Media Availability With Secretary Mattis in the Pentagon

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis


SEC. MATTIS:  Afghanistan.  How's that?  Afghanistan -- so we're working on the strategy, moving it -- interagency-wise, moving it forward.  We have a pretty good idea what we think our part of it is.  

Q:  So what are the big pieces?  I mean, obviously, you've figured out the troop numbers a long time ago, and -- 

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SEC. MATTIS:  No, actually, we haven't, David, because part of it has to do with what is State's level of -- or their perspective of the way ahead, and so what do we need to do along a line of effort that supports them.  You want to get this thing right, you know, get the clarity.  

So, no, it's not finalized yet.  I know everyone's batted around numbers, and they may turn out to be right.  But I'm not giving it any credence right now.  

Q:  We'll see.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Because that also involves, perhaps, changing somewhat what the troops on the ground are doing right now, you know, as we make certain we align -- we have a new strategy and align everything.  

Q:  What do you say is sort of the hurdles that have kind of taken this long?  What are the difficult pieces that have been hard to --

SEC. MATTIS:  Welcome to strategy.

Q:  -- come together?

SEC. MATTIS:  Welcome to strategy.  Seriously, this is hard, and there's a reason we've gotten into some wars in our nation's history and didn't know how to end them.  This is hard work, and anyone who says otherwise is someone who has not had to either deal with it, or deal with the consequences of the decisions they made.  It is hard work.

Q:  But do you think it's -- is it the -- sort of the diplomatic angle, is it the Pakistan angle?

SEC. MATTIS:  The strategy, you're right to say that strategy is wrapping all that into a regional context and you know, what is the main effort -- that sort of thing -- and what is a supporting effort.  And in the supporting efforts is where you often find the most nuance, and, as a result, where you have to sort things out in the interagency.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, this is all on the record, yes?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  Sir, could I ask you about the Marine crash this week?  The FBI's involved.  It's an unusual -- it seems that there was an unusual incident midair.  Is there anything that you can tell us about?

SEC. MATTIS:  There is not.  Right now, I've purposely not asked questions, because I've found, when you push investigators to give you early word, that often changes later.  The shame isn't on them, who got pressed to do it.  It's on the people above, who were impatient.  You got to give them time.  

I don't know that that's odd the FBI's initially involved.  But I didn't look back at past crashes, either, of planes and all.  So I don't know if that's unusual, or if this is a normal part of eliminating, you know, causes, or whatever.

Q:  Okay.  So you don't have any early read?

SEC. MATTIS:   I don't, and I'm not -- I purposely have not asked.

Q:  So Senator McCain has expressed a lot of frustration with the pace of the pace of the Afghan review, coming down to the point where he said he might even look into putting a Senate Armed Services Committee version of an Afghan strategy into the NDAA.  

Do you think that -- have you had discussions with him about this?  Has he expressed that he believes your plan is on his way and will be acceptable?  Or is -- 

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SEC. MATTIS:  He’s made his point about the need for the strategy.  I'm in agreement with it, and we're working hard.  It is hard work, and, you know, we'll have the interagency piece, I think, together very shortly.  

But there's also the aspect that you're at the start-up of an administration, you know the -- when you walk out the door, the number of empty parking places.  So, we're working to fill those.  And, by the way, Senator McCain is probably leading the effort to get us what we need in here, up on the Hill, as is appropriate for him in his role as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.  

So, he's doing everything he can to fill those numbers, and as we get those filled, we'll be even more responsive.  Those people have a role to play.  

Q:  Has there been an impact from the number of vacancies here?  We've heard saying, oh well there's people that are filling them in, things are getting done.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Well there - oh yeah.  I mean, well you've noticed some things going on in the world that we've been doing.  So yeah, things are getting done, absolutely.  

Q:  But do you share this frustration, with the pace of the Afghanistan review?  I mean, there's people on the ground, you've got a Taliban that's obviously creating a lot of problems.  There's been some U.S. that have been killed - do you share his frustration that it’s taken this long?  

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm just not paid for frustration - I'm paid to get the job done, so.  

Q:  What was your reaction to Erik Prince's suggestion that you just use contractors out there?  

SEC. MATTIS:  I listen to everybody who's got an idea that I think I might find value from.  And there's themes that are consistent across a number of people - a number of advisers, and there's things that we will incorporate and there's things we won't.  But, right now, I don't want to go any deeper than that, on that one.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you've got two versions of the NDAA going through right now, you've got the (inaudible) coming behind it, how confident are you that the Congress is going to be able to pass anywhere near the extra money you're asking for above the budget caps?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Right now, I'd just say that what we need, most of all, is a degree of predictability to this budget, and that means we have got to get a bill passed.  I'm confident, based on the questions that I went through with both the House and the Senate, when I met, and with Republicans and Democrats in both houses, that they all recognize we need to rebuild the military.  Now, how we parse that out, I just say the theme is consistent.  I did not confront, you know, adversarial challenges that we need to downsize the military budget, or that we don't have gaps in our readiness.  So, we're working all those details out right now, that's what we're engaged in right now.  To include responding to requests for information on specific things.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, could you just tell us a little bit more about this ISIS leader, the most recent one that was killed, and was it a raid?  Was it a strike?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Is this the one in Afghanistan?  

Q:  Yeah, Isis-K.  Yeah.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'd rather not go into it right now.  I need to have - I want to find out some more myself before I talk about it.  

Q:  Can you tell us about the significance of it maybe?  

SEC. MATTIS:  The significance is, you kill a leader of one of these groups and it sets them back for, you know, a day, a week, a month.  You know, who it is, what kind of people are below them.  So, it's obviously a victory on our side, in terms of setting them back.  It's the right direction.  

Q:  On Syria, Mr. Secretary, the president said the other day that the U.S. is considering a second ceasefire zone in Syria, do you know where that is?  And where - how the U.S. military involvement...

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SEC. MATTIS:  I do know where it is.  I'd rather not go into it right now.  I believe, the diplomats, the maneuver that they need - you know, this is a diplomatically generated effort.  And the first one does appear - and you all might know better than me, the first one appears to be holding right now, but we'll see.  And, you know, time will tell.  We've seen other ones, well actually, I guess most of them haven't made it this long have they?  

So, I think there's some need for optimism.  I think once you get one in, you got to look at where's the next one, and where can we expand it?  

Q:  Do you think the U.S. military will have a role in this next one?  Should it come down to...

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SEC. MATTIS:  We'll have to see depending on where it is and, you know, who - what groups are in the area, a whole lot of things.  

Q:  Could it be down in the south, near Al-Tanf where the U.S. has some military operating?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I don't want to get into it right now because it's, you know, right now it's diplomatically-led, I'll leave here in just a minute.  I said I'm also talking to the secretary of state today, so I'm sure I'll find out some more.  We have a very close relationship, and we'll see how it looks.  What you do is, you look for opportunities right now.  This has got to stop.  What is happening to these people -- we've gotten -- we've been normalized to it, haven't we?   When we just hear it we expect ghastly news out of Syria tomorrow, right?  

We already know it's going to be there.  This has got to stop.  And that's what we're trying to do.  And so, we'll see what our role is, but for right now I can't go into any more details.  

Q:  Secretary, do you not think it's an opportunity though for Assad's forces, and Iranian Hezbollah -- backed Hezbollah to reset their troops?  I mean, do you think it's potential for them using it opportunistically?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  It could be, it depends on some things, and how many of their troops they have down in the southwest zone, not many.  How many of them are Lebanese Hezbollah, which Israel would not be comfortable with for very good reason.  So, if they move out of there, in which case, they get into an area that's not good to reset, so there's a lot of moving parts here.  I couldn't say that for sure.  

Q:  Sir, could you comment on the Hartzler amendment...

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SEC. MATTIS:  The what amendment?  

Q:  Hartzler amendment?  That was defeated on Capitol Hill -- it's supposed to be...

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SEC. MATTIS:  If the House or Senate defeated a bill, then I leave it.  That, I think is their due respect for whatever they did, pass or defeat.  But I don't generally get into that until it becomes something like the NDAA that then applies to me, and then it's voted into law by both houses, and signed into law.  

Q:  Did you call the representative yesterday to voice your opposition to that amendment?  

SEC. MATTIS:  We spoke yesterday.  

Q:  Any concerns in the Senate version of the NDAA?  We saw the list from the White House -- concerns about the House version.  Senate, anything broke out to you that you say, I don't know how I feel about that?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh I'm sure there's some areas of disagreement, but there's enormous areas of agreement.  And the priorities right now, I'm pretty comfortable with what the House and the Senate Armed Service Committees -- I'm very comfortable with the priorities assigned by the House and the Senate right now.  

Q:  Even Space Corps?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?  

Q:  Space Corps?  

SEC. MATTIS:  We'll see.  (Laughter.)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming back down here today, by the way.  

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Q:  You said at the top that you were speaking to senators, any issues that you can talk about?  

SEC. MATTIS:  It's a kind of thing to go into making sausage, you know, it's the little pieces, they've got an issue, by and large, you can understand the issues.  And you just try to be as collaborative as you can.  Give them the information they need, tell them where you stand on it, and why.  And they're good --they're not adversarial at all.  

They're by and large, even if you give them information on some, to say contentious issue, it's still -- you know, they're still open to it.  So, so far we have a very good relationship up there.  We're responsive to the Hill, but we give them our best estimate.  Something to remember what we're looking for is, how do we defend the country, how do we make our military more lethal, more capable.  And within that framework then, that's how we make our recommendations.  Remember, it's up to them how much money we get, so...

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Q:  These are discussions...

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SEC. MATTIS:  ...our best interest to work with them.  

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Q:  In terms of Iraq, there's going to be a footprint -- a smaller footprint, once ISIS is defeated, or I think that's something we're talking about...

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SEC. MATTIS:  Well we need to see what the two governments think of that, and what the proposal is.  So, I'm not willing to accept that right now, I don't want to mislead you that, somehow, that's a given.  

Q:  But what would be, sort of, a number you would be comfortable with?  Thousands?  Hundreds?  

SEC. MATTIS:  I need to see what the government of Iraq asked for, what's in our best interest, and what our president -- our elected commander in chief agrees to.  This is -- you're talking now about, like you said, a post-ISIS, a post-combat, effort.  And we'll look at it when they ask.  If and when they ask, we'll look at it and give our military advice to the secretary of state, and the president about what it should look like, militarily.  But we're nowhere near that sort of level of -- any number I threw at you, for something like that, would assume, number one, they will ask and we'll agree, and number two, you do a thing called ‘troop to task’  and you figure out what are the tasks?  

You know, are we going to train people, are we going to protect the embassy, are we going to, you know, I don't know, provide air support for mop-up operations?  Then you put down the number of troops you need for each of those tasks and then you figure that out.  I can't do that -- I can't give that to you right now.  

Q:  Can I ask you about Turkey?  They announced yesterday that they're going to buy four Russian S-400s, advanced anti-air.  Does that put any tension in the U.S. military to Turkish military relationship?  That they're a NATO ally buying a very advanced Russian hardware?  

SEC. MATTIS:  The problem is, how do you interoperate in the NATO system with Russians?  They'll never interoperate.  They're built -- you don't just layer on interoperability at the end.  So, we'll have to see, does it go through?  Do they actually employ it, do they employ it only in one area?  All that kind of stuff.  But I -- you know, we'll have to take a look at it.  Obviously, it's not going to be interoperable with NATO systems.

Q:  Does the U.S. approve of them buying Russian...

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SEC. MATTIS:  This is a sovereign decision, so.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I ask you about Qatar, because the problem there -- the conflicts between Qatar and the Gulf nation seems to be continuing.  We've been told early on that if it continues for some period of time it could oppose a challenge to U.S. operations in Al Udeid.  Are we getting closer to that, is that a concern that you have, in terms of the effect of that?  Is there anything on U.S. operations...

SEC. MATTIS:  Right now we've had no impact on our military operations.  Al Udeid continue to operate around the clock, and the supplies are there.  There's just been no impact yet.  That's not to say we don't want to see this resolved, and resolved as soon as possible with everybody.  Everybody working against terrorist financing, not just Qatar, but everybody.  

Q:  Is the U.S. military, at all, looking at alternatives, in terms of air bases?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No, there's been no impact.  There's no need to look at alternatives.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, yesterday the Iraqis sounded fairly optimistic about their ability to continue on in Iraq, to where ISIS' other operations are.  What's your sense of how much you think the U.S. military is going to have to support the Iraqis as they move into the Euphrates river valley and other places like that?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, we're there to help them fight and defeat, and destroy that physical caliphate.  And I'm sure we'll continue to bring in air support from us and from others, and call it in.  Training support is going on from a number of nations.  I mean, we've got Australia is training them, Finland's training them, United Kingdom is training them, we're training them.  We really recognize the value of that training, but it's a tough fight.  There's a lot of tough fighting ahead.  

Q:  Sir, is Baghdadi dead?  And, if so, what difference does it make?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Again, about -- you're talking about the ISIS -- when you take out the commander, the leader, then that -- you just create disarray in the enemy's rank, and we intended to do so.

Now, we'll see if we've done it.  But right now, until we prove it, we don't speculate that he's dead.  I mean --

Q:  You're talking -- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Is that who you meant?

Q:  Yes.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, exactly.  I mean, you know, obviously, what he did, what he led and the crimes he committed -- you know, again, we're not here to help him through his midlife crisis. (Laughter.)  We're here to give him one.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I take you back to Syria?  So, the progress on Raqqa seems to be moving pretty fast, the operation there.  But the SDF --

SEC. MATTIS:  I would -- I'd slow that down right off there --

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Q:  Slow it down?  All right.  Fair enough.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Urban fighting, unless the enemy absolutely caves in, lends itself to the defenders.  So, it's going to be a tough fight, and -- granted, we've made more progress than some of you forecast months ago.  

You know, in the press they were talking about how long it would take us to get there, and we wouldn't have much progress if we got there, if we didn't have enough of the opposition.  But we've made progress.  But I'd be -- I wouldn't -- for the ones in the fight, believe me, this is a very tough fight.

Q:  Well -- so, when that fight is -- when the victory's achieved there, since the SDF is a clearance force and there's been limited training, thus far, of any sort of police force to take over for the SDF once they clear the city, do you have a sense as to whether that territory can be held from --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes --

Q:  -- whether it's ISIS, whether it's the regime -- is there going to be anyone there to actually protect it?

SEC. MATTIS:  So your question is, is the victory kind of transient and on?  It's a very good question.  This is why Ambassador McGurk, the State Department's rep, is in and out of there two, three times a month, working very closely alongside us.

There's an organization called the Raqqa Internal Security Force, and that is locals, as best we can determine.  They're all locals, there may be some who are not.  But they're locals, and the whole point is that force would move in and do the initial making certain, behind the attacking forces that there's some law and order in the wake of that, in order to get to those folks back to normalcy, kind of thing.  

So, those are locals.  And there's also a city council.  Those are local Sunni Arabs.  And so, there's a political group that will run the city, and we're going to support them.  There's a lot of other nations that will as well.

And then you've got a police force that's being put together, and it's being done on the fly right now, obviously, as we uncover the ground.  So, it's not like it's, you know, the -- it's not like Wheeling, West Virginia hiring three policemen.  It's not going to look like that.  But it's obviously -- it's being taken care of as best we can, right now.

Q:  With every description we've heard of that force, it does sound like it's more policing, it's more local security.  Would they be able to protect against if the regime decided to move in?

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SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, there's going to be back grain -- there will be SDF forces in that area for a while, until we get the back turning done, the bypassed enemy that show up later, you know -- until we get this thing down to a level the police can handle it.