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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter and Press Secretary Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook
Oct. 15, 2015
This transcript has been edited.
PETER COOK: Hi, everyone. Let me just walk through quickly what's going to play out here. Secretary Carter has a brief statement regarding the president's decision on Afghanistan. He's got time probably for about one or two questions, and then he has to meet with the South Korean minister of defense, an important meeting taking place here at the Pentagon, and then I'll stick around and answer any additional questions you have at that time.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Thanks, Peter.
MR. COOK: It's all yours.
SEC. CARTER: Thanks very much and good afternoon, glad you are here.
Over the last 14 years, over 2,200 Americans paid the ultimate price to keep the United States secure while helping the people of Afghanistan realize a brighter future. We've welcomed many of those brave Americans home at Dover and visited many more wounded at Walter Reed.
Today's decision from the president to adjust our troop presence in Afghanistan honors that sacrifice and gives us the chance to finish what we started.
Over the years, I have witnessed and contributed to that effort, which has been so superbly executed by U.S. and coalition forces. And when I became secretary of defense, I made it one of my top priorities to ensure the long-term success of that mission.
That's why one of the first things I did when I started this job was to travel to Afghanistan. I wanted to see firsthand what was happening in this country where the United States and, in particular, the men and women of the Department of Defense have invested and sacrificed so much.
What I have learned over the last eight months is that Afghanistan is on a better path. But more work lies ahead. And America's national security remains very much at stake in that part of the world.
So today, after considering input from me, our top military leaders, the rest of his national security team, our NATO allies and the government of Afghanistan, the president announced his decision to maintain our current force posture of 9,800 troops through most of next year.
By January 2017, U.S. forces will draw down to 5,500 troops. And they will be deployed at several locations around Afghanistan, including Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar and Jalalabad, in support of two important and enduring missions, our counterterrorism effort and our train, advise and assist support to the Afghan security forces.
We are adjusting our presence based on conditions on the ground to give the United States and our allies the capability to sustain a robust counterterrorism platform, denying a safe haven for terrorists and violent extremist organizations.
This will keep Americans safer back home. The changes take into account the progress of Afghan forces and the partnership we have formed with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah.
Afghan forces have proven themselves to be capable and resilient fighters. They're able to provide security for Afghanistan. They have performed admirably this fighting season, the first for which the responsibility to fight the Taliban has fallen squarely on their shoulders.
But Taliban advances in parts of the country underscore the reality -- excuse me -- that this is and remains a difficult fight. We understand that Afghanistan still needs assistance. And through NATO's Resolute Support mission, we are working closely with the Afghan national defense and security forces and Afghan security ministries to ensure that they are prepared for their critical mission of protecting the Afghan people and setting the conditions for stability in this vital region.
This extends, by the way, beyond our U.S. military presence and includes important financial contributions we will need to make in support of the Afghan security forces in the years to come.
The U.S. military's presence and financial sustainment will enable the Afghan security forces to continue their development as an agile and sustainable set of forces, capable of meeting Afghan security challenges and partnering with us against terrorist exploitation of the region.
It sends a strong message to the international community that the United States is committed to Afghanistan and intent on fostering stability over the long term. We anticipate that the U.S. commitment will, in turn, garner the commitment of other members of the coalition the U.S. forces have operated with.
I've already initiated consultations with key allies to secure their continued support for this mission.
Over time, we will -- we will reduce our footprint in Afghanistan but not our commitment to the country and its people.
Back in March, during his first official visit to the U.S., President Ghani came here, right here to the Pentagon, and did something very important to all of us here. He said thank you to the men and women of the U.S. military for the sacrifices they and their families have made over the last 14 years.
He also visited Arlington National Cemetery to remember the fallen. It was an important message.
Today, we deliver our own message to President Ghani and the Afghan people.
We are with you. We support you and we are not going to give up the gains we fought so hard to achieve.
Thank you and now I will take some questions starting with you, Lita.
Q: Mr. Secretary, what do you say to critics who suggest that the 5,500 level isn't enough to do both the counterterrorism mission and the train and advise mission?
Is it enough?
And do you see that number as an enduring long-term troop level for some years to come afterward?
SEC. CARTER: We do -- we do look at it as enough. We did a lot of homework on this, Lita, and it's the reason for that number of -- that troop level but also the locations that is important.
And I want to just make sure we all keep track of the funding also, which is vitally important. Those are the ingredients of continuing to prosecute the mission in a way that can be successful. So that is what we judge, myself (sic) and Chairman Dunford and General Campbell.
Now to the second part of your question, which I think is -- was -- is it going to be 5,500 forever? I mean, there I can only say this, that is our best estimate now of what we should plan for and are planning for and budgeting for for 2017.
I mean, I think that, in the future -- and of course this -- these will be decisions that probably a future president will take in that timeframe. And I presume we will make judgments the way that President Obama has, namely to take into account circumstances as they pertain at the time and make whatever adjustments seem necessary at that time.
But this is our best guess and certainly with our advice to the president for what would be sufficient and a good basis for planning for 2017.
Q: Mr. Secretary, the president today talked about the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan.
Does that mean that the U.S. military will no longer provide combat support to the Afghan forces, such as the airstrikes in Kunduz a few weeks ago?
SEC. CARTER: It's not a part of the mission, on a day-to-day basis, to engage in combat. Our mission on a day-to-day business is and will continue to be, first of all, counterterrorism operations, such as, for example, the one we conducted with the Afghans just a week ago in Helmand, which was very successful in destroying a major part of the remaining Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, that kind of thing.
And secondly, the train, advise and assist part of the mission, the commander does retain the authority to use U.S. forces for, first of all, force protection and secondly in extremis support to Afghan security forces, both of those things.
Now you asked about Kunduz and just to remind you there, we don't know yet everything that happened there. And General Campbell had acknowledged that a mistake was made. I have ordered him to conduct and he is committed to conduct -- and I'm sure he will -- a full and transparent investigation.
And we will find out everything that happened there.
But the answer to your question on the combat mission, the combat mission has ended and our mission now, on a day-to-day basis, is train, advise and assist and counterterrorism and only to undertake other kinds of operations, either to protect our own forces or in an -- in an in extremis situation.
Q: Have you personally seen the gun camera video from that airstrike or either heard or read transcripts of any cockpit audio recording?
SEC. CARTER: I have gotten periodic reports from the -- but I -- again, I am waiting until the full investigation is done. This isn't -- is a situation where we need to put all the facts together, make sure that every participant has an opportunity to be interviewed. We've looked at all the data you're talking about, one particular kind of data. But there's other data as well and make sure that we have the full story.
I'm going to want the full story because I think we have promised the world that we would -- we would give the facts when we have the facts. So I want to make sure we have them so that we can give them in a way that we have confidence in.
And secondly, I think if there are people who need to be held accountable, they need to be held accountable on the basis of those facts.
Q: And based on --
Q: -- the president and you have said that this a counterterror mission on remnants of Al Qaeda.
Is the Islamic State, as it builds a foothold there, also a target for U.S. forces there?
Would that be purely for counterterror, if they threaten, for instance, the U.S. homeland and also for as you say denying them a safe haven?
And just more broadly, the president also said that the standard of success will be a lasting political settlement, that a full drawdown will come down, in his words, "with a lasting political settlement."
To your understanding, is that the standard of success, that U.S. troops will remain there in numbers until there's a lasting political settlement with the Taliban?
SEC. CARTER: Let me take the first part first, which is, I mean, a counterterrorism is going to be part of the enduring mission there. And whatever it takes to protect our country and make sure that Afghanistan doesn't again become a platform from which terrorism arises, I am confident we will take appropriate action. And I would dare say I'm confident that future presidents would do the same.
We have to protect our people. We're going to do it.
With respect to the mission, the president was speaking of the prospect for reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That is certainly something to be hoped for. It would be a -- it would provide, as he said, for a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan.
And we are fully supportive of that effort, Jim. We're fully supportive of an Afghan-led -- it can't be led by us -- an Afghan-led reconciliation effort. And that is certainly the outcome to be hoped for and that would lead to a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan. In the meantime, we are committed to helping the Afghan security forces defend themselves as long as there is a -- an opposition to the -- to the government. But obviously, one hopes that that comes to an end. But that's not something that's in our hands. And it's not something that's really in military hands. I think the president's pointing to the fact that that would have to be part of the reconciliation process.
Q: Mr. Secretary, how would you judge the success of the revised plan on -- by the time that President Obama leaves office?
And secondly --
SEC. CARTER: I'm sorry; say it again.
How would i...
Q: How will you judge, what criteria or metrics will you use to judge the success of the revised plan?
And secondly, in light of today's announcement and the previous adjustments that were made to the plan, do think it was perhaps a misstep to have announced a predetermined timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
SEC. CARTER: Well, for the second part, you always have to have a plan at a certain time because we need -- we ask for that. So we ask for -- tell us what we should assume, what we plan for -- Remember, we ask -- we submit budgets two years in advance. We have force flows to adjust, construction to do, people to prepare for deployment, train up for deployment.
So it takes a certain amount of time and planning.
That said, I think the president has shown that he is willing to depart from the plan when circumstances suggest. And so there have been a host of circumstances since last year, of which one notable one, just to pick one, was the length of the transition between the Karzai government and the -- and the national unity government, which was -- a long and an unanticipated way and set things back in time, so that's a factor.
You said how would I measure success over the next year and a half?
I think there are a couple of ingredients. One is how successful we are with our Afghan partners at suppressing terrorism and carrying out strikes aimed at, first of all, obviously, eliminating Al Qaeda and anyone else who threatens the United States.
A second big indicator would be how the Afghan security forces are doing, both in terms of their combat performance and another critical ingredient was their ingredient, which is -- which -- for which next year is very important, is the building of their own enablers, their air force, for example, the A-29s, helicopter forces and so forth.
So these are some of the -- these will be some of the things that we are aiming to achieve over the next year and I think the president's decision reflects the fact that it will be easier for us to achieve those things which Afghanistan needs at a force level of 9,800 than it would be if we wound down faster. So that's one of the reasons.
SEC. CARTER: Gordon?
Okay. Sorry. I had to do one for -- one for Gordon just for old time's sakes. And see where I -- were I on an airplane all last week and might begin.
But I do need to go see the defense minister on the Republic of Korea, if anybody wants to join us. (Laughter.)
Q: (off mic)
Just on the drawdown plan, we are hearing that it's not a calendar-based plan on the 5,500 in the 20 -- after -- at the end of 2016. But you know, it sounds like it is a calendar-based plan, so I am wondering, if the commander at the time next -- you know, at the end of 2016 says, we don't want to go down to 5,500, how big of a lift would it be to reassess that and let the 9,800 stay?
SEC. CARTER: I can't say that, it's a long time from now and a different set of circumstances. Obviously -- and this gets back to the question that Jim asked.
At any one time, you make a plan that seems reasonable to you at the time, a reasonable forecast. This seems like a reasonable forecast. I am grateful that the president was willing to and, if fact, eager to make an adjustment in a plan that was, after all, over a year old, in light of circumstances which constantly change. That is the nature of this kind of conflict, the nature of this kind of development.
So I would assume that people here in Department of Defense and people in the rest of the government will always be willing to make adjustments to plans in a matter as grave as this, based on intervening circumstances. To me, that is just common sense.
Okay. Thank you all very much. Good to see you.
MR. COOK: Just for the record, the secretary did not just invite you to this meeting. (Laughter.)
I apologize. That is closed press, but we'll give you a readout after the meeting with the minister from South Korea. So, again, thank you all for your patience. And I know I'm not as compelling as the secretary on this topic but I will try and do my best to answer your questions on this and other issues.
Let me start here -- Tara?
Q: Given that this means that extra troops will be staying in Afghanistan longer, is there is any chance that you have troops not in Afghanistan will be extended and what sort of plan is going on in the building for the next units that we'll be deploying?
MR. COOK: Tara, these are some of the decisions that are going to have to be looked at over the next couple of weeks as this gets implemented going forward. As you know, we are at 9,800 right now. The expectation now is that that will be the number through most of 2016. And some of those decisions will be made by the commanders on the ground, again, in consultation with the -- with the service chiefs, with the secretary as well. So I can't say exactly how those deployments, how those rotations might the effected at this particular moment right now.
Q: What about extensions, though?
Is there a chance that troops currently in Afghanistan will see their time service there extended?
MR. COOK: Actually some of decisions that need to be made have to assess capabilities, what capabilities will we need on the ground there, what will our partners, NATO partners and allies be bringing to the -- to the effort as well. And once we have a better sense of what everyone's contributions will be, we will have a better idea of exactly what the breakdown of those forces and whether or not some of those decisions need to be made.
Q: Peter, clarify something; the secretary said that the combat mission has ended in Afghanistan but then later he said there's going to be -- the counterterrorism mission is going to be part of an enduring mission.
If you've -- if your forces have conducted 328 airstrikes alone in 2015, how has combat ended?
All the evidence suggests it hasn't.
MR. COOK: Well, the counterterrorism mission is ongoing and I think we've been clear about that from the start. And it -- highlighted by what we just did in past few days as the secretary referenced with regard to the remnants of Al Qaeda in this operation on October 7th.
This is an ongoing effort and remains the focus of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and will continue. So, it doesn't -- but it's a different effort, I think then what we were talking about with regard to combat operations, specifically.
Q: You are fighting a growing Al Qaida presence in Afghanistan, then how has combat ended?
MR. COOK: It's a counterterrorism effort, and again, we are talking about a military effort that is focused in one particular direction, but I think we are trying to draw a distinction between what we're doing there in terms of counterterrorism, what the efforts of the Afghan Security Forces to secure the country itself from the challenges it faces with the Taliban, specifically.
Q: Can you define the difference between combat and counterterrorism?
MR. COOK: I think we’ve talked about it a lot, from this podium and others, I think it's clear when we talk about a counterterrorism mission, that our target there is specifically the remnants of Al Qaida and extremist groups that want to do harm to the United States. And this is an effort to keep Americans safe by taking the fight to those groups.
Q: Switching topics for one more question. Does the U.S. military have any obligation to help U.S.-backed rebels in Syria?
MR. COOK: Again, this is a question we have gotten a lot. This is an effort where we are providing support to rebels on the ground in Syria. We are providing air support, we have talked about changes to the T&E [train and equip] program, and we are going to continue to provide that support ongoing.
So, we're going to move over here. Jim, you had a question (inaudible).
Q: Just -- can I follow on something you didn't answer...
MR. COOK: Wait, hold on a second, let me get to somebody else. I'll come back, I'll come back.
Q: What was the assessment within the building here among the military advisers you sat -- in the meetings you sat in on with the secretary and the uniformed officers -- if the now disbanded strategy had sustained through the rest of the year, if we had drawn down, what were some of the consequences that commanders here and in Afghanistan were concerned about? Collapse of the Afghan army and continually like in Kunduz or what?
MR. COOK: I think we're looking at it from a different perspective, Tony, in the sense that the commanders on the ground, General Campbell and others, saw the successful training and assisting of the Afghan Security Forces and the progress they have made, and they want to build on that, and they want to make sure we don't lose those gains. The Afghan forces have made significant strides. It is still a difficult situation; these are people who are in a very difficult fight.
And quite frankly, some of them have lost their lives, a significant number in Afghanistan. This is a tremendous sacrifice on the part of the Afghan Security Forces in the face of a serious challenge, and we are trying to provide support for them, so that the gains they made can be extended. They've got new capabilities moving in, and this was a determination made by General Campbell and others, Secretary Carter that this was the best way to build on those gains to put Afghanistan on the most secure footing going forward.
And so, I’d like to look at it, I think we should look at it in terms of the progress being made as opposed to a hypothetical what if we were to somehow draw down.
Q: Well, it's not hypothetical, they -- was Kunduz not a warning sign -- or had this been -- was that the precipitating event that kind of decided that we need to keep the force level?
MR. COOK: No, it was not. These were decisions, and considerations, deliberations that have been going on for some time. I think Kunduz highlights the ongoing challenge, the difficult fight that is still underway. But this is not a response to what has happened in Kunduz. This is an effort, a wider effort to try and put the Afghan Security Forces in the best possible position going forward to secure the country for themselves, and prevent the kinds of situations we have seen in Kunduz to allow for them to be able to handle that on their own going forward, and prevent those kinds of things from happening on their own. But the Afghan forces taking the lead and dealing with this on their own, that is what we are trying to make sure happens.
Q: (Inaudible) Buttressing a crumble -- potentially crumbling force, then?
MR. COOK: You should see this as providing support for a force that is getting better and better all the time, getting new capabilities. The secretary mentioned for example, the aviation capabilities just now coming to the Afghan Security Forces. These are the kinds of things we want to build on and provide -- again, put Afghan Security Forces on the best possible footing going forward.
Q: Yeah. My question is a little bit of a follow-up to that, can you elaborate on the reasons why the mission has been extended? It seems that the Afghan Security Forces are not strong enough, but yet General Campbell testified earlier this month that the terrorist threat is significant and serious, and in some cases expanding. Which of those two factors weighed on the decision?
MR. COOK: I think as you heard from the secretary, Bill, they both weighed on this decision in the sense that we still believe that even though they made progress, the Afghan Security Forces need additional assistance. At the same time, there is a counterterrorism effort that the United States has a national security interest in making sure that extremist groups, remnants of Al Qaida, Al Qaida as well in Afghanistan do not have the ability to find a safe haven there. And we will continue to focus our efforts on those groups at the same time we provide the assistance that we believe the Afghan Security Forces need to go forward, and we're going to continue to work very closely with the Afghan government.
Remember, we're there at the invitation of the Afghan government. They have been strong partners in this. We support the efforts of President Ghani, and so it's a two-track effort as both the president and the secretary outlined earlier.
Q: Peter, at what point are we going to get a breakdown in that 5,500? You know, how many CT, how training? What kind of air support? You already mentioned the bases they'll be going to. And how many contractors will be needed?
MR. COOK: I think, again, Tom, this will be determined in some measure by what we hear from our partners in terms of the contributions they're prepared to make. And we were at NATO last week, and the secretary had extensive conversations with some of those partners who are already contributing significantly to the effort in Afghanistan.
This needs to compliment what they do and vice versa. Also, the forces, the Afghan forces themselves. So we want to get a better picture of exactly what everyone's bringing to the table before determining exactly what the breakdown might be for specific U.S. forces. And these will be decisions from commanders on the ground that I expect you'll get in the -- in the coming weeks and months. But that's why we can't give the exact pinpoint detail until we get a better idea what those contributions are from other countries.
Q: The secretary said that he's already had some early conversations with NATO allies. Can you give any sort of early reaction? If there's been pushback or if allies are generally onboard with contributing more forces well?
MR. COOK: I'll let the allies and the partners speak for themselves, but I can just tell you that from our visit to NATO last week, to Brussels, that there was a significant conversation about Afghanistan and the effort to support the Afghan government, and I can tell you that the secretary left his meetings in NATO very confident that other partners, other allies would be stepping forward with their own contributions, making their own contributions on behalf of this effort.
And -- but again, we'll leave it to those partners and allies to speak for themselves as to exactly what they can bring to this effort.
Q: Following up on that quickly --
MR. COOK: Sure.
Q: -- if they don't step forward, will the 9,800 be enough still to complete the mission without any help from the allies?
MR. COOK: We're confident that our other allies and partners will bring a significant contribution to this effort, and we'll be able to support the Afghan Security Forces and the Afghan government.
Q: Thanks Peter. The secretary said that this is an opportunity to finish what we started, and I'm curious if you can give us a sense, given how this did start, what role in these discussions Pakistan has had or what -- to what extent that has come up, given that, obviously, these two issues are not really separate. One would think that as an ally in the war on terror that they would be key to all of this going forward.
Can you give us a sense of whether that's been part of this discussion or is this just NATO in and of itself trying to figure out a way forward with the Afghan government?
MR. COOK: Well, I think obviously the -- everyone involved in this effort with Resolute Support working with the Afghan government is trying to take a comprehensive look at this picture and trying to involve Pakistan in that conversation has been important. And the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is important going forward.
That's just one component of this larger picture, and so I think this is -- this is the -- looking at the situation on the ground right now, this is where the president and his -- and the secretary and the military leadership here have come to the conclusion we can best support the Afghan government going forward and also maintain the counterterrorism mission as well.
And certainly, Pakistan is an important part of that conversation going forward. It's not the only part of that conversation, obviously, as well.
Yes, Nancy. Q: I'd like to follow up on Tom's question --
MR. COOK: Sure.
Q: -- and your answer to it. You had said that one of the things you're looking at is what the coalition partners would be bringing in terms of troop levels, and what I'm having a hard time understanding, then, how did you come up with the 5,500 number if you don't know what the coalition members are giving? That is, if the U.K. offers 1,000, does that mean another 1,000 of the 5,500 go to do something else?
Because the appearance is that this is a numbers-driven decision rather than one based on the needs of the Afghan security forces. So could you help me understand how you come with 5,500 number if you don't know what the other coalition partners will be doing?
MR. COOK: I think it's fair to say that General Campbell and the secretary in his conversations has had a -- has a good picture about the level of commitment from some of these other countries. We're not going to speak for them, but I think they factored that larger picture into this decision, as they made these recommendations to the -- to the president.
So we don't have the exact level of detail, you're right, but I think they have a pretty good picture right now about the willingness of these other countries to step forward. They've been willing to do so in the past, they -- many of them have made public statements on their own about their willingness to go forward.
But in terms of the exact breakdown, Nancy, in terms of their capabilities, specifically what roles they're playing -- and some of them are playing very specific roles now -- I think those are the sorts of things that will help us get a better sense of what -- of Tom's question about the exact breakdown of the U.S. troops, how many of these forces will be, for example, doing force protection for our troops as opposed to the train and advise role, how many of them will be counterterrorism.
I think we'll get more of those granular details; we just don't have them right now, at least at this moment.
Q: Given that you have a pretty good picture as you say, is there any way we get estimates of that kind of breakdown?
Can you take that question, please?
MR. COOK: I can't. Until -- again, want to defer to our NATO allies to be able to explain what they plan to do themselves going forward. And I think, once we have that, Nancy, we will have a better idea.
Q: Thank you. On South Korea --
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: -- Secretary Carter met with the South Korean president Park Geun-hye this morning.
Is there any new agreement which the -- at that meetings or you have any opportunity (inaudible) wider issues raised after these meetings?
MR. COOK: The secretary, as you know, is right now in just a matter of moments, going to be in with the minister of defense from South Korea. I know he had a productive meeting this morning. We’ll have a more complete readout on both meetings at the conclusion.
I just know the secretary felt it was a great opportunity to once again reaffirm the alliance between the United States and South Korea and the ironclad commitment that the United States has to South Korea's defense.
And so I think you will get more from the readout after the conclusion of these talks. But a great opportunity for the secretary to not only meet with the minister of defense but also the president as well. And I don't know if you saw the full honor cordon (sic: full military honors parade) this morning. But we don't do that very often here at the Department of Defense. And it's a nice moment on a beautiful day to welcome a very strong ally of the United States.
MR. COOK: Yes?
Q: Thank you, Peter.
The secretary mentioned that he was waiting for all the facts on Kunduz. But I'm just curious: when are we going to get any of the information about these reports from Kunduz?
We were told last week that it was going to be a couple of days. And I we reporters understand that the pentagon’s 15-6 is going to take a while. But the preliminary report by NATO, we were told a couple of days and a couple of days turned into a few days and now it's approaching two weeks.
When are we going to get some of this information?
MR. COOK: I've asked some of these same questions myself. I think, at this point, my understanding is it will take a few more days, could be the beginning of next week when we could have some initial, preliminary findings.
You've made a good point, that the 15-6 investigation, as General Campbell has spelled out, will take more time. And this is an initial assessment, looking specifically to the issue of civilian casualties. But the expectation we have is that hopefully early next week we’d be able to get some details to you and General Campbell and his team will be able to share some of those details at that time.
Q: (inaudible), Peter, do you have anything that does -- this here is Arab coalition forces, whom you dropped 50 tons of ammunition have any connection with the PYD forces, the Kurdish rebels in Syria?
MR. COOK: I know the details and I think Colonel Warren shared with you all yesterday about the airdrop, and that it went successfully and that ammunition and other equipment was dropped -- let me double check the date -- on the 11th, on Sunday, and that it was recovered at that time by some of the Syrian Arab forces [edited]. But I don't have a breakdown of exactly where those -- where everything went.
Q: So do you confirm that the Kurdish forces also picked up some of this ammunitions for that have been dropped on -- in Syria?
MR. COOK: My understanding is that it was -- this specifically went to Syrian Arab forces[edited].
Q: So Kurdish forces are also -- ?
MR. COOK: [edited].
Q: Do you have any information about any recent freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea?
MR. COOK: I know that what the secretary has continued to say and that is that the United States will fly, sail and operate in wherever international law allows and that includes, as you said the other day, there's no exception in the South China Sea.
Q: (inaudible) has it been done in the last week or recent times?
MR. COOK: It's -- I know Ambassador Shear testified to this effect and we will continue to look at all aspects of our options available to us in the South China Sea and that part of the world. And I'm not going to relay to you specific operations that are underway or contemplated at this time, just to state the larger principle, as the secretary has consistently, about the United States' willingness and capability to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.
Right here in the middle.
Q: Missy had asked this question, but I don’t think the secretary got to it.
After the U.S. begins its withdrawal, Obama announced this -- the president announced this as timeline, we see a prolonged spike in violence. We see the Taliban, the U.N. reporting that they have a wider reach since any point since 2001. We see the Taliban taking, you know temporary takeover, but takeover a city like Kunduz. We see the mistaken attack, as the secretary put it, on the hospital.
Is the military -- is the assessment from this building that the pace of withdrawal is responsible for some of these setbacks and that's part of the readjustment?
MR. COOK: I think what you've heard from the secretary, from the president today is that the adjustments being made here reflect the assessment that certain troop levels, certain capabilities, the training and advising of Afghan security forces would best be moved forward, by maintaining this troop level at this particular moment in time while still setting the target that the president did, for 5,500 by the time he leaves office in January of 2017.
That that will foster the capabilities necessary for the Afghan security forces to protect the country on their own, they've had their first fighting season in the lead on their own. They're about -- they're going to have a second one and this will give them, Secretary Carter, military leadership here believe, the best opportunity to, again, secure the country on their own.
And to do so, make this a more stable country moving forward and a -- and a -- and a safer country for the people of Afghanistan.
Q: Just to clarify, so you said the decision -- the reassessment today based on the facts on the ground. So if those are the facts on the ground, those setbacks is there any type of assessment that the pace of withdrawal was seen as insufficient or that there were concerns that if the pace of withdrawal continued at the pace it was set at, that we would see more setbacks?
MR. COOK: I think there was concern at the -- as we mentioned, the secretary mentioned that the security forces still needed additional assistance. They needed additional training. They're just getting something abilities online -- I mentioned the aviation -- that to keep the troop levels and the capabilities, U.S. capabilities and the NATO capabilities in place at this particular moment in time, would be helpful, would be advantageous to the Afghan government. The Afghan government has asked us for this kind of assistance.
And we also, as the secretary mentioned, some circumstances separate and apart that contributed to this decision. One was the extended period of time before the unity government was able to form. That was a factor we hadn't completely factored in before.
So again, to answer your question, this is the best way to build on the progress that the Afghan security forces have made and also, to be candid, to make sure that there is not a setback going forward.
There is still -- it's still a dangerous place. People are losing their lives in Afghanistan, Afghan security forces are in particular. And this is, again, an effort for the U.S. to provide that kind of assistance, to move the Afghan security forces onto a firmer footing, a surer footing going forward in the best interests of the people of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan.
And that's the kind of assistance we are trying to provide now. I've got time for two more because I have to go to this meeting as well.
In the back. Yes?
Q: Mr. Cook, it's my understanding that private contractors equal about double what the U.S. troop complement is right now in Afghanistan.
Do you envision private contractors to be at that level, even with the drawdown?
MR. COOK: I can't tell you with certainty here. I'm happy to take the question. But contractors, I know, have been part of the effort in Afghanistan for some time. I would venture to say that I imagine contractors will be part of this effort going forward but I can't give you a specific number. If you like, I will try and circle back as to what that number is now. But I don't have it up here at the podium.
Last one, do it right here in the middle.
Q: So since the plan is to maintain the same number next year, will the breakdown expect to be the same?
Or during this review, are any mission areas targeted that needed more attention, more troops, such as more special operations or fewer trainers or vice versa?
MR. COOK: Yes. Again, these are some of the questions -- just going back to Nancy's question and Tom's question -- the exact breakdown can be determined by the commanders on the ground once they have a better sense of exactly what our NATO allies, other partners are bringing to this effort as well. But you can be sure that there will be, certainly, folks who are focused on the counterterrorism effort and that there will a separate group of people whose main focus will be on training and advising the Afghan security forces.
And then there will be others who are there for force protection purposes to make sure that our forces on the ground remain as safe as possible in Afghanistan going forward.
And with that everyone, I -- I'm going to be late. I have to --
MR. COOK: Last one, sorry.
MR. COOK: I'm sorry?
Q: Is there any progress on the safe flight MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the Russians?
And since Saturday, have there been any other close calls between the U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syria?
MR. COOK: I'll do it as quickly as I can. No update, based from what we have told you yesterday, that -- again, we think we are close to an understanding with the Russians with regards to flight safety over Syria. Some final details were still being worked out, yesterday after the call, but it -- there was more progress made yesterday.
And the second part of your question, again, I'm sorry?
Q: Have there been any other close calls since Saturday?
MR. COOK: To my understanding, there have been no additional close calls, any encounters that I've been made aware of, that would cause us to have particular concern. And we are very hopeful, again, that these specific flight safety protocols can be put in place as quickly as possible so that we don't have to worry about those going forward.
I've got to – I’ve got to go, sorry. I've -- I'm a little bit -- I got to go Lucas, -- sorry.
STAFF: Thanks, everyone.
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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Department of Defense Press Briefing by Maj. Gen. Chalmers via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Senator Joseph Donnelly (D-Ind.) Hold Media Availability Crane, Indiana
Remarks by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at a Troop Event, Fort Knox, Kentucky
Media availability by Secretary Carter at Fort Knox, Kentucky
Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Remarks by Secretary Carter at Hack the Pentagon Ceremony
Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Press Conference with Secretary Carter at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium
Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Garver via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq