Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 25, 2014.
1:16 p.m. EST
MR. RATHKE: Hi. Good afternoon.
So I have one item for you at the top. The United States welcomes the announcement of the accord between Estonia and Finland on the construction of an LNG infrastructure for the Baltic region. This comes less than a month after Lithuania inaugurated its first LNG terminal, and today’s announcement is an important step in diversifying the region’s sources of natural gas from anywhere in the world, as well as a step forward in the creation of an interconnected EU energy market. We believe that energy security is the next chapter in the European project of integration and market expansion, and we look forward to seeing this newest addition to Europe’s energy security in operation before the end of the decade.
With that, Arshad, let me turn it over to you.
QUESTION: Does that mean that Estonia and Finland will now be somewhat less dependent on Russian gas?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we see this as diversification of sources of natural gas. I’m not going to characterize it further.
QUESTION: Okay. But isn’t it primarily diversifying away from Russian dependence – from dependence on Russian gas? Isn’t that the whole point of this, that they – the European Union will no longer be so reliant on Russian gas supplies?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think the European Union can comment on their energy policy.
QUESTION: I’d like to start with Afghanistan, please.
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: We have a story out of Kabul saying that the U.S. Government is going to leave several hundred more troops than previously planned or announced, so as to help support the ISAF mission post-2014. Is that true?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as the President announced in May, the United States combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of this year, and the Afghan Government will be fully responsible for the security of their country. We will also draw down our forces to roughly 10,000 troops, which is the fewest number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in over a decade. And while our combat mission will end this year, we will continue to support the Government of Afghanistan as it pursues a future of peace, greater prosperity, and an end to conflict.
QUESTION: So as I think you will recall, the President didn’t say about 10,000. The President was quite explicit in giving a number, which was 9,800. Does – is that not still the number of U.S. troops that will be in Afghanistan after the end of this year?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as the President stated in May, the U.S. force management level for troops in Afghanistan will be reduced to 9,800 in 2015. We are reviewing with our allies and partners troop commitments to the post-2014 NATO mission, called Operation Resolute Support, which will train, advise, and assist Afghan National Security Forces.
Now, because of delays in the post-government – post-election government formation and the signing of the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement and the NATO SOFA, the force generation effort for the post-2014 mission is a few months behind where we had hoped to be. But nonetheless, the United States remains confident that the resolute support mission troops, to include 9,800 troops, will be in place in early 2015. I would refer you to the Department of Defense for the particulars. But the Department of Defense has the flexibility it needs to manage this transition with the basic force management level of 9,800 troops.
QUESTION: So – but does that mean that you are going to take some troops from the 9,800 and assign them to places that otherwise might have been filled by other ISAF members?
MR. RATHKE: For the exact force laydown and those kinds of particulars, I’d refer you to the Pentagon.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, just so we’re perfectly clear – because you started by saying about 10,000 and then you acknowledged the President’s statement about 9,800 – will there be no more than 9,800 troops, U.S. troops, in Afghanistan after December 31st?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the – again, the level for troops, as outlined by the President in May, is a reduction to 9,800, and that remains the policy, as far as that goes. Again, on the flexibility question, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. But the basic what’s referred to as force management level is 9,800 troops for 2015, and that’s unchanged.
QUESTION: So – but what I don’t understand, then, is whether – does that mean that our story is wrong and that you will not be contributing a couple of hundred extra U.S. troops to the ISAF mission. I mean, can you deny it, that that’s not your plan, that you’re not going to set aside a couple hundred extra or —
MR. RATHKE: Well, for the particulars of the force laydown in that – in this period, I’ve outlined that, of course, the generation of forces, the identification and deployment of forces from some of our NATO allies, because of the delays in getting the BSA and the NATO SOFA in place, has experienced a delay of a few months. But as far as how that’s managed, I’d refer you to colleagues at the Pentagon or at the White House.
QUESTION: Okay. And forgive me, I have a few more on this general topic. You are, I’m sure, aware of the New York Times story that came out late Friday night and that talked about an expansion of the role that would be played by U.S. forces in Afghanistan after this year. Can you tell us what precisely will be the role of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan after December 31?
MR. RATHKE: Well, beyond 2014, the United States will continue to narrow missions in Afghanistan. First, the United States and NATO will transition to a noncombat mission of training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces. That’s the first.
And second, the United States will continue to maintain a counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan to continue to target the remnants of al-Qaida and prevent an al-Qaida resurgence or external plotting against the U.S. – against U.S. targets or against the homeland.
QUESTION: So on the first purpose, the President on May 27th explicitly said that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan would end this year, not that it would transition to a noncombat mission next year. So I just want to make sure that there’s no daylight between you and the President. When you say you’re going to transition to a noncombat mission next year, that, to me, implies that there is still a combat mission that you will be undertaking next year; you’ll just be in the process of transitioning out of it. Is that correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, no. So first of all, as the President stated, the United States’ combat role in Afghanistan will end December 31st, 2014. That remains the case. As of 2015, U.S. military forces will no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban. But as the President also made clear, U.S. forces will continue to target the remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan to prevent an al-Qaida resurgence or external plotting against U.S. targets or the homeland.
QUESTION: So if the United States will no longer target somebody just because they’re a member of the Taliban, that means that the United States can, however, target them for other reasons. Correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve always taken the position that we will be able to take appropriate measures to keep our personnel safe. So of course, use of force will be limited, but it will be limited to areas where the use of force is necessary to execute those two missions or to protect our personnel.
QUESTION: So it’ll be limited to, one, the train and equip, the – excuse me —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: One, the train and assist?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah. Train, advise, assist.
QUESTION: Okay. But presumably, you’re not going to need to use force if you’re training, advising, and assisting other people to use force. Correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, yes. But again, as for the precise laydown of where people will be and what those activities will entail and so forth —
MR. RATHKE: — there’s always a force protection aspect to that.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I was going to get to that. So let’s – leaving aside force protection for now, I’m trying to understand if your conception of the train, advise, and assist component of the U.S. – and I apologize in advance for tormenting everybody with this —
MR. RATHKE: Are you feeling tormented?
QUESTION: Silence has its own implications. (Laughter.)
MR. RATHKE: Well, you didn’t see all the looks, Arshad.
QUESTION: Yes, yeah. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Is – train, advise, and assist, from your point of view, includes the possibility of U.S. forces conducting combat operations? And I’m leaving aside going after al-Qaida and I’m leaving aside self-defense or keeping your forces safe. I want to understand if train, advise, and assist is construed in such a manner that U.S. forces can undertake offensive military actions in Afghanistan next year.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I would go back to the President’s statement that our combat role will end. As far as the particular elements of the train, advise, assist program, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for those details.
QUESTION: Okay. So what will you do if – if – does your conception of the U.S. role – what will you do if the Afghans, for example, if Afghan forces come under attack? Will you support them in any way, or will you – in any sort of kinetic way, or will you just be advising, assisting, supporting kind of from a distance?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as I think I said, the end of our combat mission means that we are no longer going to be targeting belligerents solely because they’re members of the Taliban. To the extent that they threaten the United States and coalition forces, we would take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe.
QUESTION: Does coalition forces include Afghan forces?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, to the extent that Taliban members threaten the United States and coalition forces, provide direct support to al-Qaida, or pose a strategic threat to the Afghan National Security Forces, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe and then to assist the Afghans.
QUESTION: What’s a strategic threat to the Afghan National Forces?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think that’s primarily a military question, so I’d refer you to the DOD counterparts.
QUESTION: So what are the circumstances then in which – I mean, if you can’t define – well, what are appropriate measures? What are appropriate measures? I mean, that’s what you’ve said. What are appropriate measures, and do they involve, for example, any U.S. soldier potentially firing any kind of weapon at anybody other than in self-defense or to go after al-Qaida?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I would refer you to the people who are planning and implementing the mission for the specific details about rules of engagement and those kinds of military technical details. I don’t have more to share on that.
QUESTION: Okay, a couple more for me. What is the domestic authority under which the United States Government and its troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year will continue to conduct military operations there?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the 2001 authorization for use of military force will continue to provide the domestic statutory authority for U.S. military operations beyond 2014. And as a matter of international law and given the state of the conflict in Afghanistan, the United States continues to consider itself in an armed conflict against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces.
QUESTION: Does that mean you’re at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, it means exactly what I just said it means.
QUESTION: But is armed conflict not war?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not an international lawyer. I’m happy to check and see if there’s any distinction between those two terms. But we consider ourselves and – still to be, as a matter of international law, in an armed conflict.
QUESTION: So the AUMF states that the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determined planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September the 11th, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such.
That would seem to be – by such nations, organizations, or persons. That would seem to restrict your mission solely to the people, nations, organizations, who the President determines planned, authorized, or committed the 9/11 attacks or harbored those organizations or people so as to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.
That would seem to me to limit the activities that the President believes U.S. forces can engage in in Afghanistan after the end of this year solely to those two – and I guess self-protection, but essentially he’s allowed to go after people he thinks committed those things, authorized them, supported them, or people who harbored or aided them. That doesn’t seem to me to allow for going after people who pose a strategic – or it’s not clear to me that that allows them – allows U.S. forces to go after people who pose a strategic threat to the Afghan National Security Forces. Can you explain to me how it does?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think the AUMF has been the authority throughout the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, so I don’t have anything new to add to our legal interpretation of it. I think —
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: — we need to move on to other questions. Yes, go ahead, Namo.
QUESTION: Move to Iraq?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: The Mosul governor, Atheel Nujaifi, who is in Kurdistan now, he’s been there since the ISIS captured the city. He said something very interesting yesterday. He said there is division – a military division that’s created for the Sunnis and the United States is training them and providing them with – and they are based in Erbil, and they are being prepared to recapture the city. What do you have to say on that?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have details or anything to confirm that report. Of course, we have a program to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces – Iraqi Security Forces, as well as Kurdish forces. But I don’t have any details to offer about that report.
QUESTION: And he said it’s relatively easy to recapture the city. Do you agree with his assessment that there is – there are only 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have a current estimate in front of me about the number of ISIL fighters in Mosul, so I will refrain from making a prediction about how hard or easy it would be to recapture.
QUESTION: Okay, just two more questions on just your attempts and your fight against ISIS in Iraq. Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister, he has taken a lot – a number of measures over the past few weeks, including purging more than 30 generals. And recently – I think it was earlier this week – he announced that he will create a national guard for all the – for 15 provinces of Iraq as an attempt to better battle ISIS. What’s the United States position on that? Do you think —
MR. RATHKE: Well, the United States position on the national guard hasn’t changed. We consider that an important part of the fight against ISIL and it’s something that we’re working closely with the Iraqi authorities on. I don’t have any further details to announce though at this point.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the New York Times report – it was yesterday – about corruption within the Iraqi military? How does that complicate your mission in Iraq?
MR. RATHKE: Well, corruption is a major concern in Iraq, and we continue to work with the Iraqi Government on programs to confront this problem. We have no indications that U.S. origin equipment has been siphoned off or sold to ISIL – let me make that clear – to ISIL or to other terrorist organizations by any U.S. partners. But over the last decade, of course, we have provided a significant amount of military equipment to the Iraqi Security Forces, and most of that has been used as intended by our Iraqi partners. There have been a few instances where ISIL has been able to seize some equipment from Iraqi forces. But again, with respect to the question of corruption, that is a major concern, and we continue to work with Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Government to that end.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. New topic?
QUESTION: On Iran?
MR. RATHKE: Yes, Samir. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Iranian leaders portrayed the extension of the negotiations as a victory for the negotiating team – the Iranian negotiating team. And Khamenei, leader of Iran, he said that the U.S. and the European allies pressured Iran to give concessions but they failed. Any reaction to this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think the Secretary was pretty clear yesterday that we’re not going to get into describing the give and take that happens inside the negotiating room. I think it’s also clear to the United States and to our partners that under the JPOA we have made – we have come much farther than we were – than we had before the JPOA. We are light years from where we were before the JPOA and we are also closer to a deal that would make the entire world safer and more secure, and that’s why we are committed to continuing to work toward that end.
QUESTION: So the extension is not a victory for the Iranians, is it?
MR. RATHKE: The extension is just an extension. It does not provide additional sanctions relief for Iran. We are continuing with the current terms of the JPOA. That includes the release of a small amount of Iranian restricted funds to them in regular installments, but it also requires the steps that they will continue taking to freeze their nuclear program. So an extension is just that.
QUESTION: Can you —
MR. RATHKE: Yes?
QUESTION: Can you provide, as you did when the JPOA implementation agreement was reached last January – can you provide on the record the schedule and amounts of the payments over the next four to seven months of Iranian funds that will be released to them?
MR. RATHKE: Well, they will continue on a prorated basis consistent with the terms of the JPOA. I’m happy to check and see if that’s going to be —
QUESTION: Could you – it was actually put out by the – I mean, it was discussed prior to that, but it was —
MR. RATHKE: But was it put out by this building?
QUESTION: It was put out by the Treasury, I think.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That would be right.
QUESTION: Yeah. But I – the Treasury in this matter acts, I think, at the direction of the State Department, which has the lead in the negotiations. So if you would take the question – I’m happy to ask Treasury, too.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah. We’re happy to check and see if there’s —
MR. RATHKE: — if there are plans to do so.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: But again, the terms of the JPOA continue.
MR. RATHKE: So shouldn’t be any surprises there.
QUESTION: On North Korea?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: It is reported that North Korea may resume nuclear fuel reprocessing. Do you have anything on that?
MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry. What’s the report that you’re referring to?
QUESTION: Nuclear fuel reprocessing, and that they’re prepared to make nuclear test.
MR. RATHKE: But where have you seen the report? What’s – where’s the report from?
QUESTION: That is the report from the – one of institution of research in United States. It’s two days ago they reported that. I’m not sure they – exactly when and where, but they have some movement.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have anything to confirm the report to which you’re referring. Our position on the DPRK’s nuclear program is clear: The DPRK’s continued pursuit of a nuclear program is a clear violation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. It is contrary to the commitments of the DPRK under the September 19th, 2005 joint statement. And of course, the United States and all of our international partners continue to call on the DPRK to comply with its commitments and its international obligations, which includes by taking irreversible steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and all existing nuclear weapons in a complete and verifiable manner.
QUESTION: So also, as you know, lately about the – recently North Korea warns against over United States. They’re willing to nuclear war, threating against the United States. How did you response on their threating nuclear war?
MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry. Which threat are you referring – is this a new —
QUESTION: Nuclear war threatened against United States. North Korea —
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, our position hasn’t changed, and I think we’ve spoken to this in the last few days. North Korea will be judged by its actions, not by its words. And the principal objective, the primary objective, of course, is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea has steps it has to take consistent with the joint statement and the UN Security Council resolutions. I don’t have anything further to add, though, beyond that. The path, though, is clear, and the obligation and the burden rests on North Korea.
Any other? Yes.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Oh, I’m sorry.
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: New bombing in Libya?
MR. RATHKE: In Libya. So you’re referring in Tripoli, correct?
QUESTION: Correct, yep.
MR. RATHKE: Yes. So we have – we are aware of reports and we are seeking more information. We’re not able to confirm the details. We, however, would condemn all acts of violence, as we stated most recently on November 7th in the joint statement, along with our partners from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain, and the UK. We urge all parties to cease all military operations and to refrain from taking any steps which would increase the polarization and division inside Libya.
QUESTION: And that includes the internationally recognized government led by Prime Minister al-Thinni?
MR. RATHKE: Again, we urge all parties to cease all military operations. We support the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2174 to address Libya’s peace and stability, and we think that there’s – these are political problems. They require a political solution.
QUESTION: And are you aware that the prime minister has said that it was the government’s air force that conducted this attack?
MR. RATHKE: We’re aware of those reports, but again, we are seeking more information and aren’t able to confirm those details.
QUESTION: So just one – a couple more questions, one question on the tribes that the United States is considering to arm in Anbar. I think you have allocated more than $20 million to arm those tribes, according to The New York Times. Like, how’s that going to work? Is it going to be direct training and arm, or is it going to be something that will be done through the – with, like, the Iraqi Government in Baghdad? Because those tribes, as you know, are really very suspicious of the government in Baghdad because it’s a Shia-led government. That’s how they view it. How is that going to work?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we have been clear that we expect Sunni tribal forces to be part of the process. The Iraqi Government has also made clear that it understands the Sunni tribal forces are going to have to be part of the effort to defeat ISIL and also for the security of their own provinces. And as far as the particular implementation details, my colleagues from the Department of Defense would be better placed to comment on that.
But I would say as well that if you look at the steps that have been taken, including just a couple of weeks ago at the Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province, Parliament Speaker Jabouri and about 350 tribal leaders and military officials marked an agreement by the Government of Iraq to arm and pay Sunni tribal forces in this united effort to defeat and destroy ISIL. So these tribal forces will coordinate their operations with the Iraqi army.
QUESTION: Does the State Department maintain any level of relationship with those tribal leaders?
MR. RATHKE: Well, of course, the U.S. Government has been conducting outreach among tribal leaders. I’m not going to get into specifics of precisely with which ones, but I would suggest that, even more importantly, the Iraqi Government under Prime Minister Abadi has also been strengthening its outreach to the Sunni community in Iraq.
QUESTION: So do you think if it happens – if you arm the tribes in Anbar – it will be something similar to what you are doing with the KRG, arming the Peshmerga? You consult with the government —
MR. RATHKE: Well, no, I’m not going to draw those kinds of comparisons. I think this will be a program that’s tuned to the particular needs and the circumstances in Anbar province and with the Sunni tribes.
QUESTION: Can I just ask one more general question?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, one more, and then I think we’re going to move on.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just generally speaking – I’ve asked this question before, but I really don’t understand: What is the level of the United States relationship with the KRG? How should we understand this relationship? Is it – I mean, when Secretary of State, for example, goes to Erbil after he visits Baghdad – I mean, there are few – I think there is only one other country in the world – that’s Palestine and Israel – where Secretary of State goes to two capitals, and the second one is Iraq. How would you, like, characterize your relationship with the KRG?
MR. RATHKE: Well, our relationship with the KRG hasn’t changed. You’re right; you’ve asked this question before. I think we’ve answered it before. The Kurdish Regional Government is precisely that: It’s the Kurdish Regional Government, and we support the Iraqi constitution and the Iraqi central government. Of course, we are in discussions with officials from the Kurdish Regional Government, because Iraq, as a multiethnic, multi-sect state – that’s important, and the success in Iraq is important to the United States. But I would not draw any further conclusions beyond that. We work with officials in the Kurdish Regional Government because that’s important to achieving our objectives, but Iraq is a unified country.
Any further questions? Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Africa, please, Jeff. About a month ago, there was a mandatory U.S. policy adopted for military personnel returning from Ebola-infected regions in Africa on a 21-day quarantine period for those individuals, mandatory. Have there been any reported incidences of illness or sickness that has come out of that policy in terms of military personnel who have been there, come back, and been quarantined?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as far as the U.S. military’s implementation of its policy with regard to people who have been deployed in our support mission in West Africa, I think you would have to ask our colleagues at the Department of Defense.
MR. RATHKE: That’s not something that we would be tracking in the first instance here.
QUESTION: Okay. So there have been no reported instances of illness with these people —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m —
QUESTION: — that you’re aware of?
MR. RATHKE: I’m simply not in a position to comment on that. Again, these are DOD personnel, so I would really refer you to them for any details about that.
Okay. Thanks, everyone.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:47 p.m.)