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Media Availability with Secretary Carter En Route to Madrid, Spain

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
October 4, 2015
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  First of all, thank you all for coming.  Appreciate it.  This is an important trip. And I'll get to that in a moment. First I'd like to talk about the events in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and express my thoughts and prayers for the innocent lives lost and affected by what is clearly a tragic circumstance there.

 

I have spoken to General Campbell and General Dunford today.  And first of all -- talked to them about the investigation that will be conducted both within U.S. forces and with the government of Afghanistan, and also of course NATO and the ISAF mission.  That investigation with those three parts to it will be - and needs to be - full, transparent.  There will be accountability as always with these incidents, if that is required.  The situation there is confused and complicated, so it may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts, and we will be full and transparent about sharing them with the American people, but also with the people of Afghanistan, and for that matter, the entire world, to include the essential non-profit factor, the non-governmental organization community, which is so critical.

 

And in that connection I want to commend Doctors Without Borders.  They are a very important part of the world's work today, and of making a better world and keeping people safe.  Their work -- their medical work in Afghanistan and elsewhere is vital and needs -- is appreciated by certainly all of us in the United States, but I think everyone around the world.  And my office has been in contact with Doctors Without Borders over this weekend to emphasize that a full and transparent investigation will be conducted.

 

And I have also directed General Campbell to make sure that the United States makes available, and the coalition in Afghanistan, makes available medical care as possible, and as asked for, for folks in Kunduz.

 

Turning now to the trip, this is-- the occasion in the first instance for this trip is a defense ministerial of NATO, and last time that I attended a NATO ministerial I also traveled in the eastern part of the territory of the NATO nations.  And this time I'll be travelling in the southern part, signifying the importance of both -- everywhere there are NATO members, the NATO alliance is committed, and the  United States as an anchor of the NATO alliance is committed.  So I thought it was important to go to the southern flank where the spillover of the violence and the lawlessness that characterizes much of the Middle East and also North Africa is having a significant affect.  Obviously the refugees are part of that, and both Spain and Italy, whom we'll be visiting are affected and concerned.  And we as NATO members are concerned as well.

 

I'll have an opportunity to talk about that at NATO, and also to meet with the representative of the European Union, which has the lead for refugee matters now, and learn about their activities and anyway that NATO can be supportive of them. 

 

Apart from their NATO involvement, both Spain and Italy are, first of all, wonderful hosts to our people.  And as always my main objective whenever I travel is to visit our troops and make sure that they understand how much we appreciate what they're doing for us, and help them understand the strategic importance of what they're doing, and -- so I'll be doing that with our troops based both in Spain and Italy. 

 

Both Spain and Italy are longstanding, comprehensive security partners.  That is they are NATO allies, but they've worked with us in other situation as well, outside of the NATO context, both bilaterally and in other multilateral efforts.  They are not only staunch allies, but they share with us -- and what makes them such good, long-standing allies the principals that we stand for in all of our security alliances and partnerships, which is why the United States has so many friends and allies, in Europe and going all the way over to Asia, where all of our alliances and partnerships are only strengthening these days, and that is based upon -- whether it be in Europe, or in the Asia-Pacific or in between -- not only our strength, but also the principals that we stand for and the way we conduct ourselves with friends and allies.  And I think that's been a reason why both Spain and Italy have been such staunch and longstanding allies.  So it'll be a wonderful opportunity to signify that by spending time with their leadership in the course of this trip.

 

Finally we'll go to the United Kingdom.  Also obviously a very special relationship.  And talk to Defense Minister Fallon and other leaders in the United Kingdom.

 

One thing that I'll be talking to them about is their defense review, which is ongoing, and appreciating the fact that they have made the decision to stick with expenditures of two percent of GDP for defense, which is of course the goal that not only the United States but NATO has called for. And they have decided to stick with that, and obviously we commend and support that decision.

 

And then they're trying to decide about what the nature of their force will be in the future, and we are doing the same in the United States, as we always do, strategically align our investments.  And it's a good opportunity for me and -- and another good and old friend and ally to align our investments, and our programs and activities going forward. 

 

So that's the trip in a nutshell. 

 

Let me -- I don't think I've omitted any topics, and if not let me just go right to your questions.

 

STAFF:  Lita?

 

SEC. CARTER:  Lita.

 

Q:  Oh, okay.

 

Mr. Secretary, knowing that there's still an ongoing investigation, can you at least give us a broad sense about the incident in Afghanistan?

 

Does it appear as though there was at least some U.S. strike, or bombing or some firing in that area?

 

And can you tell us a little bit more about their efforts to protect U.S. troops that were there?

 

SEC. CARTER:  I want to be careful about what I say, because I don't want to get out in front of the investigation.  But I think, Lita, in answer to your question, I think our current understanding, again, understanding that an investigation is going on and early facts can be misleading, is that yes, there was American air action in that area, and that American forces there were engaged in the general vicinity.

 

And at some point in the course of the events there did report that they, themselves, were coming under attack.  That much I think we can safely say, Lita, at this point.

 

Beyond that, I think we can't -- we just don't know yet and it'll take some time to work out.  But I think that much I think we can say right now.

 

Q:  (off mic)

 

SEC. CARTER:  I can't say that yet, but -- I don't want to go beyond what I've said, which I think is probably safely true.

 

(inaudible)?

 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, (inaudible) that there is -- sorry, was yelling.

 

Are you saying then that there still remains some doubt in your mind as to whether that hospital took American fire?

 

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I can't say that because I can say that they -- that were was some -- there was definitely destruction in those structures and the hospital.  What I can't tell you is exactly how that transpired, and we're just going to have to wait to see for the investigation to occur.

 

So we do know that American air assets, just to go back to Lita's question, were engaged in the Kunduz vicinity, and we do know that the structures that are -- you see on the news were destroyed.  I just can't tell you what the connection is between -- at this time.  That's what the investigation is all about.  How did this happen?  What happened?  How did it happen?  Why did it happen?

 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can you give us some sense of when you might know or have a preliminary sense from the investigation, so -- because often these investigation can take months, so I assume you want some answers early on, one.

 

And, two, can you give us some update on the situation in Kunduz, and what role the U.S. forces are playing?  If there are more forces going in, how the Afghans are doing.

 

SEC. CARTER:  With respect to the first part, I cannot say.  I do think that we'll have better information than we now have in coming days.

 

And certainly by saying, complete a full and transparent investigation, the transparent part of that is, we'll let you know what we know as we know it, and not go beyond that to information that will be speculative, but share everything we know as I've tried to do here.

 

With respect to action in -- it continues to be a contested area.  Both Afghan forces and NATO forces continue to be engaged there.  It is a complicated and confused situation on the ground.  And the Afghan forces are in the process of retaking the city center and then holding the city center, and that's where the ISAF forces are involved in supporting their operations.

 

Q:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.

 

As you know -- I'd like to step back a little bit on Kunduz.  As you know it was last December the president declared an end to combat operations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  I was with you on your first trip to Kabul where you said this with President Ghani. 

 

Yet here we have U.S. forces on the ground, with the Afghans, in an offensive operation to retake Kunduz.  You have air assets from the United States overhead.  How is that not a combat operation?  And can we expect to see more operations like this involving U.S. troops?

 

SEC. CARTER:  Back in March, the president decided that through 2015 he would keep 9,800 forces in Afghanistan.  One of the reasons for that was to continue to support Afghan security forces so that they can control the country.  And U.S. forces have been involved in supporting them, not leading combat operations, but supporting them right along.  Going back before March, obviously, and continuing.

 

So what -- so this kind of operation in which the United States is supporting Afghan forces is not unusual, and has been going on now right up to this date, and is part of the original plan, but also part of the president's amended plan as of, I guess it was March, the decision to go to 9,800, or to stay at 9,800.

 

Q:  (off mic)

 

SEC. CARTER:  The kind of thing that they have been doing in Kunduz has -- is the sort of operation that they've been conducting -- there's nothing new -- there was no qualitative change in their operations in associations with Kunduz, correct.  It's not different.

 

STAFF:  We've got time for two more.

 

Phil?

 

SEC. CARTER:  Phil?

 

Q:  Speaker right there.

 

Mr. Secretary, are you taking -- are you ordering no more airstrikes in the Kunduz city center?  Or are you asking the military to take any extra precautions given what might have transpired there?

 

And I know that you said to (inaudible) that you don't know yet what caused -- is there any way you could -- so at this point it's unclear whether any ordinance, American ordinance, is inside -- was found inside that structure or seen through your intelligence to cause that impact, is that correct?

 

SEC. CARTER:  Let's see.  With respect to the second part, my understanding is that neither U.S. forces nor Afghan forces are present at the site at the moment, and so I can't answer the second part of your question.

 

The first part -- I'm sorry, Phil -- remind me of the first part?

 

Q:  (off mic)

 

SEC. CARTER:  General Campbell will take whatever actions he thinks are appropriate.  Right now he's focused on the investigation and on supporting the Afghan security forces in an appropriate way, but I'll let him make those calls and adjustments.  I did discuss that with him earlier today, both ongoing operations and the investigation.

 

STAFF:  Tara?

 

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

 

Could you give us a little feeling of how you heard about the airstrike and how it affected you?  And then given ongoing discussions with NATO and the U.S. on a post-2016 role, does the increased uptick in violence affect whether or not troops may stay in Afghanistan post-2016?

 

SEC. CARTER:  I heard about it both through our own DOD information channels from Afghanistan, and also through the news shortly after it happened.

 

And my reaction, I think, was the same that anybody's would, which is that this is a tragic loss of life.  Your hearts can only go out to innocent people who are caught up in this kind of violence.

 

And then a determination that as far as the United States is concerned and as far as our forces are concerned that we be full, transparent about our investigation, and also that we hold accountable, if there is someone to be accountable, anyone responsible for doing something they shouldn't have done.

 

So all of those thoughts were going through my mind.  But of course the first thing is your heart goes out to the people involved.

 

But secondly, a determination that when -- the United States and our way of doing things is that we are open, transparent and accountable in our conduct internationally, and we intend to be in this case as well.  So those were the two thoughts that went through my mind as soon as I found out.