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Press Conference with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen on Leadership Changes in Afghanistan From the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen
May 11, 2009

                SEC. GATES:  First, I would like to express my horror and deep regret over today's shooting incident at Camp Liberty in Iraq.  I offer my sympathy and condolences to the families of those who were killed.  We are still in the process of gathering information on exactly what happened, but if the preliminary reports are confirmed, such a tragic loss of life at the hands of our own forces is a cause for great and urgent concern, and I can assure you that it will get this department's highest-priority attention. 


                As you know, I just returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where I met with our troops and commanders in the field.  My purpose in going was to see firsthand the preparations and plans under way to execute the president's strategy for the region, especially as significantly more American troops begin arriving in country.  I thought it critically important to get a sense from the ground level what needs -- what the needs are, what the challenges are and what the solutions to some of the problems are. 


                As I have said many times before, very few of these problems can be solved by military means alone.  And yet, from the military perspective, we can and must do better.  We have not been able to fully resource our military effort in Afghanistan in recent years, but I believe, resources or no, that our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders.  Today we have a new policy set by our new president.  We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador.  I believe that new military leadership also is needed. 


                After consultation with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Central Command, and with the approval of the president, I have asked for the resignation of General David McKiernan.  He will remain in command of both ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan until such time as a relief can be nominated and confirmed. 


                I am today recommending to the president that Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal be nominated to replace General McKiernan as commander U.S. Forces Afghanistan.   


                I am also recommending that Lieutenant General David Rodriguez be assigned to the new position of deputy commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan.  I have advised the secretary general of NATO and the minister of defense of Afghanistan of these prospective changes. 


                I made these decisions only after careful consideration of a great number of factors, including the advice of Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus.  In the end, I believe my decisions are in the best interests of our national security and the success of our mission in Afghanistan.  I urge the Senate to swiftly confirm Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez so they can begin their important work as soon as possible. 


                Let none of this detract from, nor cause us ever to forget, General McKiernan's long and distinguished career of military service. For decades, in peace and war, Dave McKiernan has led hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform with conviction, integrity and courage.  He has dedicated his life to the preservation of the freedoms we in this nation enjoy.  And on behalf of the Department of Defense and the nation, I thank him for his years of selfless service. 




                Q     (Off mike.)  Are you worried at all that switching horses in midstream has an air of desperation, or that you -- that you -- what you saw on both of your recent trips there was worse than you had expected to see? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, let me start and then turn to Admiral Mullen. 


                I think that the -- as the statement suggested, that -- that with agreement on a new strategy and a new mission, and a new national approach and international approach in Afghanistan, that if there were to be a change, this is the right time to make the change, at a time when we are at the beginning of the implementation of a new strategy. And it is in that context that I emphasize that the focus here is simply on getting fresh thinking, fresh eyes on the problem, and in how we implement the strategy and the mission going forward. 


                ADM. MULLEN:  In fact, for me, based on my recent trips, the opposite is true.  In the time that I spent in RC East, I was very encouraged by the progress that we'd made and the depth of understanding of what the requirement was from our people on the military side to generate success. 


                Clearly that is not the case in the south, because we have not had the forces there, and putting them there this year is critically important.  And I would only echo what the secretary said, from the standpoint of, with the new strategy, with the new team across the board, I felt it was very important for new leadership, and supported this decision completely. 


                Q     Mr. Secretary? 


                Q     Admiral Mullen?  Mr. -- for both of you gentlemen, while you say you felt there needed to be fresh eyes, fresh thinking, General McKiernan, of course, has only been there for a period of months.  He's yet to get the resources he asked the Obama administration for.  The troops that he has asked for aren't even there yet. 


                So what specifically was he not doing that he -- you said you wanted fresh thinking, fresh eyes.  Did he resist your ideas?  Did he resist change?  Was he uncooperative with the new thinking, the new way forward?  What went wrong here? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, General McKiernan has been in Afghanistan, I think, 11 months.  And -- first of all, I would say, nothing went wrong, and there was nothing specific.


                It is -- it simply was my conviction, based on my consultations with Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus, that a fresh approach, a fresh look in the context of the new strategy, probably was in our best interest. 


                Q     Mr. Secretary? 


                Q     Admiral Mullen? 


                Q     Admiral Mullen -- excuse me.  Admiral Mullen, what -- why couldn't, in your mind -- you said you supported the recommendation; in your mind, why could General McKiernan no longer do the job? 


                ADM. MULLEN:  Again, he's been there almost a year.  And, in fact, under normal circumstances, he would have rotated somewhere between 18 and 24 months, depending on timing. 


                I have said that we must focus all of our effort in terms of making Afghanistan better.   


                There probably is no more critical ingredient than that -- than leadership.  And again, along with all the other changes, it's time now.  And that's why I made that recommendation. 


                Q     Is it just loss of confidence?  I haven't heard anything yet -- I'm so sorry -- about why you both think he couldn't do the job. 


                ADM. MULLEN:  Well, I'm not going to say a whole lot more, other than the -- I thought there was a need for new leadership -- clearly we have in the two that the secretary -- the two officers that the secretary mentioned a rich experience level -- General Rodriguez in particular deep in Afghanistan, having been there before -- and that I think these two officers will bring a -- not just a renewed but a focus, which we really need in 2009, and I just didn't think that we could wait until 2010. 


                Q     Mr. Secretary, having talked to people who are involved in all this, they say McKiernan was maybe too conventional, too "old Army" in his outlook, not nimble enough to deal with the complex counterinsurgency.  And as the admiral mentioned, McChrystal has a lot more experience in Afghanistan.  Could you just comment on some of that? 


                SEC GATES:  Well, it's -- you know, I won't -- it's hard to say anything more than we've already said.  I would -- Admiral Mullen just talked about the experience that -- in counterinsurgency that both General McChrystal and General Rodriguez have. 


                I would tell you that those who are speculating on the ingredients in this decision, if it's not Admiral Mullen or me or General Petraeus, has (sic) no inside information on our thinking. 


                Q     So McKiernan just lacked a certain counterinsurgency experience or wasn't nimble enough on this? 


                SEC. GATES:  I think what the admiral said is exactly where we are.  It's time for new leadership and fresh eyes. 




                Q     Secretary Gates, for you, talk to me a little bit more about why General McChrystal and his -- whether it's the Special Operations background came into your thinking. 


                And Admiral Mullen, if you would talk a little bit about the effort that General McChrystal has been doing for you in terms of how to resource the Afghanistan mission, what -- why you assigned him that, what his mission was in that. 


                SEC. GATES:  I would simply say that both General McChrystal and General Rodriguez bring a unique skill set in counterinsurgency to these issues.  And I think that they will provide the kind of new leadership and fresh thinking that the admiral and I have been talking about. 


                ADM. MULLEN:  I just -- for both of them, as -- whenever you look for replacements -- I mean, whenever that occurs, you -- I took a broad range of inputs from military officers.  


                And McChrystal and Rodriguez rank -- outside this discussion, outside this change, McChrystal and Rodriguez have ranked, for the entire time that I've been chairman, at the top of the list.  So we couldn't pick two better officers. 


                And then specifically, Julian, with respect to the -- the discussions and focus on getting the best people to Afghanistan, making sure that we resource that as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible, making sure that leaders who go there that -- have that experience so that our ramp-up time when we turn over is absolutely minimal -- all of that focuses on the importance of Afghanistan, and actually lessons that we learned from Iraq where some of our rotations would -- you know, we were starting over from an experience level.  So it's how to do that and keep that focus and move as fast as we can from a resourcing people, training, expertise standpoint in Afghanistan. 


                Q     Is this something you started thinking about some months ago?  And could you also tell us what Ambassador Holbrooke's role might have been in this?  And also, when -- did you just tell him today? 


                SEC. GATES:  Ambassador Holbrooke? 


                Q     (Off mike.) 


                SEC. GATES:  No.  I talked to him when I was in Afghanistan last week. 


                The answer to part of your question is that Ambassador Holbrooke played no role in this. 


                Q     He had no recommendation, had no thoughts about how -- 


                SEC. GATES:  I don't know whether he had any thoughts.  He played no role in this. 


                Q     You'd know.  (Laughs.) 


                ADM. MULLEN:  No, I mean, he had no role to -- in this at all. 


                Q     Well, can you talk a little bit about how and when you started thinking about this?  Is this some months ago?  Is it -- 


                ADM. MULLEN:  General McKiernan was -- originally planned to be there between 18 and 24 months.  So as far back as six or seven months ago, I was looking at his relief, potentially his relief, as well as General Odierno, who's due to leave sometime early in 2010.  So there had been discussions about this over an extended period time.  I think certainly for me it's been in the last several months, as we've focused heavily on Afghanistan and resourcing it and how we were going to move forward, that this issue -- that the specifics of this really came to bear and that -- that I concluded that it was time for a change, and made that recommendation to the secretary. 


                Q     So is it fair to say that in terms of a -- unique skill sets, that General McChrystal -- for those who don't follow his career, he specializes in black -- commando special operations:  the capturing of Saddam Hussein, the killing of Abu Zarqawi, the melding of intelligence and special-ops units in the -- during the surge.  Is that what you're looking for from him in terms of Afghanistan -- replicating some of those successes in that terrain? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, let me say something and then invite the admiral.  The way I look at this is as -- McChrystal and Rodriguez as a team.  They each bring tremendous skills in a variety of areas that are very pertinent to the kind of fight that we have in Afghanistan. And it is their combined skill set that I think gives us some fresh opportunities looking forward. 


                ADM. MULLEN:  And while General McChrystal has that background that you described, Tony, his background is much deeper and much broader than that.  And I've been privileged to work with him over the better part of the last year and seen that, you know, the broadness and the depth that go far beyond just high-end special-operations skills.  And I'm extremely confident that he will be able to carry out this mission in its fullness to include, obviously, those skills, but others as well. 


                Q     Those kind of missions, though, to make this more a SOF-like fight?   


                ADM. MULLEN:  I wouldn't be specific about what kind -- you know, exactly the kinds of missions we would increase specifically.  But certainly his focus and his background, I think, are very relevant to our needs there.  And then -- but it really is also the combination of he and Rodriguez which are so important. 


                Q     Mr.  Secretary, you've often said that you were worried about establishing too big a military footprint in Afghanistan.  Yet General McKiernan, it seemed like every few months, was asking for more and more and higher levels of forces.  Is that one of the areas that wasn't new-think, in your mind?  And did you and General McKiernan have a difference there? 


                SEC. GATES:  No, that had nothing to do with it, as far as I was concerned. 


                Q     And about keeping the troop levels lower, you were talking, Admiral Mullen, about the lessons learned in Iraq.  Wasn't that one of the lessons learned in Iraq, that we didn't have enough troops in Iraq initially? 


                ADM. MULLEN:  Well, as I've looked at the analysis for what we need, certainly, in the immediate future, the troops we have in the east recently are -- have recently put in there, as well as those going in the south, those meet the needs that we see that we have right now.  And I'm very comfortable that they will be able to provide the hold after the clear, which is where we've been short, particularly in the south. 


                Q     Mr.  Secretary, can you talk a bit -- now that these changes have been made at the very top, what follow-on changes may take place?  I mean, for instance, as an organizational issue, will there be an RC South -- American commands in RC South paralleling RC East?  And even in general terms, can you talk about on the ground, tactically, what we may see differently going forward in the months ahead that was not the case up until now?   


                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't know that I can speak very well to the strategy and tactics going forward.  I don't expect there to be a change in the command rotation in RC South.  The Dutch are in command now.  They will be replaced for -- at the end of a year by the British, who will be in command for a year, and then we will take command in 2010. 


                And some of the additional troop levels that General McKiernan has asked for are, in fact, a two-star headquarters to support when the U.S.  takes command of RC South in the fall of 2010, in November, I think.  So I don't anticipate any change in that arrangement. 


                Q     Can you talk even in general terms about what might take place differently on the ground, as far as the prosecution of the war? 


                SEC. GATES:  No, I don't know.   


                ADM. MULLEN:  I think -- I mean, in some ways, we're learning as we go here.  I mean, we're -- what General McKiernan has recommended, in terms of the troops that are going there now, are the ones that we're resourcing. 


                But I'd also certainly want to hear from new leadership what their beliefs are once they get there, get on the ground and make some recommendations about how to move forward as rapidly as possible. 


                So I'm not aware of any changes.  And I wouldn't speak to exactly how they're going to -- how they'd fight it, although I've been briefed, for instance, on, you know, how it's going to apply in the south here over the course of this year. 


                But certainly with new leadership, there will probably be some fresh views, which we will have very, very good discussions about.   


                Q     Admiral, you said, we can and must do better.  And so I'm surprised you don't have any more solid idea of how we need to do better.   


                ADM. MULLEN:  I can't think of a more important decision than putting in new leadership, with respect to that, and then having the impact that is so critical.   


                Q     Actually the secretary said, we must and can do better.   


                Any thoughts on how?   


                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, that's the challenge that we give to the new leadership.  How do we -- how do we do better?  What new ideas do you have?  What fresh thinking do you have?  Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals?  How can we be more effective?  The admiral and I aren't the source of those ideas.  General McChrystal and General Rodriguez are.  And that's what we expect from them.   


                Q     Let me ask it a different way.   


                One of the criticisms of General McKiernan was that he hadn't implemented a joint campaign plan, essentially an implementation of the way the strategy would be used on the ground.   


                When the new leadership gets there, do you have a sense that then they will provide new feedback that could change the Af-Pak strategy as we know it?  And what might it be?   


                SEC. GATES:  Well, I -- first of all, the new strategy is a strategy approved by the president.  And it is a whole-of-government strategy.  If there are any changes that they would recommend, it would be in the military part of that strategy.   


                Q     Thank you, Mr. Secretary.   


                Recently North Korea said that if South Korea participated in -- (inaudible) -- then North Korea will regard it as an act of war.   


                What is your comment on this?   


                SEC. GATES:  Well, I've been frankly surprised and disturbed by the kind of rhetoric coming out of North Korea in recent weeks.  And I think that North Korea has effectively isolated itself internationally, even greater than was the case before, by some of this rhetoric.  But that's what I think it is, rhetoric.   


                Q     (Off mike) -- you can give us any more detail of the shooting in Iraq -- what you know about the soldier, whether he'd been on multiple deployments, whether he was seeking help for combat stress?  Are there any details you can give us? 


                ADM. MULLEN:  No, I don't -- I don't have a whole lot more than what -- than that which is already out there.  Clearly, the tragedy occurred in a -- in a -- in a place where individuals were -- were seeking help.  And I'd also like to certainly extend my condolences and thoughts and prayers to the families of those who were killed. 


                It does speak to me, though, about the need for us to redouble our efforts, the concern in terms of dealing with the stress, dealing with the whole issue of those kinds of things.  And it also speaks to the issue of multiple deployments, you know, increasing dwell time, all those things that we're focused on to try to improve to relieve that stress.  But I just don't have the specifics of this particular incident. 


                Q     Mr. Secretary, where do we stand now on the bombings in western Afghanistan?  A lot of blame was thrown each way -- senior Defense officials blaming the Taliban; Taliban blaming U.S., saying there was the use of white phosphorous.  Where does that investigation stand?  Is there any light you can shed on that? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, let me tell you what I think the status is and ask the admiral to correct me if I get it wrong. 


                My understanding is that General McKiernan has sent a general officer to Farah province to participate with the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior in an investigation of what happened.  I also understand that General Petraeus is either considering or has already decided to send someone to Afghanistan from outside the country to investigate the tragedy. 


                (To Adm. Mullen.)  Is that -- 


                ADM. MULLEN:  Yes, sir. 


                Q     Do you have an update on how many civilians may have died? 


                SEC. GATES:  No. 


                Q     And have any payments been made to civilian families, as you suggested they would be done immediately last time you were in Afghanistan? 


                SEC. GATES:  I don't -- I just don't know. 


                Q     Clarification?  Mr. Secretary, just a clarification.  Does General McKiernan's resignation end his military career? 


                SEC. GATES:  Probably. 


                Q     Sir, can I follow up on that other issue of the bombing? You've expressed concern and frustration the military is unable to counter Taliban or al Qaeda propaganda.  In this case, with the bombing in Afghanistan, it seems that they have -- they have a storyline, and the U.S. and McKiernan hinted at another narrative, that the Taliban had killed a bunch of people. 


                How, going forward, do you hope that that changes?  And do you see the new leadership there kind of jumping in on that issue? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, one of the -- one of the disadvantages we have in these situations is that the Taliban don't tell the truth and they don't care what the truth is.  And so when you're making it up, you can respond a lot faster than when you're trying to figure out what actually happened. 


                And we have -- and that has been a disadvantage for us on an ongoing basis.  And we have to figure out how to get inside that strategic communications cycle to get in front of this issue.  This is a principal strategic tactic of the Taliban, is the use -- is either provoking or exploiting civilian casualties. 


                And we have done a lot -- and I must say, General McKiernan has done a lot -- in recent months to try and reduce the level of civilian casualties.  The fact of the matter is, civilian casualties since January in Afghanistan are down 40 percent over a year ago during the same period.  And U.S., Afghan and ISAF casualties are up 75 percent during the same period. 


                So there is a tremendous effort going on on our part to try and avoid civilian casualties.  But figuring out how to come out better on the strategic communications side of this is an ongoing challenge for us. 


                Q     Is it more of the process, or is it just cultural resistance in the military to just come out and say the truth as soon as you know it? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think -- I'm not sure I would characterize it as a military cultural aspect.  I think it's more an American  characteristic to try and figure out what happened before you decide -- 


                Q     (Off mike) -- President Karzai came out over the weekend. He called upon the U.S. to stop using airstrikes and also to stop nighttime raids.  Is that at all practical, do you think? 


                SEC. GATES:  Well, I can't improve on General Jones' statement yesterday, that we can't fight this war with one hand tied behind us. But one of the things that General McKiernan has been working on and that I am confident that Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez will work on is how we can do better in this area. 


                Q     Let me ask you about Swat Valley very quickly.  We have seen now perhaps half-a-million Pakistanis displaced in their own country.  You've given billions to Pakistan.  You've urged them to engage in counterinsurgency.  Is this kind of aerial and artillery bombardment the kind of -- with thousands displaced -- the kind of counterinsurgency strategy you wanted them to embark on? 


                ADM. MULLEN:  Actually, I spoke in a continuing dialogue with General Kiyani.  I spoke to him earlier today.  He called me just to update me specifically.  And I won't go into the -- into the details of that, but they actually have made considerable progress in recent weeks and in -- in ways that many of us -- many -- not many of us, but many would have not predicted. 


                Clearly, there is a concern for the refugees and taking care of that.  I know that the prime minister has been out speaking to the need for the Pakistan people to support that.  That's also an important strategic both shift and emphasis. 


                And then I guess I wouldn't get into the details of his planning or his execution, but he's certainly aware of the challenges in particular with respect to the IDPs and the need for his government and other NGOs to address that issue. 


                Q     But are you satisfied with the strategy that you're seeing? Because there are now potentially hundreds of thousands of IDPs?  Are you satisfied? 


                ADM. MULLEN:  I think, at least historically in counterinsurgencies, particularly when you're in the -- in the aggressive -- when you -- when you start them, you do -- we do see lots of IDPs and have to address that.  And certainly, we're all concerned about that.  I know that it's -- that it's -- that concern is being addressed specifically by the Pakistani government as a priority. 


                SEC. GATES:  Thank you all very much.



















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