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DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Austin III from Iraq

Presenters: Commander, Multinational Corps, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III
March 09, 2009
            BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Good morning. Let me just make sure that General Austin can hear me okay. 
 
            This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Hey, Bryan. I have you loud and clear. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, it's good to see you again.   
 
            It is my privilege to introduce General Austin -- Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin III, who is the commanding general of Multinational Corps-Iraq. Just as a reminder, he assumed command in February of 2008, and he directs the operations of approximately 14 -- or 140,000 -- excuse me -- joint and coalition forces in all sectors in Iraq. 
 
            He's no stranger to Iraq. He previously served as the deputy commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division from March to May of 2003. And he's no stranger to this room, as this is his fourth Pentagon briefing to you in this format as MNC-I commander. And he's coming to us today from Camp Victory in Baghdad.   
 
            And with that, General Austin, we appreciate your time and the support that you give to this for your subordinate commanders to join us on a weekly basis. It's very helpful. Let me turn it over to you. 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Bryan, for that introduction. And it's good to be with all of you again. 
 
            We are nearing the completion of our tour here, so I'd like to spend the next few minutes sharing with you some thoughts about the past 13 months and about the future of Iraq. And following that, I'll be happy to take some of your questions. 
 
            The headquarters of the 18th Airborne Corps assumed command of Multinational Corps-Iraq from 3rd Corps in February of 2008. At that time, the surge strategy had succeeded in driving down attacks slightly below 400 per week across the country. And we knew that coming in our primary job was to build upon these security gains and to continue to protect the population, all while working to defeat al Qaeda in the north and to expand our operations in the south.   
 
            And all of this had to be done while reducing our force structure, which we did by redeploying five surge brigades and by decreasing our coalition by more than 20 countries. 
 
            And while we reduced the size of our force, we increased the size of our battlespace by approximately 25 percent. And today, we're averaging less than a hundred attacks per week across the country. 
 
            Now, this great progress happened for several reasons. First and foremost, this happened because our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines performed tirelessly and expended every effort for the Iraqi people through the last six tough years in Iraq.  
 
            About a year ago, we endured some very challenging times. As we continued to pressure al Qaeda in the north, we found ourselves in a rather significant struggle with Shi'a extremists in the south in Basra and in Sadr City in Baghdad. It was a struggle that could have reversed the gains that we achieved the previous year, but we were able to respond to the challenge because our young men and women in uniform that are serving in Iraq today are just as dedicated to our mission as they were six years ago. 
 
            Another reason for the progress over the past year was that we were able to maneuver our forces against the enemy throughout the country. This allowed us to remove seams and gaps that extremists were using in the past. And by -- and by maneuvering the core elements along with the Iraqi security forces, we were able to pursue the enemy over more terrain than we had before.   
 
            And through this maneuver, we had great effects on reducing the flow of foreign fighters coming across the border and through the Jazirah Desert in the north, and we were able to expand our footprint in the south to better confront Shi'a extremists and criminals that were moving lethal accelerants into Baghdad and other parts of the country. The combined pressure of coalition and Iraqi security forces on al Qaeda and Shi'a extremist groups greatly reduced their capabilities to operate in this country. 
 
            A third reason for the great progress was our partnering efforts with the Iraqi security forces over the past year. And since the Charge of the Knight's operation in Basra a year ago, we have partnered with them in a very meaningful way, and our relationship has strengthened and evolved over time. And today, all of our operations are combined Iraqi and coalition operations. And through partnership, we were able to transition from deconflicting operations to conducting synchronized operations.   
 
            The recent safe and secure provincial elections are a testament to this concept of joint synchronized operations towards a common goal.   
 
            And the development of our relationship with the Iraqi security forces over the past year has been a testament as well, and the results have been impressive. The 11 attacks on election day, compared to over 300 attacks on election day in 2005, illustrate exactly that point. And in Baghdad, there were zero attacks on the day of elections. Now, this was all due to the tremendous partnering efforts between the coalition and the Iraqi security forces.   
 
            And finally, there were several other factors that contributed to the progress of last year. We successfully transitioned the Sons of Iraq program to the Iraqi government, which demonstrates Iraq's commitment to reconciliation. The improved border security strategy has greatly reduced the number of foreign fighters and lethal accelerants making their way into Iraq, and the improving civil capacity and essential services are positively affecting millions of Iraqi citizens. And the passage of key legislation through the central government, to include the security agreement, has demonstrated progress by the Iraqi government as well. 
 
            2008 was a decisive year to capitalize on the emerging security progress and events such as the prime minister's decision to fight Shi'a extremist groups in Basra. It has been a year of capitalizing on opportunities. 2009 will continue to be a critical year of transitioning control to the Iraqi government and reducing our force structure here in Iraq. 
 
            The president has made it clear that our mission will change in 2010. And while we are preparing for that change, we recognize that there is still much work to do in 2009 and there are still challenges ahead that we must confront to ensure that Iraq can maintain sustainable security in 2010 and beyond. And future success will require us to continue partnering with the Iraqi security forces and assisting them in developing their combat enablers, to continue pressing the fight against al Qaeda and associated movements in the north, and to focus on preparing for national elections at the end of the year. And I remain very optimistic about the future of Iraq. Much progress has been achieved, and much more progress will be achieved in the next year. 
 
            And Bryan, with that, I'm prepared to take some of your questions. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for that overview. And we'll get started here. And Andrew, why don't you start us off. 
 
            Q     General, It's Andrew Gray from Reuters. Obviously, yesterday it was announced that you would go down by about 12,000 personnel.   
 
            Is that it for this year, do you think, or can you see further reductions in the force size in 2009? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, that's what we can see at this point. And again, we have been clear, and certainly General Odierno and General Petraeus have been clear in the past about saying that we will make decisions about future force reductions based upon the conditions on the ground. And certainly, we've seen some improving conditions here. Most recently and of course, as I said earlier, the -- the security that was provided for the provincial elections was just absolutely impressive. And that was based upon the great work of our Iraqi security force partners and the enablers that we provided them. But they did most of the work, so we were encouraged by that. 
 
            We have another set of elections that are on the horizon at the end of the year, the national elections, and we absolutely have to make sure that we have the adequate force available to provide that same degree of security that we saw at the end of January for the provincial elections. 
 
            Q     Well, what would be the size of that adequate force? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, I think what we have right now is what we -- what we plan on having for the foreseeable future. And again, it's hard to predict that. It will depend on whether or not security -- the trends continue to improve, or if things begin to take a turn in the other direction. But I'm fairly confident that we'll -- we'll be able to maintain what we have. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Yes, go ahead. 
 
            Q     General, same theme. Moving into 2010, how confident are you that you will be able to remove the combat forces -- with so many staying through the elections, as you just mentioned, that you'll be able to bring them out in an orderly way that doesn't leave some of those seams and gaps you referred to earlier? 
 
            And secondly, are you confident that the 30 (thousand) to 50 (thousand) remaining forces -- 50,000 remaining forces will be adequate to keep that security? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, yes, we are. And that confidence -- well, first of all, I mean, again, the president has been clear about the fact that our mission will change in 2010, and we are moving towards that direction. 
 
            I am confident that the forces that are required to be moved out of country will have the ability to do that in an orderly and measured fashion. And I'm also confident that based upon the progress that the Iraqi security forces have made, we'll be able to continue to provide the level of security adequate, that -- level of security that will be required for the future.   
 
            Again, I think sustainable security looks a lot like the Iraqi security forces having the capability and the capacity to do this for themselves in the future. We will be here to mentor them, to provide them enablers, where required. And so yes, I am confident that we can get the job done. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Let's go all the way back to Joe. 
 
            Q     General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. I would like to hear from you, sir, what's your current assessment to the Iraqi forces and how do you see these forces in the upcoming period, let's say from now till the end of 2010.   
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, you know, I think the Iraqi security forces are -- have greatly improved from just a year ago. If you'll recall, last year the Iraqi security forces, at the direction of the prime minister, conducted an operation down to the city of Basra, as the prime minister made a move to reestablish order in that city that was principally being controlled by extremist -- Shi'a extremist elements. And from that time period the Iraqi security forces have improved significantly with each and every operation.   
 
            And there have been many. They've conducted operations in Mosul, twice. They've conducted operations in the Diyala River Valley, in al-Mahara in Sadr City, and a number of other places. And each and every time that they've entered into a combat operation as our partners, they have done a remarkable job. They have improved significantly.   
 
            And so I would characterize the Iraqi security forces as being much more confident and much more capable than they were a year ago.   
 
            Having said that, I would also say that there's work to be done yet. We still have some work to do, to complete the buildup of their combat enablers, which include their ability to do combat engineering, their ability to provide battlefield medicine for themselves, logistics -- which have improved greatly over the last year, by the way, but there's work to be done -- their ability to provide indirect fires for themselves.   
 
            And so over the next year, I look forward to our forces working, with them, to continue to work on those issues. But they've improved significantly. They've grown tremendously over the last year as well. And if you just look at the army, over the last 18 months, I mean, they've expanded in a significant fashion. And they've done that all while fighting and re-equipping themselves with new equipment.   
 
            If you look at their ranks today, you'll see that the Iraqis have a number of new humvees. They have -- some of them -- many of them are carrying M-16s. And the equipment has improved significantly.   
 
            So I am confident they will continue to improve. We are committed to expanding side-by-side with them, working with them as partners, on a daily basis, and helping to continue to teach, coach and mentor where appropriate. But I think the future remains bright for the Iraqi security forces.   
 
            Next question, please.   
 
            (Cross talk.)   
 
            Q     General, we don't often get to ask Army officers Air Force questions. But as the commander of the joint and coalition force, you're the right guy here. As the American ground presence diminishes, what will be the effect on the requirement for American airpower, ISR, medical, logistics, even bringing kinetics to protect Americans and Iraqis in context?   
 
            Will Air Force numbers drop at that same rate as the American ground force?  Or do you see it being sustained or even growing?   
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, I certainly don't think that Air Force numbers will drop at the same rate. They could, but I doubt that.   
 
            I think that they will -- that we will tailor our force, as we've already begun to do, to meet the emerging needs of the future. And the result of that -- or an example of that is that we have just recently redeployed an F-16 squadron because they were no longer needed. We had enough combat power to address the threat that we're currently seeing. Certainly there will be a requirement for ISR for the foreseeable future. That is a tremendous combat enabler, and we'll need that for some time to come. 
 
            To -- so to answer your question, I think that we'll continue to tailor and shape the force, but it may not be exactly -- or in exact proportions to the ground force. 
 
            Q     General, I'd like to follow up on that, please. This is Nancy Youssef from McClatchy Newspapers. Could -- do you then see a greater demand on the air support?   
 
            And more broadly, we've heard a lot about the number of troops that will be in Iraq in the foreseeable future. Could you walk us through your plan for equipment and how quickly you see getting equipment out of Iraq? Particularly, they talked about a 19-month withdrawal. Do you see -- what kind of equipment do you see leaving in Iraq, and what kind do you see pulling out in that time? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Okay. I think the first part of your question -- had a little trouble hearing that, but the first part of your question was regarding the air power and whether or not I saw a greater demand in the future for air resources. I think that I certainly don't expect to see any greater than what we have currently. I think, once again, we'll have to tailor that force to the requirements for the future. It may -- it may be that we will require a bit more ISR than kinetic activity -- or kinetic capability. But we'll approach that -- we'll address that as time -- as the time comes in the future. 
 
            In terms of equipment, the type of equipment that we'll need to keep on the ground, again, I think that we'll need to keep some equipment to be able to protect ourselves, but as the president said, in 2010 our mission will change. And so much of the combat equipment that we currently have we may not have a need for in the future. So we'll have to redeploy some of that. 
 
            And we're working through those pieces. We're thinking through that. And I think our logisticians are doing a great job.   
 
            And, you know, to go back to the question of whether or not we can move all of our equipment out of country in a measured and organized fashion, I remind everyone that this is what we do, and we have been doing it for six years. We've been rotating units in and out of theater and it's gone unnoticed in especially the last four or five years because our people have learned to do it so well.   
 
            And so I don't anticipate any hiccups. I think we'll make assessments with my subordinate commanders in terms of what equipment we need to keep and the rest will be retrograded, as we pointed out earlier. 
 
            Q     Can I just follow up on that? At this point, do you anticipate that all equipment will continue to come out of Kuwait only, or are you hoping to have other ways to get that equipment out through other countries? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, you know, certainly it's always good to have options. And we'll address those possibilities with the appropriate governments as, you know, the requirements present themselves. But I think if we only had to use Kuwait, we could get the job done. And certainly we got it here principally with flowing most of the stuff through Kuwait and using our air lines of communication -- flying stuff in and flying it out as well.   
 
            So, you know, again, I think that we can do this in a very measured and organized fashion. And I don't have any concerns in that regard. 
 
            Q     Yeah, General, this is Kernon Chaisson with Forecast International and the Journal of Electronic Defense. The Army has decided very smartly to enhance its EW capability. It's beginning to train soldiers, start their schools and that sort of thing. From your standpoint on the ground, how do you see this as a move on the part of the Army? Over the past year or so, the Air Force and the Navy have been helping out; now they'll be transitioning to the Army. What sort of changes have you seen on the ground there as a result? And what do you anticipate in the future? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, first of all, let me -- that's a great question. Let me thank our brethren and sisters in the Air Force and the Navy -- the Navy principally -- for helping us with additional EW capability. 
 
            They have done remarkable work in not only providing capability to help us on the ground, but also training -- helping to train our soldiers to take on this responsibility for ourselves in the future. 
 
            This is a capability that I think we're going to need to have, you know, for some time to come. And I think the fact that we've developed our own capability -- or are developing our own capability -- I think we're headed in the right direction. This is a key component of how we do business on a daily basis. You know, we have -- each of our subordinate elements down to brigade level now has UAVs. We continuously run into new and interesting things on the battlefield that are -- that we need to address, in the form of IEDs and other things. And that EW capability has been absolutely critical for us. 
 
            And so thanks again to our sister services for helping us out there. And again, we will continue to develop this. And we are just now seeing the lead elements of our recently-trained EW soldiers hit the battlefield, and we're excited about that. But that's a great question, and thanks for asking it. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, next. 
 
            Q     General, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC. Do you think it's realistic to expect that all U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, or will that SOFA agreement have to be renegotiated? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, hey, Jim, I'll leave that to our senior leadership to -- to address that question there. I think that where we stand right now is that we have a security agreement with the Iraqi -- with the government of Iraq, excuse me -- that says that our forces will leave by 2011. And so from my perspective, you know, we are focused on that. And if there is something that is addressed in the future or is negotiated in the future, that will be really addressed by our civilian leadership. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead -- (off mike). 
 
            Q     General, Chris Lawrence from CNN. With fewer troops there, are you worried about areas that don't seem to be controlled, like Mosul, and some of the tensions that seem to be rising between the Arabs and Kurds? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: There are always a number of things that could cause us problems. And certainly, you know, I've been clear about the fact that there's work to be done yet in Mosul, in Diyala. There are things that can pull us off track and cause violence to really reignite in a greater way. And so we continue to watch those things and we develop contingencies to address those issues should they arise. 
 
            But bear in mind -- you know, I take you back to what I said as a part of my opening statement.  You know, I came in or we came in at the end of the surge brigade period there, so as soon as the 18th Airborne Corps came in, we began to off-ramp surge brigades. And so I have been faced with trying to not only maintain the gains that we had achieved, but also continue to improve upon them with fewer forces. 
 
            So we've been doing this for some time. And not only were we able to maintain what we had achieved, we were able to drop the level of violence down even further. Again, you know, it's a question of using every instrument of power that you have in the arsenal. It's a question of making sure that you have thought through to significant detail of what your future challenges may be, and it's a question of how much you partnered with your Iraqi security forces to be able to address those emerging issues. 
 
            The Iraqi security forces, again, are much more capable than they were a year ago. And so where we have gotten a little smaller, they have grown in capability, and the fact that we're working together hand in hand is really guarding against those emerging seams and gaps from getting out of control. We can anticipate what they may be -- what those gaps may be, and you can rest assured that we will have them covered as we move forces around. 
 
            Next question, please. 
 
            Q     To follow up, I mean, you talked about having contingency plans if something -- if the violence does increase, but doesn't having fewer troops reduce the number of contingency plans you can come up with, reduce some of your flexibility? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: It could -- yeah, it does, sure. 
 
            But again, we have to look at the total force, and that total force includes what coalition forces we have, plus a much improved Iraqi security force. And I think when we look at the capability across the board, we understand that, you know, we still have the ability to do a number of things and do them very well. 
 
            Again, this is a thing that we as -- with the 18th Airborne Corps Headquarters, have been faced with since the day we walked in the theater. And we've been able to do it because of our partnership and because of our ability to kind of keep an eye on the emerging hot spots and maneuver our forces to address those hot spots before they can get out of control. 
 
            But -- there are issues, but I don't think there are any issues that we have not thought through. 
 
            Next question? 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: We ran out of time, so -- (off mike) -- be nice. 
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- General, final question from Voice of America, and this is related to the previous question. How would you assess the level of political reconciliation in the country -- you talked about a couple of areas -- but also in Baghdad among the parties? And how will that level of reconciliation impact on security leading up to the elections and after the elections? 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, you know, reconciliation has been a work in progress for some time and will continue to be so in the future. 
 
            I can tell you -- I can point to one significant thing that demonstrates that the government is serious about reconciliation, and that is what I mentioned earlier, the Sons of Iraq program. 
 
            You know, a year ago, a lot of people told me that the Iraqi government would never take this program on and manage it themselves. And so here we are, a year later, you know -- the Iraqi government is in control of most of the entire program. And every time that they've made a move to annex more of the program, they've done it in a measured way, and it is a success story across the country. And that's near 100,000 Sons of Iraq that they have integrated and are now in control of and are paying them on a daily basis. 
 
            So they are making efforts to work the reconciliation piece. We -- certainly we had those same issues that you just mentioned prior to the provincial elections, but you saw what the security situation was during that time period. 
 
            I think we'll continue to make progress. I think, you know, we just saw the prime minister just recently say that, you know, he embraces reconciliation and encourages people to continue to move forward on this. So, you know, I think, again, the government is serious about --  
 
            MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- just about out of time, and I do want to give the general the last opportunity to give us any of his final thoughts as he wraps up this tour and the time that he has spent with us in this room for several sessions. General, over to you. 
 
            GEN. AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Bryan. And thanks, ladies and gentlemen, for joining me again today, and I appreciate your questions, and I have truly enjoyed my time with you during our tour in Iraq. 
 
            I'd like to close by saying that the tremendous progress that has been achieved in Iraq has been phenomenal. And we are close to sustainable security, but we're not there yet. 
 
            We'll remain committed to doing everything we can to achieve this and to prepare the Iraqis for the transition over the next year. 
 
            I'd also like to say that it's been truly an honor and a privilege for me to serve with our young service men and women here in Iraq. They never fail to impress me with their motivation, with their professionalism and their fortitude. I'd like to thank our tremendously supportive families back home for their many sacrifices over a long and difficult employment -- deployment.   
 
            And so thanks again for being here with us today. I look forward to talking with you again in some other forum. We'll see you next time. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: You're always welcome in this room in person when you return.  Best wishes for a safe and speedy redeployment.