Media Availability with Secretary Carter enroute to Ankara, Turkey

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  

Well, first of all, thank you, everyone, for joining me on this trip, which focuses on our counter-ISIL military campaign and also on NATO and a NATO ministerial.

Before I begin, let me give you what I know so far, and Peter will keep you updated about a service member whom we lost today in northern Iraq.  I don't have a lot of detail.  And, again, I'll ask Peter to keep you informed as we learn more.

That much I do know, and it's a reminder that our people who are participating in the counter-ISIL campaign, whether they be flying aircraft or working with the Iraqi Security Forces and the other forces at enabling their consistent advances of the kind that we see in the region of Mosul today are in harm's way and there's no more serious responsibility for me as secretary of defense than to have our men and women in harm's way.

But make no mistake, they are.  This is necessary work because it's necessary for us to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, it's necessary for us to enable, in this case, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga in northern Iraq, and it appears that it was in that role that this service member was killed.  And, again, I'll ask Peter to keep you posted as we learn more, but that's what I know so far.

With respect to Mosul, overall, I'll just comment and I said earlier today, we're in the early phases of the positioning of forces and the envelopment of Mosul.  This is pursuant to the campaign plan that was first created and that I described to many of you almost a year ago now.  And it is proceeding -- that envelopment is proceeding on schedule, so I'm encouraged by the progress so far.  But this is going to be a serious military campaign and it's in the very earliest stages.

I am encouraged, but I'd remind everybody that it's the very early stages.

I'd also remind everyone of two additional things, which is while it will be necessary and we will surely collapse ISIL's control of Mosul, there will be a big job of stabilization and reconstruction after.  And I think I've said before that a concern I have is that the stabilization and reconstruction effort not lag behind our progress at the military effort.  And that's critically important.

And the other thing I would say in connection with our counter-ISIL campaign is to remind everyone that even though it's necessary to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria, it's not sufficient.  We need to root out ISIL elsewhere.  And very importantly, we need to protect our own homeland, because we know that ISIL aspires to doing harm to Americans abroad or at home and either in a way that directs or simply inspires people to violence.

Let me turn now from that to the trip itself.

First up tomorrow is in Ankara.  I look forward there to seeing my friend and colleague, the defense minister, Isik, whom I've met with now a number of times.  I have a very good relationship with him.  And he, of course, will be also at our NATO meeting next week.

And we'll be discussing a number of things in the very important business of our longstanding and very powerful alliance relationship.

One thing that I know is on his mind are the growing responsibilities he's been given for civilian control of the ministry of defense in Turkey.  And he and I have talked about that.  I've offered to give him advice from the point of view of a fellow civilian minister of defense.  So that's something I look forward to talking to him about.

Additionally, we'll have the opportunity to talk about all of our NATO alliance efforts preparing for the NATO ministerial.  We'll also have the opportunity to talk about the counter-ISIL campaign and I'll be able to congratulate him and other Turkish leaders on their very significant victory in Dabiq.  That was an important objective and the Turks, obviously, we were supporting them but they were carrying the burden of the battle there and they did spectacularly well.  So, I think they deserve the congratulations for what is a significant objective.

We'll be working with them and continue to work with them to consolidate that border region, long an objective of there's and ours, and a very important one in the counter-ISIL campaign.  So we'll be talking about our joint work there and more broadly in the counter-ISIL campaign.

Turkey is hosting NATO aircraft at Incirlik, at Diyarbakir.  We have a HIMARS at Gaziantep.  So they play a very important role in those regards, also, in the counter-ISIL campaign.

And, of course, Turkey's strong role in the counter-ISIL campaign makes sense because they, too, like we, have come under ISIL attack.

And so we'll be discussing that, as well.

Finally, I want to commend Turkey with all that is going on in its immediate neighborhood, the tremendous number of refugees that Turkey has had to accommodate, for their strength and leadership elsewhere in the world.

I'd just point to Afghanistan and also Kosovo as two places where Turkey has played and continues to play a very important role.

I hope, also, during this time, if he's available, to see President Erdogan.  I last saw him in Warsaw a few months ago.  So if that works out on his schedule that would be a very welcome meeting, as well.

I will, after Turkey, then proceed to the UAE.  There, I will have the opportunity to meet with the crown prince and minister of defense there also and we'll be discussing counter-ISIL, counterterrorism more generally, Yemen, Iran, and other topics of mutual concern.

Looking ahead yet further, in Paris, I will be with another good friend of mine, the minister of defense of France, Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the fifth small group meeting of the counter-ISIL defense ministers, something we started to do about a year ago and we've kept up steadily so that we can all remain aligned in terms of what our campaign plan is and how we can make the contributions that each of us needs to do, even as we have done more and more over the last year.  As we've built momentum in this campaign, I've asked them all of them to do the same and they've stepped up.  And we'll have the opportunity to review our progress and the way forward at that meeting.

And then finally, what occasions my travel at this moment, very importantly, is a NATO defense ministerial.  I never miss them.  That will be my fifth in Brussels and we'll be finalizing decisions there about how to strengthen deterrence and defense within NATO.

So a busy trip. I'm grateful to all of you for going.

Obviously, we've got to get started here over the weekend, so I appreciate your giving up your weekends to do this, but it is a very important trip at a very important time.  So thanks for coming.

And with that, I'll answer your questions and Peter will be our impresario here, as always.

Q:   Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

One quick question on the U.S. troop who was killed, and than I have a broader Turkey question.

Just what do you say to the American people about whether or not the danger for armed forces is going to be increasing as the fight gets closer to Mosul?

And then just on Turkey, are you prepared to ask your Turkish counterpart to discuss their role in Iraq, and are you prepared to ask them to not support the troops that they have trained in Iraq or to take the Turkish troops out of Iraq as this fissure between the Turks and the Iraqis grows worse?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, let me see, with respect to the first, I just want to reemphasize that our forces operating against ISIL have been in harm's way.  I can't emphasize that enough.  They do that every single day.  That will continue through the Mosul campaign.  They'll be in the same role they have been, which is an enabling role for Iraqi Security Forces.

But make no mistake, that puts them in harm's way.  Again, I don't know the details of this particular incident, but it's just a reminder that that is the case.  And that will be true as we go to Mosul, as we continue after the control of Mosul to consolidate security within Iraq, which we're committed to do, and all the other parts of the counter-ISIL campaign.

And with respect to Turkish action as part of the coalition in respect of the campaign in Iraq, of course we'll be talking about that.  And yes, of course, there are sensitivities there.

But we conduct ourselves and the coalition does, respecting Iraqi sovereignty.  And that's an important principle of ours.

These are two close friends of ours.  In the case of Turkey, it's a NATO ally.  And we want to keep everybody focused on the objective here, which is to defeat ISIL, because that is a threat to all three of us.

STAFF:  Bill?

(CROSSTALK)

Q:   Hi, Mr. Secretary.

SEC. CARTER:  Hi.

Q:   Just to follow-up on it, so it sounded to me like you were going to tell the Turks that they can't participate without the invitation of the Iraqis in the air campaign. And if that's the case, you know, is there something else they could be doing that you would offer them the ability to do to support the campaign, perhaps in Syria, as you try to put pressure on Raqqa at the same time as you're operating in Mosul?

And then -- and I hate to distract.  I know that there are a lot of questions on the Middle East, but could you please respond to the comments from Duterte today that suggested -- or that he explicitly said that he was going to align with Russia and China against the world, that there was like a break from the United States, including a military one.

Thank you.

SEC. CARTER:  So let me see.

With respect to the first one, as I already said, we have a principle and we've long had discussions with everyone about this, about respect for Iraqi sovereignty in the course of the conduct of the counter-ISIL campaign.

Subject to that principle, it's very important for all the members of the counter-ISIL campaign to participate in that integrated way.

So will I be talking with the Turks about that?  Absolutely.  

And with respect to our alliance with the Philippines, I'd only say this.  It is a longstanding alliance relationship.  The United States takes alliance relationships very seriously.  And we have important alliance commitments which we intend to keep in the Philippines.  Obviously, any relationship is one of mutuality.  And we'll continue to discuss that with our Philippine counterparts.

Though that's not new today, but that's our alliance relationship with the Philippines and we'll continue to discuss that with the Philippines.

STAFF:  Gordon?

Q:   Hi, sir.

Two questions on Turkey.

One is can you give us an assessment of what the U.S. understands about the shelling of the Kurds by the Turks and explain to us how that will play into your discussions in Ankara, as well as whatever concerns you may be conveying about their continuation into Albab.

SEC. CARTER:  Let's see, with respect to the first one, I can't clarify that now.  I've seen reports to that effect.  I'll certainly have an opportunity to discuss with my Turkish counterparts all of our joint operations in the northern part of Syria.

As I said, they had an important success with respect to Dabiq.  We'll be talking about that.  We have important work ahead of us to consolidate that border area there.  And that's really what we're focused on now is consolidating our support in that -- in that border area.

Obviously, we'll be discussing things that may -- what are coordinating on future objectives.  But for right now, we're really focused on that strip which includes Dabiq, which is on the northern border in the so-called Operation Euphrates Shield.

Q: All right.Will you ask them not to (INAUDIBLE)?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, as I said, I think what I'll be talking to them about is making sure that we coordinate on future phases, even as we're focused together on phase one, where we've coordinated effectively, obviously, so far.

STAFF:  Thomas?

SEC. CARTER:  Thomas?

Q:   Thank you, sir.

Going back to the U.S. KIA, it's been about five hours now since there's been an announcement about the death and very scant details, including even a general geographic location besides northern Iraq.  I was wondering, are there any extenuating circumstances?  Has the body not been recovered?  Is it a contested?

And the second question, going to Afghanistan, two Americans were killed yesterday and right now, the Taliban threatens three provincial centers, Lashkar Gah, Kunduz and Farah.  And it's kind of received scant attention in the news.

If you could kind of address that or have any words about the KIA yesterday.

SEC. CARTER:  Well, let's see, with respect to the service member in Iraq, I'm just telling you all that we know so far.  And Peter, as we learn more, we'll tell you more.

So I just don't want to say more than we actually know.  We know he was in northern Iraq.  I can't tell you more than that right now.  We obviously know, generally speaking, what he was doing, because we know what we're doing there.  But as we learn more, we'll keep you more in touch with that.

And with respect to our losses in Afghanistan yesterday, just -- that was also very tragic, also a reminder that in Afghanistan, too, people are in harm's way.  They were both military and civilian personnel that were fired upon.  Again, we don't know all the circumstances of that yet and we'll keep you posted as we -- we learn more.

And your more general question about the circumstances in Afghanistan, you know, it's -- it's been a tough fighting season.  It's not over yet.  I -- I will say that in General Nicholson's estimation and in my observation, as well, the Afghan Security Forces, assisted by the coalition there, has been able, in this fighting season, to anticipate Taliban moves against key cities and district centers and head them off in a way that I think he -- that is, General Nicholson -- says would not have been possible if he didn't have the additional authorities he did, not simply to wait to use American assistance in extremis circumstances, but be able to anticipate things.

So I think that's been an important ingredient in ensuring that Taliban hasn't been able to secure and consolidate in any of these areas and districts.

But at the same time, you know, we keep our eye on this every single day and the Afghan forces continue to grow in strength.  But it's a tough enemy.

STAFF:   We've got time for one or two more.

(INAUDIBLE)?

Q:   Thanks.  I wondered if you could talk about by, with and through and why the American people should think that Iraq will end differently this time around than the last.

You know, we've spent two years of rejiggering training programs and we're seeing Mosul happen, it kind of feels like this end game.  But what's different?  What's your level of confidence that the gains will hold going forward?

And secondly, in the same vein of explaining to the American people, they've heard now twice from the major presidential candidate that Mosul should have been a sneak attack operation.  Do you have any response or thoughts of why Mosul is not a sneak attack or should have been so the American people have an understanding of the actual operation?

SEC. CARTER:  You know I have nothing to say on the second subject.  I've been not having anything to say on our election for whatever, 10 or 11 months now.  So I'm certainly not going to answer the second part of it.

With respect to our general strategic approach to the counter-ISIL campaign, which is in recognition of, I think, something that was behind your question, which is in order to have what I've called a lasting defeat of ISIL -- and this is how we framed the coalition military campaign plan about a year ago -- in order to do that, we needed to work through capable and motivated local forces.  Those we have laboriously worked with, built, trained over time.  You see that force generation that has gone on over this time and that I've described to you going on.  Now those forces being -- that have been generated being positioned around Mosul.  And that's necessary in order to make sure that when ISIL is defeated, that defeat sticks.

Now, that's necessary, but I just want to go back to something I said a little while ago, which is let's not forget that the military side is essential but there has to be stabilization and reconstruction and civil governance after the fact.  That's why we're so focused on - and I don't mean this is the Department of Defense so much, but the State Department, AID and the international community, the United Nations and so forth, with stabilization, humanitarian assistance -- why the Iraqi government is so intent upon governance and the plans for governance of Mosul, because another principle of the campaign is that cities need to be restored to the local population.  There may be other forces that participate in the expulsion of ISIL from those cities, as is the case in Mosul.  But at the end of the day, it's the people of Mosul themselves who are going to need to consolidate the victory and make sure that violence doesn't return to the city.

So, the premise of your question is absolutely right and it undergirds our entire approach to this campaign, and necessarily so.

STAFF:   All right, the last one of the round and then we'll (INAUDIBLE).

Q:   Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I'd like to come back to the shelling of the Kurds by -- by the Turks, of the YPG by the -- by the Turks.

Do you think this strike was legitimate by the Turks because they're -- the Kurds had gone through a red line that they have put in the sand?

SEC. CARTER:  Again, I can't really address your question because we don't yet fully know what transpired there.  We have some of the same reports you do and we'll find out more as the days go on.  I simply can't give you any more than that now.  We just don't know any more.

Q:  (INAUDIBLE)?

SEC. CARTER:  I don't know what it is, is what I'm telling you.

STAFF:   All right, thanks, everybody.

SEC. CARTER:  We expect to learn more, but I'm just telling you, on the basis of what I know, I don't want to tell you any more than I know.

STAFF:   Thanks, everybody.

Q:   Thanks.