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Presenter: Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Colonel Rob Manning, Director, Defense Press Office May 17, 2018

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White in the Pentagon Briefing Room


COLONEL ROB MANNING: Good afternoon. My name's Colonel Rob Manning, Director of Press Operations here at the Pentagon. Welcome to our weekly presser with Ms. Dana White, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs.

We'll get started here shortly. What I would ask is that if you don't typically come here, please state your name and outlet. The wi-fi password is in the back. If you have additional questions after this press conference, just let us know.

We've got 23 press desk officers over here in DPO that are on the record 24 hours a day to answer your questions. Are there any questions of me? OK, good. And thank you for braving the rain, I know it's pouring down out there. So yeah, it's pretty bad.

Yeah? OK. All right, we'll get started here shortly. Thank you very much.

DANA WHITE: Good afternoon everyone. It's OK, good afternoon. (Laughter.)

You'll have to bear with me today, my voice is sort of slipping away from me. So -- one of the secretary's -- Secretary Mattis' top priorities is strengthening alliances and building new partnerships. This morning, the Secretary welcomed Uzbekistan President Mirziyoyev to the Pentagon for the first time to renew the strategic partnership between our two countries.

They discussed mutual security interests and addressed emerging challenges. The two leaders affirmed their shared commitment to stability in Afghanistan and continued security cooperation in the region. On Afghanistan, Farah has not fallen.

This week, the Afghan national defense and security forces, supported by U.S. air power and advisers, defeated a major Taliban offensive in Farah City in western Afghanistan. Today, in spite of vain Taliban attempts to challenge the Afghan government's control of Farah City remains under the control of Afghan defense and security forces.

Our Afghan partner's success in places like Farah are a testament to the tremendous improvements in the Afghan National Army, Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force. Afghan A29's and MI-17's conducted multiple airstrikes during the Afghan-led offensive in Farah.

Now, for the first time across Afghanistan, all six Afghan Army corps are on the offensive against the Taliban. This is a great milestone for Afghanistan that will allow for coordinated campaigns as they take the fight to the Taliban throughout the country.

We stand firmly beside our Afghan partners and will continue to reinforce this Afghan-led offensive. As Secretary Mattis has said, we stand by the Afghan people, we stand by the Afghan government and the -- and the NATO mission in Afghanistan will continue as we drive the Taliban to a political settlement.

On the situation in Hawaii. On May 3rd, the Kilauea volcano became active, threatening the Puna district of Hawaii's main island. There are currently 2,000 Hawaii residents under evacuation orders. Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the situation.

On May 4th, approximately 150 National Guard members began securing the disaster area and assisting residents. These National Guard members are assisting with the traffic control and evacuation procedures, fire prevention, air quality tests and providing support to local law enforcement.

Additionally, Secretary Mattis appointed Brigadier General Kenneth Hara to serve as the dual status commander, overseeing the National Guard's continued support. His appointment is effective May 16th through June 14th.

We will continue to monitor the situation and adapt our support as needed. With that, I will take your questions.

Tom? (Laughter.)

Q: Hi.

MS. WHITE: Hello.

Q: On Afghanistan, you said that this is testament to tremendous improvements in ANDSF operations. But it's still the case that the Taliban can attack at will major population centers and districts -- sorry, provincial centers.

How -- how is -- how is this a tremendous improvement? This is still -- this is still a major offensive and it took intense U.S. air support to -- to drive it back.

MS. WHITE: Well one, I think it's important to remember that progress and violence can co-exist. It's also important to remember that the Taliban has not had the initiative. You also see that they're using this -- they're hitting soft targets, they're hitting polling places.

They're desperate. This is also the start of the fighting season, so this is not unexpected. But the Afghan forces have done tremendous work with the six corps now working across the country. So it's still a long fight, but absolutely there's been progress that's been made and there'll continue to be progress.

And I think you also see with the South Asia Strategy, the fact that you do have a -- the six corps now trained and on the offensive, that all shows progress.

Q: OK, I just – if I can follow up -- the -- the -- I think 25 Afghan Security Forces were killed in the operations. And today the Air Force tweeted the Taliban forces in Farah City, Afghanistan. We much rather have heard #Yanny or #Laurel than the deafening #Brrrrrrrr, they got from our A-10's.

Do you think it's appropriate for the – Air Force -- do you think it's appropriate for the Air Force to -- to put out such a lighthearted comment essentially kind of making war a means in light of the heavy casualties that the Afghans took?

MS. WHITE: What I would say is I haven't seen that tweet, so I will -- I'll take a look at it and I can come back to you. But what's important to understand is that this is the Afghan's fight. We are working by, with and through these partners.

And they are dying to secure their own future, and I think that shouldn't be forgotten in any of this.

Lucas?

Q: Can you rule out Iran's involvement in this violence in western Afghanistan, taking place not far from the border?

MS. WHITE: I don't think you can ever rule out how much Iran interferes throughout this region. Iran remains the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East. So no, I don't think you can ever rule out their mischief.

Q: And has there been any indications that Iranian forces or intelligence agents did play a role in these specific attacks in Farah?

MS. WHITE: I don't have any specific details.

Tara?

Q: Different topic. Earlier this week, Politico reported that the White House and EPA were trying to delay or squash a report from HHS talking about water contamination at military bases. This has become an issue of concern for a lot of military families.

Especially after DOD provided the brief of the different contaminants that have been found at their bases. Do you think that DOD will step in and encourage the release of this report?

MS. WHITE: Tara, I will definitely look into it. Let me take that, and I'll come back to you today about it, OK?

Let me go to Kristina

Q: Hello.

MS. WHITE: Hi.

Q: How are you?

MS. WHITE: Good. How are you?

Q: Can you -- can you address reports that the DOD's -- is pulling the B-52 bombers from the Max Thunder exercises -- or -- exercises with South Korea?

And does the U.S. -- does the U.S. military plan to alter any of its exercises with South Korea during the planned June 12th talks with North Korea in Singapore?

MS. WHITE: So what I can tell you is that our -- the scope of our exercises have not changed. I won't be able to speak to specific details. But our exercises have been -- are annual. They've been longstanding. They're defensive in nature, and they will continue.

With respect to -- and these are alliance decisions. This is something that we do to ensure the readiness of both our forces as well as the South Korean forces.

What was the second part of your question?

Q: The second -- well, are -- well, like, future exercises during the -- the talks with North Korea on June 12th, will they be -- will they continue as planned?

MS. WHITE: So our -- our schedule for our exercises continue. Everything else that is firmly in the hands of the diplomats, we will continue to ensure our readiness and to ensure that we are ready and -- and able to do whatever we need to do.

But these are long-planned exercises and the scope hasn't changed.

Q: And another -- a different topic. Does the Pentagon still plan to ban Huawei and ZTE phones from Pentagon military stores?

MS. WHITE: So they were taken away from exchanges. We are always looking at security issues with respect to these electronic devices. So that -- that has stayed. They have been taken out of those exchanges, but nothing has changed with respect to that.

Travis?

Q: Yes. Can you -- can you confirm that the administration is interested in housing immigrant children at U.S. military bases in the South? And can you clarify what the U.S. military's role would be if such an agreement like that is reached?

MS. WHITE: So right now, HSS -- HHS is conducting a site survey. Right now, they are in the lead. No requests have been made from -- to us, at this point. So no decisions have been made.

Q: And what would the DOD role be?

MS. WHITE: Again, we need to wait for whatever the results of their site survey is. And we'll work with them to -- to figure out a way forward. But right now we don't have any more details than that.

Q: One follow-up...

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE: Sure.

Q: If it's military facilities, why would HHS be in the lead? Why wouldn't DOD be weighing in pretty aggressively on this?

MS. WHITE: So HHS is in the lead because they would ultimately have responsibilities for these children that would be detained. So they have -- they have the lead, with respect to -- across the government and looking at facilities.

So we are a part of that. And at this time, we haven't gotten any requests. This is an initial survey, so those are all the details I have at the moment.

Q: What kinds of facilities?

MS. WHITE: I cannot. We don't -- it's an initial survey. And, again, I want to emphasize, this is going on across the government.

Q: When you say that they are conducting a site survey, the survey is in which sites?

MS. WHITE: It's an initial site survey. It includes other -- other facilities. I can't get into the details. And, again, we haven't been asked. So this is an initial survey. We haven't been asked about any particular site.

Q: Surely, they'd have to ask you to come onto...

MS. WHITE: Yeah.

Q: ... military property?

MS. WHITE: I have no details about which sites they're looking at. I only know that HHS is looking, and they're conducting a site throughout the U.S. government.

Q: You said once that they would be (inaudible) lead because they would be responsible for these -- for these children. It means that they would work inside the military base?

MS. WHITE: The way I understand it is that they are looking at facilities across the U.S. government, to include the Department of Defense.

They will identify facilities. And if they decide that those are facilities that they can use, then they would talk to the agency responsible.

They -- they would be the lead with respect to those properties. But, obviously, we will work with them. But they are responsible for the care, they're responsible for identifying sites. That's all the details that I have.

Goyal?

Q: Thank you, Madam. Two questions, please. As far as the attacks -- ongoing attacks in Afghanistan are concerned, who is behind -- somebody must be financing.

That's what Afghan people are saying, that nobody told them and they are still living in the dark. But somebody's financing all these terrorist or ISIS or whatever, Taliban.

MS. WHITE: Well you know that -- I mean, one of the key things that General Nicholson has changed is how much he's going after revenue strains. I mean, many of the strikes have been -- and very successfully going after counter-financing.

So there is -- this is being financed, but we're looking at that aggressively. And so that's something that's been different and more aggressive with General Nicholson.

So we'll continue to pursue that, to ensure that we do cut off, also, the sources of finance for this terror.

Q: Well, one thing (inaudible) for a long time, not only the people of Afghanistan but also the -- the president and other officials in Pakistan -- in Afghanistan, they have been saying that Pakistan is behind all those strikes.

Is the U.S. listening them all this?

MS. WHITE: We believe that Pakistan can certainly do more with respect to regional security. It can certainly do more with respect to security within Afghanistan, and we would look to them and hope that they would both help, because they are both victims of terrorism and they've also sponsored terrorism.

So we look to Pakistan to create more opportunities to secure the region.

Q: And second, then, as far as terrorism in India is concerned, it's not surprising that, now, the former prime minister of Pakistan, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, on television, he made a -- an remark that Pakistan was behind all those attacks against India, in India, and Mumbai attacks and it was confirmed earlier by former president, Mr. -- Pakistan's former president.

And he said that Pakistan was always supporting terrorism against India. Now, where do we stand now? Because high officials, president and the prime minister -- of course, former -- now, they are claiming that Pakistan is supporting terrorism against India.

MS. WHITE: Again, this is an inflection point for Pakistan. Pakistan has decisions to make, and we hope that they will be a partner in safeguarding the region.

Q: Thank you.

MS. WHITE: Way in the back.

Q: I wanted to ask, has there been any contact between Secretary Mattis and his counterparts in Israel after last week's airstrikes?

And what level of support or coordination did the Pentagon provide, whether logistics or intelligence, to the Israelis prior to those airstrikes?

MS. WHITE: The secretary is in regular contact, often, with his counterparts around the world. With respect to any help, we did not participate. This was an Israeli-led strike. Was an Israeli-led strike last week.

Right here in the middle.

Q: Thank you very much.

I have two questions on Syria. First of all, the U.S. is arming YPG or SDF and training them to fight against ISIS.

But last week, Brett McGurk showed three maps showing that since 2014 the area, which has been taken from ISIS, become much bigger. I mean, ISIS lose many areas in Syria. There are little areas remained in Syria.

So is the U.S. still sending weapons and arming YPG to fight against ISIS?

MS. WHITE: So first of all, I haven't seen McGurk's map. What I can tell you is that we are working by, with and through the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces. We vet everyone who works with us in the SDF and the fight against ISIS in the MERV continues.

Q: Can I follow up...

MS. WHITE: Sure.

Q: ... with a different question. SDF or YPG is the Syrian branch of PKK, which is a U.S. designated terrorist organization. So can YPG or SDF be a reasonable solution to fight against ISIS?

MS. WHITE: We believe that the Kurdish elements of the SDF are a very effective force and have proven very effective in the fight against ISIS. This is a complicated battle space and we are that the SDF can now focus on the offensive to finish ISIS in the MERV.

Right here in the middle.

Q: Hi, yes, can you give us an update on when we can expect to see the results of the Missile Defense Review?

MS. WHITE: It is still in review but we should -- but I anticipate it should be coming I the next few weeks.

Q: (off mic) what is the hold up?

MS. WHITE: It's just a matter of -- it's in process. I mean, one thing that the secretary -- the secretary reviews the reports that come out of this department. And so it's -- in coordination we want to make sure we get it right the first time.

It's important, missile defense, the future of missile defense. We also -- this is a strategy. It's important to ensure that we are showing what we're doing moving forward. We have talked a lot about, over this last year, about our budget. We -- and the investments we need to make.

So when we -- when we show where we're going and what we need and the investments we need to make, we want to make sure that it's thorough. So I do anticipate it in the next couple of weeks.

Jack.

Q: Thank you. The U.S. was able to operate out of an Uzbek air base from 2001 to 2005. Did Secretary Mattis and the President of Uzbekistan discuss the possibility of the U.S. military once again operating from inside Uzbekistan?

MS. WHITE: I can tell you that the secretary and the president talked about how do we deepen our mil to mil relationship? And I can also tell you that -- talking about initiatives and ways to further bring stability to that region.

Q: But were there any discussions, specifically, about military bases?

MS. WHITE: They talked about how do we continue to deepen that relationships? I won't get into the specifics of their conversation, but the secretary is heartened by the idea of deepening that -- that mutual cooperation in the region.

QUESTION: We understand that the secretary is concerned about the tension rising on the Gaza border and the increasing civilian casualties killed by Israeli army there?

MS. WHITE: What I can tell is we have taken a look at all -- at our embassy and security and we have increased the number of Marine security guards at our embassies.

Obviously, we're monitoring the situation very closely. But Israel has the right of self-defense. And so we'll continue to keep a sharp eye on the -- on the situation as well as our embassies around the world.

Q: Do you justify those civilian casualties on Gaza border?

MS. WHITE: What I would tell you is that we are going to continue to monitor the situation. Israel has the right of self-defense and it has the right to protect its border.

Elizabeth?

Q: (off mic) Thank you. About changes in scope, have there been any discussions about scaling them back -- in the future scaling back future exercises in order to ensure that the summit goes forward between Kim and Trump?

MS. WHITE: There has been no discussion of that.

Wes.

Q: If we could go back to Afghanistan for a second. Do you know if there were U.S. advisors on the ground in Farah, in the vicinity of Farah City, during this battle and, if so, you know, what role they played?

MS. WHITE: What I can tell you is that there were U.S. advisors assisting. Obviously there were also coalition air strikes that assisted in the offensive.

Q: Thank you.

MS. WHITE: Johnny.

Q: Thank you very much, Dana. On North Korea, do you have any reason why North Korea complain about Max Thunder exercises in Korea -- why -- also you have any (inaudible) in South Korea?

MS. WHITE: There's been no talk of reducing anything. There's been talk of changing our scope. Our scope hasn't changes, these are annual exercises. We're very transparent about them. They are defensive in nature and the scope hasn't changed.

This is about the alliance. This is about safeguarding the alliance. This is about ensuring our readiness as an alliance.

Q: Can you just follow up...

MS. WHITE: Sure.

Q: ... On this discussion regarding the additional security at the U.S. embassies. Have the Marines that were requested, are they on-station or been deployed as of now or are they still kind of moving in? And have you received any additional requests for -- for security from any other embassy besides from what's listed?

MS. WHITE: So we're doing this in coordination with the State Department. These are not additional -- so this is not -- these are Marine security guards who are deployed who work on -- in the wire security at the embassies and consulates.

This is not an additional -- these are not additional Marines, these are -- these are the Marines that are designated to support our embassies and consulates around the world.

Q: And have you received any -- the department receive any requests?

MS. WHITE: We have not. I have not seen any additional requests.

Lucas.

Q: (Off mic) decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem right? It's not because of the situation in Gaza, correct?

MS. WHITE: It -- it is not -- has nothing to do with Gaza, it has to do with just a heightened sense of security and in coordination with the State Department to ensure that we're ready. We're all -- but let's be clear, we're always surveying the security and the force protection around our embassies and consulates. And so we continue to be vigilant about that.

Q: On North Korea, is there a plan B in case the summit doesn't happen and -- do other things?

MS. WHITE: Our position is, we want to ensure that our -- our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength. So that is our mission and we will see what happens.

You guys have to have some more questions.

Q: How does the Pentagon feel about the prospect of having to work with Muqtada a-Sadr in Iraq, given his -- given, you know, his role in killing U.S. forces?

MS. WHITE: Well I'm not going to speculate on preliminary results of elections. But I will say is that the Iraqi democracy has -- is thriving and that's a good thing. I don't know if any of you knew this but they had about 18 polling stations here in the United States, that's tremendous.

So we look forward to standing with our Iraqi partners as their democracy grows. That's -- we want to work by, with and through and -- and see them prosper as a democracy.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Sadr has -- Sadr has American blood on his hands, that's the gist of the question. Is the Secretary troubled that a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over a decade ago could potentially become the next leader of Iraq or at least its coalition and have a role in the future of Iraq, with American forces all on the ground right now?

MS. WHITE: Decisions of Iraqis are for the Iraqis. We will continue to work by, with and through our partners. But I'm not going to speculate on what is still a -- preliminary results of an election.

Q: ... secretary's been troubled by the election results at all?

MS. WHITE: No, the secretary doesn't get troubled or nervous, Lucas. (Laughter.)

Q: If Sadr does rise to power, will the U.S. be looking at alternative force -- force protection or troop levels?

MS. WHITE: I -- I think we need to see how things actually fall out first.

Jeff?

Q: You had mentioned two briefings ago that American military aircraft in Djibouti were getting lasers shined at them from a Chinese military base. Has that continued or did it stop when the U.S. formally demarched China?

MS. WHITE: I am not aware of any additional lasering incidents in Djibouti. But I'm happy to come back with you with any -- with any updates, OK? Thank you all very much.

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