On the Record Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: What I can do is talk off the record a few minutes with you all doing. How are you doing, young lady?
By the way, Old Man Rivers just got engaged. I'm very, very proud of him. He doesn't look old enough to drink alcoholic beverages. (Laughter.)
What I thought I'd talk for a couple minutes on the record, then I want to go off the record, OK, Todd? You'll get more from me off the record.
First of all, as always, thanks to those of you who do this often for going on another trip. I always worry whether or not it's going to be a waste of your time, because I got to do a lot of stuff behind closed doors.
So thanks for going out there and telling the story of our guys. So why am I going to Florida? You know we have three headquarters there, two of them are in Tampa, and we’re going to land there in about 45 minutes. SOCOM and CENTCOM are the two commands (inaudible) the last 16 years of war.
Really CENTCOM has been at one level of conflict or another since 1990, with Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and (inaudible) we have operations, Southern Watch and Northern Watch ones. They're the ones -- and those two commands are very much wedded together.
So coming down to talk to those headquarters – it’s my first here visit obviously. We talk every week with commanders and staff on the weekly updates from the video teleconference. I see them in the field, they're up at the Pentagon.
First time I've been back down to MacDill – then we’ll move over to SOUTHCOM over in Miami. That takes care of everything. I would just call it (inaudible) -- south of Mexico. So, kind of, in our own front yard kind of thing. And I also, by doing this, I close the gap between myself and commanders who have the burden of carrying out policy.
And I get it unfiltered, because we have more discussion than just weekly reports in video teleconferences. I think what you're going to see in all three of these commands is how -- the way our military (inaudible) has evolved, specifically under President Trump, by, with and through allies.
We see it all the way through. Go down there and the number of flags at the headquarters. You'll see a lot more than the American flag. For example, when I was in Tampa, I had 67 nations at the U.S. Central Command headquarters.
I'm not sure if that's still the same number today, may be a couple more, a couple less. It gives you an idea of the by, with and through of allies. They give a little bit more flesh on the bone to defeat ISIS Coalition right now, we've got 69 nations and we've got four international organizations, the Arab League, NATO, European Union, and Interpol.
The last one did say what do we do more about more fighters trying to go home again? And Interpol is going to have the databases we all feed into so police departments around the world to know where somebody’s showing up.
One of us found or captured, you know, a cellphone on the battlefield there, with the guy's name. Now we track people like that, and this is basically a time for it, as well, to talk about the new South Asia strategy. The first time I met with the staff since I came out of South Asia
Obviously these staff were key to the military factors, ended up that my first stop when I went to South Asia, India -- that was for a reason. My next stop was Afghanistan. You understand now we're putting it together.
We looked under regional strategies to uncover Afghanistan outward -- Pakistan and India, what do we do about the Central Asia states. I started from the outside and worked inwardly, now I've got to see if that method and what we take up with, is being backed by military strategies.
So this will be a normal dialogue that goes on, and making sure we're all on one sheet of music. I think to – when I go to Miami, I may not have time to talk to you folks (inaudible) at that point. And so I just wanted to talk for a minute about Miami, as well.
Again, a lot of criminal and threat networks down there, malign influence of some strategic competitors, and some of its normal competition of strategic competitors down the line, because we put it all together, I want to talk to the military component and deal with our southern neighbors.
We have very, very good military-to-military relations, I'd like to start in North America, Canada, and Mexico. The only full-honors parade I've held at the Pentagon since I've gotten there, where you saw the Canadian and Mexican defense ministers and myself altogether.
I've been to Mexico City, I met -- (inaudible) often in Brussels, part of the NATO alliance -- that's very sound. SOUTHCOM, on the other hand, everybody south of here in Central America and all. And we maintain very, very close military relations down there with a couple of exceptions.
Obviously Cuba, Venezuela, that sort of thing. For example, I still remember when a Ambassador Anne Patterson and the commander of SOUTHCOM General Charlie Wilhelm put together Plan Colombia.
And I still remember all the “Doubting Thomas’s,” saying, “Oh it can't work, they'll never end this war.” The Colombia government's corrupt, people weren't with them, and then a million led by the women down there – about a million Colombians went into the streets and said no more and the army, trained by the U.S. Army, trusted and turned that.
And now Colombia -- we've seen the end of a war that went on for decades. The result was a (inaudible) effort, collection of weapons and all, as they obviously done something to give Colombia a chance once again in normal nation.
And they are now someone that other nations turn to for advice down in this region. And it shows how these partnerships by, with and through others with others. Not everything has to come via America. We've gotten very capable of building allies there. And so I bring this up because there are times when a hurricane strikes, that's when these relationships pay off.
We move as quickly and we work together, we know who to call on the phone. It’s difficult to do these things, and work very, very well. Furthermore, politics play a very (inaudible) nature. There’s up, down. There's all sorts of people. That’s politics, OK.
But military-to-military, we try to maintain a very -- a very steady engagement with open lines of communication. And the whole idea is you look for common ground to work together and we are unapologetic about our values. But at the same time, we respect the other countries.
And in many, many cases, their officers are in our military schools and that sort of thing. So part of just making certain of what we're doing by, with, and through our allies.
Before we go off the record, are there any big questions burning you up right now? We'll start right here.
Q: Oh, sorry. I'm sorry.
SEC. MATTIS: Bear with us. Go ahead.
Q: On Afghanistan, you mentioned to flesh out the strategy. Do – do CENTCOM and SOCOM, are they working with allies in terms of troop contributions and so forth? Is that what you're talking about?
SEC. MATTIS: Is who working with allies? Us?
Q: Yes, CENTCOM, are you talking --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. Thank you. Yeah, the, how do I put this? We collected information from the allies. Remember, 39 nations stayed with us even as we seemed to be pulling out of Afghanistan. There were 49 plus Afghanistan. We dropped down to 39 over the last three-plus years -- former J3 of CENTCOM standing here -- Admiral Faller behind you -- Bill. And still 39 are there.
We've already received positive indications that over a dozen are going to add some kind -- even if it's just symbolic -- add something to show alignment with us. So, that involved them before I rolled it out with the president, even. I would go around talking to the NATO nations, and so that they were giving me advice and talk about what they might do.
So yes, they're with us. It was universally embraced, frankly, from New Delhi where it was absolutely embraced. I met with Prime Minister Modi and my new MOD counterpart. She’d been in office for not even two weeks, and she didn't even need briefing slides. She was that -- she's already that conversant.
So it looks like it's embraced the NATO -- NATO allies' input, and other partners. And I think that’s a lot of why we were given -- given full support for this.
Q: That's what you'll be discussing here, is how?
SEC. MATTIS: I'm sorry?
Q: That's what you'll discussing here, is how those troops will be used?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, it's mostly going to be how do we actually get the military factor to align with the political end-state. Make sure everything is aligned to drive toward reconciliation.
Q: Can I ask you about Niger? Obviously, this four troop deaths in Niger is obviously a big concern, particularly to U.S. Africa Command. And there was a gap between the time that the incident happened and the aid was able to get to them. What are you -- what are you thinking about now about what types of changes you might want to make in order to help get aid faster to troops in that kind of situation?
SEC. MATTIS: The first thing I'd point out is that I've been told that it's in an area where the enemy has not operated before was ambushed, and hit hard. And within 30 minutes, the French airplanes were overhead. Now, think about this. It's -- it's -- I mean, we're not ready right now for an emergency -- not really ready right now for an emergency on this plane – if all of the sudden the (inaudible) dropped, we’re all going to, you know.
So basically the ambush happened, and French pilots were overhead, fast movers with bombs on them ready to help. And helicopters were coming in behind, and that sort of thing. Nigerien troops were moving quickly, they had French advisers with them. They were on the move.
I completely reject the idea that that was slow. However, your point, your theme is still accurate. We will look at this and say was there something we have to adapt to now? Should we have been in a better stance, you know – autopsies --you always find a lot out -- you know, of an operation -- you take it apart.
But I would not characterize it that they were slow, but that doesn't change your point that we need to go in, look at this. We're not complacent. We're going to be better.
Q: Super quick question on Turkey there's obviously a diplomatic spat going on between -- (inaudible).
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: I know it hasn't affected current operations out of Turkey, but looking at future operations if relations don't improve, are you concerned about it could affect U.S.-Turkey relations?
SEC. MATTIS: Right now, as you know, Turkey is a NATO ally of many decades. But they -- Turkey is the only NATO country with an active insurgency against -- within its borders. So we maintain very close collaboration, close communication. The mil-to-mil interaction and integration has not been affected by this. Incirlik is fully open. The de-confliction line, we have to also make certain our airports talk to each other because they're operating in that northern Iraq, northern Syria, southern Turkey area. So, that's been unaffected.
Q: But if this continues, are you concerned about the future?
SEC. MATTIS: I don't want to speculate. I've heard every year because of some complexity that we're going to lose mil-to-mil cooperation with fill-in-the-country. And frankly, that people move on to the next anticipated problem. But the one -- the last one didn't happen. It's a NATO ally that we will work hard to stay aligned with against our common enemy, and we are doing good work together military to military.
Q: Just a temperature check on North Korea, how dangerous is the situation?
SEC. MATTIS: It's (inaudible)
Q: Do you want to take that one off the record?
SEC. MATTIS: Okay, yeah, let's go off the record -- (inaudible)