Department Of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Mattis and General Dunford in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Secretary Of Defense James N. Mattis; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for being here this morning.
In January of this year, the Department of Defense released its National Defense Strategy. It was the first of its kind in a decade. And in it, we outlined the department's strategic priorities and the guidance that we wanted to give our departments below us for the budget request, tying the budgets to the strategy itself.
Today, thanks to strong bipartisan support in Congress and resulted in $717 billion budget authorization for 2019. And our military continues to grow stronger, more lethal, more agile, and certainly more deployable than a year ago.
I cannot thank Congress without expressing my respect for Senator McCain, for his steadfast courage and his service, and my deepest condolences to his family for the loss of a man who represented all of the ideals America stands for.
Senator John McCain was a man who served his country honorably as a naval officer, as a defiant prisoner of war standing with his brothers in arms until all returned home together, and as a leader in Congress, including as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In all he did, Senator McCain never lost sight of our shared purpose in defense of freedom, for in his words, and I quote, "A shared purpose does not claim our identity. It enlarges -- on the contrary-- it enlarges your sense of self."
So our nation has lost a great patriot and our military lost one of our most ardent supporters.
The fiscal year '19 National Defense Authorization Act is named for Senator McCain and it meets all of DOD's critical needs. The earliest passage in the legislative calendar, this marks the first time since 1977 we had this Act signed so early.
We had 87 percent of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate voting in favor of it. This demonstrates that the defense of our Republic enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support.
And now that Congress has done our -- its part -- and we are grateful to the American taxpayers -- it's now DOD's duty to spend the funds responsibly as we rebuild readiness and invest in critical capabilities for future defense. We will be rigorously examining our spending plans and our audit, DOD's first, is in full swing.
As we have stated before, we are witnessing a world that is awash in change, and maintaining readiness in the face of looming threats is a responsibility that we owe the next generation.
Today I want to show how DOD is working to meet those challenges. We're going to put our activities into a strategic framework that we have provided in the National Defense Strategy and we have three lines of effort. The first one is increasing lethality. The second line of effort is strengthening our alliances and building new partnerships internationally. And finally, reforming the way the department does business to get the best use of the dollars.
First, on building a more lethal force, we have no room for complacency in any domain. We recognize cyberspace and outer space as warfighting domains on par with air, land and sea. And these two domains, cyberspace and outer space, were made contested domains by the actions of others, so as a result we have elevated Cyber Command to full combatant command status and we have worked with Congress and the White House to define the evolving space problem that we confront.
Now we are implementing the National Defense Authorization Act and its provision for unified space command, in line with the president's vision for needed Space Force, while revising our vision for defending our assets in space and revising antiquated space acquisition processes. We are working now with Congress on our way ahead with regard to needed legislation for a separate department.
In other adaptations, we've established a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to experiment new concepts while drawing synergy from separate programs for this potentially game-changing capability. We have created the Close Combat Lethality Task Force to accelerate the fielding of advanced equipment and to train our warfighters at the speed of relevance for the battlefield they confront.
We have released our Nuclear Posture Review outlining the necessary steps we are taking to strengthen America's nuclear deterrents so these weapons are never used, nuclear war being a war that cannot be won and must never be fought.
And at the same time we are working with the Department of State to determine how to advance arms control where possible.
We have implemented new standards to improve deployability of our forces so they are ready to fight and win at any time across any domain.
Current and future readiness will be enhanced by this focus we have on enhancing advanced lethality.
My travel schedule indicates just how seriously I take our second line of effort, strengthening alliances and partnerships. I have visited 57 countries so far as secretary of defense.
Our goal is to improve consultation, cooperation and burden-sharing so we can best deter the threats and the competition I mentioned earlier, because we are stronger alongside like-minded nations.
I recently returned from South America, where I met with leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. And I'm reminded that, despite the problems we admittedly face here in our hemisphere, we are fortunate to see increasingly an island of democratic stability and growing prosperity in an unstable world, from Ottawa to Santiago and Buenos Aires.
There are exceptions, and we know them: Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua. Even Castro knows now that the Cuban model doesn't work even for Cuba any more, or for anyone else, as Venezuela's Maduro is finding out.
But democracy is working, and we will be continuing to work with our friends from Ottawa to the southern tip of South America, for cooperation is critical for realizing the shared vision of democracy, prosperity and security.
We are working with Colombia, Ecuador and others to schedule our hospital ship, the U.S. Naval Ship Comfort, to help our friends dealing with millions of poor Venezuelans fleeing their country, as we witness the human cost of Maduro's increasingly isolated regime. And we will stand with those people and our friends.
Our neighbors clearly want closer relations with us, and we will work with them to realize our shared vision for the region.
We are also bolstering relationships across the Atlantic. As we look to the lessons of the past, as we look back at the National Security Council's policy paper from 1953, where it said, "Freedom and security of the free nations is a direct and essential contribution to the maintenance of our own freedom and security." Went on to say that "building up the strength, cohesion and common determination of the free world benefits all."
Last month, at NATO's summit, we reinforced that message. And it yielded tangible results. Discussions were candid and they went to the heart of burden-sharing issues. Several of my counterparts told me it was the most productive meeting they'd attended.
All 29 members now are spending more on defense in NATO. No longer is the question one of reducing defense budgets, as it was since the fall of the Berlin Wall until in to the 2000s. No longer is the question of whether to spend more. The only questions now are how much to increase, and by when. All recommitted to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024.
We also gained unity, ladies and gentlemen, on the needed command structure that we had to reform. Our two new headquarters, one of them hosted by Germany and one that'll be hosted in Norfolk.
And we also gained full commitment to what we call the four 30s: 30 air squadrons, 30 naval ships, 30 combat battalions, all available to fight within 30 days. That is a well-established and quantifiable goal now.
We also received commitments of a plus-up of over 1,000 non-U.S. coalition allied forces to the NATO-led Afghanistan mission.
Looking the Indo-Pacific, we are bolstering existing alliances while forging new partnerships among like-minded nations.
Twenty-five nations participated in this year's RIMPAC exercise hosted by the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the largest naval exercise in the world. It was emblematic of the refreshed military relationships in that the Chilean navy commanded the maritime element and this is the first time a Latin American country, in the history of this exercise, has done so.
We also continue to work closely with allies as our diplomats lead the effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. We keep a clear-eyed view of the challenges, working together in support of the unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions to economically sanction the DPRK. The sanction enforcement patrols today are international patrols.
We continue to build stronger friendships across the region and all of our actions reinforce the vision of a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific, where nations large and small are free from coercion.
In South Asia we continue to work by, with and through allies and partners in pursuit of peace, and two additional countries have now joined the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan as partner nations. That's United Arab Emirates and Qatar. And 32 of the 39 nations which have already committed forces to the mission agreed to either increase or sustain the current force levels through 2019.
We are fully supporting Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation efforts, and hard fighting is going on to convince the Taliban they must negotiate.
A recent statement by a Taliban leader made specific mention of negotiations as a way to bring, and I quote here, "an end to the war," unquote. This one of the most forward-leaning statements made yet by a Taliban supreme leader, even as they conduct attacks designed to garner press attention, costing lives, and they are now stripped, however, of any religious guise for an inhumane campaign against the Afghan people.
Clerical groups in Saudi Arabia, Kabul, Jakarta have of all encouraged the ceasefire efforts, and -- as they are showing a way to end the war through this Afghan-led reconciliation process.
In the Mideast, the Defeat-ISIS Coalition continues to make strides, liberated ISIS-held territory in Iraq and diminished the physical caliphate in Syria. I believe that ISIS is down now to less than 2 percent of the land they once controlled, even as we recognize the fight is not over.
As we strengthen our partnerships abroad, the department is also looking inward to reform how we do business, and that is our third line of effort.
We understand we cannot have lasting security for our country without solvency. We are conducting the first audit in the department's history and I want that audit to find problems. It's the only way we will be all the craft effective solutions. This ensures we uphold the trust that Congress and the American people have placed in us to spend their tax dollars wisely.
In other reform efforts, DOD has realized nearly $4 billion in savings in FY '18, so we can apply it to more lethality. We initiated the repeal of several hundred unnecessary regulations across the department, enhancing our efficiency and making it easier for industry to work with us and without compromising performance or accountability.
We embraced and finalized the congressionally-directed split between our acquisition and sustainment and our research and engineering offices, to ensure our warfighters have the technology and equipment they need both on the battlefields of today as well as tomorrow.
The bottom line, DOD is making significant progress along our three strategic lines of effort. Our strategic framework is proving applicable across our far-flung department's operations, and we will continue to drive results in the months and years ahead.
On a couple of other issues, on MAVNI, this is the program, ladies and gentlemen, designed to enlist immigrants with needed skills. The issues with the program are not about immigration, they are about national security. We need and want every qualified patriot willing to serve and able to serve.
Two years ago, in 2016, an independent I.G. investigation raised security concerns with MAVNI applicants, resulting in the suspension of new applicants that year. DOD has been working diligently to complete the screens that were directed by the I.G. investigation for those already in the pipeline.
For the roughly 6,000 who have served, are currently serving, or have recently cleared the security process under MAVNI thus far, the U.S. military welcomes them as critical and valued members of our armed forces.
On Yemen, we support our partner Saudi Arabia's sovereign right to self-defense, and we recognize the end of the conflict requires a political solution. And both State Department and Department of Defense are working closely with the U.N. special envoy, Martin Griffiths, in that regard. We are also working closely with the coalition that is fighting to support the U.N.-recognized government in order to determine what went wrong with errant bombing attacks and prevent their recurrence.
With that, let me pass the mic to the chairman, to General Dunford, for an overview of what our men and women are doing around the world and how DOD is turning budget dollars into joint readiness and capability.
GENERAL JOSEPH F. DUNFORD, JR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I'd like to begin by reinforcing the secretary's comments on Senator McCain. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.
As a naval officer and as a member of Congress, he was a life-long and tireless advocate for the men and women of the U.S. military. While we mourn Senator McCain's passing, we'll be eternally grateful for his distinguished service and his courageous example.
Before we take your questions, I'll highlight some the ongoing operations and exercises across our geographic combatant commands.
Our priority in the Indo-Pacific Command is supporting the State Department-led diplomatic and economic efforts aimed at denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. 28,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed on the peninsula, demonstrating our commitment to the alliance and deterring North Korean aggression.
We're also conducting air and maritime operations to disrupt ship-to-ship transfers of fuel in violation of U.N. sanctions against the DPRK, and we're doing this in conjunction with allies and partners.
Across the Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. military forces work on a day-to-day basis with allies and partners to preserve the rules-based international order that's consistent with our interests.
Indo-Pacom also has exercise programs in 31 nations to train, advise and assist partner forces in internal security, counter-narcotics and counterterrorism operations.
In the Central Command, we remain focused on our mission in Afghanistan, the defeat-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, and countering Iran's destabilizing influence across the region. Approximately 14,000 U.S. military personnel are deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Freedom Sentinel and NATO's Operation Resolute Support.
Our primary mission remains countering terrorist threats to the United States. Our forces, alongside forces from 40 NATO and partner nations, were also training, advising and assisting over 300,000 Afghan forces who were responsible for security in Afghanistan.
In Iraq and Syria, we're operating as part of a 77-member Defeat-ISIS Coalition. In Syria, 2,000 U.S. and additional Coalition forces are working to enable the 50,000 Syrian Democratic Forces in clearing the remainder of ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley and then stabilizing those areas that have been cleared of ISIS.
In Iraq, the priority is supporting Iraqi security forces to ensure that the success they've had against ISIS is enduring.
In the European Command, we're enhancing our alliances and deterring Russian aggression through enhanced forward presence and other forced posture initiatives.
We also have a robust exercise and training program, enabled by the European Defense Initiative. This year, we've conducted 13 joint exercises in Europe in addition to a wide range of service-specific training and engagement.
In Africa Command, approximately 7,200 U.S. forces are supporting thousands more African military partners in providing for their own security and conducting counterterrorist operations against ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates.
Our efforts include developing security forces in Somalia, countering ISIS in Libya and supporting partners in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions.
In the U.S. Southern Command, we're also working to deepen our security relationships and addressing regional challenges and threats.
As the secretary mentioned, the U.S. Navy Hospital ship, Comfort, will soon deploy to relieve the pressure of increased population flows from Venezuela.
And finally, here at home the U.S. Northern Command has 1,600 DOD personnel and 33 aircraft working to suppress wildfires in the western states, while more than 2,000 Guardsmen are supporting Homeland Security on the southern border.
The Northern Command also provides around-the-clock ballistic missile defense while Americans and Canadians from the North American Air Defense Command defend our air space.
Even while meeting today's requirements, the combatant commanders and the services are adapting and innovating. Our efforts include a series of globally-integrated exercises and experiments to help shape the force we'll need to fight and win tomorrow.
In closing, I believe you can see that your men and women in uniform are busy and we're very proud of them, but we don't do any of this alone.
As the secretary said, we're grateful for Congress's support expressed in the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act. And in all that we do, we work alongside our allies and partners, our source of strength. Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. MATTIS: Go ahead, Bob.
Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, you mentioned Yemen. Today there was a report for the U.N. that said that the coalition and the Yemen government may -- may be responsible for war crimes.
My question is how do you justify continued American investment of support and American credibility in a coalition that has produced such problematic results, which in fact have been characterized by some as a humanitarian disaster?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, the reality is that that battlefield is a humanitarian field, and we recognize the -- the tragedy there. That's why I emphasized that we are working with the U.N. Special Envoy to try and end this, to drive this to a U.N.-brokered negotiation.
But we did review the support for the Arab coalition when we came into office. As you know, it was started before we arrived here. We reviewed it, we determined that it was the right thing to do to support them in the defense of their own countries, but also to restore the rightful government there, in effect, what is -- what is going on.
Our conduct there is to try and keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum. That is our -- our goal where we engage with the coalition.
In Yemen, you know, as a general statement, we stay out of the war ourselves and we are focused on defeating ISIS and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That's what we do where we conduct operations.
So, again, our goal is to reduce this -- this tragedy, and to get it to the U.N.-brokered table as quickly as possible.
Q: Considering given what's happened recently, are you reconsidering or considering reviewing again the American support for that?
SEC. MATTIS: We are constantly reviewing what support we are giving, yes.
We also had an Army lieutenant general in Riyadh almost immediately following the early-August tragedy to convey our concerns and ask for a swift and complete investigation. And we will continue to do everything we can to limit this kind of tragedy, but the most effective way is to get this to a U.N.-brokered negotiation.
Q: A quick question of General Dunford- could you bring us up to date on the -- the training with Turkey on the joint patrols, where that stands?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, Bob.
About two months ago we began to work with the Turks on, more broadly, the security in northern Syria, focused on Manbij. There's two phases. One is independent patrols with coordination and communication between Turkish forces, U.S. and coalition forces. Second phase being combined patrols.
We are now conducting the independent patrols with communication between the Turks, and we're still planning, with the Turks, for combined patrols.
In order to do combined patrols, one, we need a command and control construct set up; we need joint training to be done in Turkey; and we need an agreement on rules of engagement and other details of the patrolling, and that's ongoing.
GEN. DUNFORD: It's ongoing, Bob.
You know, we're both satisfied, that is the Turks and the United States, with the pace of our planning. Most importantly, security is being provided in Syria. We're talking about making some refinements to that security in the future.
Q: Mr. Secretary and General Dunford, first, sir, I wanted to ask you about Syria and Russia. Are you concerned that the Russians may stand aside and let the Syrians move chemical weapons capability into the Idlib area for what everyone agrees is an upcoming assault on Idlib?
Can you tell us anything about what the U.S. may be doing to pressure the Russians to keep the Syrians from doing that?
And for General Dunford, very quickly, according to Iranian news agencies, the head of the navy's Revolutionary Guard Corp there said yesterday that Iran has full control of the Gulf and that the U.S. Navy does not belong anymore in the Persian Gulf. I'm just wondering if you have a response for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on that point.
SEC. MATTIS: Barbara, on -- on the chemical weapons, you have seen our administration act twice on the use of chemical weapons. Your question goes really to the heart of the issue. I will assure you that Department of State has been in active communication -- recent active communication with Russia to enlist them in preventing this.
And I'll just leave it at that for right now. But it is -- the communication is going on.
GEN. DUNFORD: Barbara, for decades our forces have been postured in the Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation and we'll continue to do that.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, please go ahead.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary and General Dunford. This question is for both of you.
You're about to install the 17th commander over U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And my question is, at what point is it right to call this what it might look like, a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan?
And then, secondly, given the -- we've tried both hundreds of thousands and very small footprints of troops in Afghanistan to get to a negotiated peace. Is there any advantage at all to privatizing a force if there's going to be boots on the ground for the foreseeable future?
SEC. MATTIS: When Americans put their nation's credibility on the line privatizing it is probably not a wise idea. But as far as a permanent U.S. presence, number one there're 39 nations there supporting the U.N.-recognized government; it's not a U.S. presence alone or -- and it shouldn't be implied that way.
We are there in order to ensure that America's security and just think back to 9/11 and this building, that America's security is not threatened out of that -- that location. That involves the Afghan people being in control of their own future. This is why we talked about an Afghan-led Afghan-owned reconciliation process.
And we believe that the best way to get there is to ensure Taliban recognizes they can't win on the battlefield, they must negotiate. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary (inaudible).
Q: Could we please get, General Dunford, your thoughts on this as well?
GEN. DUNFORD: You said it's going to be permanent presence. What I would tell you, Tara, is that we have permanent interests in South Asia, diplomatic interests and security interests. And we're going to maintain a presence to have influence in that region. The diplomatic presence, the security presence, and the form of that presence is going to change over time.
As an example, just a few years ago, we had over a hundred thousand U.S. forces in Afghanistan and today we have about -- about 14,000. So there will be a permanent diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. There'll be permanent diplomatic presence across South Asia, but I certainly don't expect that the current forces that we have in Afghanistan represents an enduring large military commitment.
Q: I kind of deferred back to by colleagues. May I please ask my question? Thank you. I appreciate it.
SEC. MATTIS: We run a democracy here, Tom.
Q: Thank you. On North Korea, President Trump on June the 13th said quote, "There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." End quote. Does the Pentagon share that assessment?
SEC. MATTIS: You know, Tom, you're asking for a -- a -- a straightforward answer on a complex subject. The bottom line is, there was progress made. The whole world saw that progress when the two leaders sat down. We also knew very clearly this was going to be a long and challenging effort to negotiate this away. As you know, that war began in 1950 and has never ended. So we're engaged in the process and we stay with a diplomatically-led process. Our job is to support the diplomats.
Q: Have you seen any attempts by North Korea to denuclearize?
SEC. MATTIS: I -- I prefer to leave -- since this is all riding on Secretary Pompeo's shoulders, prefer to leave the State Department in the position to answer these questions. We stay in a supporting role.
Go ahead, please.
Q: Secretary, I just want to pin you down a little bit on the Yemen answer you gave to Bob. Is it fair for us to think that the U.S. is willing now to curtail or has at least told the Saudi-led coalition that it's willing to curtail support should things not change.
And to General Dunford, I want to ask you if possible, about something you don't really talk about which is your communications with your Russian counterpart, General Gerasimov. Since the Russians confirmed that they had asked about refugees and reconstruction, I just wanted to ask whether you think that's an appropriate use of the military-to-military communications channel.
SEC. MATTIS: You know for the last several years we have been working with the Saudis and the Emirates doing what we can to reduce any chance of innocent people being injured or killed. We recognize that we are watching a war in which the Houthi-led effort involves launching weapons out of residential areas into Saudi Arabia. We recognize the complexity of it.
At no time have we felt rebuffed or ignored when we bring concerns to them.
The training that we have given them, we know has paid off. We have had pilots in the air who recognize the danger of a specific mission and decline to drop, even when they get the authority.
We have seen staff procedures that put no-fire areas around areas where there's hospitals or schools.
We -- we recognize every mistake like this is tragic in every way, but we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we're working with. So we will continue to work with them, reduce this -- this tragedy.
GEN. DUNFORD: So, I -- I maintain the communications link with my Russian counterparts for the entire time that I've been in this assignment. And we do it to mitigate the risk of miscalculation, to manage a crisis, and also to deconflict operations inside of Syria.
The one thing we committed to early in the relationship is that we wouldn't talk publicly about the substance of our conversations, to avoid our relationship becoming politicized. Because we do believe, particularly at this critical time, that maintaining that communications link is very important.
SEC. MATTIS: Jennifer?
Q: Sir, there was a pretty shocking report this month about 40,000 Army base homes having lead paint and affecting the children of service members. And the Army yesterday said they were going to investigate, and it's going to cost several hundred million dollars to investigate.
I'd like to get your reaction when you heard about that report, and what you can say to assure the mothers and the parents of those children who are in these homes with possible lead paint.
And, sir, General Dunford, if I could just follow up on North Korea, is it time to restart military exercises with South Korea, given the recent news that the North Koreans are not denuclearizing?
SEC. MATTIS: Jennifer, I've -- I've seen the report. I do not have any additional details yet. I know the Army's moving very quickly on this.
Part of the way we make a more lethal force is by ensuring the troops aren't worried about their families back at home. So this is -- this is a moral obligation we have to the families to provide safe lodging, obviously, for them. And it's something we take very, very seriously.
We've had other environmental impacts on some of our bases. You've seen us work to correct those. And I have absolute faith the Army's moving on this quickly. I spoke to the secretary of the Army this morning about this very issue. So they're -- they're moving on it.
Let me just talk about the policy of -- of the suspension of -- of exercises on the Korean Peninsula.
As you know, we took the step to suspend several of the largest exercises as a good-faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit. We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.
We will work very closely, as I said, with the secretary of state, and what he needs done we will certainly do to reinforce his effort. But at this time, there is no discussion about further suspensions.
Q: What will that mean in real terms? When is the next exercise?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, they're -- remember that what we did when we suspend the exercises, ladies and gentlemen, we suspended several of the largest exercises but we did not suspend the rest.
So there are ongoing exercises all the time on the peninsula. The reason you've not heard much about them is North Korea could not in any way misinterpret those as somehow breaking faith with the negotiation.
So the exercises continue. What it means in practical terms is that we're making no changes to the exercise program at this time.
Q: (Off mic)
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah?
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. MATTIS: Okay. All the way in the back. Go ahead, Tom.
Q: I wanted to return to Afghanistan for -- for a minute and ask you about the recent attacks in Ghazni.
So you and others have said the Taliban failed to reach their objectives. But the bottom line is, 1,500 Afghan soldiers and police fell apart. And the Taliban swept in Ghazni and it took four days to get them out.
And once again, as we've seen numerous times in the past, Afghan commandos, American special forces, nine of whom were wounded, and dozens of American air strikes were necessary to get the Taliban out.
So after all this time training and billions of dollars spent on the Afghan army, what does this say about their competence?
SEC. MATTIS: I -- first of all, I would not say they fell apart because there were six military objectives in Ghazni, they did not achieve a single one.
Now could they go in and shoot up the residential neighborhoods, chase the police out where they outnumbered them, outgunned them?
You know, this is not -- this is not an easy fight. We've never said it was. But I don't believe that you can use this example as emblematic because if you look at where the Taliban were and what they were claiming they were going to do two years ago, one year ago, they have not succeeded in taking down these towns and holding these towns.
And it's -- it's a lot easier, I -- I would say it's enormously easier to be the criminal in a town than it is to be the policeman. And that's true whether you're in Ghazni, Afghanistan or anywhere else.
The criminal has a certain initiative when they initiate criminal activity. So I would not -- I wouldn't jump to a larger conclusion about this being emblematic. The fact is, innocent people are vulnerable to terrorism whether they be in Brussels or New York City or Ghazni.
Q: I did see the Taliban also overrun smaller Afghan bases in Faryab and also Mazar-i Sharif.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. Tough fight.
Q: But are they tough enough to fight the Taliban?
SEC. MATTIS: Clearly, they are. They've taken serious casualties over the last year. They're still in the field. And -- and right now, the Taliban is talking about cease-fires because they can't avoid it.
They found their own troops were starting to step forward for a cease-fire, so they had to get out in front of the one a month ago or a couple of months ago.
And so there's a lot more to this than purely traditional military who-shot-who today. The fact is that we have seen, from Jakarta and Riyadh to Kabul and even Islamabad, where Islamic scholars, you know, are -- are saying that you cannot have jihad in Afghanistan. They're stripping away this false religious garb.
That has to be accounted for as well. It may be a non-quantifiable. It's not like 1,500 troops, you know, that are being hit. But it's very real when you start removing these aspects of the war as well.
So you have to look at it in its totality, I think, Tom.
SEC. MATTIS: Wow. Yeah. It's okay. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Back to Syria, if you could bring us to where we are now. What do you want to happen next? The war for a long time was about them regaining territory, but we've heard for several months now that there are small skirmishes still going on, especially for you, General Dunford.
What -- what is the mission specifically now for those troops, anything beyond the counter-ISIL mission? And what else do you need from, really, the non-military side of this effort, for rebuilding and reconstructing those areas and for getting to that -- getting back on that path to Geneva that we're not hearing much about lately?
DUNFORD. Sure, I -- I -- I could start with that.
I think you know that there's one major area in the Middle Euphrates River Valley that still has a significant ISIS presence. So in the near-term, working with our Syrian Democratic Forces, we're working to clear that one remaining area in the Euphrates River Valley.
But what's really important, and I mentioned it briefly in my opening statement, is training the security forces necessary to stabilize those areas that have already been cleared of ISIS, and that is -- that is going to take some time to do that.
With -- with regard to the importance of stabilization funding, that is very important. That's why Secretary Pompeo has been engaging with regional actors, other -- other regional actors, to contribute to the stabilization funds, to get the basic services -- the water, the electricity, the jobs and those kinds of things established in those towns. That's distinct from reconstruction, which is a longer-term endeavor, and -- and we won't be ready to talk about reconstruction until there's a political solution.
SEC. MATTIS: Missy?
Q: Okay, I have one follow-up on Yemen, and then, an Iran question; questions are for either of you.
On Yemen, what is it that the U.S. military's doing differently now, in terms of advising and trying to help the coalition get to its goal of curtailing civilian harm in Yemen? Because it doesn't seem to have worked over the last three years, even though we've been trying to reach that goal.
And then on Iran, the administration has continued to elevate its policy focus of confronting Iran's regional influence. Has that focus resulted in any diminishment of its proxy reach so far? And what new actions is the U.S. military taking in order to constrain Iran's proxy -- proxy activities?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, on Iran, what are we -- excuse me. On Yemen, what are we doing differently, Missy? One -- one point I would make is, where we've been successful, there's no news, and -- and we have seen a much more rigorous targeting process for the deliberate targeting, one that takes into account the areas where you are most likely to have collateral damage, and thus, that's why they impose no-fire areas, restricted-fire areas. We have seen pilots with a much more attuned approach to their own missions, and how they carry out those missions. We've seen pilots, as I mentioned earlier, who declined to drop.
So I would tell you that to say that it hasn't worked, we -- we recognize we are not going to achieve perfection. That's why we're waiting now to get the investigation to find out what specifically did not work here. Now granted, that was not a deliberately-targeted location. That was a dynamic target.
As I understand it, we are still waiting on the investigation. And as a result, the pilots in the air when the threat [was] identified went after it. So we've got to look at whether or not our deliberate targeting mechanism is sufficient if the enemy is getting better at fast-moving threats, and thus, you know, you've got a different -- a different target set.
On Iran, Iran has been put on notice that the continued mischief they've caused around the area, the murder that they have caused, the support from Syria, and what they're doing with Assad, the threats about the Straits of Hormuz, the support to the Houthis with the missiles that are being fired into Saudi Arabia, or the -- the Iranian-supplied UAVs that are being flown against international airports -- that this is not tolerant -- tolerated by us, and they're going to be held to account for it.
Are we seeing a change? Again, I know in some cases, we have seen less willingness to be confrontational. But fundamentally, they continue to be the single biggest destabilizing element in the Middle East.
Q: On Russia --
SEC. MATTIS: Okay, go ahead, please. And then we'll --
Q: -- how much do you think Russia has the capability and the leverage to put pressure on Assad or on Iran to have all of the IRGC militants or Hezbollah inside Syria to leave the country? And, if not, how do you see other alternatives to have the Iranians out of Syria?
Just to remind you that the national security advisor, Mr. Bolton, said that the United States problem is not with Assad but it is with -- with Iran.
SEC. MATTIS: Well, let me just be very precise here. Our problem is not with Iran; it's with the Iranian regime leadership, not the Iranian people. I just want to separate those two out as well.
As far as whether or not Russia has the -- has the traction, has the persuasiveness to get Iran out of -- out of Syria, you have to look at that question. What are they doing in Syria in the first place, other than propping up someone who has committed mayhem and murder on his own people?
They have no business there. And our goal is to move the Syria civil war into the Geneva process so the Syrian people can establish a new government that is not led by Assad and give them a chance for a future that Assad has denied them, with -- with overt Russian and Iranian support.
So we're asking for Russia to do what is the right thing in this case. But I recognize the challenge and I wouldn't take any issue with the skepticism in your voice.
Q: Just to follow up, we have seen --
SEC. MATTIS: No, let me move on here and give everybody a chance.
Q: We have seen many media reports saying -- contacts between Israel and Russia to create, like, a security zone along the northern border of Israel, 60 to 80 kilometers inside Syrian territories. To -- to have this zone out of any fear of any Iranian --
SEC. MATTIS: Okay, so what -- what's your question?
Q: So my question is do you think this will happen?
SEC. MATTIS: You'll have to ask Israel and Russia on that one.
Yes, go ahead.
Q: Thank you. I just have one question, it's for both of you.
When you said that the exercises with South Korea will be continued, are you saying that next year's Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, Foal Eagle, all the exercises timed to coincide with the end of North Korea's winter training cycle will proceed?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, we have not made decisions on that at this time and we'll do that in consultation with State.
Go ahead, right here.
Q: How do you see the situation regarding Turkish arms purchases of the S-400? Are they -- are they continuing with that?
And if -- and regarding the F-35, are you continuing with that?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, Turkey has a choice to make, a sovereign decision to make. But clearly Turkey bringing a Russian anti-aircraft, anti-missile system into a NATO country, we cannot integrate that into -- into NATO. Yes, it does concern us, and we -- we do not recommend that.
Q: First to you on Syria, Chairman Dunford, we were told in December that in Syria and Iraq there were less than 3,000 ISIS fighters and now there are estimates coming out that there are 15,000 to 20,000 in Iraq, 15,000 to 20,000 in Syria. Which are -- if you add those up those are the numbers at the height.
So my question is, for you, can you sort that out for us and tell us what -- what the threat is in Syria and Iraq and how big the ISIS presence is?
And then for you, Mr. Secretary, on Niger, you had mentioned when we were travelling that you had received some reports from SOCOM and AFRICOM on changes and implementations to be made. Can you tell us what changes you think should be made on the African continent and in that region?
GEN. DUNFORD: Colonel, let me -- let me start. I -- I have confidence in some statistics and not in other statistics. So here's what I'm confident of, is that over the last two and a half years, ISIS has lost about 98 percent of the ground that they've held.
They've lost significant access to resources and the flow of foreign fighters has been significantly reduced. Those are all quantifiable and we know that.
With regard to the numbers, I saw the recent reports of -- of over 30,000. I -- I don't have high confidence in the -- in those particular numbers. I mean, we're focused on dealing with what remains a threat in the Euphrates River Valley.
We know there are remaining residual pockets of ISIS inside of Iraq, which is why we're working with Iraqi security forces. We've acknowledged that remaining work has to be done, but I certainly would not say that ISIS has the same strength that it had at its peak back in 2015. The statistics that I outlined for you clearly argue against that.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. On the Niger situation, we are making changes on the personnel assignment policy. As you know, one of the things we uncovered was some of those troops did not train together, what we thought was for a sufficiently long -- long enough time.
We have changed some of the training requirements as well. But as far as our -- our continued operations there, we continue in support of the French-led trans-Sahel effort down there. And in building our -- our partner nations' capacity to fight this enemy.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. Tom?
Q: Could I just go back to Afghanistan, and could you just speak to, is the South Asia strategy running out of time? And to the extent there is pressure on this strategy to show results, to what extent do they hinder the -- the momentum on peace talks?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. We knew when we reviewed this and came up with the strategy, it would take time. We believe we can make -- make progress right now.
You -- even the idea a year ago, if we'd said there'll be a cease-fire at some point in the next year, I think we would have had a very hard time convincing you of that.
We now can point to it in the rear-view mirror. There's another one being proffered, and I think the Taliban are increasingly finding themselves in a position of almost having to negotiate with their own subordinates, who seem to take the initiative on this sort of thing right now.
So we're going to continue to work this. We think there are positive reasons to stick with the strategy. And we are going to drive this to a negotiated settlement, is our goal. That remains the same.
Q: Do you find yourselves having to argue or defend this strategy increasingly internally in the administration?
SEC. MATTIS: I would just point to what happened when we went into the -- into the last Brussels conference, the summit there, where we had over a thousand troops committed by other nations.
I think that sends the message. When the other nations are willing to add troops to this effort, I think that sends the -- the right answer to that question.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, go ahead.
Q: Thank you. John Harper with National Defense Magazine.
Mr. Secretary, in your opening remarks you noted ongoing efforts to bolster U.S. space capabilities. Can you provide an estimate for how much it will cost to set up a Space Force, both in terms of establishing a new combatant command as well as the broader bureaucratic reorganization that will be required to set up a separate armed force?
SEC. MATTIS: No, I cannot. I will tell you that setting up the combatant command will -- will not be that expensive because we'll build out on what we have right now.
I'll let the chairman comment on this in a moment, but we have not done the costing estimates for the other -- that's under way right now. We've already commenced the effort but I don't want to give you a -- an off-the-cuff number that's not examined.
Any thoughts on this?
GEN. DUNFORD: I think you understand both the president's direction as well as, there's a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that requires us to stand up a sub-unified command in 2018.
And we're in a process right now, in fact as recently as yesterday, met with the key leaders in the department to work through the details of that.
We're still a few months away from standing up that command and coming to the secretary with a recommendation-- the specific details of doing that, but -- but we don't have a full cost right now. We'll certainly share that with you when it's available.
Q: Sir, I wanted to go back to Syria one second and, kind of, to square the circle. The president in April said he wanted to get U.S. troops out of Syria very soon. What has to -- what are some of the steps that have to happen before very soon becomes a reality for those 2,000 U.S. troops?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, let -- let me give -- let me give three points here.
One, we have to destroy ISIS. The president's been very clear that -- that ISIS is to be taken out, so that's got to happen.
We also have to have trained local troops who can take over. We're doing that training as we speak. As we uncover ground, the chairman's got people assigned there specifically to train the locals.
And third, we need the Geneva process, the U.N.-recognized process to start making traction towards solving this war.
Now, if the locals are able to keep the security, obviously during this time we might be reducing our troops commensurate with their ability to meet -- deny ISIS a return, but it really comes down to finding a way to solve this problem of Assad's making.
Q: (Off mic)
SEC. MATTIS: All right, go ahead.
Q: Oh, thank you.
SEC. MATTIS: Very persistent.
Q: Just to clarify your response to Jennifer, that there are no plans to suspend any more major military exercises with South Korea, is that a change from before, or were there previous plans to suspend further exercises?
SEC. MATTIS: No. We suspended several exercises at the direction of the president. The good-faith effort was made. We have had -- we have done no planning for suspending others.
Obviously, we know what exercises are out there, so we could do that if directed to, but right now there are no plans to -- to go further, okay?
Q: When you say -- when you say that the initial decision was a good-faith gesture, and now you're not planning to suspend any more at the moment, are you suggesting that North Korea's acting in bad faith?
SEC. MATTIS: No. Not at all.
But we did what we did at the time for that purpose. So that's why we did it.
Q: Secretary, when -- when after the -- the Singapore Summit 11 weeks ago, the U.S. -- the administration talked about these exercises as war games, and the president characterized them as provocative. If the U.S. does turn these large exercises back on, have they now become provocative war games? Isn't it --
SEC. MATTIS: No, we're not turning them back off -- back on. They've never been turned off.
We turned off several to make a good-faith effort. We are going to see how the negotiations go, and then we'll calculate the future, how we go forward. I mean, this is about as straightforward as I can put it. I --
Q: If the -- if the U.S. goes forward with the exercises, again, as they have annually, next year, is -- are they now a provocative act?
SEC. MATTIS: I -- I'm not going -- I don't have a crystal ball right now.
Let's see how the negotiations go. Even answering a question in a -- in that manner could influence the negotiations.
Let's let the negotiation -- let's let the diplomats go forward. We all know the gravity of the issue they're dealing with, and we'll deal with supporting the diplomats, as I've said repeatedly down here.
Q: The 1953 document that you referred to in your opening remarks --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- that was written in part to assuage nervous members of Congress and Americans that U.S. troops would remain in West Germany for a long period of time.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: It's about 73 years now since U.S. troops have been in West Germany -- in Germany. Is that a template -- to, sort of, follow up on Tara's question -- is that sort of a template we should look towards for Afghanistan, the type of presence, long-term security to -- like in Germany?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, each situation is different.
I think what the chairman said about we are going to have diplomats there, our foreign policy is led by diplomats, and the military moves in support of that.
Now, would we still have troops in Afghanistan five years from now? I can't give you the answer to that.
If -- if they're able to handle their own security and the international community determines that, and the NATO-led effort is no longer needed, I could imagine it coming out. But I -- I don't think that -- that that'd be a no more well-founded answer to you than -- than idle speculation from anyone.
We have to wait and what the situation is, because it'll be situationally dependent.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, I'd -- I'd go back over to this side for a minute. They've been quiet over here. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. (inaudible)with al-Jazeera. I want to go back to Yemen, and I have one brief question on Syria.
On Yemen, at -- at what point becomes unacceptable for Yemeni children and innocent civilians to be killed with American weapons, as (inaudible) --
SEC. MATTIS: That -- that's a strange way to characterize the question, being that we didn't start the war.
And I think that what we have to look at here is probably, can we get this to the U.N.-brokered peace table that -- that the U.N. special envoy is -- is trying to get it to? That -- that is the goal. That doesn't change, no matter what tragedy happens on the battlefield.
And if what we've done in the past had reduced the loss of innocent life, then I would not want to stop doing that and think, "There, we took care of that problem," and watch that number go up.
But go ahead and ask the question now.
Q: Is the U.S. support to Saudi Arabia, the coalition in Yemen, unconditional?
And on Syria --
SEC. MATTIS: No, it is not unconditional.
Q: What is the condition?
SEC. MATTIS: That they do their -- everything humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life, and they support the U.N.-brokered peace process.
Q: Could I just ask you to give us an update on the status of the military potentially housing refugees and immigrant children in bases on, I believe, Texas and California? We haven't heard about that for a while.
Has that -- has that happened yet? How many refugees are there? And is that a good use of the military -- the military's resources to do that?
GEN. DUNFORD: I -- I can take that.
We've been tasked to do some planning. We have not -- we have not been requested to actually house any of the -- any of the personnel. So there's no -- there's not a specific request right now.
SEC. MATTIS: That was -- that was preparatory planning in the event shelter was needed for them. But no, we've not -- we've not housed any.
All the way in back.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I -- I'll be -- you next.
GEN. DUNFORD: Okay, yeah.
Q: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. My question is on North Korea.
And it is reported that you are opposed to declaration of the end of Korean War at this time. So I would like to confirm if you -- if you are opposed to that declaration. And if so, I was wondering if you could explain your -- your view on this issue.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, you -- you'll have to talk about the negotiation with the Department of State. What -- they're -- they're the ones responsible for the negotiation, to include that specific issue, so I leave that to them.
Over here. Yeah. Oh, yeah, okay, yeah. You're right. India?
Q: In coming days, Mr. Secretary, along with the secretary of state, you will be heading to India for a summit which supposed to take in Washington, but now we have removed to New Delhi. So what are we expecting?
As for a (inaudible) and this will be your major meeting with the new defense minister, only the lady in the history of the world in India today.
And finally, how much trust do you have in the new prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, as far as fighting against terrorism or helping the U.S. in Afghanistan? Because Afghanistan -- still blames Islamabad as far as or the military as far as terrorism is concerned?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. On our -- what the question refers to is, Secretary Pompeo and I are going to New Delhi and we're going to meet with our counterparts in New Delhi.
And our goal is to continue the partnership that is growing stronger between the two largest democracies in the world. We see the strengthening of India's democracy, its military, its economy as a stabilizing element in the world.
And we want to make certain that where we have common interests, we are working together and we're going to finalize a number of agreements that enable that partnership.
As far as Pakistan goes, the secretary of state and the chairman are going to fly in to Islamabad to meet with the -- the new government that's in place there now. And to make very clear what we have to do, all of our nations, in meeting our common foe, the terrorists. And make -- make that a primary part of the discussion.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. My boss here.
Yeah, go ahead young man.
Q: Thank you very much. A question on -- on Europe and on the allies that you have been talking so much about how important it is to have strong allies.
Yesterday, President Macron was saying that Europe cannot -- no longer rely on third parties on -- on a military defense. And so they are -- he's talking about Europe having its own autonomy in defense.
Which is maybe great news on the economics point of view for the U.S., but from the strategic and the defense point of view, what's your opinion on -- on the issue?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. You know, we've been, remained together through good times and bad. I think for those of you who study history, you know what the Suez crisis did during NATO's earliest years. We've been through tougher times than this.
I would just point out that when I was in Brussels last time, a very high-ranking person at the meeting related that after Brexit, if it goes forward, over 80 percent of Europe's defense will come from non-E.U. countries. So you stop and think about that percentage.
Now I -- I'm not certain the number's right. I've asked my people to look at it. But you look at which are the non-E.U. countries and how much of Europe's defense comes from them, and I think we're going to find there's plenty of reason, plenty of common ground.
We don't have to develop the common ground. There's plenty of common ground that exists for us, really, to find a way through disagreements.
And I think the last summit, where there was a very open discussion on burden-sharing and on how we all have to commit to keeping these experiments alive and strong, we actually came out stronger in this regard.
Now every nation has its own opinions on things and there's a lot of issues in play, I respect that; but I am not concerned that the democracies will suddenly lose the common ground of many years of working together, and certainly the values we all share. Those stand. So we'll be together at the end of the day.
SEC. MATTIS: We'll take one more, against my-
Q: (Inaudible) follow up for that?
SEC. MATTIS: No, thank you. I want to take someone else here. Right back here.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. (inaudible) from Turkish Radio Television. I have a questions for both of you, particularly Mr. General.
First of all, you will deliver a report to Congress in 90 days regarding Turkey, the relations with Turkey, and the current situation about Turkey. What is the Turkey's importance about F-35 fighter jet program? And in the means of Incirlik base and some other means, what is the importance of Turkey, and what news will you deliver to Congress?
And for you, Mr. General, when do YPG give totally give control from Manbij?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. As -- as far as Turkey goes, we are working on a number of issues. I have open consultations. I was on the phone with the minister of defense of Turkey yesterday, I think it was, day before -- yesterday, I guess it was. And we had very candid discussions, we're working our way forward.
For example, as the chairman mentioned earlier on the Manbij situation, the training equipment has arrived in Ankara, and we're getting close to actually getting this process to a point that it's enabling the combined patrols. We're already waving each other across the line. Soon, we'll be patrolling together -- very confident of that.
So we continue to work on these kind of issues, but I can't give you an update on all of them right now because we're working them as we speak.
GEN. DUNFORD: You -- you asked about -- you asked about the YPG. The vast majority of the YPG are east of the Euphrates River. There's very few YPG left in Manbij, if any. Part of the -- part of the planning that we're doing with the Turks right now is to, one, start those independent patrols we spoke about, move to combine patrols, and then, there'll be a vetting process to make sure the security in Manbij is provided, and the governance in Manbij is provided by people who are from Manbij, regardless of what their ethnicity is.
SEC. MATTIS: Okay, thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen. Appreciate your time this morning.
Q: Can we ask you a Senator McCain question, sir, just very quickly? It's been a -- a Senator McCain question, if we may?
SEC. MATTIS: I think I explained our high regard for him, very clearly.
Q: Will you be at the funeral on -- at the Academy?
SEC. MATTIS: I will. I will.