REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.
Just a brief comment today about today's shooting in Afghanistan and then I'll get to your questions.
I can confirm that an individual believed to be an Afghan soldier fired today into a group of coalition troops at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul City, Afghanistan. There are a number of casualties as a result of the shooting, perhaps up to 15, to include some Americans. Many were seriously wounded. Others received only minor injuries. The assailant was killed.
I can also confirm that among the casualties was an American general officer who was killed. Given that the family notification process is not yet complete, I cannot and will not release any additional information about the general. I'm sure you can understand that we want to respect the notification process and the family's privacy at this time.
Secretary Hagel extends on behalf of the men and women of this department his heartfelt condolences, his thought and his prayers to all those affected by this tragedy, most especially the family of our fallen soldier. The secretary spoke this morning with General Dunford, who updated him about the incident. And he pledged to General Dunford whatever support he and this department could provide with respect to the investigation.
The incident will be jointly investigated by Afghan and ISAF authorities. That investigation is just now getting underway. We need to let it proceed before speculating about any specific circumstances.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: Admiral you have said that the assailant was believed to be an Afghan soldier. Can you elaborate at all? Was he a known member of the army or he was in uniform and was using an issued firearm or...
ADM. KIRBY: Well, as I said, right now, and the investigation is just now getting started, we believe that the assailant was an Afghan soldier. And I'm caveating it by saying "we believe," because again this investigation just got started. The incident just occurred.
But I have seen no indications -- we have no indications that he wasn't anything other than a member of the Afghan national security forces.
Q: (inaudible) was there -- was there some sort of a large gathering? Was it an instructional situation? Or was it a training...
ADM. KIRBY: As I understand it -- as I understand it, it was a routine visit to the national defense -- to the university, which is akin to their sort of officer’s academy. But I would point you to ISAF for the exact details. I don't know. It was a routine site visit is how I understand it. But again, the circumstances surrounding how it...
ADM. KIRBY: By -- no, by -- by -- by the general and other coalition staff members. And as I said at the outset, and maybe I didn't make this clear enough, not all of the casualties are American. So that there were -- there were other coalition members that fell victim to this shooting. So as I understand it, it was a coalition -- an ISAF site visit to the university. I really don't have any more details than that about how long they'd been there, what were they looking at. I just don't know.
Q: Thank you, Admiral Kirby.
I'm told that this was a vetted soldier who'd gone through what is a very serious vetting process for Afghan troops, particularly at a facility like this. Does this, in your view, identify weaknesses in the vetting process? And I also wondered, this bigger picture, we're months away from Afghan -- from the U.S. handing over security responsibility for Afghanistan to Afghan forces like these.
Did this undermine your confidence in their ability to take over that role?
ADM. KIRBY: Great questions, Jim.
First, too soon to tell on what this means for the vetting process. Again, we believe this individual was a member of the Afghan national security forces. We need to let the investigation proceed to figure out exactly who this was before we can leap to any conclusions about the vetting process.
On your second question, I would say, and General Dunford mentioned this in his discussion with the secretary today, the Afghan national security forces continue to perform at a very strong level of competence and confidence, and warfare capability. They -- they have had a good year securing not one, but two national elections, and stopping or minimizing the impact of countless numbers of attacks throughout the country, even in Kabul.
So, this is a security force that we believe grows stronger by the week and they are already in the lead in combat missions throughout the country. They'll be completely in the lead for military operations by the end of the year. We see no change in that, no degradation of that -- of that progress.
Q: This is not the first time you've had green-on-blue attacks like this. I just wonder if this undermines the trust that coalition forces, particularly U.S. forces, have in their Afghan colleagues in the months remaining, before they leave the country?
ADM. KIRBY: I've seen no indication that there is a degradation of trust between the coalition members and their Afghan counterparts. I -- and I would encourage you to, you know, certainly speak to folks that are over there in Afghanistan, I'm not. I understand I'm here in the Pentagon.
But every indication that I've seen is that the partnering and the cooperation just -- you know, it gets -- it gets better and better every week. And I think, again, that's borne in -- that's borne out in the -- in the performance that we've seen out of Afghan national security forces.
Q: After a spate of these green-on-blue insider attacks several years ago in Afghanistan, the U.S. military instituted several security precautions, several additional security conditions. Do you know if any of those precautions were in place during this meeting? Or was it considered so safe that they didn't feel the necessity to undertake those additional security procedures?
ADM. KIRBY: Well, you're right, Jim. ISAF did institute some measures to help mitigate the threat, not eliminate, but help mitigate it. As I understand it, some of those measures were in effect. But I would point you to ISAF for further details on that. And, again, all this is going to be looked at in the investigation.
Q: You said "not eliminate." Why can't -- why can't you eliminate that threat?
ADM. KIRBY: I think it's a -- I think we've been very honest, that the -- that the insider threat is probably -- it's a -- it's a -- it's a pernicious threat. And it's difficult to always ascertain. To come to grips with the scope of it anywhere you are, particularly in a place like Afghanistan.
So -- and Afghanistan is still a war zone. So it's impossible to eliminate -- completely eliminate that threat, I think, particularly in a place like Afghanistan.
But -- but you can work hard to mitigate it and minimize it, and ISAF has done that. And -- and I would -- as -- as terrible as today is, and it is a -- it's a terrible day, a terrible tragedy, we haven't seen, in the course of the last year or so, the -- as you described it, a spate of -- of these insider threat attacks. And I think that's a testament to the good work that authorities have done in ISAF to try to mitigate that threat.
Q: Can you give us any details about the incident itself? Was it indoors? Were they meeting? Were they out reviewing the troops? Do you have any further details about exactly how this went down?
ADM. KIRBY: I wouldn't go any further than what I went to Bob's question. As I understand it, it was a site visit to the -- to the university by coalition members. And, again, I just don't have -- I just don't have the details and I wouldn't want to speculate right now.
Q: Do you know the type of weapon he was using?
ADM. KIRBY: I do not.
Q: Was the shooter killed by American troops or Afghan troops? Do you have any idea?
ADM. KIRBY: I just know that he was killed in the process of the attack, I don't have the details of exactly who did it.
Q: Just to clarity the death of the American general officer in context, is this the highest ranking death of an American soldier in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war or since a certain period? Can you help us contextualize it that way?
ADM. KIRBY: I'm loath to make am historical statement now, because I don't have the whole history of all the casualties over the last 13 years. Clearly, it's, if not the, certainly one of the highest ranking deaths in the -- in the war since 9/11.
As you probably know, in the attack on the building on September 11 of 2001, a three-star Army general, the head of their personnel branch, was killed in the building.
I believe -- and we can try to do the research on this, but I believe this would be the highest ranking death since then.
Q: Can we try to get clarification of that later on?
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, I'll certainly do that, and I'll also point you to Army on this, as well. I mean, it's -- we'll do what we can to try to help you with that, but I just don't have that granularity of detail right now.
Q: Admiral, does this incident mean that this department and Washington generally need to look at the way forward in Afghanistan in terms of the drawdown and change the makeup of troops that are going to be sent there for more force protection or to continue to, you know, guard against these insider attacks?
ADM. KIRBY: The investigation is just now getting under way, Phil, so I'm not going to speculate about what -- what it may or may not find. I don't see any impact to the current plans to draw down our forces in Afghanistan and to further support the support to the Resolute Support Mission next year.
What is contingent upon our ability to execute that mission is getting a bilateral security agreement signed, which we still don't have.
Q: Are any of the general officers in the region receiving extra security, or are their movements restricted because of this?
ADM. KIRBY: I'd point you to ISAF for that. No idea.
Q: Was he the highest-ranking officer in the room? Do you have any reason believe that he's targeted?
ADM. KIRBY: Your question presumes it was in a room. I'm -- not going to talk about the specifics of -- the...
Q: Was he the highest-ranking officer on site?
ADM. KIRBY: I -- do not know. I do not know.
Q: What about (inaudible). Sorry.
ADM. KIRBY: Did I miss another part of her question?
Q: Yeah, he targeted perhaps, or was it random?
ADM. KIRBY: Again, that gets to the circumstances that are under investigation. I don't have that level of detail, and I wouldn't speculate at this time.
Q: For perspective in 2012, when General Dunford was up for his ISAF nomination, insider attacks were the major news story item out of the region, in terms of -- there was like 25 to 30 a year. Twenty -- last year, they dropped to like 13 or 14...
ADM. KIRBY: Right.
Q: ... according to the -- your 1260 report. Can you find out from ISAF, from January until now, roughly how many insider attacks there were, for perspective? I don't expect you to know that...
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, we'll take it -- take it for the record, Tony.
Q: Another part of the world, Iraq. (Inaudible) said today, in an op-ed to the Washington Post, said that the United States is – is directly supporting the Kurds with -- supporting air strikes from Iraq against ISIL in support of the Kurds, and also helping the Kurds with military assistance, including munitions. Do you have any insight into that?
ADM. KIRBY: I can tell you that the Defense Department is -- is -- is -- let me tell you what we are doing. We continue to provide ISR coverage over the country. We continue to man and resource those two joint operation centers, one in Erbil, one in Baghdad.
And we have assessment teams that remain on the ground. They're continuing to provide us observations. The military assistance that we have provided Iraqi security forces have gone through the Iraqi government. And that support includes the hellfire missiles we've talked about before. That's the -- that's the limit that I can speak to about Defense Department support.
Q: (OFF-MIC) She says the United States has reacted to ISIL advances by authorizing the direct supply of munitions to the Kurds and with Baghdad's agreement, the shipment of some FMS weapons programs to the Kurds. It is also coordinating Iraq air attacks against ISIL targets relevant to the defense of the Kurdish region.
ADM. KIRBY: We're not coordinating air attacks in Iraq. We're not.
Q: Is there another U.S. agency providing air strikes?
ADM. KIRBY: I've -- I've talked about -- I've talked about what we're doing. I've been very clear about that, and I think answered the questions as directly as I can.
Q: Just briefly to Ukraine, it's my understanding -- or I'm sharing from within this building that there is a team at the embassy in Kiev preparing to move forward to the crash site of MH-17. Are you familiar with that story? And can you confirm that there's a team there?
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, there's a -- here they are. Make sure I get it right here. "At the request of the State Department, a small survey and assessment team from U.S. European Command did arrive today at the embassy in Kiev to assess, advise, and provide recommendations to the U.S. embassy and their staff there about possible U.S. support to the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, and other partners that are conducting the Malaysia Air recovery operations."
So there's a small team from U.S. European Command there at the embassy just to assess and advise.
ADM. KIRBY: No, I'm not going to get into numbers. It's about a dozen, about a dozen.
Q: And that's purely about MH-17? It's not advising on...
ADM. KIRBY: That's correct.
Q: ... response to the...
ADM. KIRBY: It's simply to provide some advice and recommendations through the embassy staff to partner nations that -- that -- that are trying to either investigate or recover loved ones from that crash.
Q: And are they military or civilian? And are they going...
ADM. KIRBY: They are military, they will not leave Kiev.
Q: What do they know about recovery efforts that some of the air crash experts that are there now don't know?
ADM. KIRBY: These are -- these are experts in communications, logistics, survey, that kind of thing, so a wide swathe of military occupational specialties. Recovery operations is something, tragically and unfortunately, the U.S. military has to do and has to be good at. And these people are -- they have expertise in that regard, and they were, again, asked by the State Department to come help and assist.
Q: Going around Ukraine, can you give us a sense of the latest numbers of Russian troops along the border?
Both the New York Times and Deputy NATO Secretary Vershbow today were using a number of around 20,000 Russian troops along Ukraine border.
You guys have been saying around 12,000 so there's a divergence. Can you clear that a little bit?
ADM. KIRBY: I've never said 12,000. I've seen the estimate of 20,000.
I'm not going to get into a numbers game on this. We continue to see the Russians reinforce those units along the southeast border with Ukraine.
As I've said before, it's certainly north of 10,000. I continue to believe that's true but I'm not going to speculate about the numbers, exactly what they are. And frankly, Tony, the numbers aren't the key metric here.
What matters is that they continue to reinforce these units, that they are very capable and very ready across what we call combined arms capabilities, armor, artillery, air defense, special forces and that they are closer to the border than they were in the spring when we were talking about, you know, tens of thousands of soldiers up along the eastern border with -- the eastern border with Ukraine.
These -- these units are not as numerous. Don't -- we don't believe they've -- they've got the same -- the same number as they -- they had on the ground in the spring but they're very capable and they're very close and they are doing nothing but continuing to escalate the tension that exists inside eastern Ukraine.
Q: So they're -- they're more quality forces? They're more -- they're more adept...
ADM. KIRBY: They're very capable, very ready across what we call combined arms capabilities.
Q: Were multiple-launch rocket systems, those heavier caliber ones we were talking about -- have they moved into the separatist regions of -- of Ukraine?
ADM. KIRBY: I don't have any specific information about their whereabouts right now.
We do continue to see the flow of some heavy equipment across the border to assist separatists. Some of it's ephemeral. It doesn't stay. Some of it does.
It's difficult to get a bead on exactly what's going and when but the support to the separatists continues and it needs to stop.
Q: When you say "they're ready," are you implying that they're in a position now to actually invade Ukraine?
ADM. KIRBY: What I'm saying is that these are highly capable, highly ready forces and they are relatively close to the border, closer, in fact, than we saw before in the spring.
I wouldn't begin to try to speak for their exact readiness posture but we believe they continue to be very capable and very ready.
Q: In regards to the Ebola, besides the logistical support that the Pentagon have provided to transport the Americans infected, is the Pentagon deploying also medical personnel or supporting a similar way to the governments to contain the outbreak?
ADM. KIRBY: Well, we didn't transport these patients. I don't know if that's what you implied in your question.
They simply -- I think it's out there today that the second patient arrived today. Dobbins Air -- Air Base was used as the airfield to recover the aircraft but it wasn't a military aircraft. There was no military participation in the movement.
And as I said last week, there's a small number of Army medical researchers that are working down in Liberia and have been for quite some time on the Ebola virus but that's about all I know of.
Q: When you say the health challenge, is there any security concern about the outbreak like where it was originated or how?
ADM. KIRBY: Security concern?
There's -- let me just put it this way: There's been no impact to U.S. Africa Command's operations in Africa as a result of the Ebola virus.
But clearly, we're watching this as closely as everybody else is and it's an interagency effort here in the United States. It's not just the Pentagon, it's CDC, USAID, it's State Department. I mean, we're all -- we're all talking about this and working on this.
Secretary Hagel is monitoring it very, very closely. He has in fact stood up a task force here in the Pentagon to further review the situation and to help get our arms about it and what the impacts could be. But there has been no operational impact to the U.S. military as a result.
Q: On Nigeria, I have a couple questions.
Is there any update on President Jonathan's request for further U.S. military support to Nigeria as a part of his more than $1 billion in international aid request?
ADM. KIRBY: I'm not tracking on that at all. I'd have to get back to you. I'll take that question for the record.
Q: And did you see the Amnesty International report this morning? It released a video that seems to show Nigerian soldiers conducting some pretty horrific atrocities against the Nigerian citizens.
ADM. KIRBY: I have not.
ADM. KIRBY: I haven't seen it so I would be loath to comment until we get a chance to look at it and review it. No comment right now.
Q: Admiral Kirby, I know that you're not going to release the name of the general officer but can you give us his rank? Was he a one star, or a two star, or a three star?
ADM. KIRBY: I tell you what, I'd rather not right now.
There are not a whole lot of general officers in Afghanistan compared to the armed -- the whole Army population, certainly even fewer in and around Kabul. And I think out of deference to the family, I'd rather not right now.
I would like to take a moment, and then I'll -- I'll leave you alone just to -- because your question's a great segue. Some of you had more information and more detailed information on this particular individual earlier today, and didn't -- didn't release it.
And I'd just -- for those of you who did and who held on to it, again, out of concern -- concern that we share over the privacy of the family, I just want to thank you for that, because you didn't have to do that and it was a responsible, respectful thing to do. And I -- I just -- on behalf of Secretary Hagel, I want to just thank you for -- for the restraint on that. Not everybody observed it, but some of you did, and I -- and I think it's -- it's noteworthy.
Thanks very much.
I'll take one more. Missy?
Q: On the Iraq assessment, has Secretary Hagel had -- can you say anything about the conversations that he may have had with the White House? Has he discussed the assessment with the White House yet or any options that may be being developed here?
ADM. KIRBY: The conversations inside the interagency continue on the Iraq assessment. As I said last week, they have been shared with members of the interagency, and conversations continue about what the assessments say, and conversations continue about potential options moving forward, but no formal recommendations have been proffered or proposed or set forth, and certainly no decisions have been made, and when we get to that point, if we get to that point, we'll certainly have more to say about that.
Q: (OFF-MIC) Africa question, because this week in Washington is the largest concentration of Africa leaders I think ever. We've got Ebola situation. You've been helping Nigeria with the little girls being kidnapped. What does this -- where does the Pentagon look -- see Africa, types of missions over the next decade if the Pentagon, U.S. military will be performing? Are some of those on display today or do you see even a broader swathe of missions?
ADM. KIRBY: Very difficult to predict the future, Tony, but we remain committed to our African partners. The whole purpose of standing up U.S. Africa Command several years ago was to give us an opportunity and a better structure to resource that commitment, and we're doing that, and we've had strong success in many places in Africa.
And as you said, quite a wide spread of -- of military operations and commitments, all the way from counter-terrorism to -- you know, to more conventional efforts.
Again, I can't predict with -- with precision, but I -- I can tell you that Secretary Hagel remains committed to the continent, to the security challenges that -- that are posed from the continent, whether it's terrorism networks, whether it's pandemics and medical issues to just, again, conventional security threats. And we're going to -- we're going to continue with that -- with that commitment to the security of our African partners.
Q: So as the United States pivots to Asia, remember that...
... and then we've got the concerns of the Middle East.
African leaders shouldn't be -- shouldn't be overly concerned that the United States is going to ignore -- U.S. military will somewhat ignore Africa?
ADM. KIRBY: We have not, and we have no plans to ignore the security challenges on the continent of Africa and the -- the rebalance to the Pacific still remains a key focus.
But just rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, which is appropriate, given the economic and security challenges in that part of the world, and I'd remind you where we're heading this afternoon, the secretary leaves tonight for India and for -- and for Australia. Doesn't mean that we take our eye off the ball of the rest of the world: to include the Middle East and Africa.