Media Availability with Secretary Carter and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend in Irbil, Iraq
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
SEC. CARTER: Let me begin by saying what magnificent work our troops are doing here. I had a chance to talk with them about their work, tell them of our support for their work here. I can't describe all of that, but it was all done with the excellence you would expect of our forces and this is a mission that is necessary to protect our people.
So there are people out here taking risks every day, but they're doing that because it's necessary to defend our country.
I just was talking to a bunch of guys who were -- who -- who will probably get home before I do, who are the same guys that I spoke to last January, I guess, or December, in Fort Campbell. And if you -- some of you may have been there.
That was when I described to the people who have been fighting here our campaign plan and their place in it. And they have carried out that plan exactly as we asked them to.
And that plan in this phase starting just a few days ago, calls for the envelopment and capture of the city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and one that was captured by ISIL. And that battle has begun and that, again, according to our plan, it's proceeding on plan. I'm encouraged by the progress done by -- under the command of Steve Townsend here, our excellent commander, in whom I have total confidence, as I do in all of our forces and our plan.
I had -- I met earlier today with President Barzani here in Irbil. A very productive meeting with him.
I was able to congratulate him and his forces on their critical role in carrying out the Mosul campaign that has just commenced.
Their skill and performance to date in the campaign, as overall, has been outstanding, as has their cooperation with us and the coalition who enable their forces as they fight and very especially the way they have worked with the Iraqi Security Forces and supported Iraqi unity.
I first spoke to President Barzani last December about this stage. And he has kept up his in -- his side of the bargain with both me and Prime Minister Abadi since then. And that is a man that has kept his word and we won't forget that and even as Prime Minister Abadi has kept his word and we won't forget that.
I assured him that we are bringing the full might of coalition air to the support of the Peshmerga and he and I also, even as a year ago, we talked about this time and planned for it, we talked some about the future. Mosul will be recaptured. It's going to be a difficult fight. We don't know exactly how the battle will go, but we knew -- know that the -- what the outcome is.
And so we also talked about what comes after in Mosul. And as I stressed yesterday, my mind is already thinking ahead to the desperate need for stabilization and reconstruction in cities as they are taken back from ISIL. We've seen that in city after city and it's very important that those needs be met and also that the security forces that sustain the peace, and, therefore, the victory in Mosul, that we -- that they also be positioned and ready to go. They won't be the forces that the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga forces that we're helping who took the city. They will be local people.
And we discussed that. We discussed humanitarian and stabilization matters. But I emphasized that we need to make sure that the non-military campaign doesn't lag behind the coalition military campaign, which is on schedule.
I also -- while I was here, talked to the folks in our joint operations center here, who work with both Iraqis and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and coalition forces here. They're doing an excellent job.
I was able to thank them on behalf of the American people, commend them for their -- their skill and tell them how proud I am of each and every one of them.
They are not only working here in Iraq, but, also in Syria as we plan and then we'll carry out the support of the operations there, including the envelopment of Raqqa, the would-be capital of the would-be caliphate. And very importantly, was able to -- and, again, I can't talk that much about it, but you've seen some pieces of this -- commend the work our people are doing to -- on external operations emanating from Syria as we -- and Iraq, that is, attacks aimed at our own people and our own country and our friends and allies.
We are killing the -- those who are hatching those plots. We're killing the leadership of ISIL. We're getting more and more effective at doing that. And that's also necessary to protect our people and our -- our folks are very skillful at that and they're getting better and better at it. It's a very high priority for all of us.
And with that, I'll take questions and turn some of them over, as appropriate, to General Townsend, who is -- works this every day.
STAFF: Phil Stewart.
Q: Could you just give us an update. We've been told there might have been a breakthrough in Bashiqa on the -- that President Barzani might have told you during the meeting there was a -- a breakthrough in Bashiqa and can you kind of tell us what that would mean for the campaign?
And also, there is a (INAUDIBLE) reports out there that it's obviously a man, but (INAUDIBLE) attack in (INAUDIBLE). So just kind of what's going on right now in the -- in the battle?
SEC. CARTER: I'll turn those over to Steve.
Let me just say that it was in the course of our meeting itself that President Barzani got some word about the former subject. We did talk about that. Steve has some more information on that and maybe you can cover the other one, too, Steve.
LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
So as the secretary said, while we're having the meeting, someone came in and handed him a message that said -- that gave the report about Bashiqa. So we've all been kind of caught up in these meetings today. My own reporting suggests that President Barzani is right, that there has been a considerable success at Bashiqa. We'll assess what that means as we, you know, look at the operations later today and make the full assessment of that.
But clearly, I think the -- the Kurdish Peshmerga deserve some success -- deserve -- deserve some recognition there for having achievement at Bashiqa.
Now, what does that mean for the campaign?
So if you think about Mosul as a hard center and then sort of a softer middle and then a very hard crust, Bashiqa is one of those villages that ISIL has emptied of civilians and fortified for the past two years.
So we think it's heavily IEDed, probably tunneled, as well, very fortified. And so once we punch through that crust, that will be a -- the next phase of the approach.
We're still on the approach -- the isolation, choking down the cordon around Mosul and getting through that hard external crust. It's part of that. Bashiqa is a part of that hard external crust.
STAFF: (INAUDIBLE) question?
Q: Oh (INAUDIBLE).
STAFF: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes.
Q: Oh, yes. (INAUDIBLE) had a second part.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes, just -- sorry. Just as I was walking into this, my staff handed me a note that said that there has been an attack at Rutbah. This is -- the enemy has been pressuring Rutbah for a while. We know and the -- the Iraqi Security Forces know and the government of Iraq is expecting spoiling attacks to try to draw our attention from Mosul.
So we saw an attack in Kirkuk yesterday that you're aware of or was that the day before yesterday?
The days kind of blur together for me. And then at Rutbah today. So we have seen a complex attack at Rupa today. The government of Iraq is handling that without a lot of coalition assistance and that's necessary so they can keep their eye on the main objective here in Mosul.
Q: If I could just get (INAUDIBLE) as a clarification. We had understood there was still some fighting going on in Bashiqa.
Is that now not your understanding (INAUDIBLE) completely taken the city?
And then a (INAUDIBLE)?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So I don't really know. My information comes mostly from President Barzani, who said they'd had success there. My reporting kind of coincides with that. I have not received a report that says every house has been cleared, every Daesh has been killed and every IED has been removed.
Q: And then Mr. Secretary, you -- you mentioned Raqqa. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about -- we -- we've been told a lot that at a certain point, there would be simultaneous fighting both in Mosul and in Raqqa.
In your meetings today, what's your latest assessment as to perhaps how soon you might see that and how critical is that in (INAUDIBLE)?
SEC. CARTER: Yes, well, we want to see isolation operations begin, oriented at Raqqa as soon as possible. We're working with our partners there to do that. And so there will be some simultaneity to these two operations. We've long anticipated that.
And we are prepared for that. And General Townsend will be -- carried out both of those operations simultaneously. We think we can do that. That's been part of our -- our planning for quite a while.
Q: (INAUDIBLE) high value targeting of the ISIS leadership.
How has any of that changed because of Mosul, leading up to Mosul (INAUDIBLE) are there more (INAUDIBLE)?
SEC. CARTER: We have -- first of all, this -- that remains our highest priority always, is external operations. And that part hasn't changed.
What we are getting better and better at that. And Mosul will help us with that, even as all the other territory we've taken has helped with that.
It helps in several ways.
One is we get more intelligence, more information about how they're operating and therefore get new opportunities to attack external plotters.
Also, as they get squeezed down in their territory, they get more concerned about their own security and are less free to orchestrate complex attacks against either this country or externally, including, very importantly, obviously, to me and to all of us, the United States.
So we're getting more and more opportunities and that's why you're seeing us do more and more in the area of external operations. But it's got to be, always, our highest priority. Mosul will give us yet more opportunities as that unfolds.
SEC. CARTER: Steve, you got anything on that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes, sure. So the secretary covered that very well. I would only add that a high -- at the high value individual, the top tier of ISIL leadership, there's an overlap between leadership in Mosul, leadership in Raqqa and external operations.
The high -- top tier of leaders do all those. They're involved in all of those things.
So by killing those individuals, we affect both sides of this theater and external operations, as well.
By targeting the mid tier leaders, which our special operations forces and our air forces have done remarkably well, we have caused -- caused a lot of confusion in the ranks of the defenders in Mosul by targeting a lot of mid tier leaders there. And both these efforts have been successful. And I think they're going to pay off here in the coming weeks ahead.
STAFF: I have time for two more.
Gordon and (INAUDIBLE).
Q: Mr. Secretary, (INAUDIBLE) jump in.
I wonder if I could just ask you to step back a little bit on the -- how you see the fighting in Mosul and then ultimately in Raqqa as the broader fight against ISIL. We know that (INAUDIBLE) knock out these two places, the physical caliphate goes away, but there's still (INAUDIBLE).
SEC. CARTER: Well, yes, there is. It is absolutely essential that we destroy ISIL in this -- in these cities of Mosul and Raqqa.
However, even in Iraq and Syria, that doesn't end the campaign. We know -- and this is something I talked to both Prime Minister Abadi and President Barzani about -- we know that ISIL will take to other lesser locations in the countryside in Iraq, just to take the Iraq example. And we're all planning to be con -- helping the Iraqi Security Forces to consolidate their control over all of Iraqi territory.
And then second, Gordon, is essential as it is, necessary it is to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, that's -- that's necessary, it's not sufficient. And that is why, whether it's Afghanistan or Libya, anywhere else, we and our coalition partners have a campaign wherever ISIL may pop up.
And then finally, and very importantly, is the matter we were just talking about, which is protection of the homeland. Now, that is, importantly, a state and local law enforcement, FBI, intelligence, Homeland Security mission. But we're strongly in support of that.
And every time we eliminate overseas a external plotter, we contribute to the protection of the homeland. Every time we gather intelligence, we're able to share that with our law enforcement and intelligence partners back home so we can interdict anybody who might be trying to plan or conduct attacks in the United States.
So you've got Iraq and Syria, you've got everywhere around the world and you have protection of the homeland. All three of those are necessary in order to provide protection against ISIL from the American people. I'm confident we'll succeed in all three of those efforts. But all three are necessary. And it's absolutely necessary that we do what is being done here.
Q: Just real quick. Does the fight get harder once the physical caliphate disappears (INAUDIBLE)?
SEC. CARTER: It -- it gets different and the -- certainly ISIL will turn to more of a -- of a terror -- traditional -- no, I wouldn't say traditional, but a -- a terrorist type of tactic. They won't have any territory.
On the other hand, they will -- will not have the fiction any longer that there is an -- a -- an Islamic state based upon this ideology. They will not have territory from which to plot freedom of motion, a -- freedom of action, rather -- a -- any kind of territory of this size to operate from. And their leadership, we'll learn more and more about them so we'll know more and more how to eliminate their leadership. And that makes them more vulnerable.
So we're going to get better and better at combating ISIL, even as they change, which they will, we're still going to get better and better at -- at defeating them.
It will change, but we'll -- we'll -- we'll be -- we'll get a lot better and fast.
Q: Steve, anything you want to add to that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I -- I think the Secretary really said it well there. We -- I mean you can't be a state and you can't be a caliphate without territory. So in one way, the fight has been clean. At least we know where the enemy is, as long as he has territory.
Once he no longer holds territory, it's harder to know where he is. But at the same time, that's balanced by the fact that he's then just an idea, right, an ideology and this terrorist insurgent organization.
So I think the secretary is right, it gets different.
STAFF: (INAUDIBLE) a final question (INAUDIBLE).
Q: Thanks, gentlemen.
This is going back to the chief petty officer that was killed a few days ago. I understand that he was working with a SEAL team when (INAUDIBLE) was killed in May, the Secretary came out and said that he was killed almost immediately in combat. I understand that the -- the petty officer was killed by an IED.
Can you kind of talk about his mission (INAUDIBLE)?
SEC. CARTER: Sure. I -- I'll say something about him and then I'll -- I'll say (INAUDIBLE) to Steve.
Chief Petty Officer Finan's passing, as I said when it happened, is a reminder to everybody, this is dangerous business over here. There are lots of Americans that are in harm's way every day.
And this is a dangerous country. And he was carrying out his very important responsibilities as an EOD technician when he encountered an IED, which there are way too many of around here. And that cost him his life.
I did have the opportunity to see one of his teammates yesterday and share our sadness together over his passing.
But -- so he was doing risky work, but he was doing absolutely necessary work. We need to do this in order to protect our people.
And so these folks who are in harm's way for us are really -- deserve a great debt of gratitude from the American people, because they're protecting them from people who real -- who want to attack our people. And we're going to protect ourselves. We have to protect ourselves.
And these are the people who do it for us. And it's not risk-free.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So first -- I'll just start by offering our condolences to his teammates and his family. They're in our thoughts and prayers for sure.
So the chief there was doing an advise and assist mission with the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service. They were in the attack moving forward. Our investigation is still underway, but as I understand the event right now, they had moved to a position on the battlefield behind the Iraqi front lines with a headquarters element. As happens in battle, the enemy started voting and they started pressing toward the counter-terrorism position, counter -- the CTS position.
These guys said you know what, we probably need to move back a terrain and gain a little bit more stand-off. And they were in the process of that when they struck an IED. It was relayed to me today that actually the chief is the guy -- he's an EOD expert. He wasn't diffusing a bomb. They were just trying to move back.
But he had seen and the I -- an IED and direct -- warned his teammates and was directing everyone to safety when he struck an IED that -- that eventually killed him.
So that's his -- that's what we know right now. It's still under investigation. But that's the story as of now.
STAFF: Thanks, everybody.
SEC. CARTER: Thank you all.
STAFF: We -- we -- you guys have about 10 minutes. I'm sorry we don't have more time, but we've got to keep the schedule. So (INAUDIBLE) out of here in just a second.