Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—December 16, 2014.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Only seven minutes late today.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Look, I want to start — I know you’ve seen the secretary’s statement, but I would like to go over it again with respect to the terrorist attack on the Pakistani school.
So, on behalf of all the men and women of the United States Defense Department, the secretary extends his deepest condolences to the people of Pakistan following today’s ruthless attack on the army public school in Peshawar.
This heartless slaughter of over 100 innocent students and teachers was an act of pure cowardice. The United States remains committed to supporting Pakistan in its effort to combat extremism and to ensure stability in the region. As we stand firm with the Pakistani people and military in their fight against terrorists, we also honor their sacrifices and join the victims’ families and loved ones in their mourning.
With that, Lita?
Q: John, thanks.
Could you bring us up to date on Iraq? The flow of troops that are going to be going in now that the funding has been approved? Can you give us an idea of sort of the pace and over what time period can we expect to see those — that additional — those 1,400?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The Iraqi train and equip fund, as you know, is part of the NDAA. It has not been signed yet into law. That said, we do know it’s — we’re grateful for the support that we got from Congress, and we know it’s coming.
There have been no — they are — we are still working through sourcing solutions on all of or as many of those troops as possible. So, no troops have been given orders to go yet, nor have any actually started the process of deploying. But the sourcing solutions are being worked out.
And as I said last time, General Austin has taken advantage of resources that he has in the region already to begin to set the stage for that. So, he’s done a couple of things. He’s got a small number that are already doing some advise and assist operations and missions. They’re in Anbar, a small number, 50, 60, something like that.
And then he has another nearly 200 or so that are beginning to — to build out the infrastructure and set the conditions so that when we fall into those four other locations to do more hands on training with Iraqi brigades, they’ll — they’ll be ready.
So, while no training has started yet, no formal training, we are doing advise and assist in keeping with that program, and are getting ready and setting the stage for the trainers that will follow. And I would like to add, you know, as I said before, that many other nations are — are planning to contribute trainers as well. This won’t be a U.S. mission.
Q: But what’s the target? I guess at least, you know, general target date for when that training — the troops might be in and the training might start?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’m not aware of a specific date on the calendar, that it will be ready to start, and I — my guess is it won’t be a shotgun start, Lita. We’ll — we’ll start it when and where we’re able to over the next few months.
But I think it’s going to be a period of several months before we’re actually ready to, you know, to get it launched and get it going.
Q: Several months for the first — for the beginning of it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think so. I think so. But again, we’ll — we’ll keep you updated. As I said I would last week, we’ll keep you updated as — as we know. And certainly when units are deployed, you’ll know because we always inform you and the public about that. So once we’re in that — at that position, we’ll — we’ll be able to talk to it.
Q: Admiral Kirby, could we get back to Pakistan, in fact, for a moment?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: What is the ability of the Taliban to mount these kinds of high-profile mass casualty attacks, say, about the U.S. commitment to reduce the number of U.S. and international troops down to a very small number next year? How is that going to work?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t — I’d be careful, Jamie, drawing a direct correlation or line between the two, between their ability to conduct these kinds of attacks inside Pakistan and our mission in Afghanistan and what that’s going to become.
Nothing has changed about the fact that the combat mission ends at the end of this month and that we’re going to begin a new mission in Afghanistan. Nothing changes about the fact that we’re going to be pursuing a — a different kind of security relationship with Afghanistan, different kind of defense relationship, one not just built on internal security, but to — you know, but to helping to advice, train, and assist them as they improve their own capabilities.
And nothing changes as a result — or nothing from today’s attack changes. There’s no changes to our relationship with Pakistan as a result of today’s deadly and terrible attack on that school.
This — this is a threat that the Pakistani people have been facing now for years. And we’ve long talked about the fact that it — that it represents a common threat we both face and share. And we — one of the reasons why we’ve tried so hard to get the relationship with Pakistan onto solid footing — and there’s been ups and downs. There’s been things we haven’t agreed on. And there’s certainly been tense moments in that relationship. But this attack today is a grim reminder that the threat is real, very real, and that the Pakistani people continue to suffer at the hands of that threat.
I think we have certainly made it clear to Pakistan that we’re willing to help in the wake of this attack should they want or need any. There’s been no request for U.S. assistance. But we’ve certainly made it obvious that we’re willing to assist in any way we can.
But as terrible as it is, it’s not going to change our commitment to Afghanistan going forward or the strategy over the next couple of years and the missions we’re going to be conducting in Afghanistan. And it doesn’t change the kind of relationship we want to continue to pursue with Pakistan.
Q: If I could just follow up for a moment, so the follow up — I mean, this attack was in Pakistan, obviously.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: But the Taliban has also conducted a series of various high-profile attacks in Afghanistan. We all saw what happened in Iraq when Iraq was seriously challenged by insurgents within the country and forces there were not up to the — to the — to the case. So what gives you confidence that this strategy that is being employed in Afghanistan is going to work, given the Taliban’s continued ability to — to strike this way?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: A couple of things give us more confidence, Jamie. One, let’s — let’s start on — in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Forces are very capable. They — they are already leading security operations in their country, and for all intents and purposes, are in — conducting all the combat missions inside Afghanistan. And they’re doing it quite well. They secured not one, but two elections this year and that the Taliban were unable to disrupt or affect in any major way.
And yes, there’s been some sporadic violence inside Kabul. I’m not minimizing that, but that’s also not that — that that’s also somewhat expected as the mission gets ready to come to an end there that the Taliban would try to do this to divert attention from the fact that real progress has been made and that Afghanistan is a more safe and secure environment than it was even just six months ago. So it’s not that we haven’t expected that they would do this kind of thing.
It is still a dangerous place. Don’t — I’m not — nobody’s walking away from the fact that Afghanistan still remains a dangerous place, which is why we are heartened by the fact that we have a bilateral security agreement, which is why we’re working with our allies and partners to fill out sourcing requirements for the resolute support mission that will start in January.
And it’s why we, as I said earlier to you, we want to continue to have a — a more normal defense relationship with Afghanistan than what we’ve had over the last 10 or 12 years.
In Pakistan, again, this is not a new threat the Pakistani people have faced in what — what — I wouldn’t say, you know, there’s — this isn’t about confidence or arrogance. But the Pakistani military has also proven quite adept at dealing with this threat over the last several years. They have taken a lot of casualties.
They have inflicted a lot of casualties on the Taliban in the border region, and they continue to do that. As a matter, as you well know, the Taliban claim responsibility of this as an act of retribution for the pressure that’s been put on them by the Pakistani military of late.
So this is — this is a military, an armed force is very capable and competent at dealing with this, and I suspect you’ll continue to see them go after that — that threat.
But nobody’s minimizing the fact that the Taliban still remains organized and still remains capable of doing this kind of thing.
It just — I think when you see something like what happens today and — and the recent attacks we’ve seen in Kabul, I think it just steals all of us, not just — not just Afghans, not just Pakistanis, not just Americans but all of us, all the coalition and partner members to make sure that we continue to stay dedicated at this going into ’15.
Q: Yeah, I just wanted to follow up to something you said. You pointed out that this attack was a response to the Pakistan — to their military…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: They claimed it was. They claimed it was.
Q: That’s pretty obvious.
So should we expect to see then more attacks like this as a result of the military push that they made that the U.S. has encouraged…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You’d have to ask — you’d have to ask the Taliban what their intentions are, Justin, but, I mean, what’s the alternative? To just do nothing every time a terrorist group decides to mount an attack like this, to just turn and walk away? I don’t think that’s good for anybody.
And I don’t think — it’s not only — it’s not only practical. It wouldn’t be an effective response. I — I think you have to continue to apply pressure on these groups across a spectrum of capabilities, not just military capabilities, and I think you’re going to continue to see all of us do that.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’m sorry, go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.
Q: Four and a half years ago, we had a training effort there with — when relations were better. We are now entering a period of time where Pakistan is, as you pointed out, taking a more aggressive hand toward extremists.
What is the possibility to, you know, restart that more hands-on relationship that was derailed by various events over the last four and a half years in terms of more active partnership between the U.S. and Pakistani forces in Pakistan?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, obviously, this is a matter of discussion between our two governments. We — as I said, we continue to offer whatever help we can to Pakistan. I wouldn’t get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made or discussions that haven’t been conducted.
But — so I can’t answer that speculative question. What I can say is that we continue to want to and to pursue a good productive defense and security relationship with Pakistan, and I think you’ll — you’ll see that that — that ends up being the case.
But it has to be — you know, they’re a sovereign country, and these have to be decisions that they and the people of Pakistan want to make.
Q: On the future in Afghanistan with the U.S. military presence there, one of the missions is going to be counterterrorism.
And as we’re all reacting to this terrorist attack at Peshawar, I think a lot of us are wondering with some counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan for the U.S. next year, would terrorist attacks by the Afghan Taliban count? Would American troops be assigned to go after them if they committed these bombing attacks or raids or other spectacular attacks?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: So let’s revisit the — the counterterrorism authorities — and we’ve talked about this in the past.
We will still retain the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations against terrorist networks, Al Qaeda and affiliates and other terrorist groups that directly threaten our people or our allies there in Afghanistan.
So we still have — we have those authorities. Nothing’s changed about that.
And we’ve also said that we’re not going to target Taliban simply by virtue of the fact that they’re Taliban. So being a member of the Taliban doesn’t — doesn’t mean that the United States is going to prosecute operations against you for that reason alone.
That said, we’ve also been clear that a member of the Taliban who undertakes missions against us or our Afghan partners, by — by that act alone, renders himself vulnerable and liable to U.S. action.
So it’s not about just being a member of the Taliban; it’s about what — it’s about what you’re doing, and if you’re going to conduct terrorist attacks, it doesn’t matter what ID cards your carrying. We have the authorities to act in our own self-defense and self- defense of our Afghan partners.
Q: One reason for my question is there was a report yesterday in a British newspaper about the Taliban basically being in control of large sections of southern Afghanistan, including of I guess the power distribution network that comes from Kajaki Dam. And the Taliban in that part of the country are charging locals for power and also protection to keep the lights on, basically.
And so as more — as fewer and fewer American troops are in Afghanistan and the Taliban feels emboldened to those kinds of things and potentially conduct terrorist attacks, how will you limit the response — the counterterrorism response you just talked about so that it punishes attacks or responds to aggression, but doesn’t continue the combat role that the U.S. wants to end in Afghanistan?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, let’s not get too far ahead on hypotheticals we can’t possibly predict right now Phil. So we have the authorities we need to protect our people, protect our Afghan partners if we need to. And certainly, the capabilities are resident there and will be going into 2015 to do exactly that.
More importantly, and this gets lost in the discussion about this, is you have a bigger and more robust, more capable Afghan National Security Force ready and able to defend their citizens and their people. And they’re doing that. And they’re doing it quite well. And frankly, that’s been the goal since the beginning is to get them to the point where they can defend their people and their government and their borders.
And they are more capable. It doesn’t mean they don’t need some help. We’ve talked about enabling capabilities that we’re going to support them. But that’s the real answer here to whatever threat the Taliban poses to the sovereign state of Afghanistan. It’s the Afghan National Security Forces and the help that we’re going to give them as a result.
Q: Admiral Kirby, has the sourcing been worked out for this thousand-troop bridging force that’s going to be in Afghanistan early next year?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, there’s — there’s really no need for a sourcing solution, John, because what will happen is General Campbell will just not draw down to 9,800 at the outset. He’ll draw down to whatever number above that that he needs inside that extra 1,000. And it may not be a full 1,000. It may not be 10,800. But he has the authorities he now has to keep in-country that number which he believes he needs in order to buy space and time for our allies to come forward with their sourcing solution. So the real sourcing solutions that need to be met are on our allies and partners, not on us.
Q: But do you know which units will be staying longer than anticipated?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t have that detail, John. You can reach out to ISAF. They might have thought through that math. I just don’t have that level of detail.
Q: So what is that total target number — coalition and U.S.?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You mean beyond the — for the…
Q: Beyond the 9,800. What is the total target number?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The total Resolute Support number I think was about 12,000. Now, we can go back and check the numbers on that, but I’m — I mean, that was back when NATO, you know, endorsed and signed up to the Resolute Support mission. It’s about 12,000 total, I think. And we can get you an exact figure on that.
Q: (inaudible) is concerned, it’s about (inaudible) attack the innocent school children? And second, do you see a difference between Pakistani Taliban and Taliban in Afghanistan? Because that’s what a question to day is about, that Pakistan is saying they are Pakistani Taliban. But according to experts and news reports, Talibans are Taliban, whether they’re Pakistani or Afghani, because they were all once trained and financed by the Pakistans inside Pakistan.
So how much (inaudible) now in the future as far as (inaudible) Pakistani Talibans?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: To your first question, I’m sure you don’t expect me to try to defend the murder and the slaughter of innocent kids at a school. So I’m not even going to try to do that.
On your question about the Taliban, and we’ve said this before, we don’t look at them as one homogeneous group. Do they share certain ideologies? Yes. And a radical view of the Muslim faith? Yes. And a belief that terror and murder and violence is a way to pursue those goals? Yes.
But we also recognize that there are sub-groups within those who call themselves Taliban who have different, more specific goals and objectives, whether it’s geographically bound or ideologically bound. So, I am not an expert on all the different groups, but we know some are more directed at Afghanistan. They direct their activities in Afghanistan. Some direct their efforts more inside Pakistan against the Pakistani government and Pakistani people. The point is that they — it’s all terrorism. And it’s all a common threat that we face along that spine between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a border which exists only on the map as you look at it, and not necessarily in the eyes of the people that live there, and certainly not in the eyes of the terrorists that use it as safe haven and sanctuary. Which is why we’ve been for so long pursuing a tripartite relationship, at least from the American perspective, between us, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And there’s been several, you know, we’ve had some good discussions very recently in just the last month or so between officials of all three governments. And there’s more work to do, but it’s got to be a comprehensive approach that we take in the region.
Q: (OFF-MIC) could be because of the 15-year old Malala when she was attacked by the Taliban, and now she is the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Do you think that they get more attention by doing — attacking little small children on something?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Again, I am not going to — I am not going to stoop to try to answer a question about these despicable motivations. I don’t know. But it’s — it’s just a barbaric thing that they did here, slaughtering innocent little kids going to school.
And there’s — there’s no way to justify that. And I’m certainly not even going to try.
Q: Shifting to a different counter-terrorism issue, slightly. Post-Sydney, even the Australian prime minister now says the perpetrator in Sydney, you know, had a long criminal, violent past, was mentally unstable.
And counter-terrorism officials looking at several recent cases see a lot — see this trend of mental instability and criminal violent behavior in so many so-called lone wolf terror attacks.
What I wanted to ask you, as you begin to look at this scenario, does it lead to any rethinking of the conventional counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, against the ISIS lone wolf attack if so many of these people just basically are mentally violent criminals, as we just saw in Sydney?
Is military counter-terrorism, the counter-terrorism strategy pursued by the U.S. military, by the intelligence community, is that enough anymore? Maybe it’s a new era.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think we’ve recognized it’s a new era for quite some time, Barb. There has been greater cooperation, interagency and internationally, between militaries, intelligence agencies, diplomatic organizations, and non-governmental organizations than I’ve ever seen before.
And if we learn nothing from 9/11, it’s the need to try to break down some of the stovepipes and walls between those kinds of agencies. There’s a limit. So, I can’t speak for law enforcement, because some of this is clearly in a law enforcement lane. The fact that an individual self-radicalizes for whatever reason, and or has mental health issues that lead them to pursue violence against innocent people, sometimes that has a military component, sometimes it doesn’t.
From a military perspective, we very much believe that there is — there are capabilities we can lend to counter-terrorism efforts that are important and effective. And we’ve seen that. We saw it in Iraq, and we’re seeing it in Afghanistan. We’re certainly seeing it against ISIL.
There’s also, and we recognize this, a limit to what purely military operations and military intelligence can do, particularly when you talk about a homegrown threat or an individual, say a foreign fighter, who goes and gets radicalized and then — and then would come back and visit violence upon his or her own civilian population. There is certainly a limit, and we recognize that, to what the military can do: even against an organized, well-led, pretty well- resourced terrorist threat like ISIL.
We recognize there’s limits, and we’ve been saying that all along. We’ve conducted more than 1,200 airstrikes against ISIL and we know we’ve certainly put them on the defense. They are definitely not in the same position they were before, and yet they still exist. They still pose a threat.
We just talked about the Taliban and the threat that they can still pose from a security perspective, even after, you know, 12, 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan. So, there’s — you have to be mindful of the — the limits as well.
Q: Can I just follow up, also, on the Taliban question, after the end of this year?
So, if the policy is to no longer go after Taliban unless they pose a threat to the U.S. or U.S. allies, just to be crystal clear, does that let Mullah Omar off the hook, or do you still go after him for past acts? What would happen if you came across him and he’s just sitting there with some person?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sipping a Mai Tai, you mean? Something like that?
Look, I — I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t get into a hypothetical here. I mean, but — but no, it kinda is. And plus, we also — you know, we don’t talk about targeting ahead of the fact or what we will or won’t do. I mean, we just — that’s just not a good place for me to get into. I think I would just go back to what we’ve said before is the policy, that just being a member of the Taliban doesn’t make — doesn’t make one susceptible to U.S. military operations going forward in 2015 and beyond. But — but posing a threat to U.S. or allied interests in Afghanistan certainly would.
Q: Well, let me ask you. I believe — somebody correct me if I’m wrong — but Mullah Omar is on the Rewards for Justice Program from the U.S. government as well as a number of other Taliban and Al Qaida senior operatives believe to be either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. We’re only talking about that area.
You don’t seem to be saying that Mullah Omar — it’s not hypothetical. We’re coming to the end of the year. Is he still a target? Is he still someone the U.S. wants to take into custody? Or with this new policy does Mullah Omar now get a walk?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: To the degree anybody continues to threaten U.S. personnel or — personnel or allies and our interests over there, they will remain susceptible to U.S. military operations.
Q: Future threat. Are they — is he and the other people on this list, are they no longer liable for their past acts in Afghanistan?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I — I can’t — I don’t know if I can answer that question. The — he’s — as the recognized leader of the Taliban to the degree the Taliban still poses a threat or poses a threat to — to us or to our allies, they will continue to be prosecuted by U.S. military operations. I can’t really make it any more simpler than that.
Q: Back on Iraq, could you give us more details about the train — training program of the Iraqi forces? How many U.S. members will be involved in that program? And also, if you — if you — if you are aware of any contacts between this building, the U.S. military, and the Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, Joe, hold on a second. So we talked about the fact that we don’t have a — you know, we don’t have the — to Lita’s question, we don’t have sourcing solutions on the — the 1,500 additional. And remember, it could be up to 1,500. It may not be 1,500.
But the way it’ll break down — and I think I actually put this out when we initially announced this. So you’ll have roughly, for the advise and assist mission, about 630 roughly. Again, it may not go that high. Some of those will be enablers. They’ll be people that do logistics command and control, intelligence support.
And then you’ll have in the building partner capacity mission, the training mission, about 870 of those. Again, those numbers are flexible because we may not go up to that 1,500. The training hasn’t begun yet. Again, my — I think — I think I dealt with the status when I answered Lita’s question.
On your other — on your other question, there’s been no direct — from the few advisers that we have out in Anbar, there’s been no direct involvement with Sunni tribal leaders from them. Now, they are advising Iraqi leaders. And one of the things that we’re working with Iraqi leaders on is to encourage their outreach to Sunni tribal leaders. But there’s been no direct contact out there between the very small number of advanced advisers we have there and Sunni tribal leaders. I — that said, now, in the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq out of Baghdad, which is — has had a footprint there since 2011 when — when we ended our combat operations there in Iraq, they have had some contact with — as — as the due course of their duties, they have had some contact with tribal — Sunni tribal leaders in that part of — of Iraq. But there’s been no direct advising, assisting, training of Sunni tribal leaders.
Q: But that — excuse me. Just to follow up, there is a plan to arm the — the — the tribal — the Sunni tribes…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It is something — it is something that we’ve been in discussion with Iraqi leaders about, and we’ve stressed the importance of inclusiveness here with Sunni tribal leaders.
Q: But I mean, there is a U.S. plan to equip and arm the tribes in Iraq.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, as we said before, that that could be one iteration of the plan further down the road. But it wasn’t going to be the out — at the outset. The outset is to train Iraqi brigades, nine, and then three Pesh brigades. That’s the focus at the outset.
We have opened the door. We’ve said it could be possible that later on down the road, there may be an equipping program or a part of it that would include some equipping of — of Sunni tribes. But that was something that hadn’t been decided yet. It was something under discussion, and we just aren’t at that point right now.
Q: (inaudible) in a briefing at CENTCOM for several reporters here from the Pentagon, the CENTCOM leadership there told us that it was up to the Iraqi government to reach out to the Sunni leaders and not the U.S.
Is — is the U.S. going to be involved in — in trying to revive a Sunni awakening? Or is this going to be up to the Iraqis to do?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, Jim, it’s, as I said to Joe, this is something we want the Iraqis to do. And we’re not in direct communication and coordination with Sunni tribal leaders right now. We want the Iraqis to do that. And frankly, that’s part and parcel of the whole advise- assist mission itself is to help them be more inclusive, to be more comprehensive, and to be better at — at what they’re doing in terms of defending their own people out there in Anbar.
So, there’s no plans right now for a — a new awakening, as you saw during the — during Operation Iraqi Freedom. We want the Iraqis to do this. But we are encouraging that. We have been encouraging that. We were encouraging Prime Minister Maliki to do that before he left office.
Q: Since — since the Sunni — since some of these Sunni leaders have already made it clear that they still don’t trust the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad, do you see a role for the U.S. to serve as some kind of middle man, a mediator?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, you know, now you’re asking a question that may be better put to my colleagues at the State Department. I don’t see a U.S. military role in that regard. Again, we want to advise and assist them to be more inclusive and for them to be better at what they’re doing. And that’s where the focus is on, is helping them get to that point where they’re more inclusive of Sunni tribal leaders.
Q: Following up on that, what was Secretary Hagel’s assessment of the Iraqi progress on the front that Mick has been asking about, about how well the new government is doing reaching out to the Sunnis?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure. I think the secretary, as he said to you guys when we left Baghdad, he came away from those meetings encouraged that Iraqi leaders understand the importance of doing exactly that, Julian, of being more inclusive and reaching out to the Sunni tribes.
But the secretary also understands that that requires some energy and some — and some leadership out there in Baghdad. And again, he’s encouraged that they — that they understand the need for it and that they will exert that leadership. But he knows that this is — you know, some — for — this is a new government, so this is new ground that they have to — that they have to tread.
Q: Can I just — I just want to make sure I understand Barbara’s line of questioning about the Taliban.
Initially, it was just going to be Al Qaida and then it — the mission was sort of expanded next year so that U.S. military would be able to go after Taliban fighters if they posed a direct threat.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Can I just stop you there for a second? I don’t mean to interrupt you, but nothing’s been expanded. What — we have the authorities in counterterrorism going into ’15 that we have right now.
Q: Right. I understand the authorities aren’t expanded. It’s the plan was to sort of limit it. The plan now is they aren’t going to limit that. They’re going to just continue doing what they have been doing. But does this mean, under that phrasing, if they’re going — if they’re threatening the security of the U.S. and our allies, is that any different than currently what they’re allowed to do? Or are we sort of wiping the slate clean when you’re saying, “Oh, they’re — you know, just because they’re a Taliban doesn’t mean we’re going to go after them; they have to be doing something”?
So are we wiping the slate clean so that beginning next year, in order for the U.S. to go after someone like Mullah Omar or someone, does that mean they’re going to have to have done something in the next year? Or is it because you can go after them continually because of the things they’ve already done?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It’s not quite as binary that either one of your — sides of your question would suggest. So if I could just look at where we are now. It’s the middle of December. The mission officially — the combat mission officially ends at the end of the month. For all intents and purposes, it’s ended. And Afghan troops and police have been not just in the lead, but almost solely conducting combat operations now for quite some time, for many weeks.
So essentially, we are not actively engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan right now. That doesn’t mean that — again, it doesn’t mean it’s a less dangerous place. We just lost two soldiers over the weekend in an IED attack. And it doesn’t mean that between now and December 31st that U.S. troops won’t be involved in conventional combat with the Taliban. It very well could happen.
What I’m just saying is that we — that the development of Afghan National Security Forces has reached the pace and the competency level that they are, for all intents and purposes, as you and I sit here, in full combat lead inside the country. So going into 2015, all that really changes between now and the first of January is that officially, we, on paper, say that mission’s over. Just — on — on — on January 2nd, just like here December — what is it, the 15th today? 16th? 16th, sorry.
So just — just like today, January 2nd, if our troops are threatened, directly threatened — and it doesn’t matter, as I said before, what ID card they’re carrying. If there’s a direct threat to our troops, they have the right of self-defense and to defend — and to defend themselves, to defend their Afghan partners.
Same will be true on January 2nd. If — if there’s a direct threat not just to us but to Afghan partners in the field and we have the ability and the resources as hand to help come to their defense, we’ll do that. And it doesn’t much matter at that point who it is that’s shooting at them; we have that ability to go after them.
What changes fundamentally, though, is — from today, from the 16th to the 2nd, is that just by being a member of Taliban — on January 2nd, just by being a member of the Taliban doesn’t make you an automatic target. It really — it doesn’t depend on who you are. It matters what you’re doing.
Does that make sense?
Q: Exactly, which is why I’m saying, so now, beginning January 2nd, it will be up to the Afghans to go after someone like a Mullah Omar or someone else like that…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That’s right.
To the degree that — to the degree that…
Q: … just will not aggressively go after Taliban leaders that they have been going after all this time as of…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That’s correct. That’s correct, unless — unless there is a direct threat that’s posed.
Q: But — but in the Mullah Omar case, doesn’t the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against those who have harbored those who perpetrated the 2001 terror attacks apply? So Mullah Omar, you could go — there’s a congressional law that would allow you to go after him.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I think I answered that to Barb. I mean, I think — I think I answered that as best I could.
I mean, you know, to the degree that someone represents a direct threat, they are liable to that kind of prosecution from us.
Q: But you’re saying a direct threat — I guess what I’m trying to figure out is — yes, he’s a direct threat, continues to be a direct threat, but as of the end of this year, does that still constitute what you said just previously, which is, you know, someone that’s a threat to — if they find themselves in a situation where they’re threatened, they will have the ability to respond?
What if — what if it’s just that they suddenly find out where he is? Does 2001 ability — authorization to go after him still hold? Will they be able to do it, or does this new authorization hold?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’ll tell you. Let me take the question for the record rather than to — to further confuse you.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: So let me — let me — let me take that one for the record.
Q: Well, I think what we’re asking is, do the Taliban have to be shooting bullets or planting bombs to be targeted by the U.S., or could Taliban leaders who are not at the front lines still be targeted?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: If they’re posing a direct threat, we have the authorities we need to try to eliminate and mitigate that threat, John. Let’s not get too down in the weeds about whether a bullet’s whizzing through the air or not, you know, directly at somebody’s head.
If they pose a direct threat, we have the right — we have the responsibility of self-defense for our troops. They have to be able to defend themselves.
And I — and I don’t think it would do anybody any — first of all, I wouldn’t discuss rules of engagement from the podium anyway. But even if I was inclined to do that, I don’t know that it would be valuable to do it in a public setting.
If — if there’s a direct threat, we have the ability to defend ourselves and our allies.
Q: … question of whether it’s retroactive…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Right.
Q: … and it’s — it’s…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I got the question. I got the — I got the question. I’m not a lawyer. Let me — let me try to get you a better answer to that.
Q: (OFF-MIC) raised it, because it has put out public statements defining what the new mission supposedly is. So it’s confusing as to how you define a direct threat.
Is a direct threat a senior figure in the Taliban or not?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Understood. I said I’d take it for the record. I’ll do the best I can to get back to you.
Q: Is it a direct threat against both U.S. and Afghan?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes. I’ve said that. I’ve said that before.
Q: Out in the Kandahar or Jalalabad, if there’s a — if there’s a — if there’s an Afghan base that comes under a direct threat…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: And we are asked by the — our Afghan partners to help to come to defend them, if we have the ability and the resources available, we have the authorities to do that.
But I would remind you, Mick, that we’re coming down…
REAR ADM. KIRBY: … we’re coming down…
Q: (OFF-MIC) element of the U.S. …
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Because there very well could be areas where we aren’t in a position to come to the —
the assistance. As our numbers get smaller and as bases get closed, we are not, even as we speak now, we’re not in as many places, and certainly not in it with as many numbers as we were, you know, five years ago, four years ago, two years ago.
And that — and that — that capability, there’s a — there’s a mathematical component to it.
Q: Well, that sounds like war by an a la carte menu. Seriously, I mean, we can’t help them here, but we can help them there. So, how can the combat mission be declared over?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The combat mission will be over on December 31st. We have the ability to defend ourselves, and to the degree possible, Afghan partners who come under direct threat from it doesn’t matter who. If we can and we’re able to, we can provide some assistance.
But Mick, and what everybody’s losing I think sight of here is, the real goal in Afghanistan is Afghan National Security Forces that are capable and able, competent, resourced, and led to defend their own people. This is — this is a sovereign country.
And we get into this discussion about Iraq all the time. Well, you know, you can’t — you know, you guys are angry because you can’t embed. Well, we just don’t have — we don’t have the resources in there. It’s — it’s Iraqi sovereign territory. It’s up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to defend themselves. It will be and it is now, but it will certainly be going forward up to the Afghan government and the Afghan people to fund, resource, train, and lead their own Afghan National Security Forces to defend them from the threats that that state will face, just like any state has that right and responsibility.
We’re missing the larger point here, that we have reached a period of transition in Afghanistan, a period of transition that we have actually been working for a long time to make them better able to do this.
And I think it’s important that we stay focused on that and not on the individual specific detailed circumstances under which American troops may or may not come under fire and by whom and how they would respond.
I’ll take one more. Luis?
Q: There is a press report earlier today about U.S. troops at Al Asad coming into contact with ISIS forces. Is that correct?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yep. Seen the press reports, Luis, I’ve seen absolutely no indications, no operational reporting that confirms that it’s true. We have no reports of direct or indirect fire coming into Al Asad or the troops that are there.
Q: The personnel that are there are fine? I mean, the personnel that are there are fine? The U.S. personnel?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Everybody’s accounted for. No injuries that we’re aware of. Again, we have nothing to confirm the press reports that there’s been any fire, indirect or otherwise, taken at our troops that are working in Al Asad.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I have no reporting that suggests there was any fire taken at Al Asad. Yeah?
Q: One on Syria?
There have been reports, and I’m wondering if you might be able to confirm them, that a U.S. — that a TOW operator in Syria by the name of Abu Omar has defected to Al Nusra and took U.S. military hardware and weapons with him.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t have — that’s the first I’ve heard of that. You’ll have to let us look into it and get back to you.
Q: Can I ask you a non-Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan question?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: Two things. What’s the — how large is Ashton Carter’s transition team, and can you give us a sense of some of the people on it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t have the — I don’t have the exact list of people that’s — it’s a — it’s a cross-departmental team that is being led by Mr. Lumpkin. He’s got several people on it, I mean, I can get you a better number. I just don’t have that handy. It’s not — it’s not enormous, but it’s people across the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s leadership team that would be in a position to help make this transition as seamless as possible.
Q: Near December, is the 2016 now a lock? A lot of people care about that subject. Can I have a sense of where — are you finished with the budget?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well we — we care about it too. I mean, but — we’re still — we are still working very much on the budget submission, Tony. It’s not final, as far as I know.
Q: Will you go with the sequestration level or will you go above the sequestration?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: As I — as I told you before, we have to plan for multiple outcomes.
I’ve already got you. Thanks guys. Sorry I was late again.