accountability role of the press early in my tenure when newspaper reports exposed two glaring bureaucratic shortcomings, in the outpatient treatment of wounded warriors at Walter Reed and resistance to purchasing life-saving MRAPs for troops downrange.  Responding to both of these critical issues, which only came to my attention through the media, became my top priority and two of my earliest and most significant management decisions.

            Over the past four and a half years, I have not always liked what I read, and like anyone else in government, I hate leaks, maybe more than most.  But I have great respect for your role as a watchdog on behalf of the American people and as a means for me to learn of problems that the building was not telling me about.

            I know we don't always make it easy to do your jobs here.  Gaining timely and usable information out of the bureaucracy and their gatekeepers is always a challenge, a challenge that I've shared with you on occasion.  So thanks again for your professionalism, tough questions and hard work.

            I'll close by saying a few words about the man seated next to me, Admiral Mullen, and his vice chairman Hoss Cartwright.  Chairman Mullen has spent four years as the military's most senior officer, every day of it in a time of war.  He played an instrumental role in developing and executing our new strategy in Afghanistan, where you're now seeing substantial progress.

            Beyond the wars, Mike's focus has been on people; in particular, his concern about the stress on the ground forces and their families.  Our men and women in uniform could have no better or more effective advocate, and they will undoubtedly be sorry to see him go when he has his well-deserved retirement.

            Serving alongside Admiral Mullen has been General Hoss Cartwright, an outstanding Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, bringing to that office his unique technical and strategic brilliance.

            I consider both General Cartwright and Admiral Mullen as friends, and it has been a true privilege to work alongside them for nearly four years.  Our country owes them a great debt for their years of service, and I will always be grateful for their wise counsel and extraordinary leadership.

            Mike?

            ADM. MULLEN:  The only thing I'd like to add is, with respect to the nomination -- the recommendation for Admiral Jon Greenert, I've known Jon Greenert for a long time.  He's an exceptional officer and if confirmed, will be, I believe, an exceptional CNO.  He has wonderful operational experience, fleet experience, he's terrific with people and he has extensive experience in the money world, which is now facing all of us.  So I strongly concur with the secretary's recommendation in that regard.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, let me start by saying that we appreciate the fact that you kept to your promise to appear regularly in this -- in this room to take questions over your four and a half years.

            SEC. GATES:  Actually, there was a little joking about that in the Situation Room yesterday, several of the others commenting that we've made it very difficult for them.  (Laughter.)

            Q:  I have questions for each of you.  Mr. Secretary, on the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which some say has sunk to a low ebb, I'm wondering, as you prepare to leave office, whether you have any regrets about the way the relationship has been handled, and whether you see on the horizon anything that will stop this downward spiral?

            And for Admiral Mullen, a similar subject:  You have developed, of course, a personal relationship with General Kayani.  Are you concerned that he may be headed out the door?  And what would be the meaning for the military cooperation with Pakistan if he were no longer in the picture?

            SEC. GATES:  First of all, I would say that the long history of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has had its ebbs and flows.  They have regarded over the decades that we have abandoned them on at least four occasions:  two wars with India, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, and then after the enforcement of the Pressler amendment.  So it's a -- it's a relationship both sides have had to work on.

            And it is complicated, but as I -- as I said yesterday in the hearing and as I've said often before, we need each other, and we need each other more than just in the context of Afghanistan.  Pakistan is an important player in terms of regional stability and in terms of Central Asia.  And so my view is that this is a relationship where we just need to keep working at it.

            Q:  Is there something you see that's going to come up in the near future that can change the direction of the relationship, or is it --

            SEC. GATES:  Well, just as -- just as the ebbs have come at -- in surprising ways, I suppose that the things that would cause an uptick are hard to predict right now.  But the key is to keep the lines of communication -- literally, I mean between our governments -- open, and to continue communicating with each other as openly and as honestly as we can.

            ADM. MULLEN:  From my perspective, nothing's changed in terms of the criticality of the relationship, which is one of the reasons that I've worked it so hard.  And certainly, I have a very strong personal relationship with General Kayani, and I consider him a friend.  But it's not just the personal relationship, because I have a very strong professional relationship.  Nor is mine the only relationship in our military-to-military relationship between the two countries.

            And the -- what he is going through right now, what the Pakistani military's going through right now, obviously is considerable introspection based on recent events.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  They've got some questions.  And in the end -- and I know General Kayani well enough to know -- what he cares about the most is not himself:  What he cares about the most is his institution.  And leaders in -- throughout the world, and certainly in this case, you know, we share that with him. 

            I think we need to give it a little time and a little space as they, you know, go through this introspection.  I would agree with what the secretary said.  As opportunities come up and we hit some very difficult times, I think there will be opportunities for the relationship to improve.  Certainly, the challenges aren't going to go away.  The region isn't going to go away. 

            And as I said yesterday on Capitol Hill, I believe we have to be very careful now in terms of the relationship.  And you know, were it to break or were we to walk away, I think in a -- it's a matter of time before the region is that much more dangerous and there would be a huge pull for us to have to return to protect our national interests.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, and for Admiral Mullen too, following up yesterday on your testimony on some of the questions asked by some of the senators yesterday, what specifically would be the threat if the U.S. were to cut off funding and close relations with the Pakistanis?  And can the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan succeed without Pakistan?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I would say that the -- that our strategy is succeeding and Pakistan is playing a contributory role to that.  It is -- it is important to remember that they have 140,000 troops on that border that, at a minimum, are stirring things up.  They've basically cleared South Waziristan and Swat.  But even their presence and maneuvering and so on creates uncertainty. 

            There is some indication that al-Qaida is worried that -- because of the way we went after bin Laden, their suspicion is that the Pakistanis may have been involved in it and are worried that the Pakistanis may betray them as well.

            There is -- clearly the lines of communication through Pakistan are critical for our operations in Afghanistan. 

            So I think all of these things are important.

            And then just in terms of regional stability, there is the reality that Pakistan is a country that has a number of nuclear weapons.  And again, keeping those lines of communication open, it seems to me, is very important. 

            ADM. MULLEN:  I would just re-emphasize the last point:  It's a country with an awful lot of terrorists on that border.  Obviously the links that we've got with -- in the Afghanistan-Pakistan campaign, if you will, which is what it's been for me from the beginning -- it's not about one country or another; it's about the region.  And those things that I fear in the future, it's the -- it's the proliferation of that technology and it's the opportunity and the potential that it could fall into the hands of terrorists, many of whom are alive and well and seek that in that region.  And that's of great interest, I think, to our country and certainly to the rest of the world.

            Q:  I'd like to ask both of you your reaction to the fact that Zawahiri has now been elevated to the top position in al-Qaida.

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm not sure it's a position anybody should aspire to, under the circumstances.  But I think -- I think he will face some challenges.  Bin Laden has been the leader of al-Qaida, essentially since its inception.  In that particular context, he had a peculiar charisma that I think Zawahiri does not have.  I think he was much more operationally engaged than we have the sense Zawahiri has been. 

            I've read that there is some suspicion within al-Qaida of Zawahiri because he's Egyptian. 

            So I think -- first of all, I think we should be mindful that this announcement by al-Qaida reminds us that despite having suffered a huge loss with the killing of bin Laden and a number of others, bin -- al-Qaida seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them. 

            So I think he's got some challenges, but I think it's a reminder that they are still out there and we still need to keep after them.

            ADM. MULLEN:  It's -- David, it's not a surprise that -- from my perspective, that he's moved into that position.  The -- he and his organization still threaten us.  And as we did both seek to capture and kill and succeed in killing bin Laden, we certainly do -- will do the same thing with Zawahiri.

            Q:  Do you take the seven weeks it took to name him as evidence or maybe just logistical problems or of some dispute within al-Qaida over who should succeed?

            ADM. MULLEN:  From my -- from my perspective, I don't take it either way.  I think it's just they're working their way through that process and that's how they made the decision.

            SEC. GATES:  It's probably tough to count votes when you're in a cave.  (Laughter.)

            Q:  Gentlemen, the last couple of weeks, there's been growing clouds of anti-war, anti-Afghanistan sentiment from both parties, from votes in Congress concerned about the cost of the war.  In the last few weeks -- and -- (inaudible) -- yesterday, I've noticed that you've had to still sell the war in Afghanistan after all this time.  Does that -- has this frustrated you any more than recently?  And what does this say to you -- as far as after you leave, what do you expect the country's going to feel or the leadership in this -- the town that you're leaving behind is going to feel about pressing on with that commitment?

            SEC. GATES:  One of the interesting challenges about this job has been the responsibility of waging two wars, neither of which I had anything to do with starting.  And certainly, I saw in 2007 and 2008 how unpopular what we were doing in Iraq was, how unpopular the surge was.  I had to cancel a trip to Latin America in the fall of, I think, 2007, because it looked like Republican support was crumbling and that we might end up with congressional action to stop the surge.

            So for me, it is the reality that -- as a historian, and I like to remind people of this -- with the exception of the first couple of years of World War II, there has never been a popular war in the United States in our whole history.  They've all been controversial.  And each case, it has required the leadership of the president, whether it was President Truman in Korea; President Wilson, World War I; President Johnson initially in Vietnam; and certainly President Bush -- first President Bush, with the Gulf War.  People forget that when the president said he was going to reverse Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, it was 15 percent public support.

            So this unhappiness and certainly the war weariness after a decade is -- rests heavily on all of us, I think.  And the key is how do we complete our mission, as we have largely done in Iraq, in a way that protects American national security interests and the American people and contributes to stability?  I think most people would say we've been largely successful in that respect in Iraq.  I think we're on a path to do that in Afghanistan.

            The costs of the wars is huge, but it is declining.  The costs of these wars will go down between FY '11 and FY '12 by $40 billion, from $160 (billion) to less than $120 billion.  There's every reason to believe that between FY '12 and FY '13 there would be another significant reduction.  And, of course, with the Lisbon agreement, the size of our forces left in Afghanistan in December of 2014 would be a small fraction of what they are today.

            So I think that -- I understand the impatience.  I understand the concern and especially in hard economic times.  We also have to think about the long-term interests, security interests, of the country.  And that's where I come out on this.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, I was going to ask about the current situation in Syria.  Do you still believe that imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime is the appropriate tool to face what the regime is doing?  And do you think having a humanitarian intervention similar to what you have done in Libya could be an option?

            SEC. GATES:  I don't -- you know, again, I think we have certain over-arching principles and values that apply everywhere, but we have to take the situation in each individual country one at a time.  I have seen -- the Libyan intervention started with a resolution from the Arab League, involved a resolution by the GCC and ultimately a U.N. Security Council resolution.

            I see no appetite for any of that with respect to Syria.  In terms of sanctions and so on, that really is more in the secretary of state's lane, but I think that if there is to be some pressure on Syria to stop the kind of killing that we've seen, it would have to come through some kind of sanctions like that. 

            (Inaudible.)

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, a bunch of us were in the room a few years ago when you were asked, I think, the shortest question you were ever asked at a congressional hearing about Iraq, whether at that point, in your opinion, we were winning in Iraq.  As you begin to wind down, I'd like to ask you that same question about Afghanistan.  You mentioned progress.  You've mentioned gains.  But fundamentally, do you believe, right now, we're winning in Afghanistan?

            SEC. GATES:  The one thing I -- I have learned a few things in four and a half years, and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like "winning" and "losing."  What I will say is that I believe we are being successful in implementing the president's strategy, and I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces.  Those were three of the tasks that the president laid out for us in December of 2009, and I think we've made -- and the other was reversing the momentum of the Taliban.  I think in all four of those cases, we are succeeding.

            Q:  Can I just follow, Mr. Secretary?

            Q:  Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma has expressed some concern and members of the Oklahoma National Guard expressed concerns that about 800 members of two units of part of the 45th were reassigned at the last moment.  They were supposed to head to Afghanistan.  They are now going to Kuwait to help with Iraq.  These are trainers that were going to go to Afghanistan.

            Can you assure the American -- first of all, why were they reassigned, and can you assure the American people that the drawdown hasn't already begun?

            ADM. MULLEN:  The recommendation came in from both General Petraeus and General Mattis specifically with respect to their arrival time, if you will, which was beyond the 1st of July.  And they were in -- they were in final training, headed to Afghanistan, and the recommendation came in, in light of the fact that we were going to start withdrawing troops this summer; that we would have to make a decision or they were in a -- they were in a good position for us to make a decision about whether they should be diverted or not.

            Based on the conditions on the ground with respect to where General Petraeus was, he then made a recommendation.  General Mattis endorsed that, and it was one -- and quite frankly, it was a decision here, in the end, which then diverted these units in a timely way.  More than anything else, it was to try to take care of them -- not get them headed in one direction and then have to rehead them in another direction.

            Based on the overall plan, which was to draw down some number of troops -- even though that drawdown hasn't started because of -- the decision hasn't been made, but certainly with the expectation that there would be some troops that'll come out, the decision hasn't been made, and that given that, they would be a part of that.

            Q:  The president said the drawdown hasn't started, but 800 troops are not -- are -- with the drawdown in mind, are being diverted.

            SEC. GATES:  I think it's actually pretty straightforward.  The president has said that we will begin drawing down our forces based on -- in July of 2011, based on the conditions on the ground.  As General Petraeus was looking across Afghanistan and beginning to identify different options, it was pretty clear that these were -- these two units were units that would probably be on that list.  And so we took the decision here, as the chairman has just said, to divert them so that we didn't end up putting them someplace and then pulling them right back out again.  So the decision was made here, aware, clearly, of the president's direction of what would begin in July, but frankly to look out for the interests of those troops.

            Q:  I have a budget question.  You spent a lot of time yesterday explaining the process by which you're going to assess the $400 billion goal.  But since that goal was announced by the president, you've never been asked, is that goal -- is it too big a number on top of the $178 billion through 2016 you're already planning to reduce?  In other words, can you -- no matter how you get there, can you take $400 billion of a reduction and not seriously degrade national security, or, overall, is it a minor cut when you look at the 12-year plan?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't think it's a minor cut.  And I think it's important to remember, you know, we didn't start this yesterday.  The decisions that we took to cap or cut 30-some programs in April of 2009, as I said at AEI, essentially took a lot of low-hanging fruit, and a lot of people would say, some more valuable stuff as well.  But the total value of those programs, had they been built to completion, was about $330 billion.

            Now, we said at the time, now some of those cuts, we're going to have to go back and do other kinds of programs.  For example, one of the cuts was the presidential helicopter; we still got to do that.  One of the cuts was a bomber; we have a new bomber program.  So it's not a net cut of 330 (billion dollars), but it would -- it would've been.

            We then did $178 billion worth of efficiencies, and $100 billion reinvested by the services, $78 billion for the topline.  So -- and halfway through the fiscal year, FY '11, our budget was cut $20 billion.  So it's not like we're starting from scratch on this.  This department has been dealing with these issues for at least the last two years.

            Now, the question that you ask is actually the question to be answered by the comprehensive review.  If you look at the different options that are available, once you take into account the things that I've talked about yesterday -- more efficiencies, marginal programs and capabilities, and tackling some of the politically sensitive issues -- you're left with force structure.  And so what are the options in terms of getting to that number? 

            Now, we're also mindful that there are numbers out there that are bigger than that, so -- and some of them substantially bigger.  So I think it's our responsibility to lay before the president and before the Congress what the consequences are of cuts at different levels and what changes have to be made in strategy, and what the implications are in terms of capabilities.

            That's what we're going to do.  That work will be done; I think a lot of it's well under way, and I think it'll be done later this summer and in a position to inform the final budget decisions.  And the president was quite clear when he and I discussed this, and he was clear in his public announcement, in his speech, that no specific budget decisions would be made with respect to the $400 billion until we have looked at -- had completed this review.

            STAFF:  Sir, you probably have time for two or three more.

            SEC. GATES:  All right.

            Q:  Can we switch to Yemen for a moment?  And if both of you will talk about how disruptive the violence there has been to our efforts at counterterrorism -- I believe the -- there's no longer any training, the training has been suspended of the counterterrorist forces -- just what that disruption has been, and also, if you could talk a little bit about the connection between al-Qaida in Yemen, or AQAP, and --

            ADM. MULLEN:  Yemen's been a focus area for us for several years now, and in great part because of the -- of the al-Qaida branch that's there, AQAP, which is a deadly, deadly node.  And Awlaki, who leads that group -- very focused on homeland threat to us, and in fact, have been behind a couple of attempts so far.

            So we've worked hard to provide the kind of training support that the Yemenis' government has asked of us and at the same time -- and developed relationships which actually got to be pretty strong.  Clearly, with the turmoil that the country is in right now, that training has been impacted, and we are, as I think everybody is, watching how this plays out, while at the same time still focused very much on this -- on al-Qaida, on this group of the al-Qaida, not just leaders, but that's in the country there.  And I worry a great deal about its continuing to grow and become more viral over time.

            So I certainly would say that it's -- it's gotten in the way of the training, with what's going on there.  The Yemeni forces are very focused on their own country right now.  But it -- you know, we continue to be committed to that and we're watching very carefully how all this comes out.

            Q:  I have a question on --

            SEC. GATES:  Last question.

            Q:  -- a question on military aid to Yemen and to Pakistan.  On Yemen, can we -- can the United States really disburse new aid to Yemen, given everything that's going on in the country and the uncertainty about its direction?

            And on Pakistan, have you communicated any kind of warning to -- or will you -- to Islamabad that reducing the training mission significantly might also have an impact on the amount of military aid that the country might provide?

            ADM. MULLEN:  I have provided no warning whatsoever, specifically, and then -- to Pakistan in that regard.  Obviously, we've had discussions recently -- I visited there with Secretary Clinton -- very frank, open discussions about where we were and how to move ahead across a broad range of issues, military and civil.

            And then with respect to Yemen, you mean physically or legally?

            Q:  (Off mic) -- aid to Yemen.

            ADM. MULLEN:  Whether we can physically do it?

            Q:  (Off mic.)

            ADM. MULLEN:  There is -- there is a -- obviously an aid program that has been, I'd say, interrupted by the current chaos that's in that country.  And it would be -- you know, we'll get on the downside of that chaos to look at what the next steps would be.

            SEC. GATES:  Thank you all very much.