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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook January 05, 2016

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room


PETER COOK: I want to start today by addressing the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and update what you heard already from the folks at Resolute Support.

Earlier today, a U.S. service member was killed and two U.S. service members were injured when they came under fire while conducting a train, advise and assist mission with their Afghan special operations counterparts on the ground in Marjah -- that's in Helmand Province. We understand a number of Afghan forces were injured as well.

Two HH-60 Pave Hawk Medevac helicopters were sent to provide assistance. One of those were waived off after taking fire and returned safely to its base, the second landed safely but sustained damage to its rotor blades after it apparently struck a wall. That helicopter remains on the ground.

This is an ongoing situation, there is still a fight going on in the immediate surroundings. And we'll provide more details as they become available. But as you can imagine, because of this situation right now, we don't yet have all the details surrounding what's taking place.

The secretary, who, as you know, was in Afghanistan just last month has been updated through the course of the day on the situation, including a videoconference link with commanders in Kabul that was previously scheduled. His thoughts and prayers are with the family members of those injured and killed in this situation.

Now, the situation in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan remains challenging, but we are confident that the Afghan national security and defense forces are continuing to develop the capabilities and capacity to secure the country against a persistent insurgent threat, and the U.S. and Afghan governments agree that the best way to ensure lasting peace and security in Afghanistan is through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

Now separately today, I also wanted to update you on the secretary's decision regarding women in service. The Office of the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness has received plans from each of the services for implementing Secretary Carter's December 3rd decision to open all positions in the military to women with no exceptions.

General Votel, the commander of Special Operations Command, requested and was granted a short extension in order to give Special Operations Command the time to collaborate thoroughly with the services, since many of the actions critical to successfully integrating women into special operations specialities and units fall under service authority.

And as the secretary announced last month, Deputy Secretary Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Selva are chairing an implementation group to work with the services to oversee the short-term implementation of this decision to ensure there are no unintended consequences on the joint force and periodically update the secretary and Chairman Dunford on progress.

The first meeting of this group will take place this week. The services and Special Operations Command will begin to execute the implementation of their approved plans as soon as practicable, but no later than April 1st.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions. Bob?

Q: Peter, could I start with Afghanistan?

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: Could you explain the -- what the mission or operation was that the U.S. special operations forces were there performing? And more broadly, could you explain the context of what's going on in Marjah that required a U.S. combat presence, given that the combat mission is over?

MR. COOK: Well as you know, we are conducting train, advise and assist in Helmand Province; we have been for some time. There's both training of conventional Afghan forces as well as this train, advise and assist mission with special operations forces.

Bob, I cannot tell you with specificity at this point exactly what they were doing there at this particular time other than this was an operation that was consistent with that train, advise and assist mission. They were with Afghan special forces, as we've had U.S. special operators previously, but we don't yet have all the circumstances, all the details to determine exactly what took place and, particularly, how this casualty took place and how these people were injured, other than a firefight did break out, and again, these other additional helicopters were brought in to provide support.

And I can say in addition that there have been additional steps taken to ensure that we're doing everything we can to provide them the support they need on the ground and doing everything we can to ensure the safety and security of those American forces and the Afghan forces that they're with.

Q: Could you explain the context about what's happening in Marjah, the security situation that required their presence? And what -- I mean, has Marjah fallen to Taliban control or --

MR. COOK: As we've discussed previously, Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and Helmand Province, General Campbell has referred to it, and it was something that was discussed even during our trip to Afghanistan. There are dangerous parts of Afghanistan where the fight is still underway, and Helmand Province is one of those places. And the U.S. forces that are there are doing what they can to provide support, training, advice, assistance to the Afghan forces as they take the lead in this fight, as they've continued to take the lead in this fight.

They've shown resilience, they've shown resilience in Helmand Province, but Bob, this is a -- this is an ongoing fight, and I think the events of the last few hours in Afghanistan highlight that, highlight the risks that the Afghan forces are taking every single day, and of course, the risks that the American forces who are there assisting them are taking as well. Yes, Mik.

Q: A couple of questions just to clarify. Was this mission that the Afghan special operations forces were on, was that a combat or a counterterrorism mission? Because I thought under the rules of the road put forth by the White House that active duty combat forces could only engage in counterterrorism missions.

MR. COOK: Mik, this is -- some of the detail about exactly who they were engaged with, what their original target were, these are some of the things we're still trying to get all the details. I don't want to jump the gun, I want to make sure that we have all the facts from those people who were literally on the ground and still at the scene of this fight right now.

But these U.S. special operators are, as we've discussed before, allowed to engage and train, advise and assist their special operations counterparts --

Q: In active -- in active combat.

MR. COOK: They've been in Helmand Province providing this kind of support in the past.

Q: And then you said earlier that the administration, the White House, the Pentagon, we -- however you phrased it -- still have confidence in the capability, capacity of Afghan security forces to meet the insurgent threat.

But only like three or four weeks ago, the Pentagon, in its own report, said the situation over the past year since U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from the battlefield has deteriorated significantly. And then recent reports that the Taliban and even Al Qaida now control and hold more territory in Afghanistan than they have since 9/11.

So how can -- how can the U.S. have confidence in the Afghan security forces? Or was it a mistake to remove Americans from the combat battlefield?

MR. COOK: We have confidence because of the -- first of all, the work that the Afghans are doing themselves. The kind of skills, determination, resiliency, capabilities that they've demonstrated in an ongoing basis.

They're getting better at defending their own country. But they're not at a point yet, Mik, where they are able to operate entirely on their own, which is why U.S. forces, other -- NATO forces are there, assisting and providing this kind of training and assistance to the Afghans.

And so we're confident, because of the support that not only the United States is providing, but other countries as well, that the Afghan forces are moving in the right direction. We've seen solid progress from the Afghan forces.

This has been a difficult day, obviously, for U.S. forces. The Afghan forces have suffered greatly. They've also demonstrated skill, capabilities, resilience, as I've said.

And we're going to provide the support, we think, that will allow the Afghan government to -- to move forward and allow these Afghan security forces to protect their own country.

Q: And just one more quick follow-up. It's not only been a difficult day. It's been a difficult year. And as we saw in Iraq, when the U.S. reviewed its mission and its operational pace there, that -- those operations were accelerated.

Is there any consideration to changing the operational status of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, given these major setbacks?

MR. COOK: Yeah. There's -- right now, there's no change in the conduct of U.S. forces, the mission that they have at this point. This is an ongoing conversation with the secretary and his commanders in the field, with General Campbell, as I mentioned.

The secretary was just there, meeting directly with General Campbell, meeting directly with the acting minister of defense in Afghanistan. And, Mik, there's no change right now. We believe we're on the right course.

But this is a constant review, and the secretary's going to continue to reach out to General Campbell, hear from folks on the ground, as he was today. It was a regularly scheduled conversation today, by secure video conference -- and he wants to know exactly what's going on, whether or not things are changing.

But we remain confident in the future of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces with the help and support of the United States and other international partners. Yes.

Q: After today's video teleconference with leaders in Kabul, is the secretary convinced that we need more forces, not only through the end of 2016, but the end of 2017 and beyond, including a number of bases you're operating in right now?

MR. COOK: The secretary's confident that current plan in place is adequate to deal with the situation in Afghanistan. And as I just mentioned, it's always a process of review and hearing directly from the commanders on the ground as to whether or not there need to be adjustments to that.

But he feels confident the decision the president made to adjust those troop levels was the right decision at the time. It's the right decision for the moment, and the U.S. is going to continue to provide the support it can to the Afghan security forces under that context.

Q: And is it safe to say that the combat mission continues in Afghanistan?

MR. COOK: It is safe to say that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and that the U.S. forces that are providing assistance to the Afghans are in harm's way when they're there. We've seen that.

It's been a painful reminder, the last few weeks, but the Afghans are leading this fight, and they're doing it with the support of the United States and the support of other international partners.

Q: Peter, we have one dead special operator. How can you not say the combat mission endures in Afghanistan today?

MR. COOK: As I mentioned, these people are in harm's way, Lucas. There's no bones about that. We're not -- we're not dismissing the risk to U.S. forces that are there in Afghanistan. We're not dismissing the risk to Afghan forces.

They are there. They are there and -- to -- and can defend themselves, as they should be able to. But, again, this is the Afghans in the lead. That mission has not changed for the U.S. troops on the ground providing training and assistance to those Afghan forces.

Q: And one on closing Guantanamo. Is the secretary convinced that the 17 Guantanamo inmates that are being transferred off the island of Cuba -- that -- is he convinced that they will not re-engage in any kind of terrorist activity?

MR. COOK: Lucas, I'll talk more broadly about Guantanamo and the detainees that the secretary must assess and weigh in terms of the transfers to other countries. He carefully reviews each and every one of these cases to determine if they pose any risk to U.S. national security, and if those risks -- if they can be mitigated to the point that these transfers can move forward.

I can assure you that the secretary of defense weighs these decisions very, very carefully. And, of course, this is an interagency process, it involves working with countries who are receiving detainees, and this is a strenuous process, and the secretary does not take it lightly.

Q: What evidence can you provide that these detainees are not part of al-Qaida, aren't al-Qaida sympathizers and won't re-engage in --

MR. COOK: They've gone through a process, a review process in which they've been reviewed by other members of the interagency, other folks within the Department of Defense, and the secretary has reviewed the information provided to him and the recommendations provided to him, and done even further scrutiny on his own to determine whether or not these folks pose a risk to the United States, and to the extent any risk that is there can be mitigated. So, Tara?

Q: Peter, a couple of questions on the helicopters. Were both Pave Hawks medevac that came to the firefight to assist? And then there are earlier reports that one of the Pave Hawks had been hit by a mortar while it was on the ground. Is that still accurate?

MR. COOK: The information I have right now is that the two that were inbound were medevac helicopters. There's been -- again, we don't have all the details yet about what's happened on the ground itself. I can just tell you right now at this moment the one that is grounded sustained damage, and that's why it was unable -- whether or not it was hit in addition, I just can't say. We haven't been able, obviously, to access every little last bit of information.

Q: And there's been reports from the Taliban that they actually hit the helicopter and shot it down. Is there any truth to that?

MR. COOK: I told you what I know at this point. I'm not going to go beyond that. We simply just don't have all the information that we need at this point to be able to determine with specificity exactly what took place, the sequence of events.

Q: You said one hit a wall, I think. Is that what you meant by it was damaged?

Q: The rotor -- the rotor hit a wall.

MR. COOK: Yeah. My understanding is a rotor hit a wall. I don't know if that was on landing or in an attempt to take off, but that's one of --certainly major factor why it was not able to leave the scene. I can't tell you if there were other factors as well.

Q: And maybe just one last follow-up.

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: The casualties, were they all due to the firefight, or were there casualties aboard the helicopter when it hit the wall?

MR. COOK: I can't tell you with -- I don't know at this point. I can't provide you that information until we get more information from the scene. And again, this is an active, ongoing situation, and we hope in the coming hours from Resolute Support to be able to get more of the -- that level of detail. Jackie?

Q: Do you have any information on the status of those who were injured? If they're being flown, flown out of the theater or the extent --

MR. COOK: I can't provide details at this point exactly on their status, the nature of their injuries. So that's the kind of details we'd like to be able to provide you as soon as we can. We just can't at this point. Yes, Jamie.

Q: Thanks, Peter. Realizing this is still an active ongoing situation, is there anything you can tell us about whether all of the U.S. service members at this point are accounted for? Do we know where they are, you know, that sort of thing? And is there anything more you can tell us about who they were, which branch of service, that sort of thing?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of anyone who's unaccounted for. But as you pointed out, this is an active, ongoing situation. As I mentioned, these forces were there in their train, advise and assist role with Afghan special operations forces, but I cannot say with certainty that every single member was, in fact, special operations forces on the U.S. side of things and I can't give you detail on the individual service as well. Yes, Bill?

Q: Why was one aircraft waved off and then the other one was allowed to land? Were they at two separate locations?

MR. COOK: Bill, I don't have the exact details other than I know that there was -- one was waved off for some reason. Whether it was because of incoming fire, whether it was because of the other one that had already landed and sustained issues there with the rotor, I don't know those details yet. But those are some of the questions we have as well.

But this -- we hopefully in the next few hours, Resolute Support will be able to provide more of those -- more of that information.

Q: Now, what -- what about the pilot and the crew on board? I mean, you know, was this helicopter abandoned wherever it had this hard landing? And are the pilot and crew accounted for?

MR. COOK: As I said, I'm -- I'm not aware of anyone who hasn't been accounted for at this point. But this helicopter landed right at the scene of where this firefight took place, and remains there at this time.

Yes, Kristina.

Q: Thanks, Peter. You may not be able to answer this, but what about the casualties, those injured? are they still in Marjah? Were they able to be casevaced or medevaced out?

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: Are they going to be -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK: I'm -- I'm not able to tell you right now, provide you that information, exactly where they're located.

Yes.

Q: On the women in combat issue, you said they were -- they're supposed to begin implementation as soon as possible, no later than April. So is there any kind of deadline on when they actually have to have women in -- in the combat units? Most of the services said it will take, possibly, years before they can get enough of them trained and qualified.

MR. COOK: This is --

Q: Is there a deadline for actually having women in the units?

MR. COOK: So, again, the deadline I'm referencing is the -- the implementation of the -- the execution of these implementation plans. And, as the secretary said at that time, as we provided details at that time, the secretary acknowledges it's going to take some time before we may see women in some of these positions.

This is the beginning of a process, and -- and so -- but this is the timetable right now for the execution of the -- these plans, the implementation of these plans.

But this is not going to happen overnight. But the secretary has made clear, as he did today, in a meeting with service secretaries and service chiefs, that he expects his -- his directives here to be carried out.

Yes.

Q: Peter, one follow-up, and then a separate question. You said that the situation in Afghanistan is ongoing. Do you mean that firefight is ongoing, or the assessment is ongoing, or?

MR. COOK: There's -- there's -- there's -- yes. There's fighting on the ground as we speak, which is why it's hard for us to have every single detail as to what's transpired.

And there's been an effort, once again, as I mentioned before, to make sure that everything's being done to secure the safety of those Americans and the Afghan forces that they were accompanying in this particular situation in Helmand.

Q: And can you say any Americans are still involved in that? (inaudible).

MR. COOK: My understanding is that there may still be Americans on the ground in this immediate situation, engaging with the enemy in support of Afghan forces.

But, again, I don't have -- I don't have the exact detail right now on how it transpired initially and what their status is at this moment in time.

And, again, this is a fluid situation, and it's hard for me, up here at the podium, without getting additional updates from Afghanistan as to what's happening.

Q: And on a separate issue, I wanted to ask you about Bowe Bergdahl in the Serial podcast. From what we understand, he gave 25 hours worth of interviews to Mark Bole, and then gave permission for Serial to use that information for their podcast. Is that appropriate for an active-duty service member to do?

MR. COOK: This is an active case right now, his case. So I -- I think it best for me, since this is an ongoing legal matter for the military and for Sergeant Bergdahl, that it's not appropriate for me to comment, as this is something that's still being adjudicated.

Q: But leaving aside any of the judicial proceedings, an active-duty service member spoke out about his experiences in Afghanistan, and it includes descriptions of his captors and the fact he went through intelligence debriefing. Just on that alone, aside from the judicial proceedings, is that appropriate for an active service member to do that?

MR. COOK: Just because of the nature of the -- ongoing nature of this case, I just don't think it's appropriate for me to weigh in. I think this is something that, again -- best left to the case itself and the adjudications taking place.

Let me move around, sorry. Tony.

Q: A couple non-Afghanistan questions.

A month ago, the secretary announced he was going to form a special operations strike force in Iraq that captured worldwide news. A month later, what's the status of that task force? Are they in operation?

MR. COOK: Tony, what I can tell you is that the plan for that force has moved forward. I'm not going to detail to you exactly where they are and what they're doing at this point.

But everything that the secretary anticipated, announced at that time about the ETF and what they'd be doing has moved forward. And again, I'm not going to, for a variety of reasons, provide more details as to what they're doing at this moment in time.

Q: Has moved forward. Are they set up in Afghan -- excuse me, in Iraq?

MR. COOK: I'm -- I'm going to leave it where it is for now.

Q: Okay. Secondly, totally different issue, sorry. Right before Christmas, the Navy got a lump of coal in the form of a memo that Secretary Carter sent to the Navy secretary curtailing a littoral combat ship.

This is a year after Hagel restructured the program. The tone of the Carter memo was very strident. What was the genesis of the memo? Why did he send it?

MR. COOK: Tony, since you know, we're approaching budget season. The secretary will have a lot more to say, this building will have a lot to say on the budget in -- in the coming weeks, in-coming days even. So, this is a decisional matter you're referring to.

And I think it's best to leave this to the budget announcement and the budget release. And more details on exactly what's happening with the Navy and other services are going for will be left for the secretary in the budget outlook when that comes.

Q: It's out there and it was very strident. Can you give a sense -- did it reflect a loss of confidence in the Navy acquisition community --

MR. COOK: I not going to refer to a pre-decisional memo at this point, Tony, other than to say, the secretary has to make hard choices, has to evaluate the resources that the department has, and is doing his best job to do that in a variety of ways. And his budget will reflect some of those hard choices and the tough decisions he has to make.

They will also reflect the investments he feels need to be made at this time to ensure that this remains the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, and that those investments in technology and innovation, that those are made to ensure not just the Department of Defense today, but the Department of Defense going forward.

Q: Is he going to do something preliminary before February 1st? You hinted that there may be something in the next few days.

MR. COOK: In the coming days, Tony. You'll be hearing from the secretary in the coming days.

Q: Okay, fair enough.

MR. COOK: Yes, Carla?

Q: Does this building feel that the current strategy in Afghanistan is a winning military strategy?

MR. COOK: As I said, we have confidence that the current strategy will support the Afghan Security Forces, the Afghan government so they can take control of their country. They are not at that stage yet. So, this is an ongoing effort, one that's constantly under review.

The secretary talks and has spoken recently with President Ghani, with CEO Abdullah. He's confident in the Afghan government and their commitment to moving the security forces forward, making tough decisions there.

And so, at this point the Department of Defense, the secretary's confident that the support we're providing to the Afghan Security Forces is not only necessary, but it's improving their capability, improving their resiliency, and that the Afghan forces remain in the lead, but they're going to need the support of U.S. forces and other international partners going forward, and that's what we're doing right now.

Q: Again, how can this building say it will make them in the lead, when they're losing ground?

MR. COOK: Well, we've seen Afghan Security Forces perform admirably in a whole host of situations recently in Afghanistan.

So, I would not concede that they're losing ground across the country. What we're talking about is a difficult situation. We've always said that the fighting season -- it's a constant fighting season in Afghanistan now. And the Afghan Security Forces have demonstrated their skills, their capabilities, their improvements.

We have new capabilities moving online right now. The -- for example, the first aircraft moving into Afghanistan. So, you have new capabilities, new skills, a lot of that thanks to U.S. support.

Those are capabilities that are going to further enhance the Afghan Security Forces, and again, we feel confident that with that continued support, they'll be able to take control of the country and defend the country for themselves.

Yes?

Q: (inaudible) -- when Secretary Carter was in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. He asked that members of Congress release -- or sign off on reprogramming requests for the Syria train and equip fund.

Has there been any movement on that, and has the secretary done anything to give lawmakers more information on how that money would be spent?

MR. COOK: I -- let me check on the exact question, whether or not -- it's a more congressional question on whether there's any movement.

My understanding is, last time I checked, that they're not -- not all of that money had, in fact, been freed up. But it certainly is the secretary's position that it should be freed up, and that that money is important to the ongoing effort in the fight against ISIL.

And the secretary has testified as to what has happened with the T&E program, the problems with it. He has been quite candid about it early on, the changes that were been made. And there has been progress since that time, in terms of the kind of support we're providing to the Syrian opposition forces, the kinds of people we have provided support to on the ground in Syria.

That has proven to be a positive development. We see some of the results of that right now in Syria in terms of the fight being taken against ISIL.

So the secretary remains hopeful that this can be worked out with Congress in the short-term, and is exactly kind of limitation that he thinks potentially is hampering our efforts in the fight against ISIL.

Yes, Aaron.

Q: The situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is still going strong right now. So are there any concerns that have been expressed from partners, Saudi Arabia, UAE, that are supposed to be part of the Syrian effort to fight ISIS, have they said to you we're concerned about the Iran situation and we may have to curtail future operations, we may have to slow down what we talk about doing against ISIL?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of any conversations along those lines. Again, we -- the point that I think you've heard from the White House and my colleagues at the State Department is that these tensions, we think, are not helpful to the fight against ISIL and anything that can be done to reduce the tensions will be helpful.

But beyond that, I am not aware of anything that is going to impact the fight against ISIL and the efforts of the coalition. We're moving forward and we would hope that those partners that you mentioned will continue to move forward with us, and we see no indication they're not.

Q: And the State Department has the lead on this issue. But is there anything DOD is doing to help mitigate some of those tensions?

MR. COOK: Again, I'll leave it to the State Department in terms of negotiations directly with the countries involved, but we feel confident that the coalition partners who have been supporting us have been important partners so far will continue to be a partners on an ongoing basis.

Yes?

Q: On the South China Sea, can the DOD independently confirm flights to artificial islands in the South China Sea recently?

MR. COOK: I can't confirm flights from here. I've seen reports of those flights. And, again, we have the same issue that we've had in the past with any effort on the part of countries in that part of the world to militarize and to engage in reclamation projects on disputed islands.

We don't take the position on those islands, but we do think they should be resolved through diplomatic means, and anything that challenges that and again, escalates the -- this kind of tension, we think is not helpful in an important part of the world, an important part of the world for the U.S. economy, an important part of the world for the United States overall.

Q: Does the DOD have a role in guaranteeing that the South China Sea remain an international commons?

MR. COOK: The United States is, as the secretary said, will continue to play a critical role in that part of the world in ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific, a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is emblematic of that.

The secretary's own visits to Asia recently, our trip there, again, an indication of how important we feel that part of the world is, and the role that the U.S. -- the U.S. military has played in preserving that kind of stability and security, the prosperousness of that part of the world. A key reason for that has been the presence of the U.S. military in that part of the world.

And we're going to continue to play that role and try and do everything we can to maintain that security and stability in the South China Sea and beyond.

All right. Looks like we're done. Thanks, everyone. Appreciate it.

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/639998/



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