DOD News Briefing with Under Secretary Flournoy and Gen. Cartwright from the Pentagon
MODERATOR: Well, thank you for joining us this afternoon. Our two briefers are probably people that need no introduction, but I will anyway. Michele Flournoy, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and General [James] Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are here to talk to you about the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review that came out today.
Ms. Flournoy has a brief statement and then she'll take your questions.
MS. FLOURNOY: Good afternoon.
This week we completed a review of the implementation of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as articulated by the president at West Point last December. The core goal of U.S. strategy in the theater remains unchanged: to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al-Qaida, and to prevent its return to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The review found that while challenges remain, there is real progress that we can build on.
And while there are improvements to be made, we do not anticipate any major shifts in our strategy going forward.
Over the past year, we have made great strides against core al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the border region. As the president noted earlier, al-Qaida senior leadership in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago. We remain relentlessly focused on Pakistan-based al-Qaida because of the strategic nature of the threat they pose and, in particular, the group's continued pursuit of large-scale attacks against the West and its influence on global terrorism. Our posture and efforts to counter these threats will continue unabated.
Pakistan is central to our efforts to defeat al-Qaida and prevent its regeneration in the region. Over the past year, our relationship with Pakistan has improved substantially through continued robust counterterrorism and counterinsurgency cooperation, increased civilian and military assistance, and a long-term partnership that is anchored in our improved understanding of Pakistani strategic needs. However, in order to ensure that our gains against core al-Qaida are durable, we must continue to make progress to eliminate sanctuaries for extremist networks.
In Afghanistan, for the first time ever, we have assembled the necessary resources and put in place an integrated civil-military approach, partnered with the Afghan government. Our strategy in Afghanistan, as the president said, is on track, and our gains are setting the groundwork to begin a responsible, conditions-based reduction of U.S. forces in July of 2011. We have stopped Taliban momentum in much of Afghanistan and reversed it in key areas. In particular, we are pushing the Taliban out of their strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar.
Insurgent influence has been degraded by ISAF and the Afghan national security forces through increased -- increases in partnered counterinsurgency operations, expanded special operations and the growth of local security initiatives, such as the Afghan local police program. While considerable, this progress does remain fragile and reversible. A number of challenges remain, and we expect the Taliban to continue to fight back in response to our efforts. This was a clear-eyed assessment, and we are realistic about the challenges going forward.
Going forward, our challenge is to consolidate and build on the progress we made in 2010. And over the next six months, our policy agenda will focus on how we can adjust our approach to solidify these gains. But we believe we are on a path to begin a transition -- excuse me -- to transition lead security responsibility to the Afghans in early 2011 and to have Afghans in the lead nationwide in 2014, in accordance with the timelines established by President Obama, President Karzai and our NATO allies at Lisbon.
Finally, I'd like to give special thanks and holiday wishes to our troops serving in Afghanistan and to their families. It is their contributions and sacrifice that have made this progress possible. And we're very grateful for that.
MODERATOR: Why don't we -- why don't we just start left to -- or right to left, left to right, whatever, Thom, and we'll just start going this way across the front row.
Q: You start to see more people come out and question the whole strategy now. There was a recent Council on Foreign Relations report that came out, Rich Armitage and Sandy Berger. And they're saying if you don't see real progress by July, you should look at a change in mission, a much different mission, one of strict counter-terror training, strict counterterrorism, you know, and also training the Afghan security forces.
And General, I'm particularly interested in what you have to say about this, because reportedly you came up with that kind of a plan for the vice president. And you may be chairman of the Joint Chiefs next July, so I'm interested in what you have to say about that.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I'll discount all the rumors at the end of the statement. But the issue, really, from my perspective is one of balance. And the balance should be constantly adjusted to the realities of the battlefield. And what we have given General Petraeus is a force that has the ability to do both counterterrorism and the COIN-type activities.
The question becomes, what's the right balance at any given time on the battlefield? And do you have enough flexibility that you can move back and forth?
My sense right now is that that balance and the adjustments that he's been able to make have given us the gains. We're at 18 months on a 24-month timeline that was set out as one of the original metrics, which was measured off of the Marines arriving in Helmand province in July of 2009, so 24 months later became July of 2011. So that's what set up our metric base.
So we have six months in which we would expect to see progress in those areas, particularly with the Marines in Helmand province. I think that's going to give us a good insight as to whether or not -- some people have called this proof-of-concept decision, but does that metric really hold up, do we have the right balance, should it be more of either COIN or CT at that point.
What Lisbon gave us was the idea of 2014, which allows us to then take what we believe is the correct strategy and move it out to 2014 for a transition to Afghan lead in security in particular. So now we have another signpost out there. Post 2014 is really the realization of an enduring partnership, should that go forward and what's the character of that partnership.
What we have to do in the next six months is be realistic about that evaluation, and then once we get to that point, realistic about an assessment of what is the drawdown post-2014 out to 2014 -- look like.
What's the rate? What are the conditions on the ground that would drive it based on the strategy that we take?
Q: General Conway, your previous commandant, said he didn't see his Marines coming out of the south for a few more years. Would you agree with that?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: It's a question of how much. So if you leave -- if what he's saying -- and I don't attribute it, but if what we're saying is that they're going to be there in exactly the numbers and character and locations that we are today? No. Are there going to be Marines in Helmand province probably for an extended period of time? Sure. But it'll be, hopefully, you know, and measurably less than what it is today and in a very different role than what it is today.
Q: Everybody has talked about the pressure al-Qaida leadership is under. What about all the other groups in Pakistan, the ones that are actually killing American soldiers in Afghanistan? Have operations, U.S.-Pakistani operations, really done anything to diminish their capability to conduct cross-border operations? And can the U.S. succeed in Afghanistan as long as those safe havens in Pakistan exist?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: You want it? Or do you want me to take it? Okay.
MS. FLOURNOY: Go ahead, and I'll follow on.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: You know, I see this sanctuary issue and then the extremist groups that are associated with it, particularly those that come back across the border into Afghanistan, as one of the strategic vulnerabilities, one of the key issues that we have to address. Now, there are any number of ways that we can address it, from unilateral U.S. activities, to unilateral Pakistani activities inside Pakistan, to partnering between the two of us, which is really what we seek.
The question is, as we go through time, can we build the confidence, because the ideal way here is Pakistan's a sovereign country, Pakistan handling Pakistan's challenges, but those challenges being a contribution to our activities rather than potentially a detriment.
What I've seen, at least, in my time in visiting and in talking, has been that I would never have guessed that the type of activities that the Pakistanis are engaging on in their borders, the 144,000-some troops, that we'd ever seen -- that 18 months ago we wouldn't have hoped to have seen that.
They have -- they the Pakistanis have realized the threat inside their country. What you're bringing up is that threat is not necessarily the same threat that is focused on Afghanistan, in all cases. So are we seeing the ability to go after this threat in the coordination and the cooperation?
I think we are. The joint centers that we have along the border, where we compare notes, where we have common feeds from our ISR, that we exchange with each other the intelligence along the border, the monthly meetings that we have now between the commanders on both sides of the border to coordinate the crossing of the borders and make sure that the trails, the rat lines where troops cone across and ammunition comes across are now starting to be monitored and interdicted on a regular basis. That activity is moving along faster in the last two months than it has in the preceding 18 months.
So to me, it's moving in a positive direction. Do we have the exact same end states all of the time? No. The Pakistanis clearly are focused on the threats to their country first and then those that we are concerned about on the other side of the border. But is the coordination and the cooperation improving? Yes, daily and measurably.
So I'm relatively positive there, but I still count this as a strategic vulnerability.
Q: You've talked process, basically. What about impact? Has their ability to conduct cross-border operations as of this date been measurably or significantly diminished?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Measurably diminished.
Q: Measurably --
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: They've been -- they've been interdicting -- we have been interdicting. We have been working with the Pakistanis to interdict cross-border operations, both in the east and in the south. Is it enough? Not yet. But it is -- it is in fact turning in a direction and accelerating in a measurable pace that, while we would want more, it is definitely starting to have an effect.
Q: And can you take the question about whether the U.S. will succeed in Afghanistan as long as the safe havens in Pakistan exist?
MS. FLOURNOY: I think, from the outside, we -- outside of the development of the strategy, we have seen the two as very deeply interrelated. Certainly as we degrade al-Qaida's ability to operate from sanctuary, and we increase the capability of both Pakistani military and the Afghan military, you know, we create a situation where you'll have more local and regional capacity to deal with the problem.
But I think that, as the general said, that sanctuary is a strategic advantage for the Taliban, for al-Qaida, for this syndicate of groups, and we do have to work together with the Pakistanis to diminish that over time.
Q: On Pakistan, today, as Secretary Clinton suggested that increased U.S. development and economic aid to Pakistan would be our best strategy for freeing up the armed forces there who are working on the after-effects of the flood -- do you agree with that, that that's kind of a key element to buttressing our alliance with Pakistan?
And I have a separate question for you on the failed missile defense test yesterday.
MS. FLOURNOY: I mean, I think, given the ups and downs of our historical relationship with Pakistan, they fear our abandonment.
And they -- you know, their calculus is very much affected by the level of commitment, long-term commitment they feel from us to the region, to work with them in a strategic partnership.
That partnership has to be more than simply counterterrorism or on the military domain. It needs to be broad-ranging, as Secretary Clinton described.
So I do think that at the -- in broad terms, committing to help the Pakistani government meet the needs of the Pakistani people is part of building that strategic partnership. In a more pragmatic sense, the military right now is, in many areas, very engaged in flood relief, unable to move to do other things because of that lack of civilian capacity. So the more civilian capacity we can help them build up, the more it frees up their military to be, you know, focused more on the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. We want to be working with them.
Q: On the missile defense test yesterday, it used -- it had the best warhead we have, the most advanced version, that's in some of the silos in Alaska and California. Missile defense has been a START issue on the Senate side, but isn't this more elementary? If the missile defense program doesn't work, it doesn't matter what impact it has on START, if anything. How concerned are you about the two failures in a row?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: This is a -- I lost the word -- an interceptor that has some new capabilities that have been built into it, and that we are in the progress -- in the process of testing. The tests up until now -- we've had two failures, but there's been a string of tests from the ground side and of the components that have been positive.
I think key in this activity is, one, we test in order to find out if something works. Two, as you said, this has been introduced, but only selectively. And so, one, I'm not the least bit concerned that we don't have a capability to defeat, should we need to, that rogue threat that the system's been designed against.
That I'm comfortable with, and we have more than enough interceptors to do that.
As we start to understand them -- we don't know today what the cause of the failure was yesterday. But as we start to understand that, is it -- is it in fact the interceptor? Is it some other component of the system, like the sensors or the command and control? That's what has to be worked out. So you want to eliminate as many of those variables as possible, zero in on where the challenge is.
What's new in the system is that -- is that interceptor, and so that's where we're focused right now. Until we understand it, I'm going to be conservative, at least in my recommendations about how many of those warheads are used, versus how many retained of the older configuration, to have a high confidence that anything that should become a threat to the United States can be handled.
Q: But doesn't this give you some measure of unease? January failure; nine months -- or 10 months later, another failure. I mean, this is our primary defensive system against North Korea.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: This is the new version -- a new version, an upgraded version. It is not the primary version. The primary version is what's fielded. We'd like to have this capability because it gives us some things that we didn't have in the older version. But, no, I'm not worried, because I have the hedge.
The question now is, make sure we understand: Was it two failures that were of the same ilk, or was it two very different failures? That takes us in different directions. We just don't know those answers yet.
Q: I’m (off mic) with Reuters I'd just like to ask for a clarification over what I think is sort of a confusing message for the public, which is that we're being told that -- the public is being told that we're on track to start withdrawing troops in the middle of 2011, like President Obama had planned. At the same time, the decision about that withdrawal will be conditions-based. I'm wondering what would prompt a reconsideration or a change from the track that we're on right now in the first half of 2011?
MS. FLOURNOY: Well, I think that the -- it's -- the July 2011 date marks the end of the surge period. So some forces will come out. But the president said from the very beginning the pace, the scope of that drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground and our assessment of those, you know, come the spring, summertime -- or his assessment of those in the spring and summertime.
So I don't think it's inconsistent. It's very important that the -- that we all understand there is a transition process. As the president said, a new phase is beginning where we are going to be able -- we're already starting in Kabul and other places to transfer responsibility to the Afghans for certain functions in the security domain. And that process will continue on until it's complete, we expect in 2014.
In July, we expect some of the forces that are freed up because of that transition to be reinvested in other places and some of them to be able to come home. But knowing exactly what that looks like -- we'll have to be closer to that time to really make a good judgment about the conditions.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I think I would jump in and just -- I agree with everything that Michele has said, but would also add that we'll judge what has been called this proof of concept, but how well the COIN strategy's working, between now and July, number one.
What we -- we'll make adjustments on that where we see appropriate. And let me give you a couple examples of adjustments that we are making. When we go from the clearing phase in security to the hold phase, at the hold phase, the idea is that we're able to bring in civilians to start to bring governance, services to the people. What we have learned with USAID is that there's a period at the end of that clearing phase that, for some period of time, it's just still too dangerous for civilians to be there, or even if they're there, their mobility is so limited by the things like IEDs, et cetera.
And so activities like the Afghan local police initiatives bring to us the ability to make that transition faster. So rather than losing a couple of months between the clearing phase and the hold phase now, what we're starting to find is we can reduce that time because -- if you have locals that can tell you: Gee, that truck's never been there before; that street's never been busy like that before. We took some of these types of tactics from our experience in Colombia and other places, where the locals can tell you substantially more than you'll ever be able to know with all of the technology that America can bring to the field. So that's one piece of it.
At the other end of this activity in the hold and transitioning to build, what we have found is that our ability to bring online at scale enough Afghan civilians to be able to partner up with, to transition this governing activity or this supporting activity, has been slow. So we've improved the school throughputs, we've improved the ability to bring them along in a way that they're ready when we're ready to turn -- to turn to them.
So getting these timed out, understanding where the throughput is in the entire process, has helped us make the transition and the movement through that COIN process faster and more efficient.
Q: I just have a quick question. Do you expect the Pakistani military to go into North Waziristan and, you know, flush out insurgents before July 2011 -- by July 2011?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Well, again, that'll be their decision.
Q: You've been pushing for years to get them -- (off mic).
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Well, we have, but at a measured rate. In other words, you don't want to -- you have two activities going here. They've put 140-some-thousand troops along the line. They're in the hold phase, so many of those troops are tied down providing security in areas they've cleared so they don't lose that, which historically has been one of their challenges: they go and clear and leave, and then the locals don't have the confidence that they'll stay, so you lose -- you lose the confidence side of this equation.
But we also had the floods. And so the infrastructure there to move the forces up into those areas to be able to, in fact, have the resupply, et cetera, that's also inhibiting, along with the draw on the forces. So the question is when.
Q: The answer is no? (Inaudible) --
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: The question is when, not if. But I can't give you a when. I wouldn't put a July '11 date on that, because I don't know that I can do that.
Q: Too soon?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I don't know. It's a question of when they'll start to be able to realize the ability to unhook in areas that they've stabilized, when the infrastructure will support the movement and what their priorities are set. And that's going to be a decision on their part.
Q: One more Pakistan question.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Sure.
Q: As you know, the rogue elements of the ISI have -- support this Pakistani Taliban. I don't think anybody disputes that. Do you -- some members of the government now feel it goes much higher than that in the -- in the Pakistani government. Do you agree with that?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I don't think I have a basis, a factual basis on which to make that claim. I mean, I don't know. I just don't know that.
Q: General Cartwright, you seem -- I'm confused. You seem to be saying that in July 2011 there will be another assessment now. You talked about assessing -- a realistic assessment of the rate and the pace of the possibility of withdrawing forces. And you're now talking about this two-year time frame from when the Marines first went in. So could you help me understand, what is the assessment you're now going to do in July? And this two years that you're talking about as a benchmark, does the surge end two years after it began?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Between now -- the 18-to-24-month period, we're at about the 18-month period.
Q: From when the Marines went in.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: From -- the Marines went in. So that's defined by -- 24 months is July, so you've got six more months to basically go through that. We'll continue to assess how well the strategy is working, the COIN strategy is working, for that six months. I mean, that's just an ongoing assessment that will continue to occur.
Once you get to 2000 -- I'm sorry, to July of 2011, now you have entered into a phase in which we are starting to define the transition from the activities that we're currently conducting in the surge and in the general presence of the forces, COIN strategy, et cetera, how we're going to move to a transition to a Pakistan -- I'm sorry -- Afghanistan-led activity out in 2014. So that's the second assessment.
So what you have been given now is another signpost against which we will assess what's the rate at which we can draw down, what's the strategy look like during that drawdown, what adjustments will need to be made. And that will be a constant assessment. We only had the one metric right up until now, which was the 18 to 24 that ended in July. What Lisbon gave us was 2014, which starts to define what our expectation is of training and having the Afghanis take over the mission, and then what it looks like after 2014.
MS. FLOURNOY: (Off mic.)
Q: I just have a very quick follow-up. When was it decided that -- I missed it somewhere, this two-year time frame, that this would be -- I mean, I understand the president decided on July 2011, but you guys keep talking about, you know, two years from when the Marines went in.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Oh, that was the 18 to 24 months. That was a metric that was established in the -- in the review of the strategy earlier. And what we said was, as what the commanders in the field said, a conservative estimate of when you should see progress in a COIN strategy would be about 18 to 24 months.
Q: Very quickly, sir, what are your concerns about South Korea overnight saying it will begin live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong Island sometime in the next few days and your concerns about the instability and what could -- what could happen, what the impact may be of them beginning live-fire drills in such a sensitive place?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Sure. Well, one, the area that they're going to conduct these live-fire drills is an established and well-used range, okay? So it's not a -- it's not a new activity, and it's not one that the North Koreans haven't seen on a routine basis.
But it is out there in the -- on the islands, YP-do and PY-do. And so what we're watching is -- one, is to make sure that all of the -- all of the artillery, the shore batteries, et cetera, are in fact set up. So we have trainers and monitors that are with the South Koreans to make sure everything, from a standpoint of training, goes right.
The impact area is out in the water, not pointed towards the land. So all of that is understood. We had yesterday the announcement of that by the -- by the South Korean government. They laid out exactly what they were going to be doing and when they were going to be doing it, so that we would take any ambiguity out that was at all possible.
They've also put that out on the Web through as many different ways as they could to ensure that anybody in that area knows what's going to go on and when it's going to go on, including a notice to mariners.
What we worry about, obviously, is that if that is misunderstood or if it's taken advantage of as an opportunity -- if North Korea were to react to that in a negative way and fire back at that -- at those firing positions on the islands, that would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing. What you don't want to have happen out of that is for the escalation to be -- for us to lose control of the escalation. That -- that's the concern.
Q: How many U.S. troops will be there at the time? And are U.S. troops at risk, vulnerable at this point to a North Korean reaction?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I think right now that what we're talking about is -- I'll get the islands backwards if I do this wrong, but one of them has 15 and one of them has about six American troops which are trainers and observers that are out there. But larger presence is the media that will be out there, from all over the world.
MS. FLOURNOY: And U.N.?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: And there will also be a U.N. contingent out there.
Q: Are U.S. troops -- (off mic)?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: No, I don't think so.
STAFF: We've got time for one more question on Afghanistan- Pakistan review. And – maybe two. Let’s go to Kevin and then Gordon and we’re going to close it up.
Q: Hi. When we were out there with Secretary Gates in August, troops were already asking if there's a chance that they were going to be asked to cross the border into Pakistan, (inaudible). What I'm wondering, off of Elizabeth's question, is -- you said when and not if. Are you confident that the Pakistanis will in fact step up their operation as called upon? And if not, what is plan B? What is the alternative for -- for the U.S. if that doesn't happen? Is it that we're going to see unilateral action?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: At least from my perspective, one, the -- the preferred method is for a partnered activity. It could be just the Pakistanis on their side of the border and the Afghanis and ISAF on the other side of the border. It could be that we offer the training and the -- and the equipment and whatnot to help make the activity as efficient as we can.
What is happening now, though, is it's gone a step further than that. And that's why I talk about measurable progress, is that we are now exchanging information on a regular basis, seeing activities that are crossing that look anomalous and confronting them either on -- on the Afghani side of the border or the Pakistan side of the border; that the information is being passed back and forth.
We didn't have that in the past. That's something that we have just now started to see in the last couple of months. And it's not just a -- we had one or two incidents of it. We're now seeing regular activity that says those vehicles shouldn't be crossing, those people shouldn't be crossing, we don't know why they're up in that area.
It allows us to close on the area and do something about it.
And sometimes it's just -- it's just a path. Other times, it is in fact bad behavior. So that's -- (inaudible) -- part of that.
The question of going further and on to unilateral action, that would be an absolute last measure, because it has so many other impacts on the relationship that you'd really hate to end up in that position.
MODERATOR: Gordon you get the last one.
Q: All of this puts more pressure on July as kind of, at least in the American public's eyes, you know, the real assessment, perhaps. Whether you agree with that or not, I'm curious. My real question is -- is do you foresee any need for more troops potentially, even enablers, to make a bigger difference between now and then?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I wouldn't say more troops. I would say that maybe the character of the forces that we have out there could change, whether it's more ISR and intelligence-type capabilities, whether it is greater mobility. As we go to different areas -- and I'll give you an example that you all have been kind of pointing at. It's as the Marines have moved up into the Sangin Valley, that area and the firepower that they've needed in that area has leant them to use a few tanks. I mean, the question is, what's the appropriate activities for where you end up and the threats that you face?
So I see potentially an adjustment in the character of the force. I don't really see an adjustment in the quantity of the force.
Q: You don't see bigger numbers?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I don't think so.
Q: Can I have one clarification? It's not a question.
MODERATOR: A real clarification?
MODERATOR: I already took one more question. (Laughter.)
Q: I want to take one more stab at --
MODERATOR: I want you to be clear. (Laughter.)
Q: I want to take one more stab at conditions-based. If this is all conditions-based, how can you say now that U.S. troops will come out in July of 2011?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: The question, at least from my perspective, on how I'm using condition kind of goes back to the answer that I had over here; which is, you know, is the COIN strategy -- where are the throughput knotholes, you know, where it gets slowed down? Is it in the hold phase? Is it in the clear phase?
What drives the pace at which you can clear an area and move into that COIN strategy?
Q: But the point is, the president and others have said U.S. troops will come out in July 2011, right?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: No, what they've said is that at 2011 to 2014, there is a drawdown. What is being negotiated and what will be adjusted is the rate of that drawdown.
Q: But troops will come out?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Troops will come out.
Q: So how can you say that, if it's condition-based, right now?
MS. FLOURNOY: Well, if you -- if you look --
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Because we're seeing progress in that first 24 months. We already --
Q: But where are you seeing progress that would allow you to remove troops?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: In the Helmand -- in the Helmand province, we are already thinning out troops in areas and moving them to other areas. So we're already seeing that progress in areas where we intended to measure.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much.