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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey
July 03, 2014

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning.

Happy early 4th of July. I hope you all have big plans tomorrow.

I'm going to make a couple of opening comments and then ask Chairman Dempsey for some thoughts and then we'll go to your questions.

I know, as Chairman Dempsey does, you've been receiving updates on the situation in Iraq here on a regular basis. And I'd like to focus a couple of comments on Iraq as I -- as I start.

Our efforts here at DOD have been focused on two specific missions. And I want to lay a bit of a framework down and a base down on what those missions are and then I know you'll have questions.

But in a very clear, deliberate way, first securing our embassy, facilities and our personnel in Iraq.

Second, assessing the situation in Iraq and advising the Iraqi security forces.

Both of these missions are important components of the president's overall strategy in Iraq, helping Iraq's leaders resolve the political crisis that has enabled ISIL's advance and supporting Iraqi forces.

By reinforcing security at the U.S. embassy, its support facilities in Baghdad International Airport, we're helping provide our diplomats time and space to work with Sunni, Kurd, Shia political leaders as they attempt to form a new inclusive national unity government.

By better understanding the conditions on the ground and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, we'll be better able to help advise them as they combat ISIL forces inside their own country.

Approximately 200 military advisers are now on the ground. We have established a joint operations center with Iraqis in Baghdad and we have personnel on the ground in Erbil where our second joint operations center has achieved initial operating capability.

Assessment teams are also evaluating the capabilities and cohesiveness of Iraqi forces. None of these troops are performing combat missions. None will perform combat missions.

President Obama has been very clear that American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again. The situation in Iraq, as you all know, is complex and it's fluid. But there's no exclusively military solution to the threats posed by ISIL. Our approach is deliberate and flexible. It is designed to bolster our diplomatic efforts and support the Iraqi people. We will remain prepared to protect our people and our interests in Iraq.

As most Americans enjoy this holiday weekend, our military around the world, and especially in the Middle East, will stay postured and ready for any contingency in that region.

As we celebrate Independence Day tomorrow, I want to particularly express my gratitude to the men and women and their families who serve our nation at home and abroad, both civilian and in uniform. I thank you all for what you do to keep our country safe every day.

Now, I'll ask Chairman Dempsey for his comments, and we'll take questions.

Thank you.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

You'd probably all rather hear from Clint Dempsey today, but you're stuck with me, and I do make note of the fact that I'm sitting next to the real secretary of defense, and not Tim Howard.

I will begin with Iraq. The secretary described our current mission and role in Iraq, and I'd emphasize that the actions we're taking are part of a broader line of effort to contribute to stability in the region. Iraq's future depends as much on political inclusiveness as it does on security, which will be an important factor in determining what we do going forward.

We are, of course, a force that's engaged across the globe. Let me comment briefly on my travels over the past several weeks and some of the insights that I've gained.

In Brussels, I met with my NATO counterparts. Preparations for the post '14 mission in Afghanistan, and the threat of further Russian coercion to the east, as well as growing unrest to NATO's southern flank weigh heavily on our European allies.

The joint chiefs and I then met with the United Kingdom's combined chiefs in London for the first such meeting since 1948. We talked through common strategic concerns, and we all agree that now is not a time for business as usual in Europe.

I met with my counterparts in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates, both strong partners in the Mid-East region plagued with instability.

I was in Singapore to meet with partner nations in the Pacific region. We had a frank conversation about North Korean provocations, and about China's activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

And yesterday, I returned from Honolulu, where China is participating in the Rim of the Pacific exercise for the first time. Not the first time they've been invited, but the first time that they've chosen to participate.

Solid military-to-military relationships in the region are important, and we remain engaged.

I also met with my Japanese and South Korean counterparts while in Hawaii to discuss the national and regional implications of North Korean provocation. This was the first time in history that the chiefs of defense from these three countries -- myself, the Republic of Korea, and the Japanese -- have met together in this context.

Across the board, these engagements reaffirm the importance of close partnerships in protecting our national interests and assuring our allies against an increasing number of threats.

In every theater, U.S. leadership is still regarded as the world's best hope for stability and prosperity. As we enter this Fourth of July weekend, I think of the extraordinary men and women who safeguard these freedoms. They are always foremost -- foremost on their minds, as are their families.

Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

For either of you, I was wondering if you could give us your most up-to-date assessment of the insurgency in Iraq, what you're seeing, if it's gaining strength, moving, et cetera?

And then for Mr. Chairman, you had mentioned the possibility that the U.S. at some point could use assets in order to go after high-value targets. I'm wondering if you -- the military has gotten authorization to do that yet. Do you see -- what kind of tipping point would you want to see in order for that to begin? And would you have to at some point start communicating with Iran in order to avoid either conflict or miscalculation?

SEC. HAGEL: As you know, I noted this in my opening comments, we have six assessment teams now on the ground in Iraq. And we have two joint operations centers that are operating.

These individuals who are making these assessments, essentially focusing on your question, what is going on; the strength, the cohesion of the ISF, Iraqi security forces; an assessment of the strength of ISIL, where they are, how deeply embedded they are. All this is part of the larger sectarian dynamic that, as you all know, is in play in Iraq.

Also part of what's going on is probably as an important process as any, and that is the process of forming a new government. That is in play and very active. As you know, I think the next time they meet is the 8th of July.

Now, that said, both the chairman and I are getting some assessments back, early assessments, through General Austin, who, as you know is overseeing all of this. We won't have the full complement of all those assessments for a while.

But that is in process, ongoing. And you know that we have, as I have noted here and General Dempsey has, and I think Admiral Kirby has given you some numbers on, where we have people, additional people -- airport, embassy, so on.

So all of that is part of essentially getting to your questions and answering your questions on a realistic assessment so we can, therefore, be better prepared to advise the Iraqis on what we think they need to do and the different dynamics that are presented there on the ground, and how they can best use their forces as we continue to advise them.

GEN. DEMPSEY: So, if I could, briefly, I think that you asked me actually four questions: state of the insurgency, state of the ISF, whether we're going to strike, and how about Iran. That's some pretty heavy lifting. Let me see what I can do I can do in about 60 seconds.

I think it's worth starting with why are we there. We're there because we have two overriding national security interests: a stable Iraq within the region that can be and probably should be a partner with us in countering terrorism that, as you know, spreads from Beirut to Damascus and now to Baghdad.

Secondly, ISIL itself, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- it goes by other names -- but they are a regional threat today that over time could become a trans-regional and global threat. And so that's why we're there.

And as we do, the actions we've taken fall into two bins, as the SecDef described. One is we're protecting our personnel and our facilities to preserve options, and we're assessing to develop options. Okay? Early indications, you asked me about the insurgency. The insurgency, after some initial gains and collaboration with other Sunni groups in northern Iraq, made some pretty significant and rapid advances. They're stretched right now -- stretched to control what they've gained and stretched across their logistics lines of communication.

The Iraqi security forces are stiffening around Baghdad. I don't have the assessment team's exact language, but some initial insights are that the ISF is stiffening, that they're capable of defending Baghdad, that they would be challenged to go on the offense, mostly logistically challenged. And that the call that the Ayatollah Sistani put out for volunteers is being answered and it complicates the situation, frankly, a bit.

The reality of the assessment is that it's being done in a very dynamic situation and it's important to note and to highlight what the SecDef said that the assessment is being done as the political situation unfolds. And each -- they will affect each other. The ability of the Iraqi security forces to act on behalf of all Iraqis will be affected by whether the government can form a government of national unity.

So our expectation is that we'll continue to gain insights. We'll be able to establish trends. We'll be able to measure some tangibles like logistics and some intangibles like leadership, but it's very dynamic.

And as for your question about strikes, that is one of the options that we'll -- that we will continue to develop pending the assessment and pending Iraq's political process.

Q: For General Dempsey, to begin with.

Sir, at the beginning, the Pentagon said one of the objectives was to break the momentum of ISIS.

So my question is very specific, not to the assessments. But what is your measure of success in doing that? How do you know that -- how much do you break the momentum? How do you know, mission accomplished this time, that you can say to the president, "We have achieved those objectives"?

And is it enough for the Iraqi forces simply to be able to hold Baghdad? Is the measure of success that? Or is it the Iraqi forces able to go north and regain this massive territory that ISIS has right now?

Are you -- is the United States military prepared, if they have to, to defend Baghdad and defend the airport?

GEN. DEMPSEY: So the questions get more and more complex as we go.

Q: We haven't seen you in a long time.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I know you haven't. Well, you know, it's impossible to wrestle the podium away from John Kirby.

The -- I don't think you've ever heard me say that we would break the momentum.

Q: Actually, Admiral Kirby said it.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I told you. That's my problem.

The issue is for us -- has been for us to determine the ability of the ISF after having suffered some initial setbacks to be able to stabilize the situation and eventually go back on the offensive to regain their sovereign territory and what will we be willing to contribute to that cause. And that's not a question that we're prepared to answer just yet.

In terms of -- you know, you mentioned the airport and you mentioned our intentions. Remember, the phrase I used was that we are protecting that which would allow us to preserve options. And the airport, not the entire airport, but that part of it that we need for logistics, resupply and potentially for evacuation, we are protecting that part of the airport for that purpose.

It's -- it really is about deliberately first preserving options and then developing options. And if you are asking me, will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of -- of Iraq that they've lost, I think that's a really broad campaign-quality question.

Probably not by themselves. It doesn't mean we would have to provide kinetic support. I'm not suggesting that that's the direction this is headed. But in any military campaign, you would want to develop multiple actions to squeeze ISIL. You'd like to squeeze them from the south and west. You'd like to squeeze them from the north and you'd like to squeeze them from Baghdad. And that's a campaign that has to be developed.

But the first step in developing that campaign is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in. If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak.

Q: Yes. Again, General Dempsey, what you just described sounds like an open-ended commitment or mission for the U.S. military. A stable Iraq, an inclusive government, the ability to force ISIL into some find of retreat or submission sounds like a long-term effort. What is the end game? When will the president be able to say, "let's bring our boys home"?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, this is not 2003. It's not 2006. This is a very different approach than we've -- than we've taken in the past. I mean, assessing, advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating and disrupting.

We may get to that point if our national interests drive us there; if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that -- that the president of the United States, with our advice, decides that we have to take direct action. I'm just suggesting to you we're not there yet.

In terms of the open-endedness of it, Jim, you've heard me say before that the ideology that stretches from South Asia across the Arab world and into North and West Africa -- the ideology, which is essentially an anti-Western, very conservative, religious, and in some cases radically violent ideology, we're stuck with that for the foreseeable future, a generation or two.

It doesn't mean that we have to throw that rock in our rucksack and take it on by ourselves. In fact, it should not be that. And what we owe the president of the United States over time, in consultation with the Congress and an explanation to the people of the United States, is how we can deal with this long-term threat without having to repeat what we did in 2003 and 2006.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said the advisers would not be involved in combat. General Dempsey, you have raised the possibility that those advisers could be used as forward air controllers in the event that you called in air strikes, which I think most people would regard as being involved in combat. So, which is it on that?

And second, you mentioned that the Iraqis, to go on the offensive, would most likely to need help in logistics, which sounds like a prescription for sending in more U.S. advisers, troops, opening up supply depots. Is that on the table?

GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, there's a tendency to think of this as kind of industrial-strength, you know, where we're going to put a mountain of supplies someplace, and then that's going to require us to protect it, and then we've got to move it forward into the hands of the Iraqis to ensure that they use it and use it responsibly and effectively.

And that's -- that's obviously one possibility, but it's not one that personally I think the situation demands. I think the situation demands first and foremost that the Iraqi political system find a way to separate the Sunnis who have partnered now with ISIL, because they have zero confidence in the ability of Iraq's politicians to govern.

If you can separate those groups, then the problem becomes manageable and understandable and allows us to be in a position to enable Iraq, not with a huge industrial-strength effort, but rather with the special skills, leadership and niche capabilities that we possess uniquely. And there's no daylight between what an adviser will do.

We haven't made -- right now as we sit here, the advisers are categorically not involved in combat operations. They're literally assessing. That's their task. If the assessment comes back and reveals that it would be beneficial to this effort and to our national security interests to put the advisers in a different role, I will first consult with the secretary. We will consult with the president. We'll provide that option and we'll move ahead. But that's where we are today.

Q: (inaudible) -- will not be involved.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think the chairman made it very clear. These are assessment teams and that's their mission. Their mission is limited and it is a clear scope of what their mission is, and it is to assess. It is to come back with their assessment of where they believe we are regarding ISF, ISIL, and all the other dimensions that I -- let me finish -- that I said.

Advisers or what may come as a result of any assessments as to what they would come back to General Dempsey with or General Austin, and eventually me and eventually the president, I don't know where they're going to be. But their mission today is making those assessments. So I think the general was pretty clear.

Q: But their mission could change.

SEC. HAGEL: That wasn't your question. We have one mission today, and that's assessments. I don't know what the assessments are going to come back and say or what they would recommend. We'll wait to see what that is, what General Austin and General Dempsey then recommend.

But, that's the whole point of assessments.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Can I -- I just want to add, because this is an important point. I watch television. I know that's going to shock some of you. I won't tell you what channel I watch, but I do watch it. And there's this -- you know, there's this kind of narrative of mission creep. That's the wrong phrase. The issue is mission match. We will match the resources we apply with the authorities and responsibilities that go with them based on the mission we undertake, and that is to be determined.

SEC. HAGEL: Jen?

Q: Can you explain what this joint operations center in the north is doing? How many U.S. troops -- (inaudible) -- U.S. troops have been sent there, and what is the purpose of it?

And General Dempsey, back to Iran and Lolita's question, what is your assessment of Iran's strength inside Iraq right now? What have they actually sent militarily? Are you going to have to de-conflict in -- inside Iraq? Also, the Sukhois that they sent over in recent days, is that breaking international sanctions? Or are those old Iraqi planes that were placed in Iran?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Can we switch questions?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, on the -- the two joint operations centers. You need centers or some kind of center to have a component of organization and focus on mission and what you're going to do. And in Baghdad, the first one that we had up, we have Iraqis in that mission with us. We're behind -- further behind in Erbil, which I just announced, and we will coordinate with the Iraqis on where -- as we put our assessment teams out, as they are out on their mission, their focus, and we get better information if we have cooperation and coordination from the Iraqis.

So, that's essentially -- they will have that mission as a centerpiece, but it will also include coordination as well.

GEN. DEMPSEY: On Iran. Look, anyone who's served in Iraq through the years knows that Iran has been active in Iraq since 2005. So, the -- the thought that they are active in Iraq in 2014 is completely unsurprising. Now, it's probably more overt than it has been up until now. And as you know, they -- they, too, have come over to in some ways advise this call for -- for young Shia men to rise in the defense of their nation that Sistani made.

By the way, when Sistani made that proclamation, he talked about an Iraq for all Iraqis. I hope so. We'll see. That's a question that has yet to be answered.

But the Iranians are there, as you know. They're also flying some unmanned aerial vehicles, and they have, as you described, provided some military equipment. I don't know whether it has violated any Security Council resolutions. That will have to be determined.

In terms of whether we intend to coordinate with them or not, we do not intend at this time to coordinate them. It's not impossible that in the future we would be -- we would have reason to do so. In terms of de-conflicting, let's take the airspace. That's sovereign Iraqi airspace. So the de-confliction of our ISR and their ISR and our flights and their flights, that's an Iraqi responsibility which they are capable of fulfilling.

Q: Questions on the -- going back to the efficacy of air strikes issue. A couple of weeks ago before the -- (inaudible) -- Senator Feinstein asked you about the issue and you made it a fairly pithy point that it's not like looking at an iPhone video of a -- (inaudible) -- striking a -- (inaudible). You need better clarity on the ground on intelligence.

Two weeks later, with 24-hour coverage, is the clarity there if, in fact, the president says, "I need options to strike"? Can you effectively strike, given what you know, even today?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, we've got much -- we have a much better intelligence picture than we did two weeks ago and it continues to get better. The complexity, though, is the intermingling of Sunni groups that had formerly opposed the Iraqi government, in any case. They have intermingled with the ISIL groups in particular. And that's going to be a tough challenge to separate them, if we were to take a decision to strike.

Now you might say, "Does it matter? They're attacking Baghdad. Does it really matter?" I think it does matter. I think it matters for the future of Iraq. Which allows me to roll back to the place I continue to start: Unless the Iraqi government gets the message out that it really does intend to allow participation by all groups, everything we're talking about makes no difference.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: This will be the last question.

Q: The United States has spent $25 billion building up the ISF, 250,000 army as we left, and another 600,000 security personnel. They're going up against a force of like 10,000 ISIL. The public should be thinking or maybe asking you: What did we get for our money? Did we leave a house of cards there that's just collapsing?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, the collapse of the ISF in the face of this radical extremist group called ISIL was -- occurred over time. This wasn't ISIL decided to drive across the border and everybody collapsed in front of it. They had been -- they had infiltrated into western Iraq, into Mosul.

If I know anything about their tactics, which I do, they -- they bought some people off. They threatened the families of others. They reminded everyone that the central government in Iraq was not operating on their behalf, and they undermined the ISF, the Iraqi security forces, in northern and western Iraq. They undermined it by stripping away their will to fight for a government that didn't support them.

And at that point, it wasn't a fight. They didn't collapse in the face of a fight. They collapsed in the face of a future that didn't hold out any hope for them. It's a -- it's different than collapsing in the face of a fight.

What we're seeing now is that the remaining ISF is fighting. And that's the most important signal we can get that this might actually stabilize.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate your time.

SEC. HAGEL: Okay, thank you.

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