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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell October 29, 2008

DoD News Briefing with Press Secretary Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

MR. MORRELL: Good morning. Thanks for joining me a little earlier than usual today. I have a brief announcement and then we'll get right to your questions.

I am pleased to report that earlier today, Multi-National Forces Iraq returned Wasit province to Iraqi control. The national and local governments now have responsibility for security and governance in all of southern Iraq.

Wasit becomes the second province in as many weeks to transition to Iraqi control and the 13th overall. The government of Iraq now has responsibility for the security of two-thirds of the nation. It is our hope that Iraqis can take charge of security for the final five provinces in the coming months. However, that will certainly be a tough test for their security forces.

The remaining provinces are particularly challenging, but with each passing day, the Iraqi army and police are growing in capacity, capability and confidence. Our forces are working hard to help the Iraqi government recruit, train and equip security forces that can one day protect all Iraqis from internal and external threats, but that simply will not happen before the end of the year.

So it is essential that the Iraqi legislature pass the negotiated Status of Forces Agreement in order for our forces to have the legal basis to continue to operate in Iraq and continue to train Iraqi forces beyond New Year's Eve.

And with that, I would certainly be happy to take your questions.


Q On the same subject, Geoff, the Iraqis, of course, are asking that the SOFA agreement be amended. Is the door -- is the door open at all still to that? And is the secretary thinking about the possible alternative of extending the U.N. mandate?

MR. MORRELL: Let me take those individually.

Let me give you first an update on what I know coming out of Baghdad, and that is our embassy there -- and for more specifics, I'd of course urge you to talk to the State Department, because after all, they're the lead negotiator -- our embassy has now received some recommendation on the SOFA text from the government of Iraq. They are in the process of being translated, and they will then be evaluated by our team. This process, I believe, will likely take several days.

We want to be very deliberate about this. We want to have a clear understand of what precisely the changes they are looking to make entail. And so that process has begun.

But listen, Bob, we are trying -- the whole purpose of this agreement -- and keep in mind it's a two-part agreement; it's the Status of Forces Agreement and it's the Strategic Framework Agreement. The crux of the Strategic Framework Agreement is to -- is to create an understanding for us to be long-term strategic partners. Strategic partners give each other the courtesy of listening to concerns.

So the Iraqis have raised some concerns. We're now trying to translate them and figure out what precisely they are. And we will listen to them. We will evaluate them and we will make decisions based upon our understanding of -- at that point. We're not there yet. I can't tell you what we're going to do with those recommendations once we translate them. But it is our intention certainly to listen to them, to pay them proper respect.

But as I have said, as the secretary has said, as others has said, this is an agreement born of seven months of hard negotiations. We believe it's a good agreement. We believe it's a fair agreement.

We believe it protects Iraqi -- Iraqi sovereignty while at the same time protecting our forces and allow us to finish the mission in Iraq.

So we would be -- we think it is good as it's currently constructed. As the White House said yesterday, we would be hesitant to open that door wide again, to undertake a wholesale rejiggering of this agreement. But I think we would certainly take a close look at the things that they have concerns about and have now shared with us.

Q Given that there is the time limit, of course, is it feasible to consider the U.N. mandate as an alternative? Is that being considered now as a fallback?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I think we've always talked about there are only two options. I know some people have floated this notion, well, what about a handshake between two governments? Well, we don't do business on handshakes.

There are two options. One option is the one we prefer, the one we are dedicated to seeing come to fruition, and that is coming to an agreement on the Status of Forces Agreement. The other, if necessary, is rolling over the U.N. Security Council resolution. That is an -- is an alternative.

We certainly have been heartened by statements that we have -- that we have seen coming out of Moscow and other places. I think Foreign Minister Lavrov has talked about their -- support they would offer if it became necessary to roll over the U.N. Security Council resolution. That certainly is heartening. We've certainly heard things coming out of Baghdad that they would -- they would offer it up as it is currently constructed. That is certainly heartening.

But our focus is on getting this agreement that we have spent months and months negotiated -- negotiating -- come to an agreement, get some final status that the Council of Representatives in Iraq can vote on, pass, and we can have a long-term resolution to the legal status of our forces in Iraq.

On this subject? Yeah.

Q As there's literally two months before this does expire, how close are these other provinces to being ready to take responsibility?

MR. MORRELL: On turning over to provincial Iraqi control, I'd have to go back and look at what the targeted dates for that are. But these are clearly going to be the tough ones.

I mean, you now see -- if you look at a map of Iraq, the whole southern swath is under provincial Iraqi control. The northeast is under provincial Iraqi control. But from Baghdad sort of northwest, up to Mosul and so forth, it's still primarily under the control of Multi-National Forces Iraq. And those are still areas that remain problematic -- much improved, but still face challenges.

And so I think it will be some time still before the Iraqi security forces are the size and capability where they can handle full responsibility for those areas as well, but I couldn't tell you precisely when we anticipate picking those provinces as well.

Yeah, Tom.

Q Well, I just -- I don't want to interpret what you and the White House are saying, so I want to be clear. While you're reluctant to reopen the SOFA negotiations, you are saying that you are at least open to that possibility, is that correct?

MR. MORRELL: I think what I've said is we've received their -- their recommendations. We're in the process of translating those recommendations. Once we have them in a format that we can read and understand, we're going to evaluate those recommendations, and then we're going to make a decision at that point how to proceed.

I would say overarching -- in an overarching thematic sense, let's remember what we're trying to do here. We're trying to create a strategic partnership between the United States and the Iraqis. We want to have a long-term, good, healthy, open, working relationship. So people who desire such a relationship would inherently wish to give each other the consideration of looking at their concerns, their ideas, and seeing if there are things that are worth addressing. And I think that's where we are at this point.


Q The one change that the -- some of the members of parliament seemed to request was the removal of the phrase that would allow the U.S. forces to stay after 2010. This has been both parties. So the --

MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I'm not going to -- I really am going to resist getting into a point-by-point evaluation of the SOFA text that is now being circulated in Iraq to which they apparently wish to make some changes. I think to do so would just -- would just create more problems. So I'm going to resist doing that. So I'm sorry, I'm not going to get into particulars other than to say we're going to look at their concerns and once we have an understanding of them make a decision about how we wish to proceed.


Q Geoff, could you explain why it's so important that this agreement be reached? Why don't we just roll it over?

MR. MORRELL: Well, it's first and foremost important because it's something the Iraqis wish for. They made it clear a long time ago that they wanted to be treated like a partner. They wanted to be treated like an independent, sovereign nation with whom we have bilateral relations and like every other nation that -- where we have forces around the world. They don't want to operate any longer under the auspices and the authorities of this U.N. resolution. They have emerged from the period of darkness in the aftermath of their liberation, and they wish to be treated like a -- like the independent, sovereign, strong country that they are.

And so it is our desire to fulfill their wishes while at the same time completing the mission: making sure they have the security forces and the governance capabilities to run that country without any U.S. force presence there, hopefully in the -- in the not-too-distant future.

But we're not there yet. And so we anticipate they're going to need U.S. forces and U.S. assets on the ground for some period to come after this year, in which case we need the legal authority to be there.

Q Is there a downside to simply leaving it to a new administration to conclude this deal?

MR. MORRELL: Is there a downside? Well, the downside is that at the end of the year, it expires. So we got to get it done before it expires, or otherwise our guys are sitting there, illegally, and with no -- and with none of the legal protections necessary to conduct their operations. And the risk you run then, Jim, is that the gains that have been made with American -- at great cost to American -- to the American people and families -- taxpayer dollars, blood lost, lives lost -- will start to unravel, potentially, if we have to cease operations because we don't have the legal mandate to operate anymore.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There are two-months-plus left in which to try to figure this out. We have something that they, in effect -- you know, I'd point you to Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh yesterday, who was quoted saying: Without an agreement, there will be no legal cover for the U.S. military presence here, which means they will have to suspend their operations. We are trying to avoid reaching that point. We don't want a legal vacuum. The American administration is just as concerned about Iraq security as we are. We are all working towards the same end.

I think there are some -- what we believe to be some minor issues that they have now floated to us formally, and we're going to -- we're going to look at those and make an evaluation upon -- about how to proceed from there.

Justin. Are we still on this?

Q Yeah.


Q Assuming the SOFA doesn't come through and you do have to roll over the U.N. security resolution, how long would that take? And would you suspend all U.S. military operations?

MR. MORRELL: I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. I'm not going to get into hypotheticals. We're working right now. We've got, you know, two-plus months in which to try to nail down the security -- sorry, the status of forces agreement, and that's where we're focused right now.

Q But you do have a Plan B, and that is the U.N. -- (inaudible).

MR. MORRELL: What I've said all along is there are two options. We are focused on one option at this point.

Q No idea how long the second option would take to complete?

MR. MORRELL: I don't. I don't. You could talk to the U.N. You could talk to the State Department. I'm not familiar with how long that process normally takes.

Yeah, go ahead, Jim.

Q Afghanistan?

MR. MORRELL: You're still on this?

Q Yeah. Why do you think the Iraqis are not passing this agreement now?

What are the reasons?

MR. MORRELL: I think --

Q Do you think this building still believes that the Iranians are interfering to make this be impossible?

MR. MORRELL: Two separate, distinct questions. I'm not an Iraqi political expert, so I'm going to refrain from trying to decipher the political machinations that are under way in this new democracy. Clearly there are political obstacles, as there are in this country oftentimes, which may just take some time to overcome.

With regards to Iranian interference, nothing has changed since I last talked to you last week. We have seen signs, you know, for quite some time that the Iranians wish to undermine, derail this agreement. In fact, I think -- and I don't have it handy, unfortunately -- I think there was a quote to that effect from one of the Iranian leaders this week, a public acknowledgement that they dislike this and that they are working hard to try to defeat it.

But anyway, I think our position has not changed on that. We have ample evidence that the Iranians are doing everything within their power to try to derail the agreement. But you know, the Iraqis are an independent people who I believe, in the end, will do what's in the best interest of their country, regardless of outside pressures from Teheran or frankly from Washington. They will make this decision based upon their own best interests.

And -- but I think in this case we have mutual interests, and that is the long-term security and stability of that country. And we are their allies in trying to make that happen.

Any more on this? Andrew?

Q Just a brief follow-up on something you said, Geoff. You said you believed the objections to be minor issues. Does that mean there --

MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I mean, I -- listen, I -- frankly, I have not seen them. So that should -- that's probably a step too far for me. So I can't -- I -- no, it's fair; thank you for following up. I don't think it's appropriate for me to characterize them at this point. I have not seen them. Maybe I would say I would hope they would be minor issues, but I have not seen it. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. Always -- keep me honest, as they say on another network.


Q Regarding Afghanistan, what is the current status of requests for additional U.S. troops by NATO and U.S. commanders? If you add it all up now, what is -- what are we looking at in terms of the request from commanders in terms of additional forces? And how soon can you say the deployment -- would some of those forces start to flow into Afghanistan?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, we've flowed 21,000 additional forces into Afghanistan in roughly the past year -- about 11,000 U.S. troops, 10,000 NATO forces -- to increase the size of allied coalition forces on the ground by about a third.

So we certainly have been attending to the commanders' needs by flowing in, you know, tens of thousands of additional forces.

Now, there remain additional needs that we are working to meet. We will meet some of them in the very near term. I think the 2/7 Marines will be replaced by, I think, the 3/8 coming up in November. And they will -- and that was a unit that was not scheduled to be replaced. Additionally, you're going to have the 3rd of the 10th Mountain Division re-missioned from Iraq into Afghanistan come January, so there are clearly thousands of additional forces on top of the 20-plus thousand we have already sent there. And I imagine there will be many more thousands beyond that.

The secretary's made it clear that he is sensitive to the commanders' needs. He is sympathetic to them. He wants to try to meet them as quickly as possible, but there's a process under way to try to make that happen. We -- unfortunately, we don't have them all, you know, sitting at the ready, waiting just for the beck and call and we can send them overnight. I mean, we have competing demands for our forces around the world and so we have to balance the needs of commanders in Afghanistan against our requirements globally. And we're in the process of doing that.

Q But it you look at the request, it's an outstanding request for additional forces to go to Afghanistan next year. Can you put a number on it? Is it roughly 10,000, 15,000? What --

MR. MORRELL: I think we've talked about it always in terms of brigades. And I think what he would like -- what General McKiernan would like is in addition to the 3rd of the 10th, he would like three more brigade combat teams on top of that. I don't know where that is in the process, in terms of how it works in this building to ultimately get to the secretary for his approval, but it takes some time to do so. We have to balance those requirements against what we have and our -- and our needs elsewhere. But I think that's probably close to getting up to the secretary and he'll have to make some decisions on it. But I think he desires three more BCTs and I think the article that you're referring to today suggested that he needs thousands more enablers.

Obviously, you can't send, you know, multiple additional brigades into Afghanistan without giving them the support that's required, everything from how do you bed down all those troops to how do you maneuver them around the country to be effective and how do you support them with the intelligence they need. We are going to flow in and have begun to flow in a lot of additional ISR assets. You're going to see a whole Task Force Odin set up in Afghanistan with four platoons of, you know, an array of ISR assets to better help the commanders on the ground particularly protect the Ring Road, which is such a vital lifeline in Afghanistan for commerce and transport and governance.

So I think you're going to see enablers. You're going to see intelligence assets. You're going to see combat forces. They are coming. They have been coming. They will continue to come. We are -- we hear the commanders' desires. They are our desires. It's not like they're over there wishing one thing and we're back here wishing another.

We're all on the same team. The difference is, the guys here have to weigh the commanders' needs in Afghanistan against all the global requirements we have, and we're in the process of doing that.

But it would be a mistake to suggest that we have been sitting on our hands while the commanders in Afghanistan have been screaming for more forces. We have flowed 20,000, with our allies, additional forces in, in roughly the past year. And then you will likely see -- what is that -- we're going to send a BCT and a platoon -- and a battalion in there, so another, you know, 4(,000) to 5,000 forces before probably the Inauguration.

So there are forces. There will be more forces. We are working on it.


Q (Chuckles.)

MR. MORRELL: (Chuckles.) I get carried away sometimes.

On Afghanistan still?

Q Yes.

MR. MORRELL: Okay. Al Pessin.

Q Geoff, thank you. With change of command on Friday, will General Petraeus be authorized -- will it be part of his campaign plan to negotiate with the Taliban or elements of the Taliban in order to try to get the violence down?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, listen, it's not us authorizing General Petraeus to negotiate with the Taliban. The government of Iraq make their -- the government of Afghanistan makes decisions for itself. If the government of Afghanistan, as they have now publicly expressed the desire to, wishes to step up its reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, that is their prerogative. They are an independent, sovereign state. If that's what they see in their best interests, we fully support it, and we'll do whatever we can to help facilitate it.

But don't be under the impression that, you know, General Petraeus is going to be the lead on any of these efforts. He's not even the -- you know, the commanding general, you know, on the ground there. He's in charge of -- he will be in charge of that region.

So -- but if the Afghan government wishes to proceed in a more robust way, in a more aggressive manner, to reach out and try to figure out which of the people who are threatening their very existence are reconcilable and willing to work for the greater good of the Afghan people, and which are simply never going to change their ways, we are certainly ready and willing to help them do so. And if they want to work out deals with those who are willing to work with the government, we'll aid them in that. And if they wish to eliminate those who are simply intractable and obstinate and will not ever bend to the central authority, we will help them capture and kill those people.

So that's the game plan, but it won't be led by General Petraeus. It will be led by the Afghan government.

Q So you're saying that the U.S. military would support and facilitate, to use your words, negotiations with the Taliban?

MR. MORRELL: We've said it -- we -- (inaudible) -- we all act as if this is so new. The Wall Street Journal runs it on the front page yesterday, and all of a sudden everybody runs off and follows up.

We've talked about this at length. Reconciliation has been going on in Afghanistan in one form or another to varying degrees of seriousness and dedication for years now. And just in the most recent past, in the last two to three weeks, when we were on our way to Europe I think this issue came up last, the secretary was asked point blank about it. Of course we would support reconciliation. We've done it to great success in Iraq. Not that everything will necessarily work from Iraq in Afghanistan, but we will certainly think it's worth trying a greater reconciliation effort in Afghanistan.

That's how all major conflicts have ultimately come to an end. You have to -- you can't kill them all. You have to figure out a way to embrace those who are willing ultimately to work with the central government, lay down their arms, or at least stop pointing them at the government and at us, and work in a constructive manner for the good of all the Afghan people.

But it is not a new concept, despite what I keep reading. This has been going on for some time, albeit -- I will acknowledge this -- clearly with a renewed emphasis lately by the Afghan government that we are working to support.

Yeah, Joe?

Q How much are you confident that reconciliation with the Taliban would be successful?

MR. MORRELL: I don't know that we're confident at all. But I think it's one of those things that has worked elsewhere and therefore should be given a shot. And a concerted effort should be made to figure out who is willing to change its stripes and work for the good not of their own individual causes, not of their own warped sense of what's right and wrong, but who are willing to work for the good of this democratically elected government, for the peace and security of the Afghan people. Those are the kind of people that we think it's worth taking a shot to try to bring into the system.


Q Would U.S. support for these types of contacts initiated by the Afghans hold even if it was Mullah Omar?

MR. MORRELL: This question's been asked and answered a thousand times. No, we are not talking about reconciling with Mullah Omar. I don't think we -- listen, but ultimately this is the Afghan government who has to make determinations of these things.

We as a government do not believe that Mullah Omar is somebody you reconcile with. Mullah Omar has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands, based upon the support that he provided Osama bin Laden. So we do not reconcile with al Qaeda.

We are talking about reconciling with insurgents within Afghanistan, not foreign fighters, but insurgents within Afghanistan.

Q Does this include direct negotiations between the U.S. military and lower-level Taliban? Or are we talking only supporting Afghan government negotiations?

MR. MORRELL: We are focused on supporting the Afghan government in its efforts.

(Cross talk.)

And I do, I do -- I will take this question but I want to end this in time for you all, if you wish to, to get over to the, to the secretary of the Army is hosting a roundtable discussion on a, on a brand new five-year study that they're about to embark on, with the National Institute of Mental Health, to try to figure out -- conduct research and come up with new methods to prevent suicide in the Army.

It's an important meeting. And I'd like to get you over there, if you're interested in attending. So let me take this and maybe one or two more. And then I want to try to get out of here before the end of the hour, bottom of the hour.

Q I wanted to follow up on Jim's question about Mullah Omar. What part of Taliban do you think you can do reconciliation with?

MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to go through a list of who you can reconcile and who you can't reconcile.

I think Mullah Omar, who provided a safe haven and a base from which Osama bin Laden could train terrorists, who eventually killed thousands of Americans, is not somebody we're prepared to reconcile with.


Q Geoff, the Pakistani government called in the U.S. ambassador to discuss about strikes in the FATA by U.S. aircraft. The Syrian government has complained to the United Nations about an operation inside its borders.

Do you have anything? Does the Pentagon have anything to say to either of those governments or their people?

MR. MORRELL: I think this is a good note to end on. I have nothing for you on those. Thank you.

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