Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 15, 2016.
PETER COOK: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you’re having a good day.
I want to give a special welcome to the St. George’s School students who are here to visit the Pentagon. Welcome. Hope you enjoy it. My alma mater represented over there, so pleased to have them.
And with that, I don’t have any opening statement, so I’ll turn it over to questions.
Q: Peter, can you give us your latest understanding of what’s happening with the Russian announced withdrawal of troop forces from Syria? And also, could you, on Afghanistan, could you say whether the secretary is considering a shift in any way in the policy that’s been in force now for more than a year of not attacking Taliban? To — a shift has been reported that General Campbell had recommended to some limited strikes against Taliban. Is the secretary considering that option?
MR. COOK: First off, on the situation in Syria, we have seen some Russian aircraft depart Syria and return to Russia, but we’ve not seen a large contingent of Russian forces leave — just a small number of aircraft at this point. And so we’ll wait to see, like everybody else, what the Russians do with regard to President Putin’s reference to a partial withdrawal.
And again, we’ve seen in the last 24 hours Russians continue to engage in some airstrikes in Syria, so I think obviously this is something we’ll wait to see exactly what transpires with regard to the Russians.
On your second point, I think it’s been clear. You’ve heard the secretary talk about the situation in Afghanistan. We have a new commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson. He’s on the ground right now. The secretary even heard from him today as part of a regular update from commanders. And he’s waiting to hear the assessment from General Nicholson.
But our train, advise and assist mission in Afghanistan remains in place right now. And again, you know very well the — the goal here is to try and enable and enhance Afghan security forces so they can take care of their own country. And that — that mission has not changed. And again, he’s waiting to hear directly from General Nicholson on his thoughts about the way forward and his own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.
Q: But as things stand today, is he — is it a non-starter as far as he’s concerned? Is he disinclined to even go down that road? Or is he open to it?
MR. COOK: I think it’s — the secretary wants to hear directly from his top commander there, and obviously, within the chain of command, wants to get the input from Chairman Dunford, of course, who has such experience in Afghanistan in terms of — of any decisions going forward.
But nothing’s changed right now. The policy that has been in place remains and we continue to do the Resolute Support Mission — continues to try and — and do everything we can to further the efforts of the Afghans to secure their own country. And they’ve made significant progress, but as the secretary has pointed out repeatedly, they still need some help, and that’s what we’re doing at this moment in time.
Q: One last thing. Did — did the secretary discuss directly with General Campbell his recommendations before he left command?
MR. COOK: He had multiple conversations with General Campbell, as you can imagine, and — including in his final weeks and I’m not going to get into their private negotiations, but he — private discussions — but they had substantial conversations over the last few weeks and months about the situation in Afghanistan. As you know, we traveled to Afghanistan, heard directly from General Campbell there. He was on regular video conferences with — with General Campbell.
So again, he values General Campbell’s service to the — to the country, certainly to the mission in Afghanistan, and so he had ample opportunity to hear from General Campbell.
MR. COOK: Jamie?
Q: So the published report in the Washington Post suggested that General Campbell sent his recommendations directly to the White House, bypassing Secretary Carter. Is that what happened?
MR. COOK: Jamie, there’s a conversation — there’s a chain of command process here and the secretary, as I said, looks to hear from his commanders through the chain of command and with his other military advisers, and that’s the normal way things operate and that’s what he expects. And I’ll leave it to — to General Campbell to characterize his view of these things.
But the secretary feels confident that he’s got someone in place, now General Nicholson, who will be able to provide an updated assessment about the picture on the ground in Afghanistan going forward, and that’s the most important thing right now is getting that clear picture and at the same time, continuing to provide the support the Afghans security forces need going forward.
Q: Well, when General Campbell testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month in his last appearance before Congress, he said the one thing that the Afghans consistently asked for everyday was air support, something that they’re not capable of providing themselves, because they have only a small number of aircraft. Their fledgling air force is not going to be ready in any significant way for years to come.
So given that, and given the United States wanting to assist the Afghan military, is there consideration of expanding the authorities of U.S. forces to strike against a resurging Taliban, a Taliban that the U.S. own intelligence assessment is that they’re — that they’re — they pose a significant risk to the Afghan government?
MR. COOK: Well, again, the goal here is to enable the Afghan forces to secure their own country and to transition so that they can, as we — as we know, our mission changed previously so that they could take responsibility for the whole country. That has not changed. There is an Afghan air force that is now taking shape. Yes, it’s still some time off, but nothing’s changed, Jamie, other than we now have a new commander in place who’s getting an assessment on the ground, and of course the secretary’s going to be open to hearing what General Nicholson has to say about the situation, whether or not they need to be adjustments.
We know, of course, the decision made by the president to adjust the troop level within Afghanistan previously. And let’s give General Nicholson the chance to get on the ground, find out what he has determined is the appropriate course of action, whether or not there needs to be an adjustment. And General Nicholson could come back and say we’re on track.
Again, this is in the hands of — to some extent, the Afghan Security Forces and the process that they are making on the ground, and we see signs of encouragement there.
Q: It sounds like you’re saying that the secretary would give more weight to the recommendation of the current commander than the outgoing commander, am I reading that correctly?
MR. COOK: You would be correct in determining that the current commander will have the most current assessment, and he will also have the benefit of the council and experience of General Campbell, who you know, has spoken with General Nicholson.
But the current commander on the ground, General Nicholson, will have the clearest, most up-to-date picture. He will have the most current information from the Afghan government, his own personal assessment.
Let’s give General Nicholson the space to be able to determine what the most appropriate course of action is, going forward. That’s only fair to General Nicholson to allow him the time and the space to see what is actually happening.
Q: Do you — many Syrian military groups are meeting today in Turkey, in Ankara, in order to create what they call a new national Syrian army.
Is the Pentagon aware of those meetings? Any conference with the U.S. military and those Syrian groups?
MR. COOK: I’m not aware of any direct interaction between the department and those groups. As you know, Joe, we are working with the local forces on the ground in Syria, forces that have shown a willingness to take the fight against ISIL.
They have shown progress, some of those groups, in recent days. And so, we are continuing to try and enable as many of those capable forces as we can, but I’m not aware of this particular meeting and any role we’re playing in it.
Q: Back to Afghanistan, two questions. One is to kind of clarify — it sounds as if there was a sub text that General Campbell made a recommendation on the proposed change directly to the White House, and the secretary felt potentially slighted by that recommendation.
So, I’m just wondering, did — can you say that the recommendation came through the secretary, or did it go directly to the White House, one?
Second question is, the same report today also indicated that the push to change authorities to fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan first was made by General Campbell in February, I think, and then again in August.
So, why did it take — and then, the secretary ultimately made the recommendation to make that change for the Islamic State. But why did it take six months or whatever to — for him to come to that conclusion?
MR. COOK: I’ll just say this, Gordon, I’m not going to get into the — again, the private conversations that the secretary has with his top commanders. That is something that, as you would understand, should remain private as he consults with them and gets their advice on a whole range of issues.
On your second point, we have taken the fight to ISIL in Afghanistan. We have had progress on that front in recent weeks; I’m not going to get into the history of that decision, but that is the decision that has been made, that’s — what has been carried out.
And this is consistent, again, with our larger effort to confront the metastasis of ISIL in other part of the world. Afghanistan is a place where we have seen them gain a little traction, and the decision was made to move forward.
So, a lot of these decisions involve a lot of people, various pieces of the national security team within this government, and a lot of input and interaction with a whole range of people, including, of course, the president of the United States, who has to make these decisions.
Q: I think it’s just that, you know, the secretary has talked a lot about the metastasizing and all that. But on the surface, it seems like if there was any concern that the Islamic state was growing inside Afghanistan, it would have been prudent perhaps to go after it before it grew to what it is now apparently 2,000 or 3,000 fighters, or as many as —
MR. COOK: The decision was made to go after — to confront this threat in Afghanistan, and that’s what we’re doing. Just as we’ve made the same decision where we’ve seen it in Libya. And you’ve seen us take action there. And so in terms of the history going forward, we’re more concerned about the current and what we’re doing right now. And if you are, again, part of ISIL in Afghanistan right now, you know full well that the United States is going to do what we can in support of the Afghan forces to confront that threat.
Q: One more quick. Have you guys made a decision to publicly disclose the number of strikes against Islamic state in Afghanistan?
MR. COOK: That is something we are actively working on with the forces on the ground in Afghanistan — something I had a conversation myself with the top leadership in Afghanistan to see if that’s something that we could put together in such a way that it was usable and helpful not only for the press corps, but for the country as a whole.
Different circumstances, different in terms of even the sheer volume, and so it may be something that we can provide, but maybe not in exactly the same way we do with the counter-ISIL fight.
MR. COOK: Yes? Janay
Q: Thank you, Peter.
North Korea — wants to — continue the threats of preemptive strikes — (inaudible) — to South Korea. And do you have any response to this?
And a second question, last week we asked –the question about North Korea have — miniaturized nuclear weapon– (inaudible). Did you find out — (inaudible) — really have this or not?
MR. COOK: I’ll give you — on the second question you have there, the same answer I gave you before, that we have not seen North Korea demonstrate capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and again, put it on a ballistic missile. So, that’s consistent with what I told you previously. That is our current view.
On your first question, once again we’ve seen just another step by the North Koreans to — to ratchet up their rhetoric and again to raise tensions on the Korean peninsula, which we think is obviously counterproductive and, again, once again, we want to remind everyone of our — our defense and our alliance with South Korea and other allies in the region, and how important those alliances are at a time when we’re hearing this kind of rhetoric from North Korea.
We think it’s counterproductive and every effort should be made to try and deescalate tensions in that part of the world.
Q: Just a quick follow-up on the miniaturization. North Korea apparently displayed something that it claimed was a miniaturized warhead such as would fit on a ballistic missile. Do you believe that was fake?
MR. COOK: I’ll just, Jamie, go back to we’ve not seen them demonstrate the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapons. So —
MR. COOK: Again, we — that is our determination.
MR. COOK: That’s our determination at this point, that we haven’t seen them demonstrate that capability.
Q: I have a serious question, though. How would they demonstrate that other than using it — (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: Well, Bob, we think that there — if there were — we have means of assessing, for example, some of their tests. I’m not going to get into the details of that. But again, we feel at this point in time we have been able to assess their capabilities and we don’t assess that that’s a capability they’re demonstrated at this point.
MR. COOK: I think I’ve said what I can say on this topic. Again, our assessment has not changed in terms of the North Korean capability.
MR. COOK: Luis?
Q: Going to Iraq. Yesterday, an individual who apparently lived in Virginia was detained by Kurdish authorities after having served with ISIS. Do you have any more details? Can you confirm he was an American citizen? Will American military authorities be able to interrogate him? Things like that.
MR. COOK: I can’t provide you more details on this individual. Obviously, we’re aware of what the Kurdish and Iraqi authorities have said in terms of the fact that — that they may have an American citizen in their custody. I’ll refer you to the State Department for it. It’s more a State Department issue at this point, but there’s nothing more I can provide from here on — on sort of who he is and the history there.
Q: Do you have an update on — on Omar the Chechen and what his status is?
MR. COOK: I think what we said previously — we believe that was a successful strike and it’s our assessment that that was a successful strike and that he was killed in that strike.
Q: Peter, can I ask, you said earlier that the Russians were continuing with airstrikes. Any indication of what they’ve hit? Was it ISIS? Was it SDF? Anything –where they’ve conducted these strikes?
MR. COOK: I think for the most part, the strikes that we’ve seen in the last 24 hours were focused more in ISIL areas, but I can’t give you the exact nature of all those strikes. But that seemed to be the more significant focus.
Q: I was going to ask, what is the status now of Force of the Future, given the resignation of Mr. Carson? Do you press ahead with that and hope to get it done this year? Or is there a fallback position now that you would consider laying the groundwork for this and hope that it is taken up by the next administration?
MR. COOK: Nothing has changed with regard to Force of the Future. The secretary remains squarely behind the initiatives he’s already unveiled, and has more to come. And he feels confident that these are changes that are critical to this department going forward and very important to retaining not only our best people, but also attracting more in the future to come serve in the Department of Defense.
So there’s going to be no change with regard to Force of the Future. And he’s going to, I think as you’ll hear in his testimony up on the Hill over the next few weeks, articulate again the reasons behind his decisions with regard to those initiatives.
Q: Following up on that, on the Vacancies Act, given what’s happened with the nomination of Eric Fanning and Brad Carson, is the department looking at changing its interpretation of the Vacancies Act? Or changing its policies for filling vacant positions?
MR. COOK: That’s more a legal question than anything else. And I think it’s our goal to stay current with the law. I know this has been a question even at the Justice Department, so in terms of the administration’s position on that law, I’d refer you to the Justice Department.
But it’s our goal to continue to work with Congress, and for the secretary to get as many top people as he can in the positions that are still vacant in this department. There are nominations still outstanding and certainly the secretary would hope that Congress would move quickly to put in place the people he needs to be able to carry out the important mission of this department.
Q: A couple of follow-ups, if I may. On North Korea and the warhead question, your words were very precise. You said that they have not demonstrated that capability. Do you also rule out, then, that they have it — (inaudible) — have not demonstrated it?
MR. COOK: As we discussed last week, Barbara, the top commanders who are responsible for the safety and security of the United States, in particular, dealing with the threat from North Korea, they have to make certain assumptions as they prepare and plan for any eventuality — and you’ve heard testimony from Admiral Gortney to this effect.
We have not seen them demonstrate the capability. That does not mean the United States does not plan for scenarios in which North Korea, at some point in the future, poses a more significant threat than they do right now.
So, we are doing the appropriate thing in terms of planning to prepare for — whether it’s North Korea or other adversaries, the kinds of threats that could pose challenge to the United States, the security and safety of the American people.
Q: Understood, and I know it’s a delicate question, but again, you — they have a planning assumption. You have said they haven’t demonstrated it.
In between those two points, do they have it?
MR. COOK: Again, Barbara, I’m not going to — I can’t confirm from here that capability. We have not seen it demonstrated.
What has been — what we can talk about are the capabilities of the United States, and we feel confident that we can respond to that North Korea challenge. And again, you have heard Admiral Gortney talk about this in front of a whole host of people, talk about this in recent weeks because of the threat posed by North Korea.
We are doing everything that we can, as the American people would expect, to prepare, just in case North Korea’s words turn into something else.
Q: Do you believe the — and I just have a couple of quick follow-ups — do you believe in — you talked about recent weeks.
Do you believe that the North Korean nuclear warhead and ICBM threat is growing now, and how is it growing?
MR. COOK: We — again, we have not seen — our position on their capabilities has not changed. We’ve seen them, once again, detonate a — conducted a nuclear test. They have launched a rocket into space.
They have taken other provocative actions. We have to look at the world in which we operate, and right now, North Korea is doing a number of things that are provocative.
And as a result, we are taking the steps that we need to shore up our alliance partner, South Korea, our alliance with Japan in the region, other partners in the region who have to address that threat more immediately than we do.
And as you can imagine, we have to assess our own position with regard to North Korea, and we’re doing that.
Q: Very quickly, on chemical weapons in Syria.
In the last several days, there have been a number of reports that, by all accounts appear to be true, of additional attacks on civilians by ISIS using chemical agents, whether it’s a chlorine or mustard agent.
Can you bring us up-to-date on any additional strikes related to chemical weapons in Iraq to the detainee you’ve got? Have you gotten any additional action that you can tell us about?
And you know, since the goal of that was to disrupt their chemical weapons program, and yet they’re continuing, where do you stand on this? They still seem pretty capable of launching attacks?
MR. COOK: There have been — as we said previously — multiple strikes that were conducted to try and disrupt and degrade their chemical weapon system.
We have determined that some of those strikes were indeed successful, and there have been more since.
And all I would say is that this is, again, and a capability — remember, Barbara, that a lot of times, they’re using these agents on scene, at the — not necessarily at a facility itself, but out in the field.
So, there may be more targets out there than we know of at this time. And so that poses a challenge for us, but it’s something we’re going to continue to — to confront.
Obviously, we’ve seen the same reports you have about the continued use of — of these blister agents and it causes obvious concern, not just for our forces in the region, but for the civilian population and for those forces that are taking on ISIL. So this is going to be something that we’re going to continue to — to work on, but we feel confident that we have made a dent in their capabilities. But obviously, it’s a threat that we continue to track and — and monitor closely.
Q: Hi — Thanks.
Just to clarify, an operation regarding this cessation of the hostilities, you said over the last 24 hours, the Russians targeted some ISIL positions in Syria, but you said that most of them were ISIL targets. Does it mean that the Russian airstrikes violated the cessation of hostilities over the last 24 hours, targeting some other elements other than the designated groups, like ISIL?
MR. COOK: I’m — there’s a specific monitoring program that is being led by the State Department in terms of violations of that, so I’d refer you to them in terms of specific violations that have been reported in the last 24 hours. I’m not aware of any of these strikes that technically violated the cessation of hostilities. Again, most of the strikes that I was asked about have been focused on ISIL, which is not part of the — the terms of the cessation.
Q: And you said that there is a withdraw, not the significant — withdraw — some extent, there is a — withdraw — from Syria. How many airplanes are we talking about?
MR. COOK: A small number of airplanes — aircraft.
Q: Ten or —
MR. COOK: Less than 10 is what we’ve seen. And again, we don’t — there’s — there’s been movement of aircraft from Russia to Syria over the last six months and whether or not these aircraft are returning back to Syria, again, I’d send you to the Russians for an answer on that. But we have seen some aircraft depart Syria and head back to Russia.
Q: Is the total number of the — (inaudible) — in the Russian aircrafts are almost 100, I assume. Right? So less than 10 of them just withdraw —
MR. COOK: I’ll just say fewer than 10, at this point, is what we’ve seen depart in the last 24 hours.
Q: And is that — this — this remark coming from Moscow — from President Putin, is that because — I mean, how do you — how do you analyze this withdraw? I mean, is it the realistic push that we — should we assume that the Russians are withdrawing from Syria is just a tactical move?
MR. COOK: Well, we’ll wait and see. We, as always, over the last six months, will determine — assess Russia based on their actions, not their words, and the — President Putin has said that they’re going to conduct a partial withdrawal of their forces. And again, if the purpose of that is to promote the cessation of hostilities and to promote, perhaps, finally some resolution to the civil war now in its — in its fifth year — today is the fifth anniversary of that — of that conflict — then — then we welcome that. But we have to judge Russia by its actions, not its word, so we’ll see.
Yes, Kasim ?
Q: (inaudible) – Interior Ministry has identified the person who conducted the attack in Ankara someone who joined PKK in 2013 and she was also trained in YPG camps in northeastern Syria, the interior minister said. (inaudible) — have publicly said that this terrorist was trained by YPG in northeastern Syria, the group that you are always supporting as a partner in the fight against Daesh. What was your reaction to this in terms of her connection to YPG?
MR. COOK: Yeah, I haven’t seen the comments from the interior minister, but obviously we condemn the terrorist attack in Turkey. And, you know, obviously, our thoughts are with the people of Turkey, particularly the victims in that — in that attack. And so, and we respect Turkey’s, you know, right to defend itself against the threat of terrorism. We’ve said that from — from the start.
With regard to this particular incident, again, I don’t know specifically the comments you’ve made with regard to this one suspect or from the interior minister. But we’ve worked closely with our allies, Turkey, on issues regarding what’s happening in Syria. They know of our support for specific groups that are taking the fight to ISIL and I think that we view that as a separate issue here.
And again, but that does not diminish our concern about what’s happened in Turkey, specifically this attack. And — and Turkey’s — obviously the need for the Turks to be able to defend themselves.
Q: Would you have some kind of concern that a group you are supporting might have involved or somehow supported a terrorist attack in a country which is also your — (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: I — again, I don’t know the report you’re referring to. So I don’t know the history of this person. But we are aware of Turkey’s concerns about the YPG. We’ve had conversations with the Turks. We’ll continue to have ongoing conversations and try and do everything we can to — to allay those concerns.
And remember, our focus is on fighting ISIL. That is our core mission in Syria.
MR. COOK: Barbara?
Q: Can I just have one follow-up, going back to Afghanistan?
While I understand your answer that you don’t wish to disclose private conversations between the secretary and one of his four-star commanders, nonetheless, the impression that is left is I think that you are letting stand the notion that General Campbell went around the secretary and made recommendations directly to the White House, circumventing the SECDEF. I’m wondering if you could consider taking the question because without an answer, it lets stand the notion that a very respected four-star would have circumvented the command process.
So in this case, rather than letting us have a misunderstanding, could you take that question and see if you can get us some kind of answer to that?
MR. COOK: Barbara, the conversation the secretary has with his commanders are private conversations. There is a chain of command. There is a process here to be followed. And that involves, of course, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the combatant commanders. And that’s the process that needs to be respected in this case and in every case.
And we’re going to, again, maintain the ability for the secretary to have those private conversations and for those commanders to share their military advice and perspective with the secretary of defense.
Q: I know you understand my question, which is, again, if we can’t get clear — if we can’t get some clarity on this one particular instance, it’s letting stand the notion that General Campbell circumvented the process. And I don’t think any of us want to be under any misunderstanding of the facts.
So, I would just — you may not be able to answer it, but I wondering if you would at least see in this case if it’s possible.
MR. COOK: Barbara, I’m going to again respect the process here. If you want to engage with General Campbell, of course, you’re welcome to do so. There’s a process here. There’s a certain procedure that has to be followed with the chain of command, to respect the conversations that they have, and we’re going to continue to do that, whether it’s in this case or in others.
Q: (off-mic.) — anybody wanted to defend that from the podium, but I accept your answer.
MR. COOK: (off-mic.)
Q: This is another thing, by the way, where we’ve asked a fairly straightforward yes-or-no question: Did the general give his recommendations directly to the White House? And then the answer we get is, you’re not going to disclose private conversations.
When we’re not asking about disclosing any private conversations, we’re simply asking a matter of fact. And my follow-up question to that would be, while there is a chain of command that goes from the combatant commander through the secretary of defense to the president, isn’t it also the responsibility of senior commanders to forward the recommendations directly to the president if they feel that their views are not being adequately represented by the civilian leadership or the chairman of the joint chiefs or whoever?
Don’t they also have an obligation to provide that advice if they don’t feel it’s being — if it’s being forwarded? Is that also the case?
MR. COOK: There is — there is a chain of command, and commanders have to do what they feel is appropriate. And so, that — if commanders feel that that is what they have to do in certain instances, that is up to the individual commander.
But there is a chain of command, there is a process to be followed. And again, there — if they choose to go outside the chain of command, that is a decision that they make on their own.
Q: But Jamie’s first question still stands, I mean, did he respect the process that you just said is up to the commander?
MR. COOK: I’m not going to talk about this particular situation to reserve the private conversations between the secretary and his commanders, in this case, General Campbell.
And I’m going to leave it at that. It is not my place to characterize that from here. Those are private conversations, those are conversations that are conducted with others within the department, other top military advisers.
And again —
Q: Not asking about the content of the conversations, I’m just asking about the process, whether it was — adhered to the normal process?
MR. COOK: If you want to engage with General Campbell on that, I’ll leave that to you to do. I’m not going to characterize it from here.
Q: You do it — I just want to make clear, you’re letting the secretary — you’re letting the secretary leave the notion standing in the room here right now that a four star went around him?
MR. COOK: I’m going to, again, respect the process, the private conversations that the secretary has with his commanders, whether it’s General Campbell or anybody else.
And again, if you want to engage with General Campbell on that, I’ll leave you to do that. But this is a private conversation, and this is a process that, as you know, Barbara, has been respected for sometime. And it’s — what’s most important now is for the secretary, with regard to Afghanistan is to hear the views, the conversations that he’ll have with his new commander in Afghanistan.
And he’s planning to do that. He’s going to hear from General Nicholson, as he did even this morning.
One last question in the back.
Q: Regarding the ratcheting of rhetoric of North Korea, does the Pentagon assess that there is any relationship about current operations, Key Resolve, or Foal Eagle going on to Korea right now?
MR. COOK: Those have been planned for some time, and we don’t — and again, they were planned well in advance of the recent activities by the North Koreans.
They are a tangible symbol, if you will, of our alliance with South Korea, the close cooperation we had with the South Koreans. And they should also represent, again, our willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our South Korean allies.
Q: Do you expect the rhetoric to tamper down after these operations are finished?
MR. COOK: That is up to the North Koreans to decide, but those — those exercises have been planned for some time. And they will have a conclusion point, but our alliance with South Korea will certain endure past that.
Ok. Thanks, everyone.