SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you. At ease. Good afternoon. Thanks for giving me a little time this afternoon.
(STAFF): Sir, is it all right if I tell them to sit down? Would that be all right?
SEC. HAGEL: Oh, absolutely it is.
(STAFF): Sit down, Marines.
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah. Did you bring your lunch? Yeah. This is not going to take long, so don't worry that I'm going to consume your afternoon here. First, thank you. Thanks for coming together and giving me some time this afternoon. And I wanted to begin my comments this afternoon with thanking you for what you're doing and what you have done. I want to also make sure that you pass on to your families how much we appreciate their sacrifices for this country and supporting you and allowing you to do the kind of job for this country that you've been doing better than anyone.
I just landed a couple hours ago coming from Australia. I was there for about three days. And with Secretary of State Kerry the last two days, we had meetings with our Australian counterparts, the minister of defense and the foreign minister. And before that, I was in India for a few days. And I wanted to comment about that trip briefly.
But let me begin with a comment that I heard yesterday more than once, beginning with the Australian minister of defense, about how much the people in Darwin and around Darwin, Australia, love you guys. They love the Marines. They want more Marines. And a couple of comments that were made I thought were very interesting. The Marines have been interacting with the community in that area, and I don't know if any of you have been up there on a rotational assignment, but you'll probably get there at some point. We have about 1,200 Marines up there now and we'll build to about 2,500. And as you know, we do it on a rotational basis.
But as the Marines have been interacting in the community up there, they've been working a lot with high school students. And a couple of the Australian leaders mentioned to me yesterday how big of an impact the Marines' interaction and spending time with high school students in that area was having on those high school students. And the teachers loved it, because what the Marines were saying to these young people about duty and honor and all the things that you all live by every day, teachers don't mind you doing that, as you know.
And I say that because it's a reminder that our forces as they are deployed around the world always affect more than just their mission. And accomplishing the mission, which you do, as I mentioned, better than anyone, is one thing, but then all the other dimensions of that deployment and your relationships and how people view you in those host countries is really important. It's important for our country because it says a lot about who we are as Americans, and it says a lot about why we do things, the way we do them, and you are really ambassadors in many ways.
So I know we all hear a lot about what's wrong and how we could do things better, and we can. But rarely do we ever get an acknowledgement of the things that you do right, so I wanted you -- I wanted you to hear that. So, thank you for that.
I think we've got some real opportunities in that part of the world, Indo-pacific, Asia. We're all working hard to develop partnerships and relationships and capacity-building with our partners there. The Marines are critically important to that because you are our amphibious force and you work probably across as many lines with as many groups in as many countries at different times as any one of our forces in our overall enterprise. So I wanted you to know that, and I wanted you to be aware that I know it and President Obama knows it and all of our leaders do, and how valuable what you do is to just -- the overall factoring in of the kind of world that we're living in today, but more importantly, what's the future?
And as you know better than most, because some of you have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I thank you for your service in those areas, there are still a lot of very, very troubled spots in the world. We can continue to provide leadership -- we will -- with our partners, but we can't do it alone. And we appreciate that the wise focus of our forces and our objectives is to build those partnerships and to work with other countries as we help them become stronger and better at the things they need to do to protect themselves, and that's particularly important, as you know, in a completely interconnected world when the threats are really borderless. They extend beyond nations and beyond regions.
I would tell you that, as you know what's going on in Iraq, for example, that we are focused once again on assisting the Iraqis. They have -- are in the process of forming a new government, as you know, which is going to be the centerpiece of how that government is going to be able to deal with what's going on there, the specific threats of ISIL and the other realities that are now confronting the people of Iraq.
What we did there in our years in Iraq was help the Iraqi people build a stable government and a country that allowed them to determine their own future. And after all, that's what we do and why we do things when we partner and we help other countries allow the people of those countries to make their own choices and their own decisions.
The Iraqi people, the government of Iraq, country of Iraq is now under threat from some of the most brutal, barbaric forces we've ever seen in the world today, and a force, ISIL, and others that is an ideology that's connected to an army and it's a force and a dimension that the world has never seen before like we have seen it now. And it's going to take partners working together. It's going to take a new Iraqi government. We're going to continue to assist that government. As you know, President Obama made some decisions on, first, on the basis of protecting our people and our interest in Iraq, and also on the basis of humanitarian assistance, we're doing an awful lot, and we'll do more, as we continue to support the process now underway to form their new government.
This is a government that has to be inclusive. It needs to be a unity government that shares power, which was the intended purpose of the constitution they wrote. That hasn't happened the last five years, and because of that, Iraq is in the kind of position it's in today because that inclusive participatory government that should have been in place and should have brought together all the different factions of Iraq didn't occur.
I recommended to the president, and the president has authorized me to go ahead and send about 130 new assessment team members up to northern Iraq in the Erbil area to take a closer look and give a more in-depth assessment of where we can continue to help the Iraqis with what they're doing and the threats that they are now dealing with.
Those new assessment team members arrived in the Erbil area today. They'll be working with General Austin, who I spoke with yesterday on this, and General Dempsey, and getting those assessments back to us very shortly.
I would also say it follows the criteria that President Obama has made very clearly, that this is not any extension of any role other -- for the United States other than to find ways to assist and help advise the Iraqi security forces, which we have been doing.
As the president has made very clear, we're not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat mission dimensions that we once were in, in Iraq. Very specifically, this is not a combat boots-on-the-ground operation. We're not going to have that kind of operation, but short of that, there are some things we can continue to do, and we are doing, and I just wanted you to know that, because that team of 130 new assessors that just arrived in Erbil, it's a inter-service team, but there are a lot of Marines on that team. And, again, we appreciate what the Marines are doing.
Afghanistan, I know many of you served in Afghanistan. We continue to support the audit process of those election results. And that is now continuing to stay on track. As you know, Secretary Kerry was there a few days ago to assist in bringing together the two presidential candidates to sign a commitment to essentially live by the results of that audit and then how those two candidates would move forward on the formation of a new government for Afghanistan, which is critically important.
Your role there, and our role there and contributions you've made there has been important for many, many reasons. But one of the most lasting and important -- and, again, it's always the point of what our overall mission is, is not to stay indefinitely in any country, but to help them build institutions in their own government, governing, functioning responsible institutions of governance and help them build their own security forces, and the Afghan security forces have done very well this year. We've had two elections that went off. They've still got challenges, still problems, still threats, absolutely. But overall, they have assumed all the combat missions and most every mission in Afghanistan. That's significant.
Now, as you know, we'll transition into a new phase of responsibilities post-2014 over the next two years. We'll do that with our NATO partners, and most of our ISAF partners will stay with us. Those numbers will come down, as you know, but that has been planned over the last few years.
So we're not without challenges and threats and concerns in Afghanistan. But that's the reality of what we're all dealing with, but I think it's important to note the tremendous progress they've made as they build their own institutions and capacities and capabilities to defend themselves and govern themselves and support themselves, and you have been a big part of that in helping them get there.
I want to make sure I've got some time for your questions here, too. So let me just sum up. First of all, I wanted to just give you a little report on my trip and, in particular, as secretary of defense, a report on where we are on Iraq right now and Afghanistan. And then we can get into anything specifically that you want to talk about. But one last point. When I got here and landed, we went over to a couple of sessions that I wanted to see of some of your colleagues who are transitioning out of the Marines. Some are retiring, have been in the corps more than 20 years. Others haven't been here 20 years but are transitioning out.
And I wanted to listen a little bit to the kind of effort we're making and the people who are assisting them on making sure they understand not just what their benefits are, but what their options are, but also a sense of what they want to do next. And how do you take these great skill sets that you have developed and this great expertise and experience that you have developed in -- when you get out of the Marines, what do you do with that? What do you want to do with it?
And I want you to know, as secretary of defense, I'm committed to assure every resource we have to assure our people as much as I can and Department of Defense can assure you that we'll help you with whatever you want to do. And one point I made to these Marines, don't underestimate not just the skill set that you've developed, but don't underestimate the tremendous leadership and common sense and value-added that you have built, continue to build in your careers.
It's hard to qualify that and quantify that and put that on a piece of paper, but let me tell you, any institution in this country in the world knows what you have. And they value that composite person, leadership and skills, of course, but judgment. Everything always comes down to judgment. All of you have been in situations, many of you in combat, when you were confronted with situations, they didn't teach you in a classroom. And your drill sergeants didn't tell you about it. It's not because they weren't good drill sergeants, but we're all confronted in life with a lot of situations that you weren't prepared for.
That really requires special judgment and a sense of who you are, but also relying on each other. So I wanted to close by saying that, because I want you to know that there's no higher priority for me and for our leaders, President Obama, than to take care of your people and their families, and we're committed to do that and we'll continue to do that. So thank you for giving me some time here today.
So, questions, anything you want to ask me? Yes, sir. We'll get you a microphone.
Q: Yes, sir.
SEC. HAGEL: I think you've got to probably get in front of (off mic) come on over here. I'll let you use mine. You're bigger than me, anyways.
Q: Great, I appreciate it, sir. Thank you. Good afternoon, sir. My question, sir, is, given the current situation in both Iraq and Israel, do you foresee us putting any boots on ground in the near future? And if not, sir, why?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I just mentioned, boots-on-the-ground regarding Iraq, the president said we're not going to do that. And the mission that we had in Iraq on fighting that war and combat mission is over. And he's been very clear about that.
But also, if you recall, the Iraqi people made some decisions on their own sovereignty on that count. As to boots-on-the-ground in Israel, no, we're not going to do that.
Just a reminder, what we're doing in Iraq now is at the request of the Iraqi government. Every one of the decisions that president has ultimately made recommendations I've made to him, the most recent I just mentioned, the 130-member assessment team going -- that's now in Erbil.
That was at the request of the Iraqi government. The humanitarian assistance that we have been providing came at the -- and comes at the request of the Iraqi government. And, by the way, we've had five of those airdrops so far. Other nations are now involved. The UK is involved. We just came back from, as I said, Australia. Australia has committed to their involvement in these airdrops.
The French have got some people that they're going to deploy on the humanitarian assistance side, so we're doing what President Obama talked about doing, which is always most important to assure partnerships across the board on the humanitarian effort, because it is -- it is a global issue, the threats, but in particular, this humanitarian reality. So that's number one.
We are working with the Iraqi government at their request to help them. We work, obviously, with the Israeli government, as we do with all governments on our relationships of what we can do. But no boots on the ground in Iraq and Israel.
Q: Afternoon, sir. The question I have for you today, sir, is what is your views, as well as the discussion, with women in combat?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as you know, we are -- go ahead and sit down -- we, the Defense Department, are all of us in the process, each of the services, for working through the last very small group of positions that have been restricted to men only. And I was just talking with the commandant the other day about this. The Marines are working exactly in the direction they should be working, are working to get these directives and requirements met on time.
Each service is different, as you know. And requirements are different. Combat is a different world. I served a year in Vietnam in 1968 as an infantryman, and I know a little something about that business, your business. And so we want to make sure that as we work through all of this and we open up more opportunities for women in every service, in every MOS, that we give everybody as much assurance as we can that this -- this will be successful, that they can be successful.
At the same time, everyone agrees that we're not going to lower our standards, and whether it's a male or a female in any occupation, no one wants to do that. And we are not doing that, and we won't do that.
But there are ways that we can explore and we are and adjust to making sure that we continue to move forward and assure that these occupations that have been closed to women get opened up and get opened up on the timelines that are now in process.
Q: Good afternoon, sir. My question is that, given that the administration's primary focus is on the Pacific theater, how has all of the issues popping up in the world today, Russia, Iraq, Africa, the rest of the theaters pretty much affected that current mission? And how do you foresee that affecting the mission in the future?
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. That's a -- go ahead, sit down -- that's a question I got often when I was in India and Australia. And the trip I just came from was my sixth trip to the Asia Pacific area in the last year-and-a-half. I've got four planned this calendar year. And so I get that question all the time. It's a legitimate question for the very reasons you asked.
The world is exploding all over. And so is the United States going to continue to have the resources, the capabilities, the leadership, the bandwidth to continue with the rebalance toward the Asia Pacific? And the answer is yes.
And I think, as what I did in taking questions yesterday on this, it is pretty clear on where we are today and what we have committed to do, we are continuing to do. Start with the fact that both Secretary Kerry and I, the secretary of state, secretary of defense, were just in that area for a few days. I've been there six times in the last year-and-a-half. Look at the new things we have done in the Asia Pacific, the new initiatives.
I mentioned Darwin. And we'll get eventually to the 2,500 Marines rotational presence. That's new. The new arrangement we have in Singapore for LCS rotational berths there, that's new. The new arrangement we have with the Philippines on using their bases on a rotational basis, that's new. New and more equipment in Japan and Republic of Korea, that's new.
You (INAUDIBLE) any measurement of what we're doing is an increase in our presence. We've got 360,000 men and women deployed in the Asia Pacific area. We have more deployments, more ships in our Navy in that area than we've ever had in peacetime. We're in more countries, involved in more operations with more partners all over the world than we've ever been in.
Now, that said, as I've said, with that rebalance, which will continue, and we are committed to do that, we're not retreating from any other part of the world. Great powers can't pick and choose which challenges and threats they're going to deal with. There is no power on Earth like the United States of America.
And not only do the people of this country have confidence and must have confidence and rely on you, me, all of us for their security, and security is not just making sure nobody attacks exactly the homeland every day. It's making sure that nobody gets close to threatening our country, but also continuing to work with partners and help our partners. No country is great enough, powerful enough to deal with all these threats and challenges alone in the world today. They're too big, too complex. The world is too complicated.
Whether they're cyber threats, which are relatively new, but are just as real and deadly and lethal as anything we've ever dealt with, obviously, what's going on in North Korea, China's behavior in the South China Sea, East China Sea, you mentioned Russia's actions in Ukraine, North Africa, the Middle East today, every part of that world is troubled under great stress.
Our ability to work with partners and build partners, what I said earlier, is really as much as anything a key to this. So we're not leaving any part of the world. We're going to build partnerships and alliances stronger, better, and new partnerships that we've never had in ways that we've never thought about before. That's how we'll work through this.
But we'll continue to be committed to and we will stay committed to the Asia Pacific rebalance. We're a Pacific power. We have been a Pacific power. We have tremendous interests in that part of the world. You just isolate on the economics of Asia Pacific. And by any metric or measurement you apply, it is the fastest-growing -- will continue to be -- world's middle class economic development, opportunities, energy, I mean, you take any frame of reference of commerce and trade, that part of the world is the most dynamic and will continue to be the most dynamic, but it relies on maritime security, freedom of the skies, space, peace, stability, security.
So we have a big role, a big responsibility, but we have great opportunities there for our future. And that's the way we're going to go forward.
Admiral Kirby says we have to -- that I don't get any more time. When Admiral Kirby says that, I've got to do it. We're very proud of you all. Thank you very, very much. And, please, tell your families how proud we are of them and thank your families. Take care of yourselves. Thank you very much.