By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 25, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates hosted Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the Pentagon today as the two discussed the mission in Afghanistan and the importance of Australia's support there, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today. Gates and Rudd talked "at length" about the situation in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, Morrell said. The conversation extended to President Barack Obama's policy review for both countries, the results of which are expected to be announced within days.
Rudd, who met with Obama at the White House yesterday, was feted on the Pentagon steps today with a military honor cordon that traditionally welcomes visiting dignitaries, but also the playing of the Australian and U.S. national anthems.
"It was not merely a sign of respect for the prime minister, but a measure of our appreciation for Australia's contributions on the battlefields of Afghanistan," Morrell told reporters. "Their forces have fought bravely, at great cost, and are wholeheartedly committed to improving the security situation in the difficult southern province of Oruzgan."
Australia is the largest non-NATO force contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, with about 1,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan.
Morrell noted that two Australian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan this month. This brings Australia's death toll in the Afghan conflict to 10.
"The secretary offered his condolences to the prime minister, as well as to the families of the fallen," Morrell said. "He reiterated his gratitude for Australia's unwavering support of the mission in Afghanistan."
While not discussing details of the discussion regarding Pakistan, Morrell reiterated the U.S. position.
"Very simply, we are ready and willing to help the Pakistani government [and] the Pakistani military confront the terrorists in their midst," he said. "We will do so with whatever means they feel comfortable. We are still trying to determine a way that is both effective and comfortable to them beyond what we are already doing, but we stand ready and willing."
This message is a "constant refrain when we engage with people who are involved in the mission in Afghanistan," Morrell said. He emphasized that the problems in Afghanistan don't end at its 1,600-mile border with Pakistan known as the Durand Line.
"And so we are constantly engaging our allies and our partners to try to figure out additional ways that we can work with the Pakistanis to help them confront this problem."
Rudd, a China scholar and former diplomat in Beijing, also shared with Gates his views on China and North Korea, Morrell said. The discussion coincided with today's release of the Defense Department's annual "Military Power of the People's Republic of China" report to Congress.
Also during today's briefing, Morrell fielded a question about military support to Mexico to help it counter violence from drug cartels.
Gates "has been in really very frequent communication" with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about this issue, Morrell said. "At this point, it's regarded as primarily a law-enforcement matter, but we are continuing to look at ways above and beyond, of course, what's in the Merida Initiative to see how we could provide assistance."
The Merida Initiative is U.S. program that delivers equipment and training to help Mexico and other countries in the region deal with narcotics trafficking and narco-terrorism.
Although the governors of some border states have raised the issue of deploying National Guard troops to the region, Morrell noted that Obama made it clear during last night's news conference that he hopes other steps could preempt that action.