DOD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Lefever from the Pentagon
COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning. It's my privilege to introduce Vice Admiral Michael LeFever, the commander of the Office of the Defense Representative- Pakistan, based in Islamabad. He's here today to provide an update on U.S. military support to Pakistan's flood relief efforts.
Admiral LeFever assumed command of what we call ODR-P in Pakistan in July 2008. He also led the U.S. disaster assistance center that was responsible for coordinating the American response to Pakistan's devastating earthquake in 2005. So he brings a wealth of experience and a unique perspective regarding U.S.-Pakistani military relationship and our humanitarian assistance efforts there. The admiral will make a few brief opening comments and then take your questions. He does have an appointment to get to quickly, so you have him for about 25 minutes.
VADM LEFEVER: Thank you, thank you. Like he said, I'd like to make a brief statement and then -- and then take your questions.
Obviously, thank you very much for being here today. I appreciate the opportunity to update you on the support provided to Pakistan's flood relief efforts by the U.S. military. Again, my name is Vice Admiral Mike LeFever, and I currently have the great privilege to serve as the commander of the Office of Defense Representative-Pakistan, from the U.S. embassy there in Islamabad. Before I take your questions, I'd like to update you briefly on our efforts to support Pakistan's flood relief operations, which began just over a month ago.
By now, the extent of the disaster should be clear. Without a doubt, this is the single worst natural disaster in Pakistan's history. At the height of the flooding, it's estimated that about one-fifth of Pakistan was submerged. More than 17 million Pakistani citizens have been affected, and 1.2 million homes damaged or destroyed. And while the 1,600 who died may not seem high when compared to other recent disasters, the staggering numbers who face the very real and life-threatening dangers of the waterborne diseases, starvation, lack of shelter continue to make this an urgent crisis which deserves our full support and our attention.
As many may be aware, this is the second time in my career that I've had -- been in a position to assist our Pakistani friends during a natural disaster. Just as we were during the earthquake relief operations in 2005, the United States is here once again to help. We are committed to providing assistance requested by the government of Pakistan to aid the people of Pakistan in their time of need.
Since the flooding began, the U.S. military has provided a unique capability to rapidly deliver much-needed aid and humanitarian assistance. Our response to this terrible disaster was immediate. Only 36 hours into the flooding, U.S. Air Force C-130s and C-17 aircraft had already begun aid flights, delivering more than 436,000 halal meals for distribution for Pakistani authorities.
Six U.S. Army helicopters were dispatched from Afghanistan shortly afterwards to Ghazi Air Base in Tarbela to begin urgently requested relief flights which continue today both at Ghazi in the north of Pakistan and in the air base in the south called Pano Aqil, thanks to follow-on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and Army helicopters. In addition, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps C-130 cargo planes and C-17s continue to assist the Pakistan government with transportation of international aid to required locations throughout the country, to include Sukkur, Multan, Quetta, Shara-e-Faisal, Jacobabad, Gilgit and Skardu.
To meet the government of Pakistan's request for assistance with expediting smooth flow of international aid to Pakistan and out to those in need, we also deployed approximately 40 U.S. Air Force personnel, part of a contingency response element, to Pakistan Air Force Base Chaklala right in Islamabad. These airmen support Pakistan's civil-military efforts to receive, unload and offload humanitarian relief supplies aboard U.S. military and other military cargo aircraft at Chaklala, and deliver it to Pakistan government distribution centers throughout the country.
To date, the U.S. military aircraft supporting flood relief efforts in Pakistan have now transported more than 4 million pounds of humanitarian assistance supplies and rescued more than 12,800 people within Pakistan, delivering aid and providing transport to people who urgently need emergency assistance.
The scenes of Pakistani and U.S. military members working together to evacuate Pakistani citizens from areas cut off by the floods and delivering aid have been inspiring and noteworthy. It points to a relationship developed not overnight, but through years of deepening commitment to learn from one another, build strong security assistance partnership based on mutual trust and respect. Whether it's combating floods or working together to safeguard Pakistani people in the region from terrorism, we can all be proud of what's been accomplished to date to save lives and bring hope to Pakistan.
I'm happy to entertain your questions.
VADM LEFEVER: Yes, ma'am.
Q Is it correct that COIN operations have been suspended in certain areas? And do you expect that this will have any lasting effect on the counterterrorism fight there?
VADM LEFEVER: It's interesting. Quite the contrary, we have not seen many of the Pakistan military forces move out of the areas that they were involved in in the west and northwest, and General Kayani had mentioned that to Admiral Mullen when -- in his recent visit out there. What they've used is other forces from their corps commanders because of the extent of the flood. And we are still engaged in security assistance, cooperation and COIN training with the Pak military in addition to the flood relief.
Q So you would say that there's been zero effect -- the flood has had zero effect on COIN operations?
VADM LEFEVER: It has taken some of the resources -- some of the aviation resources that would be supporting the operations, that are -- that are used to rescue people and to help. But as far as the number of troops and the focus of the Pakistan military, it has not. It's not wavered in the west or in the northwest.
Q Admiral, if I could follow up on that, they haven't moved the forces, but have they changed the schedule or the calendar in terms of when they're going to move into the additional areas that they've been expected to move into?
VADM LEFEVER: Boy, that's a great question. As they -- as they work together on the different operations, they have a campaign plan that they're adhering to in most areas, I think. And the extent of devastation has affected both the military, the people and the insurgents in that area. And so I think for everything -- everything's kind of in a set right now to understand what's going on and how that's impacted everybody across the board.
As far as their campaign line, as in anything, I think there's adjustments that are made based on resources that are available and troops that are available. But they have not withdrawn from any of the areas.
Q So when do you expect them to be able to move forward?
VADM LEFEVER: I think we're seeing it. In fact, last week I think you might have noticed that they're continuing the fight to the areas. There were insurgents killed out in the Tirah Valley by a helicopter and air strike. And so it shows me that they are still very much concerned with the extremists and the operations, and they continue to do that while doing their relief operations.
Q Thanks, Admiral. Have they requested any additional equipment? And also, how is the situation as far as health, medicine and food is concerned? Are the people still crying for food and not reaching to the people?
VADM LEFEVER: Great question. We work very closely with their National Disaster Management Authority -- General Nadeem, who is retired and is now head of their NDMA. That has been the central focus point for the government of Pakistan and the Pak military. He's been exceptional. He was one of our partners during the earthquake in 2005 and 2006, and then he was also instrumental in the internally displaced personnel that were -- that moved out of the Swat area in their campaign about a year ago. He is very familiar with the international aid, and he is collecting and administering daily briefings and updates for all personnel, to all the NGOs, to all the -- all the countries regarding their needs and assessments. And we're working very closely with them and with our USAID and DART partners to be able to respond to the needs of the government of Pakistan for those -- for those efforts.
My impression is, is that -- you know, this is -- the extent of damage is unbelievable. I had the wonderful opportunity to ride with Admiral Mullen on his trip with General Kayani to look at the devastated areas, particularly in the south. Areas where maybe only the Indus River was 10 kilometers long, it's now 50 kilometers and is spreading. The amount of devastation -- to see islands of homes scattered around the countryside and roads cut off, it is incredible to watch.
And to watch this, unlike the earthquake, which -- in a matter of minutes, you know, an incredible number of people died and were injured, but it was isolated to about 30,000 square kilometers. This is now hundreds of [thousands of] square kilometers, and you're watching the flood waters continue to go down the Indus, which has been given -- helped them in order to evacuate people out of the low-lying areas, but also if there is -- it's like watching a tsunami wave in slow motion to see the devastation that's still occurring.
So they're keeping ahead of it. They're pushing the focus towards the south, as people continue -- as the damages continue to go south.
Q Admiral Mullen has made several trips to Pakistan to build this relationship, to let this to, you know, allow this kind of cooperation. Last week Gates was in southern Afghanistan, and one of the soldiers there asked him what was the possibility of the likelihood of further or increased direct military engagement in Pakistan. He said then: Very low.
And so I'm wondering: What is it that the U.S. wants to be allowed to do in Pakistan with its own troops, and how does this flooding event change any of that?
VADM LEFEVER: I'm not sure the flooding changes anything. We're there for the flooding, to support them in their time of need, much like we did for the earthquake.
The operations that continue -- that's a kind of a subject -- a different matter to be discussed at a different time.
But you know, Pakistan is a sovereign country. They are -- they are taking the fight. They have been engaged in the last 16 months, with over 147,000 troops in that area, going after the insurgents that affect their country and are threatened to them. And so we are there to support them in their efforts to be able to carry out their operations.
Q So what would you say to that same soldier in southern Afghanistan, the guys down there who are kind of looking over the border and wondering if that -- what's next for them?
VADM LEFEVER: I think we need to give credit to the Pakistani armed forces that have been engaged in this -- in this fight. Over the last years they have incurred 2,000 -- over 2,000 killed in action and over 8,000 injured in their fight against violent extremists. And they're taking the fight to the enemy, to be able to rid them of their country of these insurgents as well.
Q Admiral, this may be above your pay grade, but you know, with the extent of the devastation in Pakistan, this is obviously -- there's a reconstruction/development effort going on. Do you know whether -- what the United States' commitment to that effort will be?
VADM LEFEVER: That's a great question. Right now, as you can well imagine, we've had ongoing strategic dialogue with Pakistan for some time that Ambassador Holbrooke [and the] Secretary of State, you know, recently had. We are looking at another update of that strategic dialogue in the October time frame. And I'm back in country the -- part of our normal planning is to update our civilian-military assistance plan and engagement plan with Pakistan.
For us, I think when you look at the incredible devastation that has occurred to Pakistan, that this would -- this was an overpowering -- an event that has occurred that has devastated quite a bit of Pakistan, and I think it would be -- I think it is a major effort. And what we are looking at is how this will affect -- as you know, many of the programs we had set aside with USAID and with State and with the military assistance -- we're contributing to much of these areas, you know, power, electric, water and irrigation, livelihoods and military assistance. What I think we'll need to do is take a look at how this is -- this impacts. And it's hard to make that assessment because they're still watching, this still will continue -- those damages continue.
I know the Asian Development Bank and World Bank are planning their disaster needs assessment, and I think it would be wise for us to wait to see how extensive the damage is, what that needs assessment points to, and then, I think, from that make adjustments to our plan of the amount of monies that are of the Kerry-Lugar bill, the military assistance and so forth that can best support Pakistan during this rebuild.
Q Do you expect us to be there for a longer duration?
VADM LEFEVER: Well, I think, you know, if you use an example of the earthquake, you know, it's funny to watch. We are still in areas of Kashmir and up in Kashmir in the northwest, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and some of those development programs that were started back after the earthquake to help rebuild are still ongoing. So United States has been there for Pakistan all along, and I suspect that our efforts will continue throughout that, through their rebuild, reconstruction for this disaster as well.
Q Admiral, there have been comparisons to the U.S. military aid that's been brought into Haiti versus Pakistan, and just concerns about what sort of impact that might have on perceptions within Pakistan. I'm wondering if you've heard anything on the ground, anything that concerns you, comparisons among everyday Pakistanis.
VADM LEFEVER: That's an interesting comment. You know, having been there for the earthquake and watching that, there was a positive trend that, you know, U.S. was there to help. We watched that. We're seeing some indications that the U.S. aid is appreciated. Like in anything, U.S. is there to support Pakistan and help our friends in need. They've helped us at times; we're helping them. And it will take time, I think, to see if there is an impact or whatever regarding our efforts.
But watching it and watching it occur, I know our relationships that have been forged from before are continuing to grow. The relations with the military, their support, as we're supporting them in their operations, they've set us up at their bases, they're supporting us across the board. It's really been wonderful to watch, and it just grows the relationship even more, from my perspective.
Q Is there anything that you've heard kind of that you would characterize as sort of, you know, any sort of resentment or comparison between Haitian aid versus --
VADM LEFEVER: No, it really isn't. And because I wasn't a part of Haiti, so I'm kind of reluctant to say anything, but the magnitude and scale of what we're doing now and what we did during the earthquake, I can tell you this, is, you know, about the same and continuing to support. You know, the disasters were very different, but at the same time, U.S. incredible response. Nobody in the world can respond like the U.S. can with its support of strategic airlift and sealift. And to be that responsive, as we talked about, you know, within 36 hours being able to deliver meals, deliver helicopters across the border to support their relief efforts, there's no one else in the world that can provide that kind of support. And so that's just kind of an indication of our partnership with Pakistan.
Q What sort of involvement with personnel do you have in Quetta at the moment? And do you have any concerns about security for American personnel working in areas where they are known to be Pakistan Taliban?
VADM LEFEVER: As far as Quetta, we are there providing supplies to the Quetta airport, they have asked us in the distribution. They have a very good system right now of an air planning cell that's headed with the national Disaster Management Authority and the military, that brings the NGO agencies together and the militaries that are providing support, airlift and so forth, to be able to put together where the needs are, based on population and whatever, and distribute that.
Our effort is providing some aid down to Quetta in the form of strat airlift into the hub there, that's then distributed by military and other agencies down in Quetta. So my footprint is, I guess, temporal at times, based on the number of aircraft that go in.
As far as security throughout, as in the earthquake, the Pakistan military and government have been wonderfully supportive of and very concerned about not only our security but all the NGOs' security, particularly what the impacts might be should an event occur hurting the aid relief in whatever way.
And I have been very comfortable that the Pakistan military has been incredibly supportive of our efforts. We have Pakistani pilots that ride with us, with our air crews, and have Pakistani troops on board our aircraft. And they're the face, because we're supporting them, that meet the folks on the ground, help distribute the aid as well as to bring the evacuees on board the aircraft.
It is a concern, but I am very comfortable with what Pakistan has been doing. They have been doing a credible job in the support, like they did in the earthquake, and even now with this flood area, particularly in the areas of concern.
Q Admiral, Admiral Mullen was giving a presentation, when he was there in Multan last week, about -- and one element of it was the length of time that reconstruction might take, and the estimate was one to three years. Do you think that's optimistic? Or do you think that's realistic? And what is the U.S. doing to help in terms of assessing the full scale of damage and what kind of reconstruction might be needed? Is the Army Corps of Engineers helping at all with the assessment?
VADM LEFEVER: Great question. We have -- we have provided -- the Army Corps of Engineers, of course, has an incredible unique service and unique capabilities to be able to provide. And we have provided names and skill sets of our Army Corps of Engineers FEST-A team [Forward Engineer Support Team – Advance] with their skill sets that have come into other areas to help the other international organizations to make assessments. So we are -- we have provided that support, and we expect to hear an answer back shortly as the teams are formed, to be able to do the damage-needs assessment that's coming up. And I think Asian Development Bank is the lead in this particular area to do the assessment.
It's hard to say how long, when you think about the devastation, you know, of one-fifth their country underwater, the roads destroyed, the crops that have been damaged along the very fertile grounds of the Indus River. I think you can just kind of make a guesstimate of that many people displaced, for the waters to recede in some areas, the water table is very high and it will take a while for the water to recede to open up the -- you know, the major lines of communication in some areas.
I think the crops, depending on how quickly the lands -- whether or not they're able to plant the winter wheat or whether they'll have to wait for another cycle, what crops were damaged. The areas that we flew over indicated there was a rice and cotton. And of course they are big manufacturing.
We also saw some of the areas where some of the oil fields were flooded, which stopped some of the production of some of their oil refineries. So all these have second- and third-order effects. But I think -- I think everybody's eager to see how much damage and how extensive it will be. But it -- but it's fairly wide and extensive.
And boy, a time frame, that'd be tough to say, because you could say, well, maybe in agriculture it's a year or two years, and in other areas it might not be as fast. Already, you know, I've seen -- even during the earthquake I saw roads that were destroyed, and I said, geez, this'll take a year to rebuild this road or to get traffic open to some areas. Months later, it was open. Their federal works, their highways, was incredible.
They already have opened up some lanes of the Karakoram Highway, up to -- which was a cut-off area -- Skardu and Gilgit, up in -- up in Gilgit-Baltistan, where 1.6 million people were literally cut off from the -- from a landslide from the north that was stopping traffic from China and then the landslides and the floods from the south. So this area of population was being resupplied by air exclusively for about the last month, and we're still connecting flights into that area with, you know, a minor road open, but it still provides some relief for people to come out.
So it's amazing to watch, and I'm watching the resiliency of what they're able to do.
Q Question about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets the United States has in the region. Are they being -- are Global Hawks being brought to bear? Given the extent of the destruction, are U.S. national technical means being brought to bear to provide wide-area coverage?
VADM LEFEVER: When we -- Admiral Mullen and we have offered our assistance to be able to help do some of the needs assessment, and in fact in some areas we are, where we're helping them with -- as they do the damage-needs assessment, or initial ones, to look at what was before and what is now, to be able to do that. We have offered all the capabilities that we have to offer for the -- for the government to be able to do those needs assessments.
Q Have they taken up any offers?
VADM LEFEVER: They have been taken -- they -- we are working closely with them in areas that they're looking to support their efforts. And so I -- I'm working with them very closely in that -- in that regard.
Q (Off mike)
VADM LEFEVER: We have that offered -- available. Part of it is also because of the weather, the monsoons. We still think the monsoons are going to continue well into September, which, of course -- and they have some terrific ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] assets themselves, with their F-16s, with their C-130s and others, that they're also supporting, and part of their helicopter support that's been out and about has been doing quite a bit of survey as well to be able to -- I think the -- what was announced recently is for them to identify this very unique system of credit cards with the NADRA[National Database and Registration Authority], with their national database, to be able to identify those families that were affected, their homes were affected. And these credit cards are stamped with -- I think it's 20,000 rupees. I'd need to get back to you on the figure.
But they did it during the internally displaced personnels up in Swat, General Nadeem's idea, a tremendous idea, identify the family, have a tracking system, be able to put against essentially a credit card this amount of money for this family, particularly now in their time of Eid holidays coming up. And it keeps accountability of the system. They know which families have been reimbursed, which ones have areas that are destroyed.
And so as they're making their assessment, it's really a unique system, and very well done, very well executed. They did it, like I said, during Swat, was exceptional, and they've elected to do the same thing with General Nadeem's idea for the affected families in the floods.
Q Is that a MasterCard or a U.S. company --
VADM LEFEVER: It is. It's like that. It's like a bank card that's validated by their national database, because they have a national identity system. And so they verify where the folks live, the damage to their house, and then they are issued this card with funds administered to it. And then it's also tracked, as well, what the people use it for as well as which people were reimbursed for their losses. Really a neat system.
COL. LAPAN: We can take two more questions and then we need to get the admiral out of here.
Q Admiral, you just mentioned that you offer some of these assets but haven't heard back. And it seems to me that we also heard that a couple of weeks ago with regard to the helicopters, and then sort of one day there was like a doubling of the number of helicopters.
So my question is, one, has there been some reluctance by the Pakistanis to accept too much foreign assistance, rather wanting to do it on their own, that may have extended the period of suffering for some people? And secondly, what's your level of confidence in the distribution of all this aid that you're dropping off into the Pakistani distribution system?
VADM LEFEVER: Okay. The first one, assets, I think it was hard to scope the magnitude of the problem. I think anybody at the time -- because they know what's needed for people around the world to provide them assistance, that that comes at a cost, obviously, to transport folks in and equip and in, and I think it was just them trying to get their arms around how big this damage was. So I don't characterize that at all.
We -- you know, immediately upon the request, offered -- you know, the helicopters came across from Afghanistan, and then two weeks later we have helicopters flowing in from the 16th CAV, from Alaska; the 15th MEU that was on station the Gulf, that brought aviation assets in; 26th MEU has been tasked to get under way early, as you know, to be able to provide aviation assets.
And so we're postured to support them as they see fit, as the need grows. And as in anything, some of these assets are hard to predict, their maintenance levels and so forth, do they need more, do they need less. And so we're standing ready to be able to support them.
As far as the distribution, like I said, this new -- this air planning cell. And they developed this also during the earthquake, which we were a part of. It has World Food Program. It has UNHCR agencies, it has the government of Pakistan, it has the Pak military, Pak air force, Pak army. It's administered by the aviation right there at Chaklala airfield. And it's -- and has visibility of the amount of aid that's coming in, the population centers, where the aid has gone and what needs to be distributed into different areas.
And so it's a fairly -- and it essentially sets up what we would call an air tasking order for the next day or the next follow-on missions, as, okay, today with these resources being provided from U.S. Air Force and Marine C-130s and C-17s, Pakistan C-130s, as you know some other countries have C-130s, and they all put the resources in, who's available, what stores are on hand at Chaklala, at the hub.
We even have hubs now at Lahore and others, that we're using some of the supplies out of Lahore to be able to push out to Quetta, which was your question, because what was unique is the water actually went around this area called Jacobabad, and is starting to flow down and has almost isolated Quetta, so they're doing air supply.
But this planning, so it gets out to the local distribution and then based on the roads being open is -- or if not, the helicopter support, and helps us put our helicopter assets to use. Under that system, it is, I consider, very well organized and very well maintained, as well as a good common operating picture of what is coming in, what's being distributed and where it has gone.
Q There's been some commentary that there's a sense of donor fatigue by the American public in terms of the response to this -- the floods. And there's also been a significant drop-off in the amount of international community donor aid. I think you saw the significant influx at the start, and now that the magnitude of the flooding is being realized and the scope of it, that donor aid has just dropped down, I think 20 million in the last -- 20 billion [dollars], excuse me -- in the last couple of weeks.
Is your sense that the -- is this -- is it your sense that those comments -- commentaries are accurate? And what do you attribute the -- this donor fatigue to, both by the American public and international community?
VADM LEFEVER: That's a good question. This was a phenomena that also occurred during the earthquake, you know, after the tsunami, after the different events that occurred for that year. Even Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot -- you know, so many people have donated so much.
I think there's part of the donor fatigue here in Pakistan. Part of it -- you know, unfortunate, you know -- and I say unfortunate because in some -- I don't know whether we know the extent of it. And so the figure of 1,600 people dead kind of almost desensitizes people: "Well, it can't be that bad; only 1,600 people died." But I think when they realize the extent of the damage -- I think you'll see a boost as we complete what we talked about, these Asian Development Bank national disaster -- the disaster needs assessment and so forth. I think when people realize the incredible extent of damage, that there will be another push for a donors' conference to be able to help with their rebuild and reconstruction.
So it is funny to watch and, boy, hard to predict what is causing the amount of monies that's come in that aren't -- I guess Angelina Jolie is in country, just like she was during the earthquake, and that helps in ways, as well as, you know, USAID Director Rajiv Shah was in. Ambassador Holbrooke is due to come out, you know. And so hopefully the visibility of the extent of the damage will continue to keep the interest in folks, and then when the disaster needs come out, I think, will be another huge spike that -- I think it'll be overwhelming, the amount of -- the amount of disaster and what it will take to rebuild and reconstruct Pakistan. Yeah.
So we're hoping at the end that, you know -- and I think the world community, as always, responds, you know, to other countries in need, Pakistan being one of the biggest contributors to the U.N. mission. It's interesting to watch the outflow of other countries pouring into Pakistan as well. So. Last question?
Q Yes, just one more.
VADM LEFEVER: Yes, ma'am.
Q How do you see the capacity of the Pakistani government to deal with the disaster?
VADM LEFEVER: I think, as in anything, this was overwhelming, would have overwhelmed any government. And I think, as time goes on, they are -- they will be able to adapt and respond to the extent of it as they get the needs assessment and be able to manage it.
But that's really -- you know, I know from our aspect, we're helping their government and the military in their support, so making an assessment on that is hard for me to judge, because right now I'm kind of still focused on what we can do to support in the disaster side of it. And as we, you know, build together reconstruction, I think that will be in the next chapter in the book of what happens in Pakistan.
Q (Off mike) -- your mission in any way or Pakistani mission going after the terrorists?
VADM LEFEVER: I think we answered that before, that I didn't -- I don't think so. The forces are still arranged in the areas where the extremists operate. And so I applaud the Pak military in that.
And thank you very much.
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