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Enduring Freedom Operational Update - Rear Adm. Stufflebeem

Presenters: Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, Joint Staff
November 05, 2001 1:30 PM EDT

Monday, Nov. 5, 2001 - 1:30 p.m. EST

(Slides and videos shown in this briefing are on the Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Nov2001/g011105-D-6570C.html )

Stufflebeem: Good afternoon, everyone.

Well, yesterday, as they've done throughout the weekend, coalition efforts focused on supporting opposition group forces and preparing the battlefield for future offensive actions by those forces; continued to degrade and destroy al Qaeda and Taliban command and control, particularly caves and tunnels; struck Taliban and foreign forces where we found them; and continued humanitarian relief campaign in support of the Afghan people.

Yesterday we struck in five planned target areas that included active and suspected terrorist and Taliban cave and tunnel complexes; Taliban military forces, and in particular, those engaged with or arrayed against the opposition forces; and other emergent Taliban targets. We used about 75 strike aircraft, which included about 60 from sea-based platforms, about seven to 10 long-range bombers, and the remainder were land-based tactical jets.

We also flew Commando Solo broadcast missions and conducted humanitarian ration air drops from two C-17s who delivered more than 34,000 humanitarian daily ratios; and that brings our total now to over 1,170,000.

Imagery today includes some overheads of a Kabul airfield and military aircraft. This airfield is one of nine that we have struck to date in the campaign. This supported fighter aircraft, helicopters and transports, and also served as a military aircraft maintenance facility. These images, which come from Wednesday, focus on two maintenance hangars at the facility, seen here in a pre- and post- strike environment. The maintenance hangars, as you see -- will see -- have been destroyed.

We continue to strike at Taliban infrastructure wherever possible to wither away the Taliban's ability to regenerate, reequip and resupply forces in the field as the demanding winter session -- season approaches.

We have three video -- weapon-system videos from the weekend that highlight coalition efforts to degrade Taliban forces facing the Northern Alliance.

The first is an abbreviated clip from Saturday that shows that the strike on the Taliban's Fifth Corps. It's an armored vehicle in a position southwest of Mazar-e Sharif. As you can see, the vehicle was destroyed.

The second clip shows a strike on Friday against Taliban troops in a trench line north of Kabul. This Taliban troop position was set facing a Northern Alliance opposition group.

The last video shows a B-52 strike -- this was on Friday -- again against Taliban positions north of Kabul. This was filmed from an accompanying coalition fighter. You can see the bomber and the bomb load being dropped from the fighter's position and then the fighter camera switching to the group for both a close-up and distant view of the strike.

And with that, I'll take your questions. Charlie?

Q: Admiral, the three bases that you're looking at in Tajikistan, what kind of shape generally are those bases in? And given the fact that the large percentage of strike aircraft they're using are Navy jets, carrier-based jets that need a lot of refueling, wouldn't these bases in Tajikistan give you a good -- good base for land-based aircraft for short strikes in northern Afghanistan?

Stufflebeem: I'll try to walk backwards through your questions. Certainly airfields closer to Afghanistan would give us an advantage in being able to generate sorties. That's, I think, an emphatic yes. In terms of the airfields in Tajikistan, as the secretary has already discussed, there is an assessment team in country to do just that, and until they've reported out, I just don't have any idea what the condition of those airfields are to be able to use. I think that when the secretary gets back, he'll have more to report on things just like that.

Q: But does the Pentagon hope to use those for ground-based strike aircraft and -- or/and helicopters?

Stufflebeem: Well, we would hope to have a capability to get access to Afghanistan from the North and the South, yes.

Q: Admiral, could you go beyond Tajikistan and walk us through the other prospects, Pakistan, some additional bases, Kazakhstan, perhaps Uzbekistan, and inside Afghanistan? What's the effort there?

Stufflebeem: To be honest, it's outside of my scope. I know the secretary, who has visited there, will have more information about specifically what either is being looked at or what could be available. I just don't have the information on that, so I just plain don't know.

Q: Are there survey teams, though, going to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, looking at airfields there as well, military survey teams?

Stufflebeem: There are assessment teams that are going out to all of the countries that have offered assistance. I just don't have those at my fingertips. I just don't know. I'm really concentrating, of course, my area of responsibility, of course, in operations, and that gets into a future arena where, of course, our politicians are helping set that up.

Q: Just so we understand, your focus here is to get land-based tactical air closer to the battlefield. Is that the focus on the surveying?

Stufflebeem: Closer access to Afghanistan -- and I'll speak generically -- closer access to Afghanistan is good for a lot of reasons; release -- or relief from requirements for a lot of tanking, shorter times for response, faster abilities to turn aircraft around, to do resupply missions, et cetera.

So there's a whole host of reasons why having airfields closer to Afghanistan is good.

Q: Admiral, can you -- you spoke a moment ago about preparing the battlefield for future operations. How far in the future? My question really is, how imminent are these future operations, which, by definition, would be ground operations?

Stufflebeem: The reference I made was specifically about enabling the Northern Alliance operations. I'm hearing reports that they -- I think a better way to characterize the answer is that I'm not sure when the Northern Alliance would intend for an offensive in one place or another. I have heard reports that they may be ready to move, but until they do, I think that it's a bit supposition on our part.

Q: Well, to follow up -- to follow up; are these battlefields now prepared for their movement? Has the job been done?

Stufflebeem: I don't know. I honestly don't know. The opposition field commanders will have to determine -- and I'm sure are determining -- when they feel ready to move. We are helping to set those conditions by prepping this battlefield and taking down Taliban resistance. I don't know -- I just don't know how and when they'll feel ready to go.

Q: Can I do a follow-up on that, please, on this?

Although you and others from that podium have been saying that this is a different kind of war and we should not equate it with previous wars, it does seem that this heavy bombing of the Taliban forces north of Kabul is a softening up in prelude to an offensive. And yet the Taliban, as we're told, outnumbers the Northern Alliance about three to one. Will -- and I guess this is the same kind of thing you said you didn't know, but will the air campaign by itself allow the Northern Alliance to have any kind of a successful offensive, or will United States -- even though nobody admits it here -- have to put in large quantities of ground troops to assist them?

Stufflebeem: Airstrikes on Taliban positions will help Northern Alliance. To what degree, I think is really more a call for the Northern Alliance to make an assessment of, more so than for us. It would be incorrect for us to assume that after so many missions of prepping that particular battlefield, that we would say, "It's ready for you to go. You should be going now." They've got to make that determination for themselves on the ground, and we are sure that they will, and once they're comfortable, we will attempt to help them, again, in any way that we can.

Now to get into the aspect of support from on the ground, that gets into an area of future operations that we just don't want to go to.

Q: Admiral --

Stufflebeem: (Off mike) -- over here.

Q: But having said all of that, after almost a week of very heavy bombing along the front lines, what's the Pentagon's assessment of the damage you've caused to the Taliban military up there? How much of it have you taken down? And what is your assessment of these reports that we keep hearing about hundreds if not thousands of people crossing into Afghanistan to join the fight with the Taliban?

Stufflebeem: Reports I've seen about forces crossing to reinforce the Taliban haven't been as prolific as what you've just stated. Hundreds of thousands or maybe hundreds --

Q: Hundreds, if not thousands.

Stufflebeem: If not thousands? I think that's a very hard number to quantify, much of it coming from pro-Taliban forces. I don't think that we just have the indicators that tell us that there is that much reinforcement that's coming across to help the Taliban. So I'm -- I would say that our assessment is, we're suspicious of those numbers.

Now the first part of your question --

Q: After a week or so of pounding the front lines --

Stufflebeem: Oh, right --

Q: -- what do you think you've accomplished in reality here?

Stufflebeem: Well, again, because this is enemy territory, it's very difficult to get reliable information out. The Taliban broadcasts or boasts from time to time of Americans that they may have killed, which we know to be false, and they're not broadcasting the number of their own forces that are lost, which we believe are substantial. And one of the best indicators of that to me is not only what I see in reports but what I see in the press as well. It's been a matter of days in some areas where the Taliban have responded to opposition with fire. My guess is that would be because they're either hunkered down and aren't coming out, or they're not able to fire. So I think that that's a very positive sign.

Q: Do you have any better fix on what you mean -- what is meant by "substantial losses" on the part of the Taliban?

Stufflebeem: I can't quantify it in terms of numbers. I can quantify it best by saying that if the Northern opposition is feeling emboldened or ready to make moves, then that means that it has had the intended effect.

Q: Admiral, a couple questions about caves, the cave issues. You've come out over the last few days and talked specifically that we're targeting caves and tunnels. Why the attacks on the caves? Is -- do you have pretty good intelligence that many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are actually hunkered down in these various complexes around the country, and they're the targets?

Stufflebeem: Well, it's more than just specific intelligence.

It's also a history of the region. The nation is famous, I suppose, for the numbers of caves that have been carved out over the centuries. They have a history of fighting in there. Our allies in this, to a degree, the Russians, have also explained the kind of warfare that they faced and that we're understanding, and there is in fact some intelligence that they are using the caves and have used the caves.

So, yes, we do believe that they do use them. We use all-source intelligence to try to refine where they're at, either as individuals who may be there or as storage facilities. And when we feel comfortable that we have a known facility or we suspect that it has been used, then we strike it.

Q: Can I get a quick follow-up? You've expended a lot of ordnance on these caves, both bunker-busters and 2,000-pounders. Is it the Pentagon's view right now that you can do the job from the air, or necessarily will you need to send in special ops teams to do selective raids into the cave complexes themselves?

Stufflebeem: I'll reinforce what the chairman has said more than once. We are going to use all of our capability to win this. There are very few of us who believe that this will be won solely through air power. So all elements of our coalition forces will at some time likely be brought to bear.

Q: Against caves and tunnels?

Stufflebeem: Wherever we need to to root out al Qaeda and to take down the Taliban.

Q: Admiral, to follow-up --

Q: General Myers and the secretary have talked about two missions for U.S. special forces in Afghanistan right now, the first being assistance for targeting and the other being coordinating resupply. I'm talking about special forces already on the ground there. Could -- is there anything you could say about a possible third mission, and that would be providing security for individual commanders who may be starting -- in endangered position or maybe starting an insurgency of some kind? I'm thinking for example, of Hamid Karzai. Is that -- providing security for somebody like that -- is that a possible third mission for U.S. special forces on the ground right now?

Stufflebeem: That's a difficult question to answer from the perspective of -- you're asking, do we have a capability to provide security? Of course we do. Would that be an intended mission that we'll do? I wouldn't want to hazard a guess or make a supposition of that.

There just won't be any part of our capabilities that won't be considered. How or when it might be utilized will be driven by many factors, and so right now would be really just a guess, and so I'll just say at a future operation --

Q: Well, was there such an effort in support of Karzai and over the last few days when he got endangered?

Stufflebeem: I have to characterize it this way: what you see happening in the north, and the support that's being provided to the Northern Alliance, northern opposition groups, is something that has been well established, well defined, for a number of years. It's not quite so in the south, as we understand it. There are individuals whom would try to put together what we -- at least, I have heard in one occasion called a Southern Alliance. And we have an interest of supporting all opposition groups or the individuals who could lead that. But because of the differences of North and South Afghanistan -- the difference in access, the difference in a number of other factors -- at the moment, I think that's best left invisible for the time being.

Q: And so you can't confirm that the U.S. Special Operations went in and rescued Karzai?

Stufflebeem: I cannot confirm that.

Q: Admiral, can we assume that parts of the border region of Pakistan constitute sanctuaries for the enemy that will have to be dealt with militarily at some point, either by U.S. forces or by Pakistani forces? And I have follow-up.

Stufflebeem: Let me ask you to ask the question another way; I'm not sure --

Q: Are border regions in Pakistan, of the kind that Barbara was talking about, with people crossing over in hundreds or thousands, are they, in effect, enemy sanctuaries that will have to be dealt with militarily at some point in this campaign?

Stufflebeem: Well, I don't know. When you look at the region there, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, certainly in the central part of the country, is really a line that was drawn on a map by the British some years ago. From the folks -- from the people who live in this region, it's not nearly quite so plain. And on some maps, part of that area is just considered a no man's land. So to describe a definitive border and who may be straddling or living across that border, to say that that might constitute an area of future military action is -- it's just too hard for me to be able to say.

I think that at some time, at some point, it is possible that the Pakistan government may, in fact, have to deal with the unrest in the regions of the country, of which the border may be one.

Q: And a follow-up on what you were talking about earlier about what you gain from closer geographical access with air bases: has the absence of that led to large numbers of missed opportunities -- in other words, lack of quick response time or turnaround time? Have you found that a lot of targets that you wanted to hit you could not hit frequently because of the difficulties of logistics, of the distances?

Stufflebeem: Right. No. Simply put, the answer is no. It's just that it requires more support to be able to accomplish the same thing.

Q: Admiral Stufflebeem, are we dropping leaflets with a picture of sketch of Mullah Omar's car in country?

Stufflebeem: I don't know. I'll take that question and find out and get you an answer. [Answer: Yes.] I've seen leaflets [English and Arabic]. I think that you have been offered some of the leaflets we have dropped. But I can't say I've ever seen that one, so I'll just have to find out for you.

Q: Admiral, over the weekend, representatives of the Northern Alliance asked more support from the United States, ammunition as well as weapons, and a stronger offensive against the Taliban front line. At what point do U.S. officials determine we've given enough support, the time is right, and if the Northern Alliance says, "We're not yet ready," at what point do we decide that we're going to go ahead either with Special Forces or ground troops? Is there a threshold? Then I have a follow-up.

Stufflebeem: There's not a threshold that would say continue or stop. There's not a threshold that I'm aware of that would say withdraw our support. I think that question at some point will be in General Franks' mind and maybe the National Command Authority's, but we're certainly not there yet. We're pleased with the responses that they have offered, I guess, or have been able to take advantage of with the support we have provided. We would intend to support them to meet their objectives as long as we stay on our campaign objectives and meet ours. That is foremost, that we are going to eradicate al Qaeda from Afghanistan and we're going to take away the Taliban's ability to support terrorists. And there isn't anything that's going to deter us from that mission. So what we're doing now with the Northern Alliance is mutually supportive. If there ever comes a time where that may not be the case, it will have to be decided by the senior war-fighters.

Q: And to follow up, the secretary has said that this is a new type of war that requires patience, and that it would take years, as opposed to months, to accomplish. It seems as if the message to the allies in his trip is that it will take months, not years, to accomplish. Does this reflect any kind of change in the way that we measure the progress, the timetable of this war, or is he simply referring specifically to airstrikes and bombs and raids of that nature inside of Afghanistan?

Stufflebeem: I think that's a fair question, but I'd ask you to ask the secretary that tomorrow. I just -- I don't know exactly what he said or the context of what it was in, so therefore, I don't know in terms of a change of the time frame.

Q: Admiral, you talked about the United States soliciting advice from the Russians about their experience in fighting in Afghanistan, in reference to the cave complexes. Can you talk about the degree to which we are -- the United States is speaking to veterans of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan about their experience, what kinds of information the United States is obtaining or is interested in obtaining? And how up the former Soviet chain of command are you talking to?

Stufflebeem: The most honest answer is I don't really know. There are have been books written about the environment. There are former Soviet officials, or maybe Soviet -- former Soviet army personnel, who have just come forward. We have maintained high-level contacts with Russia, as you know, for quite a long time. And as this unfortunate war has been thrust upon us, they have -- the Russians have been very helpful to us. We have not been shy in asking for information, but at what level and to what degree, I just honestly don't know.

Q: Can I just follow up? To your knowledge, are there former Soviet military officers in Afghanistan now working with U.S. Special Forces? And are there current Russian special forces in Afghanistan working with American Special Forces?

Stufflebeem: I've not seen any reports that would tell me that either former or current Russians in fact are in Afghanistan or are working with the alliance.

Q: Admiral?

Q: Admiral, you can --

Stufflebeem: I've got time for two more questions.

Q: Okay. Admiral you can count on the ground the number of tanks, the number of planes, the number of airstrips, command-and-control bunkers that you hit in the war against the Taliban. But is there any evidence that this air war is having any effect at all on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and if so, how can you determine that?

Stufflebeem: Probably only anecdotally. Al Qaeda is an elusive organization. Their leadership are shadowy. They don't want to be found. They want to survive. They want to use other humans as their shields. Our sense is that they are very satisfied that the Taliban are doing their fighting for them right now.

We have not seen active evidence that al Qaeda is active in Afghanistan. We have taken away their ability to use their training camps. We have taken away their known infrastructure. We are striking at the caves that we have learned that they utilize or have utilized. So we believe that we are chipping away at al Qaeda. And we know that there are reports that would indicate forces who either are fighting along side of or with the Taliban have been attrited. And at what level of leadership, we don't know.

But I think it's fair to say that we know that they are not free to operate in Afghanistan at this point because we are keeping up the pressure throughout the country. That is one of the most significant reasons why the secretary and the chairman have articulated that we would not stand down during the month of Ramadan and give al Qaeda the opportunity to regroup and to continue training.

Q: Admiral?

Q: Admiral?

Stufflebeem: One last question.

Q: I'm sorry, I have three questions. (Laughter.) But in fairness --

Stufflebeem: If you'll take them one at a time, I'll --

Q: -- I'll ask them one at a time.

Stufflebeem: Okay.

Q: First of all, over the weekend there was a U.S. military personnel rescued from Afghanistan. Can you tell us anything about that operation, how it was conducted? Anything at all about what happened with that?

Stufflebeem: Well, I can tell you that it was an American Special Forces member who was working with the Northern Alliance opposition group. He became ill, needed to be extracted to receive medical attention. I'm not aware of his medical problems, and it could have been related to a number of things -- altitude sickness, et cetera.

A U.S. military Special Forces helicopter, with an escort, dispatched to retrieve him. One of those helicopters had a hard landing in the mountainous areas, due to icy conditions brought on probably by freezing rain. That aircraft was subsequently destroyed by U.S. forces to prevent it from falling in the hands of being used against us later. That crew of that helicopter was rescued by another helicopter that was along.

In a subsequent, separate U.S. Special Forces mission helicopter went in to retrieve the ailing member that they originally were going to get and brought him out safely.

Q: Second question: The Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker, which portrayed the October 20th raid as a disaster and portrayed the Delta Force commandos as having to beat a hasty retreat and almost getting killed -- can you comment at all on what -- your version of events or how that squares with the version of events that you're aware of?

Stufflebeem: Well, the version that I'm aware of are from the reports of those forces that were involved. And we don't have nor have I seen any reports of heavy fighting. The reports characterize light resistance and a planned extraction, as opposed to a hasty retreat. So the reports I've seen just don't support that article's supposition.

Q: And my last question: the video you showed us today of the B-52 strikes, in which we saw the bombs along a trench line -- was that to illustrate that today's carpet bombing is not as indiscriminate as that in the past? Is the point you were trying to make with that video? Or did you have an intention?

Stufflebeem: No, I think that this was just a different perspective. We hadn't had a fighter aircraft film a B-52 from that perspective before. In fact, I don't think we'd had a B-52 strike recorded from another aircraft yet -- it had all been from the coverage that we see from on the ground -- and that being the case, that it offered a different visual perspective, and that was the only point of being able to show it to you.

Q: Thank you, sir.

Q: Admiral, one last one, on numbers -- Admiral, just one last --

Stufflebeem: Thank you.

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