Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—October 17, 2014.
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Good morning, everybody.
This is a lot taller today, this podium.
GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN: It’s just normal size here.
ADM. KIRBY: Well, we’re back. I’m just going to turn it over to our briefer today. You all know General Austin, Central Command commander. He’s here to update you on activities in his area of responsibility. Obviously, activities against ISIL will be foremost I’m sure on your minds, as it is on his.
And so with that, sir, I’ll turn it over to you. I will be moderating after the general’s opening statement, so I’ll call on you. Please identify who you are and who you’re with before you ask the question.
GEN. AUSTIN: Thanks, John.
Well, good morning, everyone. I’ll take some — I’ll make some brief opening comments and then I’ll answer your questions.
Three weeks ago, we began conducting offensive, precision strikes inside of Syria. And prior to that, the strikes conducted in Iraq were limited to the protection of U.S. personnel and key facilities and the prevention of human suffering.
The intent of the expanded airstrikes is to degrade ISIL’s capability and their ability to threaten U.S. interests and the interests of our partners.
More specifically, we are enabling the efforts of the Iraqis in their fight against ISIL, acknowledging that, in addition to halting ISIL’s advance, the Iraqis must secure the border. They must regenerate and restructure their forces to ensure that they are able to provide for the sovereignty of their country going forward. And this represents our main focus right now — enabling the efforts of the Iraqis.
With respect to the airstrikes, and together with our coalition partners, we are purposely and necessarily targeting very specific capabilities, again, with the intent to degrade the enemy’s ability to command and control, to degrade his ability to project combat power, and to degrade his ability to sustain himself.
We’ve conducted precision strikes, for example, targeting ISIL’s communications equipment and hardware, their command centers, and their vehicle parks, and tanks and Humvees which were stolen from the Iraqi army, as well as oil refineries which are now under ISIL’s control.
ISIL derives significant revenue from oil production, and so by striking these types of facilities, we reduce their ability to generate the funds and the fuel required to sustain their operations. And we are having the desired effects.
We’re seeing evidence of this not only in our battle damage assessments, but more important, we’re noting changes in the enemy’s behavior and tactics that reflect his diminished capability and restricted — restricted freedom of movement. For example, we’re no longer seeing them move around the country in large convoys. Now they’re mostly traveling in civilian vehicles in smaller numbers. This is hindering their ability to mass and to shift combat power.
We’ve also seen them alter their methods of communication which is inhibiting their ability to coordinate and synchronize their efforts. And so we are having the desired effects, but this will take some time.
I’d also note that we’ve been very careful in how we’ve gone about conducting strikes because we want to avoid unnecessary collateral damage. Had we killed a lot of innocent civilians, and specifically in Sunni areas, I think that it’s fair to say that we would be in a much different place at this point. But because we’ve done this the right way, we’ve secured the support of our Sunni Arab partners in the region. And together, we are making progress.
That said, I do want to emphasize that airstrikes — the airstrikes that we’re conducting are just one element of the campaign to counter and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Indeed, the United States military is contributing and enabling a broader whole-of-government effort that is currently under way. In addition to helping to counter ISIL and gradually degrade their capability, which we are doing, we’re also taking the necessary steps to enable the Iraqis to secure their border and to regenerate and restructure their security forces.
Again, Iraq is our main effort and it has to be. And the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq. And once the Iraqis are able to get a better handle on the situation inside of their country and regain control of their border, that will help to localize the problems a bit more.
And certainly, this will serve to restrict ISIL’s freedom of movement and specifically, his ability to send reinforcements from Syria into Iraq.
Of course, you can be assured that ISIL does not want this to happen and they will continue to conduct operations in different areas, in parts of Syria especially, with the goal to divert attention and force an operational response that requires us and our coalition partners to reallocate assets and capabilities away from our priority effort.
And so we must be mindful of this, and we must remain focused and disciplined in our approach. Most important, we must maintain strategic patience going forward. The campaign to destroy ISIL will take time and there will be occasional setbacks along the way, and particularly in these early stages of the campaign as we coach and mentor a force that is actively working to regenerate capability after years of neglect and poor leadership.
By our actions and by enabling the efforts of our partners, we intend to defeat and ultimately destroy ISIL. And also even more important, we want to change conditions inside of Iraq and Syria so that what we see happening there now does not happen again in the future. And I do believe that what we set out to do is achievable and certainly the great men and women of our military stand ready to do all that is required to ensure our collective success.
And I’m confident that together with our interagency and coalition partners, we can and will get the job done and done well. But again, it will take time.
And with that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.
ADM. KIRBY: Okay. First question? Bob?
Q: General, Bob Burns with A.P. Good morning.
Q: Thanks for doing the news conference; appreciate it.
To your initial point about your focus on enabling Iraqi security forces, when, after all this time, when will the Iraqi army actually be able to re-take territory in a significant way? When will they become a credible and motivated force that you said is really central to your strategy? What’s the main problem with it?
GEN. AUSTIN: It’s difficult to put — to designate a specific point in time when they’ll be able to do this. As you know, we’re doing some things now. They are doing some things now to incrementally recapture ground that’s been lost. In the north, we’ve seen the Kurdish security forces conduct an excellent operation on the Mosul Dam. They took back the port of — the Rabiya port of entry. They are currently still operating, still pushing to recapture ground that has been lost.
We’re seeing some of the same things in the south. About a week-and-a-half ago, you saw the 9th Division attack west to, you know, towards — north of Karma, towards Ramadi, and link up with the 1st Division and open up a line of communication so that you’re — they’re able to — to provide logistical support to the forces that are out in Ramadi.
And so this morning, Iraqi time — Iraq time, excuse me, you saw Iraqi security forces elements attack north from the Baghdad area up to Bayji And that that assault — attack is ongoing as we speak. Their effort is to relieve the forces that have been defending Bayji for a period of time and make sure that they open a line of communications there as well.
So we’re doing some things to — to incrementally improve conditions. At the same time, we will begin to train and equip Iraqi security forces to regenerate some much-needed combat power. But it will take time.
Q: What about Mosul? Are they making any progress at all to retake Mosul?
GEN. AUSTIN: Mosul’s going to be probably a much bigger effort. And again, it’s going to — we’re going to need to regenerate a bit more combat power and do some more things to shape the environment a bit before we go after Mosul. I think Mosul will — you heard the chairman describe it as potentially the decisive fight. Certainly, it will be a — an important fight and a difficult fight.
You know, as you know, Bob, I was a corps commander in Iraq, and I was a force commander there as well. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mosul. It is difficult terrain. And — and so, we want to make sure that when we take that on, that we have the adequate capability and we set the conditions right to — to get things done.
ADM. KIRBY: Barbara ?
Q: Sir, when you look at ISIS, do you believe at this point that they are centrally commanded, controlled by some so-called high value targets? Do you believe Baghdadi’s in charge? Can you talk about whether there are — if you cannot say the names. But is there a short list of high-value targets if you could get that would make a fundamental difference?
And we haven’t heard about the Khorasan in weeks now. Do you have an assessment of whether you were able to stop their plot against the United States and get their leadership?
GEN. AUSTIN: The assessment on the Khorasan is still a work in progress. We remain focused on this. And of course, once we — as we gain better information, rest assured that we will — we will maintain pressure on that — on that organization.
In terms of command and control for — for ISIL, a great question. They — they certainly have central leadership that — that’s guiding things overall. It’s more problematic for them to — to be able to command and control now because of the fact that they’re afraid to talk on their — on their networks. They’re afraid to assemble command groups for fear of being struck by us.
So their command and control architecture is — is somewhat fragmented. They’re still fairly effective, but much more challenged than they were before we started this campaign. And this will get worse as we go along.
But — but again, it will be — it will become more and more difficult for them to get the things done that we’ve seen them do prior to us starting that campaign in earnest.
Q: Is Baghdadi on your list?
GEN. AUSTIN: Clearly, he is a — he is a leader that I think if you — if you — if you eliminate him, then I think it becomes more difficult for them to get done what needs to be done.
But, Barbara, you’ve seen us, you know, conduct operations in Iraq, in Afghanistan and other places. These elements have the ability to regenerate leadership. And — and certainly, going after HVIs is something that we must do and we will do. But that’s not enough to — to get this done.
I think you have to take away their ability to — to — to sustain themselves, finance themselves. You have to slow or, if you can, stop the flow of foreign fighters coming — coming and going. I think that generates a pool of manpower for them that — that’s been very, very helpful for them.
We learned from countering Al Qaida in Iraq that if you can begin to do these things in a meaningful way, plus going after the command and control, then I think you begin to have some serious effects.
ADM. KIRBY: David?
Q: General, you said that the major effort is in Iraq. But if you just look at the — the tally of airstrikes over the last several days, the main area has been around Kobani. How has Kobani suddenly become such a almost litmus test of whether this campaign is — is on the right track? And what is the latest assessment of whether or not air power is going to be able to save Kobani?
GEN. AUSTIN: The campaign is on the right track. We’re doing the right things, and we’re having the — creating the right effects.
If you take a look at what’s happened here in the last couple of days, in the south, we have experienced some issues with our — with weather, and that’s not allowed us to get our ISR up to — to the degree that we want to.
In addition to that, what’s going on in — in the Kobani area is that, in my assessment, the enemy has made a decision to make Kobani his main effort. And what you see them do in the last several days is pour — continue to pour manpower into — into that effort.
Now, my goal is to defeat and ultimately destroy ISIL. And if he continues to present us with — with major targets, as he has done in — in the Kobani area, then clearly, we’ll service those targets, and we’ve done so very, very effectively here of late, as — as you’ve mentioned. But — but, again, the more we attrite him in Kobani, the less ability he has to reinforce efforts other — in other places.
And again, I believe that he made a decision several — several days ago that Kobani was going to be his main effort. And as long as he pours, you know, legions of forces there into that area, we’ll stay focused on taking him out.
Q: And your assessment on whether or not you can save Kobani with airstrikes?
GEN. AUSTIN: It — it — it’s highly possible that Kobani may fall. And — but, again, I think the things that we have done here in — in the last several days are encouraging. And we’re seeing the — the Kurds actually fight to regain territory that had been lost previously.
So, some very determined fighters up there that — that have done a yeoman’s work in terms of standing their ground. And — and I think we’ve been able to — to help that along with precision airstrikes in the last couple days.
ADM. KIRBY: I’m going to go back over this way, if I can.
Q: General, Kathy McCormick with CBS Radio.
Back to Iraq, I’m wondering about the — you talked about the Sunni Arab partners. I’m wondering about the Shiite militias that are fighting there and how they could damage the relationship with the Sunni Arab partners. I’m wondering about the Shiite militias that are fighting there and how they could damage the relationship with the Sunni Arabs and possibly even unravel what the coalition is trying to do there?
GEN. AUSTIN: Clearly this is a — I mean, it’s — there are a lot of things that are possible that can happen in this equation. And I think it’s up the leadership there and the government to strike a balance in terms of the relationships between the Shia militia or the Shia in the south and the Sunnis out west.
It’s incumbent upon this government — I mean, it’s necessary for them to reach out to the Sunni population and be inclusive. They need to do that for the Kurds as well. I am encouraged by, you know, what I’ve seen as I talk to the leadership, the prime minister and others, that they’re willing to do this.
I think if they begin to follow through on the things that they’ve said that they’re willing to do, then I think it’ll build some confidence. And I think that they will be able to strike a balance. But the government really has to manage that balance and I think they can.
Q: Is that one of your concerns, though, that this could unravel the partnership?
GEN. AUSTIN: It is a concern. It has always been a concern. Again, we got here because of poor governance to begin, a government that was not inclusive of the Sunnis and of the Kurds. And if we go that route again, I think it could fracture things.
Q: General, Dion Niessenbaum with The Wall Street Journal.
I wanted to ask you about the possibility of a no-fly zone or a buffer zone in northern Syria, which the Turks want to get more involved in the fight. Some people here say that there is essentially a de facto buffer zone, no-fly zone because Syrian forces aren’t flying there. Why not take the next step now and put that in place officially so that you can get the Turks to get more involved in the fight there?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, we’re not there at this point. Again, that’s — that will be a policy decision as to whether or not we’ll want to do that. But as I stated earlier, I think that we really have to remain focused on the first task, and that is to help the Iraqis restore security and stability inside of the country of Iraq; restore their borders; regenerate forces to be able to help them do that.
And again, you know, whether or not we’ll stand up a no-fly zone or do something different in Syria is a policy decision that I’ll leave to the policy-makers.
Q: Do you think Kobani is kind of a diversion from your main effort?
GEN. AUSTIN: I do not think it’s a diversion. I think that I’m able to do what we’re able to do and manage my resources so that I can take advantage of opportunity that he has presented me. And he presented that opportunity by continuing to funnel forces into Kobani. And again, the more I attrite him there, the less I have to fight him on some other part of the battlefield.
ADM. KIRBY: We’ll come up here now.
Q: General, Jim Miklaszewski, NBC.
We’re hearing a lot about ISIS advances in the Anbar province. Several towns reportedly have fallen just within the past week. Just what is the state of play there currently? And — and what threat do those forces there in Anbar province potentially pose to Baghdad, or even more importantly perhaps is — is the airport?
GEN. AUSTIN: I would describe Anbar as contested. It’s been that way for some time. I would also say that unlike some of what you have heard in a number of places, we have not seen an appreciable increase of ISIL forces in Anbar from what we saw in the July-August timeframe.
So, I think what we’ll continue to see throughout is that, you know, Anbar will remain contested. I think the solution to this going forward to very rapidly be able to establish or — or, you know, establish better security is to enlist the help of the tribes. And I think the government is reaching out to do that now. And — and, again, with their help, I think we’ll be able to move forward very rapidly.
We did the same thing back in 2008, as you’ll recall, Jim, with the Sahwah movement. And again, what we learned from that is that with their help, we were able to deny the enemy freedom of action, freedom of movement. And it was very instrumental. So I have every reason to believe that we can do that in this case. We’ll be able to create some of the same effects.
Q: Well, you mention the Sunni awakening but the — the fact that the Sunnis had no confidence in their central government is how ISIS was able to make the advances they have so far. So, what progress is being made there? Is there any progress being made? And that’s the issue of the airport.
Do those ISIS forces actually threaten the airport? And — and would that quick reaction force there actually — is there a possibility they could become engaged in ground combat with the ISIS forces?
GEN. AUSTIN: I don’t see a threat to the airport as we speak. This is something that we monitor. We patrol on a routine basis. As you know, I have Apache aircraft there. They’re flying the area. We do, you know, we work with the Iraqi security forces that have the responsibility to secure that area. We have ISR up around the airfield routinely.
And so I don’t see a threat to the airport that would cause the airport to fall. Can someone launch a mortar round or a rocket? We saw that happen back in 2008, 2009, 2010. But it — but it doesn’t threaten closing the airfield. And so I feel fairly confident that the — that the airfield is secure and will be secure for the foreseeable future.
Q: The Sunni issue?
GEN. AUSTIN: Yeah?
Q: How are the Sunni — how are the Shia — how is the Shia government ever going to be able to regain the confidence of the Sunnis?
GEN. AUSTIN: This is something they must do. And this is something I think that the leadership realizes, and this is something, as I’ve talked to the leadership, that they’re committed to doing. And so what we see now is the — is the Shia leadership, the prime minister, reaching out to the Sunni elements in Anbar. And I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to establish and build on — establish some confidence and build upon that going forward.
But this is what has to happen. And I think the leaders understand that.
Q: General, Phil Stewart with Reuters. Thanks for doing this.
You had recommended sending U.S. troops forward to retake Mosul Dam. Have any other recommendations of that kind been made since then?
And when would you see that as being an option you’d like to pursue?
GEN. AUSTIN: Yeah, well, I won’t — I won’t cover recommendations that I would provide to my boss on operational issues in this forum. But I would say — I would tell you that it’s my job to assess the situation on a continual basis and to provide my best military advice on how to accomplish the mission at hand.
I will never provide the president or the secretary of defense a course of action that I don’t think can be accomplished or — accomplished or achieved. And everything that I lay out I think will have — I know will have been carefully thought through. And every course of action I provide him will be — will be a viable course of action.
And again, I will make a recommendation on which course of action, based upon, you know, how I see the situation.
Q: Let me just follow up. I mean, what would you say to people who think — who are saying now that the strategy is fundamentally flawed because of a lack of support on the ground, partly because there’s not enough use of U.S. forces that are capable?
GEN. AUSTIN: I think — you know, most everyone has been clear that, you know, this is not doable just from the air. They’ve also been clear that it will — the ground forces that we would look to use are the indigenous ground forces, you know, the Iraqi ground forces in Iraq and, you know, hopefully a force that we can train in Syria to help us in Syria when that — when we get to that piece.
But, you know, our role would be and is to provide enablers, to help them get the job done on the ground. And I do think that’s doable.
Now, the degree to which you provide those enablers is always a point in question. And again, that will change from situation to situation.
Q: Sir, Joe Tabot with Al Hura.
Could you confirm Syrian local reports today saying that ISIS militants have been flying fighter jets over Aleppo?
And do you know if they have access to fighter jets, if Iraqi defected pilots or Syrian defected pilots are training them to do so?
GEN. AUSTIN: We don’t have any operational reporting of ISIL flying jets in support of ISIL’s activity on the ground. And so I cannot confirm that.
And to the degree that pilots may have defected and joined the ranks of ISIL, I don’t have any information on that either.
Q: Quick follow up, sir. How do you describe the air force Syrian regime activities since you have started the airstrikes against ISIL in Syria?
GEN. AUSTIN: I would say that they have not challenged us since we’ve been flying. And I’ll just leave it at that.
And it’s — I think this is probably the last one here, John.
ADM. KIRBY: We’ve got just one more.
Q: General, Phil Ewing with Politico.
I want to please ask you to expand on something you mentioned a second ago — the plan to recruit and train a force of Syrian fighters to fight there at some point down the line. Can you give us an update about how that’s going? Why you’re confident 5,000 people is the right number? And why they would take these weapons in training and not immediately go fight the regime, as opposed to fighting ISIL?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, the first thing I’ll tell you is that, you know, we’re looking to train units and we’re looking to provide those units with adequate leadership that will ensure, for the most part, that they stay together and they stay focused on the task at hand.
As we go about recruiting the people to be part of those units, we’ll be very deliberate about screening and vetting them. And hopefully, that will do some things to help guarantee some success. But you know, as well as I know, that, you know, you can always have a lone wolf that goes out and does something that you didn’t expect to do be done.
But nonetheless, I’m confident that if we take the approach that we’ve kind of laid out for ourselves, provided we can recruit the people — adequate numbers of people, and I think we can, we’ll be able to put quality soldiers on the battlefield that can get the job done.
Q: Do you have a sense about when they’ll start to make a difference there?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, that’s hard to predict. You know, certainly, there are a number of elements in this equation. One is, you know, what does ISIL look like, you know, eight months to a year from now. My personal opinion is that they’ll be much degraded from what they are now. And so, I think a well-trained force that’s well equipped and well led will have a real good chance of being successful.
ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.
We’ve got to get the general on his way.
GEN. AUSTIN: Thank you very much.