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Enduring Freedom Operational Update - Rear Adm. Stufflebeem

Presenters: Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, Joint Staff
December 03, 2001

Monday, Dec. 3, 2001 - 12:46 p.m. EST

(Slides and videos shown in this briefing are on the Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Dec2001/g011203-D-6570C.html )

Stufflebeem: Well, good afternoon, everyone.

Operations continued over the weekend, focusing on four main areas: strikes on emerging targets, in support of opposition operation groups operating in the vicinity of Kandahar; increasing attacks on Taliban and terrorist command and control elements, particularly in cave and tunnel complex areas; establishing airfield operations at locations in northern Afghanistan, as these will enhance our humanitarian assistance efforts. And we continue to plan future operations for our Marines.

Yesterday we conducted airstrikes in 10 planned target areas, generally around the Jalalabad and Kandahar areas. We used about 110 strike aircraft, including about 90 tactical aircraft launched from sea-based platforms, 12 to 14 land-based tactical aircraft, and between eight and 10 long-range bombers.

We again dropped leaflets in the Kandahar and Jalalabad area, and continued our Commando Solo broadcast missions. Two C-17s dropped more than 34,000 humanitarian daily rations north of Kandahar. That brings our total to date for HDRs to more than 2,125,000.

We have four videos for you today from operations over the weekend that involve strikes on military targets, which should prevent the Taliban from regenerating combat capability. The first two videos are from Friday, of strikes in barracks facilities near Kandahar. Taliban forces had taken up positions in and around these facilities. As you should be able to see, you can see impact craters and hits from previous strikes on that same facility, as it has been struck before.

The last two videos are from Saturday. They show strikes on Taliban vehicles south of Kandahar that were in positions facing opposition groups, and those vehicles, as you'll see, were destroyed. There we go.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

Yes?

Q: Admiral, could you give us an update? Have you decided or made any move towards increasing base usage in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan? We understand there's been some elements of allied forces that have been viewing air bases there.

Stufflebeem: Right. I don't know the exact state of play of the assessments of those facilities. Those countries have offered airfield facilities. The details of exactly which field, and when we'll get into those fields, I think are still being worked out at this point. That's about all I know.

Q: So there hasn't been any U.S. forces added in those areas yet, that you know of?

Stufflebeem: No, I don't believe so.

Yes, sir?

Q: Admiral, what can you tell us about this so-called American citizen who is now in U.S. custody? We're getting a lot of reports as to his name and everything else. But if he is a U.S. citizen, under these tribunals, as we understand them, U.S. citizens are not going to be tried. So what will you do with him?

Stufflebeem: The only thing that I can say about this individual is that this is somebody who claims to be an American citizen. That claim is being respected for the moment, until facts can be established. He is in control of U.S. military forces. It appears that he is injured or has sustained some injuries and is receiving medical attention. In terms of his disposition, that has not yet been defined.

Q: But again -- this is a follow up -- if he doesn't come under the tribunals, would, in this case, he come under the Geneva Convention and be treated as a prisoner of war?

Stufflebeem: That's got to be decided by the policy folks. I just don't have any insight into that at all.

Q: By "in control" -- I'm sorry, Admiral -- by "in control of U.S. forces" -- is he under arrest, or is he being held? What do you mean by "in control of"? Is he considered a prisoner?

Stufflebeem: You're -- I understand the question. It's a fairly precise question, especially from a legal perspective. And the only way that I can categorize it, which is how I know it, is that he is -- he is in control of U.S. -- or U.S. forces have control of him. I wouldn't assume nor make a judgment about, you know, how to qualify that in terms of arrest, POW -- I would just -- I can't go there. I don't know.

Q: Sir, Kenton Keith, the spokesperson in Islamabad, mentioned that Special Forces troops were in the Tora Bora area now. Can you tell us whether they're directing airstrikes? And two, how concerned are you about reports that a number of civilians have been killed in those strikes accidentally?

Stufflebeem: I don't want to get into characterizing exactly what special operating forces are doing right now, specifically in that area. So I won't go any further than to say that we do intend to get into the area, to tighten this noose. Strikes are being very precisely planned on legitimate military targets.

I have seen the press reports about alleged civilian casualties, and I would just ask us all to remember that this was orchestrated by the Taliban, and therefore it's not clear to us in fact were there innocent civilians who in fact may have been injured. We know for a fact that these were legitimate military targets in that area that were struck. We know that there was terrific traditional, consistent planning to ensure that only these targets were struck. We know there were no off-target hits, so there were no collateral damage worries in this series of strikes. And therefore I can't comment on the civilian casualties because I don't know them to be true.

Q: Admiral, can I just follow up on that?

Q: (off mike) -- can help me? Can I just -- on the Special Ops, are they doing -- is their mission there expanded beyond what they have been doing in the last four of five weeks, in terms of directing strikes, reconnaissance, and working with opposition groups? Are they specifically going -- focusing more on the cave complex there?

Stufflebeem: They're continuing to do the missions that they have had since they've been in country with the opposition groups. As the opposition groups are -- would find locations of interest, they'll be part of that. To say that their mission has changed or asking if their mission has changed specifically to go after caves and tunnels, that would not be correct.

Q: Admiral, if I could just follow up on the civilian casualties question. Some of the commanders of the so-called Eastern Alliance, some of the loosely knit groups over there near Jalalabad, have told CNN that in fact some of the wrong targets are being hit and some of their facilities and their villages there have been flattened by U.S. bombing. How would you respond to that? And has there been any communication between the United States or the military and any of these anti-Taliban groups in the area about whether the targeting is hitting the right things or whether friendly forces are being killed?

Stufflebeem: I don't know of any specific coordination that has been going on or had been going on between Special Forces and groups in that region specifically. I assume that there has been, but I don't know it for a fact.

This is an area that is pretty well known to the Central Command as an area where Taliban and al Qaeda forces have been and in numbers. We have heard anecdotal reports that this is an area where Osama bin Laden has been using some of his wealth to buy local village chieftains' support. This is an area that we have been consistently -- certainly recently -- dropping leaflets in and making Commando Solo broadcasts in. We're looking for individuals that we believe may be in this area. That comes from all-source intelligence.

So I'm not sure how I can characterize sporadic reports, especially since we don't know the origin of those reports. I take it on faith, certainly, what you've asked about in terms of these opposition groups who may have claims that they're satisfied with what they see, but we've not confirmed that and, therefore, you know, I don't know that that in fact is really the case, or if these are individuals who are just not happy because their particular objectives weren't achieved. You see, there's a number of ways that --

Q: Can you just outline, then, what the general objective is of the strikes in that area? Are you trying to cut off -- are you targeting, trying to get specific people or groups? Are you trying to cut off means of egress? Or what's the objective of the bombing campaign in that area?

Stufflebeem: Well, General Franks articulated, in his last conference from down in Tampa [ transcript ], that this area below Jalalabad is one of the two areas that we're focusing the airstrikes in this part of the campaign now because our reports indicate that this is where leadership potentially may be. And so these caves and tunnel complexes in the Tora Bora and Tora Gora areas, that we have struck recently, are exactly those kind of potential leadership targets that we're hitting.

Q: And have you also struck villages?

Stufflebeem: I don't have any reports of any villages being struck. And all the reports I have are that all of our weapons have been on target. So I find it a little bit suspect to hear that villages are being flattened.

Q: Admiral, can you give us an update on Kandahar? And specifically, how strong are the rebel forces, and how close are they to the city? And also, any sense that the Taliban is resupplying at all? And finally, what threat, if any, have you seen from Stingers or SA-7s?

Stufflebeem: Let me start at the end and work backwards. You got three in one there, so remind me if I lose one.

First of all, Kandahar is the last stronghold of the Taliban, so this would be -- my assessment is that this is principally where most of their supplies are still left, if -- what they may have. So in terms of resupply, I'm sure some is getting through, but much less than ever used to be because of the pressure that is in fact around the city, surrounding the city.

But I think that they probably -- we have -- we assume that they have a sizeable amount of inventory with them or they wouldn't be in the positions that they are. Our aircrews are still flying prudently because there still are surface-to-air, man-portable weapons that are being fired into the air. I don't know the numbers of what might be a Stinger or what might be a Russian variant of that or what might even be just a rocket-propelled grenade, but they're shooting at aircraft. Pilot reports are seeing that, and that's been consistent throughout the joint campaign. Now that we're concentrating some firepower specifically in this Kandahar area, for those aircraft that aren't flying at extremely high altitudes, they're seeing some of this.

In terms of the forces arrayed and strength, I don't have specific numbers. There is a substantial -- that may be too strong a word because I can't put a number to that. Southern opposition groups both north and south of the city are consolidating power. These opposition leaders are in contact with some of the Taliban factions and are still negotiating the release of the city to the southern opposition groups. There are forces that we are seeing digging in that would intend, obviously, to stay and fight, and those are probably non-Afghanistanis.

So the situation, in summary, is still fluid. We still have a deadline that has, in this case, now not expired, and therefore those Taliban forces and even al Qaeda forces who would still wish to surrender or still wish to lay down their arms are still in a position to do that while the opposition groups are collecting their firepower together for what they may go after.

Q: What's the latest deadline?

Q: (inaudible) -- are they coming from inside the city, outside the city, all around? Do you get any sense of where they're coming from -- the -- (inaudible) -- or stingers, as you said?

Stufflebeem: I don't recall seeing any reports that tell me where we're seeing them coming from, other than from Taliban locations.

Q: Do you know that stingers are being fired?

Stufflebeem: I don't know if they're stingers, Jim.

Q: Okay. All right.

Stufflebeem: We do know that they're man-portable surface- to-air weapons, and therefore they could be rocket-propelled grenades, they could be the Russian-made SA-7 or SA-13, possibly Stingers.

Q: And what is the latest deadline for these Taliban to lay down their arms?

Stufflebeem: The last one I heard was three days, and I'm not exactly sure where we are.

Q: How long ago?

Stufflebeem: That was three days ago. So exactly where we are in the timeline I'm not sure, but --

Q: And also, does the U.S. military have any details about this 20-year-old John Walker, about what it is he was doing with the Taliban, one? And two, what were the circumstances under which he was taken into custody?

How did the U.S. military become aware of his presence and take him into custody?

Stufflebeem: I don't know. I honestly don't know. I really can't even confirm that name for you.

Q: Admiral, where is he right now?

Stufflebeem: I don't know the exact location. It's in northern Afghanistan. He came into U.S. possession in the Mazar-e Sharif area. I don't know if he's still there.

Q: Admiral, one of the Marine commanders at the forward operations base Rhino southwest of Kandahar was quoted as saying that it appears that the U.S. military operation is reaching a culmination. Is that a view shared at the Pentagon?

Stufflebeem: I think you have to sort of put yourself in the position of an individual who sees the world from a different perspective. If I were a Marine at the task force -- the forward operating base, surrounded by a thousand of my red-blooded American fighters, I probably would feel that I'm pretty close to getting this thing to a conclusion. However, from a perspective above that altitude, and maybe even outside of Afghanistan, the Central Command, and certainly the National Command Authorities, are prepared for a long -- a longer duration. I'm not sure that any of us have a sense or a feel for how soon before we will know that we have the senior leadership of the Taliban controlled or suppressed or killed or in possession, or the same for al Qaeda. And so we're prepared to stay for as long as we have to do that, and don't have a sense of time on that.

Q: To that end, are military planners considering or planning to increase the size of the contingent of Marines at that base?

Stufflebeem: Well, that will be determined by General Franks. And I don't know the answer to the question specifically, but I'll surmise that he's comfortable with how many forces that he has there now and he is giving them directions on what it is that he would intend for them to do, and if he needs to supplement them with additional Marines or other forces at his disposal, he'll do that. Remember, we've talked before that we'll increase the numbers in areas to fulfill a mission requirement, and shrink it in others. And so we'll continue to be agile, I guess, is maybe a word to put, and not become predictable in that.

Q: Admiral, a large column of Marines left the base yesterday. That was yesterday's operation. Can you tell us what they were doing, where they were heading?

Stufflebeem: They were on patrol.

They were conducting reconnaissance. They were practicing the skills that they will be able to use in interdiction, that the secretary had described. I do not know where they went.

Q: Did they come back? Did they come back?

Stufflebeem: Yes.

Q: Do you know anything about a group of Taliban fighters -- another large group of Taliban fighters in the North of Afghanistan who holed up with their weapons and are holding out -- northwest of Mazar?

Stufflebeem: There are pockets of resistance. I can, in my mind's eye, on the map see about four of them in northern Afghanistan, a couple of them to the west of Mazar-e Sharif and a couple of them east of there. So there are four pockets that I know are of concern to opposition groups, and they are surrounding and negotiating, and ultimately they may have to fight them. And I'm sure that there are more than that. Those are four that I'm aware of right now.

Q: Can I ask what number is involved?

Stufflebeem: Whew! A few thousand, I think, in total.

Q: To follow up on that, how many hard-core Taliban are left inside Kandahar, or how many total Taliban forces do you estimate?

Stufflebeem: I wouldn't hazard a guess. And as has been the case from the outset, it's very difficult to get reliable information from behind those kinds of lines. Again, the sense that I have is that it's a few thousand.

Q: These so-called eastern alliance leaders in the key Jalalabad region -- whose side are they on? Are they sort of "Taliban Light"? Are we working with them? Who are they?

Stufflebeem: I don't know who they are specifically. As I have studied this -- and I'll tell you that it hasn't been in great detail -- this area is a confederation of small villages. These village chiefs obviously are responsible for the folks who are loyal to them and for the welfare of their villages.

And so my sense is -- going back into the history of the area, given its location near Pakistan and how that's been an area of some ambiguity over time, my sense is that we're very careful to try to determine who is pro-Taliban or anti-Taliban, and probably checking our facts more than once to make sure that we got it right.

Q: Can you give us some sense of where you believe Mullah Omar is at this point and again, as we ask you almost every time, what you feel the status of the manhunt for both the top leadership of both organizations is at this time? I mean, the noose has been closing for a long time, but apparently you're not getting some of the top people.

Stufflebeem: We believe the senior leadership is in Kandahar.

Q: This is of the Taliban?

Stufflebeem: That's correct. General Franks has articulated he believes that the leadership of al Qaeda may be in the area south of Jalalabad, and that's why and where we've been concentrating our efforts there.

In this case -- or in these particular areas, there are some factors that we have to keep uppermost in mind. One is that in liberating Afghanistan from these oppressive regimes, if we could even call them that, we have to respect the wishes and desires and the strengths of the Afghan people as we know them, and the opposition groups, to do this job. We appreciate that Afghanistan and Afghanis are not anxious to be liberated by foreigners nor occupied by foreigners, nor do we intend to occupy. And we would look to these opposition groups, not only for intelligence and information, but also in how we can assist them in achieving that goal because here it crosses with ours.

The noose is tightening. And some might say it's a game of inches, others might say it's -- as the question over here from the Marine Corps is that it may be a matter of time. General Franks and the campaign is just being very deliberate, and the next day's step is based upon the conditions that are effected today. So it's hard for me to give you a sense or an assessment of how close are we to taking the senior leadership because, until you've actually got them, you don't really know how close you are.

Q: Do you still feel that either Taliban defectors or the members of various opposition groups -- can you give us a sense for how actively involved you feel they now are in going after the top leadership? There was a sense early on that they were beginning to participate. Are you seeing an acceleration of that? Are you seeing active probes by them into some of these more difficult areas?

Stufflebeem: Yes. I've seen reports where the southern opposition groups, for instance, have probed Kandahar to test, I think defenses and resistance and strength and resolve there. So I do believe that they are probing to determine. I also believe that they are consolidating so that they can amass firepower. But at the same time, I also know that they're negotiating. So I think that they're looking at all their avenues, but I don't have a sense for necessarily when the final ultimatum is going to occur.

Q: That's more of a military situation, but in going after bin Laden, for example, in tunnels and caves near Jalalabad, it's more individuals, isn't it, or small groups that are providing information and going into those complexes? Or are they not doing it?

Stufflebeem: I don't mean for this to sound like I'm trying not to answer your question, but in the most serious sense, we're using every element of power that we have. The Special Operations Forces and their close coordination with the opposition groups, our air strikes -- they're all being applied to bring this pressure up to, one, get the leadership, and two, set conditions where others may deliver the leadership to us, or get them themselves.

So it's the full array that's being applied, and it's being applied in a prudent way that we don't jump out in front of any particular opposition group and leave them vulnerable behind us, as a for instance, or necessarily open up new pockets of resistance. So it's very systematic from that squeeze outside coming in.

I've got time for one more question.

Q: The Taliban -- are U.S. forces or opposition forces taking up positions to try to prevent al Qaeda people from leaving -- getting into Pakistan? Is that possible? Can you seal off the border?

Stufflebeem: It's impossible to seal the border. It's too big. It's traditionally too porous. However, opposition groups and U.S. forces are doing everything we can to stop those lines of communications that would allow for easy access back and forth. So in a sense, the answer to your question is yes, we are working to stop those passages. But to try to paint a picture that that is a primary mission and therefore we are in fact sealing the border would be an overstatement. It's just too porous.

Q: Admiral? To clarify, you said -- this gentleman, supposedly, Mr. Walker -- you said he's in control of U.S. forces.

Stufflebeem: U.S. forces have control of him. Under the control of U.S. forces.

Q: Can you say if there is -- has been any interview of this gentleman or any --

Stufflebeem: I don't know.

Q: Is his medical condition such that that impedes it, or is there a plan for the United States to have intelligence people interview him for some information, perhaps?

Stufflebeem: I'm best left to leave it as we have. U.S. military forces have control. He has sustained some injuries, and he's receiving medical attention. And anything that happens beyond that is still to be determined.

Q: Do U.S. military forces have control of anyone else?

Q: See you tomorrow.

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