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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook October 31, 2016

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


PETER COOK: (off mic) of course of the department about public affairs in particular, so.

I have a few things off the top before I turn to your questions. As you know, Secretary Carter was just in Iraq just about a week ago and he was encouraged by the performance of the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the opening days of the battle for Mosul. He got an update firsthand while, of course, he was in Iraq.

He continues to be encouraged by what he is seeing. The campaign is on track and moving forward according to plan. Progress in the last 24 hours includes the successful clearing of the village of Ali Rash on the southeast outskirts of Mosul by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces, clearing Kharab Bayt and Kani Shirin -- north of the city.

We have seen reports from Iraqi forces that they are in some places less than a kilometer from Mosul itself. While distance is not the best measure of the fight ahead and the coalition's prepared for difficult fighting ahead, there's no question that counter-ISIL forces continue to have the momentum in this fight.

ISIL resistance so far has consisted of extensive use of vehicle- borne IEDs, indirect fire and snipers in an attempt to delay the advance as well as obscuration fire set to try and conceal ISIL positions and movements. None of this has stopped the Iraqi advance, and of course, the support for the Iraqi advance but from the coalition.

We continue to see reports that ISIL is forcing civilians to act as human shields in blatant disregard for their safety. The coalition will continue to conduct this campaign with an eye toward protecting the innocent lives ISIL is putting at risk in the course of this fight.

The progress we have made to date is a testament to the bravery and dedication of the Iraqi soldiers, the peshmerga fighters, the federal police and the others on the front lines. The international coalition continues to support their efforts.

Over the last day, coalition forces have delivered 118 munitions through the air and artillery strikes, bringing the total employed since October 17 to nearly 2,900. In addition, the coalition recently delivered 228 additional vehicles to Iraqi forces and has continued to provide food and ammunition resupply across the battlefield.

I also wanted to update you on the secretary's schedule. Secretary Carter will leave tomorrow for a three-day trip that will take him to New York, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. In New York, the secretary will visit City College of New York to announce his latest Force of the Future initiatives to ensure that his successors will also get to lead the finest fighting force the world has even known. While he's in New York, he will also speak at a Stand Up For Heroes event that evening.

On Wednesday, he will travel to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri to observe Army battlefield engineers in training and speak to troops at Fort Leonard Wood.

And then on Thursday, he'll be at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska for the U.S. Strategic Command change of command ceremony. He is looking forward to thanking outgoing STRATCOM commander Admiral Cecil Haney for his distinguished service and to welcoming Air Force General John Hyten to this vitally important position.

Following the STRATCOM ceremony, the secretary will travel to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for a brief visit to the Air Force Research Lab. While he's at Wright-Patterson, he will also get an update on the development of the B-21 Raider.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q: Peter, about the disclosure last week that there was a near miss between a Russian and American aircraft over Syria, it was said that there was some immediate communication through the normal military channels between the Russian and Americans. I'm wondering why there was any -- has been any higher-level discussion about that incident or the implications of that or the secretary's view about it being an inadvertent episode?

MR. COOK: Bob, I can tell you much the same information you had last week, that this was an unusual occurrence given the proximity of these two aircraft, that this -- the sheer proximity alone made this different than other, if you will, contact that we've had with the Russians over Syrian airspace.

Obviously, it's a concern for us. That emergency line of communication was used and there was discussion afterwards and it's been determined by our folks that they saw this as an inadvertent contact. This was not something they saw an intentional act of hostility. But certainly, it'll be a focus of conversations and continues to be with regard to those -- the memorandum of understanding, the safety of flight protocols that are in place. And we continue to have those conversations with the Russians.

And -- but I think it's fair to say that -- that this was the closest in terms of proximity that we have come to date, and that is why it was a particular cause for concern. And again, this is something we've engaged with the Russians on and feel we have a better understanding of what happened here and we'll continue to have those conversations with the Russians to try and make sure something like this can't happen again. That's the whole purpose of that of that communication line, the whole purpose of the memorandum of understanding, which we think is very important to the safety of both our air crews and the Russian air crews as well.

Q: So it wasn't elevated to a higher political level discussion between the Pentagon and...

MR. COOK: We continue to handle it through the -- the CAOC line of communication. It certainly was raised to higher levels and the event itself has been made aware to certainly the secretary and others.

But we believe that this line of communication that we have established has been successful so far. There's been professional handling of it, certainly by our side, and we believe by the Russian side as well. And we continue to believe that that's the best way to try and address these issues going forward.

Yes, please.

Q: Last week, Secretary Carter said the Raqqah offensive would overlap with the Mosul offensive and would begin in about a few weeks. Today, the Turkish deputy prime minister came out and said, well, we would prefer it if the Raqqah offensive didn't start until the Mosul offensive was done.

What's the timeline for the Raqqah offensive now?

MR. COOK: I think you heard the secretary speak to this. You heard General Townsend speak to this as well.

The coalition -- the United States and the coalition as a whole, we all feel it's important to maintain pressure on ISIL at this particular moment in time. While they're feeling the heat in Mosul, they're also feeling the heat in Syria, our continued support for local partners there, our continue air operations, both in Syria and Iraq.

And I think the secretary's view is that we need to maintain pressure on them -- as much pressure as possible, and that includes beginning at least isolation of -- of Raqqah in the -- in the not too distant future. And that's the view that we share with other members of the coalition. We'll continue to work closely with all the members of the coalition in terms of timing, in terms of sequence.

But we have -- we have ISIL in a position right now where they're feeling the heat and we'd like to keep that pressure on.

Q: (inaudible) Turkey doesn't agree with that assessment and they are part of the coalition.

MR. COOK: Well, we'll continue to work closely with our Turkish partners who continue to -- to play a very important role in Syria and very important role in terms of the counter-ISIL effort. And again, I'm confident we'll have those -- the secretary had some of these conversations when he was in Turkey just the other day.

And so we're -- I'm confident that and I believe the secretary's confident that the coalition will all be on the same page in terms of executing this plan going forward, just as we have been with regard to executing the Mosul plan.

Q: Is there an option (inaudible) and isolate Raqqah without Turkey?

MR. COOK: Again, we'll -- we'll work this campaign, we will execute this plan in accordance with the timelines that best fit the coalition effort. And I'm confident we'll have the support of the coalition moving forward.

Yes?

Q: Peter, when the secretary went to Turkey, he left there with an agreement he said in principal, but then when he got to Baghdad, the Iraqi prime minister rejected that plan. Did the secretary view his trip to Turkey and Baghdad as a failure for not bringing Turkey and Iraq together?

MR. COOK: Absolutely not. We had an excellent visit to Turkey, an excellent visit to Iraq, good conversation with the leadership not only in Turkey but also with the Iraqi prime minister. And obviously, there are some -- there are some differences there between Turkey and Iraq right now and the secretary views his role and the role of the United States as the leader of the coalition to try and bridge those differences and try and keep everyone focused on the -- the common enemy we all share, and that's ISIL.

And he continues to work some of these issues and coordinate carefully with both our Iraqi partners as well as the Turkish leaders as well.

Q: Is the secretary concerned now that these Iranian- backed Shia militias have announced that they are taking part in the Mosul operation? Is he concerned that -- that these forces will not be helpful in the Mosul battle?

MR. COOK: Well, the secretary's most concerned that the plan for Mosul remain on track and that it remain the Iraqi plan, the one led by Prime Minister Abadi. So far, that has happened and he is very encouraged, as I said before, about not only the -- the success to date, but also that the execution of this plan matches what has been discussed and been on the drawing board for -- for weeks and months.

And that is what we're seeing right now play out in Mosul and in -- in the push towards Mosul.

Q: Peter, one of those groups in particular, the Kata'ib Hezbollah, is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. They're participating in this fight. This is a Sunni city, a majority Sunni part of Iraq, and yet, you have these forces flying Shiite flags, you have photos of the Ayatollah, many of these groups have American blood on their hands.

Is the secretary concerned that these Iranian-backed forces will not help, but actually make the conflict worse in Mosul?

MR. COOK: Well, you heard the secretary speak at -- at length about the need and the support for prime minister's approach, the multi- sectarian approach, to -- to governing Iraq and that this fight needs to in essence address some of the divisions that led to the rise of ISIL in the first place.

And so the secretary continues to support Prime Minister Abadi's own push to make this a multi-sectarian approach and to absolutely oppose anything that might suggest a fueling of sectarian strife. That's why we continue to support -- the coalition continues to support forces under the control of the government of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi, and that's how the coalition will continue its operations.

Q: The secretary's not concerned at all about these Iranian-backed forces?

MR. COOK: Of course he's concerned and he's seen from past history what some of these forces have done.

At this moment, our support continues to be through the government of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi and the forces that are on the ground conducting these operations and we'll continue to support those forces operating under the control of the government of Iraq.

Q: (inaudible) question on Raqqah, could you say that united -- the coalition, the other members of the coalition are on the same page with the United States with respect to execution of the Raqqah operation but for Turkey?

MR. COOK: I think it's fair to say that we are still -- the coalition as a whole is continuing to look at every aspect of the campaign right now, getting input from members of the coalition to see what role members of the coalition can play. And so I would not suggest to you that we're not on the same page as -- as Turkey at this point. This is an ongoing conversation. The secretary just met with the -- the president of Turkey, the prime minister of course, the defense minister, had another meeting with the defense minister in -- in Brussels. And we continue to talk on a regular basis with our Turkish -- with the Turkish leadership about the -- the best approach to -- to addressing the fight for Raqqah.

But we have to keep the pressure on and we have to move forward and challenge ISIL in its so-called capital of its caliphate. The secretary has made that clear with -- the coalition's been clear for some time that this is -- the ultimate goal here is to eject them, dislodge them from Mosul and from Raqqah. And we think we're in a position to begin doing that.

Q: You are saying that you -- you and the coalition as a whole and the United States and Turkey are on the same page. However, it doesn't reflect on this, you know, official remarks, official comments. How would you -- for example, the (inaudible) says that we will go an (inaudible) the Raqqah operation immediately by surrounding it and so on.

Turkey says, no it's not time. Not time for that. Turkish deputy prime minister is saying that.

MR. COOK: We'll continue to have our conversations with our Turkish counterparts and again, be as transparent as we can be with all the coalition members about the appropriate steps to take, the timelines, the roles coalition members can play, and we'll have those conversations in private with our Turkish counterparts and with other members of the coalition as we have from the start.

Q: This last question on Rutba. Late last week we heard that a Shia militia launched an offensive in Rutba and demolished private properties, torched houses, even demolished a mosque there and even abducted some youth in the city. What's your reaction to that? Are you concerned about Shia militia sectarian actions in Iraq?

MR. COOK: As we discussed before, we are obviously concerned about any reports of sectarian, anything feeling like sectarian strife within Iraq. This has been a cause for concern for some time, something of course we identified around the time of the Fallujah operations and of course encouraged by what we heard from Prime Minister Abadi about his zero tolerance for any indication of these kinds of activities.

I'm not familiar with every single detail of what you say has happened in Rutba. I know that ISIL reappeared in Rutba and that there was an effort by the Iraqi security forces to go after ISIL in Rutba, but I think we would continue to have concern about anything that indicates atrocities and these kinds - anything that fuels sectarian strife in Iraq. As Prime Minister Abadi himself has said and reaffirmed to the secretary in his meetings in Baghdad just a few days ago.

Q: Two questions. Thank you sir. As far as fighting against terrorism and joining ISIL or ISIS, how many these terrorists are from 64 coalition forces and what is the message and what are these forces apparently coalition forces are doing to stop them from their countries and also at the same time are these fighters also coming from beyond 64 countries and also maybe friends of the U.S.?

MR. COOK: Let me make sure I understand your question correctly. You're wondering how many of the ISIL fighters actually come from the 64 countries that make up the coalition? I don't have an exact breakdown for you. Certainly a number of these fighters come from Syria and Iraq but not all of them. The problem of foreign fighters and people for whatever reason pulled to ISIL and pulled to Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of ISIL is a problem that all the members of the coalition have identified.

Certainly some of them perhaps are from coalition-member countries. What we're most concerned about now is making sure that those people do not leave the battlefield in Iraq and Syria and find their way back to their homelands to be able to cause problems in those places. It is a central focus of the coalition campaign to protect our homelands. It was a major focus of discussion in Paris when the secretary met with leaders from some of the other counter- ISIL coalition nations' defense ministers, and continues to be a major focus certainly of the coalition efforts, the United States efforts, is to target those external plotters, to do what we can to limit their ability to plot, meet, gather, coordinate and we've made substantial progress in that area but there's plenty more work to do and we'll continue to be focused on it with - I know other members of the coalition share the same concerns we do about protecting the homeland.

Q: As far as the terrorists in Pakistan, are you concerned General Musharraf who ruled the country for almost 20 years, Pakistan, now he is saying in an interview and also on YouTube that now that Pakistan is the one who created al Qaeda and Taliban and now after feeding them, training them, financing them, now they are coming back against Pakistan and (inaudible) peoples there. Do you buy his stand now since he was not cooperating for 10 years with the U.S. including he kept saying that Osama bin Laden was not in Pakistan but now he is speaking against his own country which now he's out of the country?

MR. COOK: Quite honestly, I am not aware of President Musharraf's most recent comments. I will just say that you know that focusing on counter-terrorism has been a big part of our ongoing conversations with Pakistan and will continue to be a major focus of our efforts with Pakistan.

Q: Does the U.S. believe, or this department, that there are still terrorists in Pakistan who are of course killing their (inaudible) Pakistanis and maybe joining ISIL and others?

MR. COOK: We believe that there continues to be a terrorist threat within Pakistan against the Pakistani people and also posing a threat outside of Pakistan and we continue to work closely with the Pakistan government to try and address it. We think there's more that can be done and this is something that will continue to be a major focus.

Q: Another question about the Shia militias. Some of their leaders say that they are getting closer to Mosul Airport. Are you aware of that or does that concern you or is there any coordination between the coalition and those forces on the ground?

MR. COOK: There's no coordination between the coalition and those Shia militias that you refer to. There is coordination with the coalition and the government of Iraq and you're seeing that. Perhaps some of your colleagues who are there are seeing that first hand. But there is no coordination - certainly no support coming from the coalition.

I'm not aware of those reports that their - exact location.

Q: Some of the peshmerga commanders and Iraqi forces, they say that they haven't been getting enough air support in the last couple of days, compared to the days before. And they say that it is because of the presence of those Shia militias now in the front lines. What is your take on that?

MR. COOK: I have not heard that suggested. I know there's been very, very careful coordination, including even while we were in Iraq, discussion directly with the Kurdish leadership about air support, and what's being done within the coalition to make sure that we're bringing the firepower to bear that's needed. There are multiple axes right now of attack in Mosul.

There's certainly a need on the behalf of those forces on the ground for air support and we're gonna continue to provide - I detailed some of the numbers here, the sheer volume of munitions that have been dropped in support of Mosul is quite substantial, and we're going to continue to work closely with the Kurdish peshmerga forces, with the Iraqi security forces, the counter-terrorism forces, to make sure that we are bringing the firepower to bear that best support their moves against the enemy. And that's a daily, ongoing adjustment that we're making but I would venture to say that anyone who's been up there, who's seen the kind of firepower that we can bring to bear there - they've seen it. And the enemy's seen it too.

Q: Peshmerga commanders say that they have achieved their objectives and they stopped moving forward. Is that also in line with your assessment of the fighting in that area?

MR. COOK: I'll leave the peshmerga to describe - and the KRG to describe their own strategic goals here, but there has been a plan that's been carefully coordinated both with the Iraqi government in partnership with the Kurdistan leadership as well, as to what the most appropriate places for the pesh to go and where there may be instances in which the Iraqi security forces can leapfrog peshmerga forces.

They've been working in tandem remarkably well. It is for those who know the history, this is not an insignificant thing, and that level of cooperation was one of the most tangible things we could see, in our visit to the area, to have for example the secretary offer his thanks to the Iraqi helicopter pilots who are flying from Kurdish territory - that's not something you've seen a few months back. And I think that coordination and the cooperation between the two has been truly remarkable and one of the reasons that the forces around Mosul right now have advanced as they are against ISIL.

Q: One clarification and then a couple of questions. In your opening statement on Iraq - I'm not sure I heard correctly so let me make sure. You talked about the resupply, and I think you said food, ammunition and other resupply?

MR. COOK: Yes, a number of logistical (inaudible).

Q: Two things. On the food - is it that the Iraqis can't provide food for their army and for their people, or for their fighters, or are you simply hauling their food supplies north because they can't - they don't have the airlift to do it themselves?

MR. COOK: This has been a coalition effort from the start, to be able to provide logistical assistance to (off mic) -- I'll double check as to exactly where the rations came from. But this has been part of our plan all along, to be able to provide this kind of enabling support to the Iraqis. And this is support that we are happy to provide.

Q: This is fully reimbursed food, ammunition and other supplies, fully reimbursed to the United States by the Iraqis?

MR. COOK: I'll double check what the funding is for it, but as you know there are substantial funds as part of our effort in Iraq to support the Iraqis, and so this has been resourced and planned well in advance.

Q: If you could find out for me if that is paid for by the Iraqis or are we giving it to them. My other two questions. On Afghanistan, the drone strike that killed the two al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan that you spoke about, or issued a statement about last week - I just wanted to ask a little bit more.

While they had been known to be plotting generally attacks against the U.S. and Western interests, at this time when you conducted this strike, did you have any indication that they might be engaged in real-time planning, if you will, that there was a more current real-time plot that they were working on?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into intelligence matters from this podium. But we are confident that they not only had threatened U.S. forces in the past and had been threatened the United States and Western interests in the past, that they had an intent to do so in the future as well.

Q: So it was not just something in the past.

MR. COOK: Correct.

Q: And my other question, if I can be quick about it, is in fact about Pakistan. Not asking State Department diplomacy government-to-government relations, asking from a national security perspective, given the fact that there are these massive demonstrations in Pakistan right now against the government - hundreds of people, if not thousands, arrested, and a lot of tension between the Pakistani military and the government - for the Pentagon, for the administration, what are the military national security concerns you have about this unrest in terms of the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the concerns you have about what the Pakistani military may decide to do?

MR. COOK: Barbara, I'm -- I'm going to leave it to the State Department to talk about our -- our diplomatic relations with -- with Pakistan. I just spoke about our significant concern about the terrorist threat from within Pakistan, and this is something we work very carefully with the Pakistani military on.

Q: (inaudible) asking about the (inaudible) Pakistani military. Given the current unrest, how certain are you about the security at this time of Pakistan's nuclear weapons?

MR. COOK: Barbara, we continue to have regular communication with our Pakistani counterparts and I'm going to leave it at that. We are obviously watching the situation closely. We watch the region very closely. This is a part of the world that's had its share of political upheaval in recent years and this is something that we'll watch carefully and -- and something that -- that in particular with regard to our military relationship we'll continue to engage our counterparts on that front.

Q: But with respect, I'm not hearing you say that the U.S. military has confidence - - complete confidence in the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

MR. COOK: I'm gonna again -- once again reiterate that we will continue to do what we always do, and that is engage on a regular basis with our military counterparts there in Pakistan, as we have for some time. And we will continue to -- to have the conversation that we always have with them with regard to stability in the region, stability of Pakistan, and of course, the terrorism threat that emanates from Pakistan and the area.

Q: Just to follow up on Lucas and Kasim's questions on the militias, recent reports state that they're roughly 18 kilometers from Tal Afar. Reportedly, thousands of militiamen are there sort of massing. Looking at some of the recent catalogs of coalition strikes, there have been several in the Tal Afar area around like -- like for the last five days now.

As I understand it, there's no -- I mean, the Iraqi forces aren't there -- Kurdish peshmerga forces aren't there, it's just the PMU. So were these air strikes over the last several days around the Tal Afar area in support of their operations as they push east?

MR. COOK: Two things on that. I'm not sure you're totally correct in terms of the -- where all the Iraqi security forces are for one.

And second of all, we continue to carry out air strikes against ISIL targets that pose a threat to the coalition, of course, are part of the defenses around Mosul. And so we'll continue to do that. I'm not sure the exact -- how many strikes we've done in that vicinity, but we're not providing support to those Shia militias, and that's -- that's been our position all along. We'll continue to maintain that.

But we will provide support to the Iraqi security forces that are -- that are in the area and we'll continue to carry out strikes against ISIL targets we see that pose a threat to the coalition.

Q: A quick follow-up on Kirkuk. As part of the Iraqi plan that we've been hearing in the run-up to Mosul, it was -- it would go Sharqat then Hawijah then the Mosul operation would -- would begin. Obviously, the operation is starting. Hawijah was not cleared, it was sort of -- seems to have been left out or changed at the last minute. And now, reports we're seeing are the fighters who launched the attack in Kirkuk were mostly based out of Hawijah.

Now, in retrospect, do you see that change in the battle plan as a mistake from the Pentagon's point of view, from the military's point of view, by the Iraqis?

MR. COOK: We think -- this is an Iraqi plan led by the Iraqis. We continue to support it. We think there's progress being made in the fight for Mosul. And I'll leave it to Prime Minister Abadi and his leadership to speak to -- to the sequence of events.

Obviously, we want to see ISIL removed from as many places in Iraq as possible, including Hawijah, and they'll be -- that'll be part of the ongoing operations from the Iraqi side with the support of the coalition. But this was a decision made by Prime Minister Abadi to move forward at this time with the -- with the Mosul fight and we support that decision.

Q: Peter, I wanted to ask you about the humanitarian situation in Mosul. There have been some concerns from aid groups in recent ways (inaudible) to allow civilians to be able to flee Mosul hasn't yet been established. I realize that forces haven't advanced that far, but can you give us an update on first off, is there a specific plan to create this corridor and what the status of it is?

MR. COOK: Well, I know even in our meetings with the U.N. leadership in Baghdad when we were there, there have been people -- displaced people who have left some of these villages, for example, and been able to go to some of these U.N. aid centers. They haven't been as big in numbers as some initially thought might happen. So I believe that's happening.

And in terms of the actual movement of civilians out, you'll recall that the Iraqi leadership has encouraged people in Mosul to remain in their homes in many instances because they might actually be safer there. So if there isn't freedom of movement for civilians, it has more to do with what ISIL is doing than anything we're doing at this particular moment in time.

So -- but there continues to be an effort to try and make sure civilians can reach the safe confines of these -- these U.N. areas and we'll continue to do what we can in terms of both targeting, and of course the Iraqi forces on the ground are trying to deal with these civilians at the same time. So I would encourage you to talk to the Iraqis about the particular approaches they're taking with regard to their ground forces and what's being done to accommodate those civilians.

Q: The concerns that I've heard are less to do with the outlying towns, which as I understand it, as they've been freed, people are then leaving, and more to do with the up to 1.5 million civilians in Mosul, who at some point at the height of the fighting are probably going to want to get out. I know that's a concern that the U.S. has talked about before, that ISIS populations might try to hide in these -- in these groups as they flee.

Is that not true that there's going to be some sort of outlet for them to be able to leave Mosul once the fighting begins?

MR. COOK: Well, I'm not going to walk through every single aspect of the fight and the approaches in and that sort of thing. There has been considerable thought given to how to address that situation, and one of the ideas again, Paul, that's been -- you've seen it in leaflets, you've seen it in radio broadcasts, is to encourage civilians to the extent they can because they might actually be safer to remain in their homes because of the concerns for the fighting that's gonna take place, the potentially brutal kind of fighting that could take place in that urban environment.

So there are concerns. This has been something that's been communicated by the Iraqis to the civilian population there. But we do know that there are going to be some people who find it's in their best interest to try and -- and leave the city and there are precautions that have been taken to try and address that, but it is not -- a mass exodus from the city is not necessarily something that the Iraqis believe would be in the best interest of that civilian population.

Q: Just to be clear, as I understood it, that campaign of sort of stay in your homes was more to do with the beginning of the campaign. You're saying that's actually throughout the entirety of clearing it of ISIS? The plan is try to keep people...

MR. COOK: That's been communicated by -- by the Iraqis. And again, we understand that there will be some people who will exit -- try and exit the city just because they feel safer and there are steps that are gonna be taken to try and address that. And again, there's an effort right now to establish locations for displaced people where they can have some shelter and -- and some support.

And we -- the secretary met directly with some of the U.N. folks most responsible for that. Some of that will of course fall in terms of the coalition effort, will fall more to USAID and that sort of thing, and a lot of this will be coordinated by the Iraqis themselves in terms of the best pathways that could, if any, emerge, for civilians to be able to exit the city.

Q: One last quick question. I understand that there's a screening process before people who have fled Mosul will be able to access some of the aid camps and other distribution hubs. Is the U.S. participating at all in that screening process, or is that an entirely Iraqi operation?

MR. COOK: That's going to be Iraqi-led, is my understanding. I'm not aware of a specific coalition role with regard to that, other than of course we're supporting the effort at these U.N. facilities. We're supporting them in terms of financially contributing to it and helping with -- some of our sister agencies are helping with the actual establishment and supplies for those facilities, but we are not doing -- we are not specifically involved as I understand it in the screening of those people.

Q: You mentioned foreign fighters earlier. We haven't had an assessment for some months there about what the number of foreign fighters joining ISIL in Iraq and Syria is. Can you give us the latest estimate on that, please?

MR. COOK: Let me see if we have an updated number for you. Obviously, it's a number that's been a concern to us. Any number of foreign fighters is a concern, and it's one thing that we've -- what we've approached in this sort of systematic fashion to try and deal with the challenge posed by foreign fighters, tightening the border area along Turkey and Syria, for example, targeting Manbij in particular and the support for that effort, given the flow of foreign fighters through that corridor, and it continues to be something that we're watching very carefully in Mosul, with the potential for foreign fighters to leave Mosul perhaps and head elsewhere.

Q: You've seen a big decrease since Manbij was sealed off? Since that (inaudible) --

MR. COOK: I think it's fair to say that we feel confident that we have made a significant dent in the foreign fighter flow, for sure, and even the foreign fighter population within ISIL, but this continues to be a concern. I'll try and get you the specific number with our estimates, James.

Q: And then just really quickly, you mentioned that the ISF forces left (inaudible) just a few hundred yards away from Mosul itself. I know this is obviously an Iraqi-led operation, but is the plan for them to hold in place until the other axes have caught up? Do you have an assessment of when they actually might go into the city?

MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it to the Iraqis to characterize what the next steps will be.

Q: I have two questions on two subjects. First, I'd just like to go back to Turkey for a moment. What specifically -- can you tell us what specifically is being done to try to accommodate Turkey's desire for a role in the Raqqah operation, and balance that against Turkey's antipathy toward working with the Kurdish YPG militias that are going to be part of the force? How are you able to -- what's being considered to finesse that? Because it's obviously a point of tension.

MR. COOK: Jamie, I'm not going to get into all the private conversations that are happening here, but you've seen the role that Turkey's played in terms of the counter ISIL fight, the very successful efforts along the border area to consolidate those gains, to tighten up that border. They have done damage to ISIL. Those Turkish supported forces, and we're in agreement, that's been a good thing. That's been a very positive thing. We've been very supportive of that. As the fight shifts towards Raqqah, we believe there are going to be opportunities for coalition members of all kinds, not just Turkey, to play a role in that, and we'll continue to have conversations. Again, we're not going to get into specifics about every single role, but we absolutely believe that it would be beneficial for Turkey to play a role and for a host of coalition partners to play a role.

Q: And second question, different subject. Technology company Palantir won small victory in court against the Army. They were suing to force a law, a 1994 law that was supposed to prompt the government to buy commercial technology when feasible instead of having expensive development of duplicate technology. I'm just wondering if this is a decision that's welcomed by Secretary Carter specifically because he's talked so much about making it easier for commercial companies to do business with the Pentagon, and this seemed to be an impediment to companies like Palantir to be able to sell their technology to the Pentagon, which they argue is a fraction of the cost and time.

MR. COOK: I'm going to admit that you're more up to speed on the news than I am. I'm not aware of this court ruling, so I won't comment specifically on this court ruling. What I will say more broadly is that the secretary does believe that there should be opportunities for the Department of Defense to be more nimble, more agile in terms of its engagement with the private sector, and he's been supportive of that. You've seen the efforts by DIUX to try and improve that outreach to the technology community, make it easier to do business with the Department of Defense, so he absolutely believes that's a good thing, but I can't comment on this particular legal issue, so I'm happy to take that question if you want.

Q: I'd like to follow up on (inaudible) question please. If I heard you correctly, you said that there are private discussions going on between the United States and Turkey vis a vis Raqqah and their potential role in it, is that correct?

MR. COOK: There have been a number of conversations at the highest levels of government, with our coalition partners including Turkey.

Q: I'm slightly confused because, in an interview with NBC News last week, the secretary was asked, so the assault on Raqqah will start weeks, not months. That means this year, 2016, and the secretary said that is what we expect. If the assault on Raqqah is going to start within weeks, what is the status of these discussions, and what is the status of the operation if you're signaling to the Turks on one hand you want to talk, and on the other hand that the operation to go into Mosul is imminent?

MR. COOK: Raqqah? Or Mosul?

We continue, Nancy, as you know, to engage with coalition partners on a range of fronts in the fight against ISIL including the isolation, and ultimately the taking of Raqqah, and we'll continue to do that, and that's true of Turkey and that's true of a range of other countries that are performing a variety of roles in the coalition right now, both in terms of supporting the local forces on the ground, sometimes providing air support, sometimes providing financial assistance, logistical assistance, and we think there are a whole host of roles for countries to play in this effort.

Q: I guess why I'm confused though is, is the -- did the -- was the secretary speaking accurately when he said the assault on Raqqah? I understand the distinction between isolate and invasion, but he's signaling that the assault on Raqqah would start within weeks, is that correct?

MR. COOK: I think the effort to liberate Raqqah will begin, as the secretary said, within a matter of weeks. This is going to happen sooner rather than later, because we think ISIL is under pressure across Syria and Iraq and we think this is the right moment to begin pushing in Raqqah as well. We're going to do that in coordination with our local -- not just our local partners, but our coalition partners as well.

Q: So make sure I'm understanding, when you say the operation to liberate Mosul -- excuse me, to liberate Raqqah will begin within weeks, you're counting the entry into Raqqah proper will happen within weeks, is that correct?

MR. COOK: I think it's -- I'm not going to get into detailed timelines here, but the secretary spoke about the initial isolation phase and ultimately the taking of Raqqah. Like Mosul, this is going to be a challenging environment. ISIL has had an opportunity to dig in and build its defenses there, its fortifications, and so this is going to be a challenging environment just as Mosul is.

Q: I'm not trying to be difficult, but you've gone back and forth between isolate and actually go in. So what I'm trying to understand is, was he referring to the actual entry into Raqqah, or was he referring to the isolation campaign?

MR. COOK: The isolation will begin first, and then at that point, there will be a different phase, and that will be the actual liberation of Raqqah.

Q: (inaudible) include an isolation?

MR. COOK: I believe that's what the secretary is referring to, yes.

Q: On Somalia, it's now been more than a month since the controversial U.S. strike there. Is the Pentagon any closer to determining whether or not they killed Al-Shabaab members or members of local forces?

MR. COOK: You know that there's an assessment that's been going on since that time. My understanding is AFRICOM is still wrapping up that assessment. So when they have something to report, they will make that public. Asked again about it this week.

Q: Can I go back to the Raqqah thing, because I just am confused, OK. So Secretary Carter was specifically asked about the assault on Raqqah, and he specifically said it would begin in the next few weeks. What phase is Mosul in right now? How do you -- what is the characterization of what phase Mosul is in right now?

MR. COOK: You're seeing Iraqi Security Forces right now envelop -- envelop Mosul --

Q: (inaudible) specific, as the way that they describe it?

MR. COOK: Courtney, I'm going to keep it simple here. The fight for Mosul is underway. The fight for Raqqah will begin soon.

Q: The fight for Mosul is in the assault phase, is that correct?

MR. COOK: The fight for Mosul is underway and the fight for Raqqah will begin soon.

Q: So it's been described to us in the lead up to Mosul, because as you probably know, actually I don't even know if you were here at the time, but in February, General Dunford said that the battle for Raqqah and the battle for Mosul had already begun, and he was talking about the isolation phase, in February he said that. The Iraqis then came out two weeks ago, I think it was, two weeks ago and said that the battle for Mosul had begun. They were talking about the maneuver phase, the assault phase. So Secretary Carter saying specifically --

MR. COOK: In an NBC interview.

Q: That's one reason that I might have a little bit of extra interest in it in here. Secretary Carter specifically saying that the assault phase would begin in a few weeks would indicate that he believes the isolation phase, which has or has not begun, I don't know, you tell me based on the changing dynamics of what you guys call anything anymore, but if that would indicate that he believes the isolation phase for Raqqah will only be a matter of several weeks. Is that the case?

MR. COOK: The secretary believes that we need to maintain pressure on ISIL, and that is both in Mosul and in Raqqah. The isolation phase will begin, as the secretary indicated, in just a few weeks --

Q: He specifically said --

MR. COOK: And that's sooner rather than later.

Q: That's the difference here.

MR. COOK: That will follow.

Q: If you're just saying that he misspoke, that's fine, but we're just --

MR. COOK: I'm not saying he misspoke. I'm saying that this fight is going to happen sooner rather than later and I'm not going to tell you exactly when it is. And that's our point here.

Q: Secretary Carter said when it is. He said a few weeks. So what I'm asking you is, he --

MR. COOK: And I'll leave it at that, a few weeks.

Q: He specifically said the assault phase, though. That's the difference here. If he had said he isolation phase, fine, that seems to be the common belief. But he specifically said the assault phase. So the question is, if the isolation phase has begun or is beginning or whatever, and the assault phase will begin in a few weeks, does the secretary believe that the isolation phase for Raqqah, which in Mosul took eight months, that for Raqqah it will only take a few weeks?

MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it where I started all this. The fight for Raqqah will happen soon. ISIL will be under pressure in both Mosul and Raqqah. And that's what this coalition has set about to do from the start, and that's what our plan is. That's what we're executing both in Iraq and in Syria with our local partners, and we're going to do that moving forward.

Q: With all due respect, your job is to speak for the secretary of defense and when we aren't able to ask him specifically what he meant, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask you to give us --

MR. COOK: I will tell you, he said a few weeks and that -- I'm giving you the broad picture here, and that is this fight will happen sooner rather than later. We want to keep ISIL under pressure both in Iraq and Syria. We're not gonna provide every single detail as to exactly when we're gonna be knocking on their door. I don't think you'd want us to.

Q: ... for an explanation of what he meant. It's -- it's not -- I'm asking for details or (unaudible) when it's gonna happen. But he specifically put out a timeline of...

MR. COOK: So, he said the...

Q: ... a few weeks.

MR. COOK: A few weeks. The isolation would begin in a few weeks.

Q: (inaudible) I have the transcript. I have the video. He said assault phase.

MR. COOK: I'm gonna -- the secretary -- I'm gonna leave it to the secretary. A few weeks, the isolation phase will begin and we're going to move as quickly as possible to move to the liberation of -- of Raqqah. And we're going to do that on plan, we're going to do that in coordination with our partners and our local partners on the ground, our coalition partners. And -- and we're operating that way in Mosul. We're going to do the same in Raqqah.

MR. COOK: I'm going to go to this gentleman, then you, Nancy.

Q: Can I ask a question about the South China Sea?

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: There was an article yesterday on the national interest. The title is "America's Latest South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Did More Harm Than Good." And it said ambitious. So I was wondering if -- do you have any comments on that or on the reasons?

MR. COOK: I'll say what we said previously about our Freedom of Navigation Operations, are important not just in the South China Sea but around the world, important not just on behalf of the United States but on all countries that want to maintain freedom of navigation. And we feel this was another important, if you will, routine example of -- of our willingness to fly, sail and operate anywhere in the world international law allows.

Q: (inaudible) further planning operational acts that the U.S. Navy will do in the future, like -- not like this -- you know, sending ships into the South China Sea sounds like little scratches, but you know, have some further improvements on that or?

MR. COOK: We'll continue to conduct those kinds of operations around the world, as we have for -- for decades.

Q: (inaudible) discussion or talk between like -- with China or the Philippines?

MR. COOK: We'll continue to talk to our Philippine allies on a regular basis about our relationship, our military ties in particular and our -- the exercises we're conducting there.

Q: With China or...

MR. COOK: We'll continue to engage with China on -- on a range of security issues, including, I'm sure, the South China Sea. There were U.S. officials, including DoD representatives, there within in the past few days. And so we'll continue to have our conversations with China about a range of issues, including issues where we agree and issues where we don't agree.

Q: General Townsend last week said that the U.S. was -- its coalition partners were still training forces for the Raqqah operation. If the assault on Raqqah's going to start in weeks, as the secretary said, does that mean it will start without all the forces needed to conduct it fully trained or even partially trained?

MR. COOK: We're confident that we'll have the -- the forces we need on the ground to be able to conduct the operation for Raqqah.

Q: But I guess what I'm asking is could we see a situation where there are forces being trained to enter Raqqah even as the assault has begun on the city itself, not the isolation campaign but...

MR. COOK: I think it's quite possible we could have forces that -- the generation of forces continues right now. We think this is something that's gonna snowball, particularly as more progress is made against ISIL, that there are going to be more people who want to join the effort to dislodge ISIL. So we expect those numbers to -- to grow and that certainly it's possible some folks will still be in training while other forces begin operations in Raqqah.

Q: And how long (inaudible) operation? How long (inaudible) troop to -- for operation like Raqqah? Do you know how long that -- that is?

MR. COOK: It -- it depends on those forces and what experience they've had in the past.

Q: Two weeks to 10 weeks? Any sense of how long this takes to train them?

MR. COOK: I think we've had training in the past that's been in the number of weeks, but I don't have specifics for you in terms of any individual kind of training they might need, so.

Q: Can I just go back? Is it the case that it's one or the other; isolation or assault? Or could you envision this as it's happening in Mosul, where it's essentially phased in over time? You could -- you could -- could you not be engaged in isolation -- I'm just asking for clarity. Could you not be -- continue to be engaged in isolation operations and begin phasing in the assault? Or is it really a hard stop on one and then you begin the other?

MR. COOK: Well, we're going to begin with the isolation, Barbara, and we'll see how it goes from there. It depends, again, on the capabilities of the local forces, the size of the force brought to bear. Obviously, the air campaign will be a factor here.

And so this will be -- these will be decisions that get made on an ongoing basis, but there's a plan in place right now to begin this and to begin this with local forces. And we expect that to be executed as the plan in Mosul's been executed as well.

Q: The plan includes beginning the isolation (inaudible) right, and beginning the assault?

MR. COOK: We're going to begin with the isolation, and again, I'm not going to get into more specifics, Barbara, about what happens after that.

Q: So you're -- you're not committing to the fact that the assault would begin within weeks, even in a phased manner? You're -- you're not committing to that?

MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it where I've -- where I've been, Barbara. This is a fight that's gonna happen sooner rather than later. And just as the fight for Mosul's been executed along a specific plan, that's what's gonna happen with Raqqah as well.

Q: On this -- the secretary's comments late last week about the use of atomic weapons -- not atomic weapons, but -- what is it?

Q: Autonomous?

Q: Autonomous weapons, thank you. (Laughter.)

Slipped. We've heard about atomic weapons -- (Laughter.) -- Autonomous weapons.

MR. COOK: I know what you're talking about.

Q: Thank you. Does the secretary think there is a day in the future that weapons will be able to make the decision whether to shoot or not shoot?

MR. COOK: The secretary -- this is an area of research and -- that he's quite familiar with and quite up to speed on, better than most in this building I can assure you. And this is something he's given a lot of thought to and something he's already directed within this department that there will always be a human in the loop with regard to the application of lethal force.

But I think the secretary also believes that that future is still some ways off. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done in this area. And he's -- certainly, there are technological leaps that have been made, but I think he still -- that future still is some ways off I think the secretary would tell you.

Q: When you say in the loop, does that mean like guiding this machine or does that mean like in the loop as opposed to sending the machine off on a mission?

MR. COOK: The -- a human would make that -- be involved in the decision making process. And so that's something he feels strongly about. I know others in the department have spoken to it; the deputy secretary, the vice chairman. This is something that, again, as we continue to do our research work and our innovation in these areas, that's something that will be sort of a guiding -- guiding principle.

Q: Quick follow on Raqqah. You talked about the number of forces going into Raqqah snowballing. Who's going to -- who's going to train them? Are the 250 or so SOF, are they already sufficient to do that (inaudible)?

MR. COOK: Again, those -- there are a number of local forces on the ground, Thomas, so this doesn't necessarily need to fall to the coalition per se. We'll continue to provide some support in that area. We believe there are other members of the coalition that will be willing to do the same.

And we think that, again, as we move closer to -- to Raqqah and as ISIL continues to be – suffer in terms of defeats and losses, that there -- more people are going to be willing to -- in Syria who are going to be willing to join the effort to oust them, to dislodge them. We've seen that happen already and we see that snowball taking effect as we move closer to Raqqah.

Q: There will be -- will there be a necessity for a greater number of coalition trainers, advisers, whoever, to -- to (inaudible) to assist those people?

MR. COOK: I don't think any decision's been made at this time, but we think we have the force structure right now that we need for the -- for the mission, and if that changes, that's something that the coalition would discuss as a whole.

OK. Thanks, everyone.

-END-

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/991838/



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