DOD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Keen from the Pentagon
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning, and thank you for joining us early this morning.
It's my privilege to introduce to you Lieutenant General Ken Keen, as most of you know, the deputy commander for U.S. Southern Command and, I guess, now former -- as of yesterday -- the Joint Task Force Haiti for Operation -- commander, Joint Task Force Haiti for Operation Unified Response. General Keen served as the task force commander in Haiti since the 12th of January, and he left yesterday after changing command with General Simeon Trombitas. I hope I said that correctly.
General Kane is going to -- Keen -- is going to give you a brief update on the operations there, and then take some of your questions.
So again, general, thank you for coming to Washington and spending a little time with us here.
GEN. KEEN: Thank you. Thank you Bryan.
Good morning. Well, I think I'd like to first start by saying I want to express my appreciation for the American people and all the families of our servicemen and women who have served in Haiti and are currently serving in Haiti; the tremendous amount of support by all Americans. I saw it every day on the streets in Haiti, in the form of civilians who were working for nongovernment organizations to, obviously, those who work in our own U.S. government interagency and our militaries there. They truly are the soldiers of humanitarian assistance, the non-government organizations, the civilians, who are really working day in and day out to help the Haitian people as they recover from this tremendous catastrophe.
As Bryan mentioned, yesterday I turned over command to Major General Sim Trombitas, who also is the commander of U.S. Army South, the Army component command of U.S. Southern Command.
I think that was quite appropriate. He has -- form -- been performing the duties as the deputy of the joint task force since early March. This is yet another step in the military transition as we move forward.
So I think with that I'll just leave it at that and go straight into questions, provide most of our time to address the particular issues.
Q Could you provide us a snapshot of the U.S. commitment at this point, the military commitment in Haiti? How many troops are there?
And how does that compare to whenever its peak was? I believe it was at 10,000 or something like that. Could you give us some background?
GEN. KEEN: I can. When I left yesterday, we had right at 2,200 troops deployed in Haiti. At the peak, on or about 1 February, we had 22,000, and that included about 58 aircraft and 15 ships.
Now, most of those troops at the height were on ships. We had the aircraft carrier, of course, USS Carl Vinson. So at the peak, we probably only had around 7,000 troops in Haiti.
Today, of course, we -- as I mentioned, 2,200; we have four aircraft, and we have no U.S. Naval ships, although we have some landing craft from the U.S. Army that are still supporting us there. So that gives you a little perspective from where we've been to where we are today.
Q Just to clarify, you said 7,000 troops were in Haiti at the peak. You mean on the ground?
GEN. KEEN: On the ground versus on ships. At the height, as I mentioned, we had about 15 ships.
That included the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. It included the USS Nassau, with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. It included the USS Bataan, which included the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit; included a brigade from the 82nd, which was on the ground.
So many of those troops, of course, being sailors and Marines, were on the ships in support of our forces but may have been going back and forth.
And many of the aircraft -- in fact, all the aircraft, initially -- were Marine or naval air that was coming off the ships. So the crews and the support air that supported those were on the ships.
Q General, can you give us a sense of how much longer those troops are going to stay in Haiti? And what is exactly their current mission? And if I may ask a second question, can you give us an assessment on -- of the security on the ground right now in Port-au- Prince?
GEN. KEEN: Well, the current mission remains what it was when we got there, and that is really focused on saving lives and mitigating suffering.
Obviously, the priorities of what we were doing in support of the lead federal agency, United States Agency for International Development, has changed over time. And today we are really -- our priority is focused on how do we mitigate the effects of the coming rains -- in fact, they're already in the rainy season -- and how do we prepare the populations, the displaced persons -- upwards of a million people in Port-au-Prince, in the surrounding areas -- that are living in various states and encampments, to prepare for these.
We've focused recently on moving those populations, working with, again, the nongovernment organizations, the U.N. and others, on getting them out of harm's way, because many of them are in low-lying areas.
And that is well under way. We've mitigated the effects of the potential rains on some of these camps that are in the most vulnerable areas, and actually have moved over 2,000 displaced persons out of some of these camps that were at high risk into other settlements that have been established by the international community, the humanitarian community -- NGOs as well as United Nations.
The security situation still remains calm, as it's been, fortunately, since the early days. While there's been isolated incidents of violence, if you will, it has not been to the degree that it has impacted at all on our ability to provide humanitarian assistance. We've been very fortunate in that when the earthquake occurred, of course, we had the United Nations stabilization mission there. We had nearly 8,000 U.N. troops there, led by Brazilian Major General Floriano Peixoto, who recently turned over command to another Brazilian general, Major General Paul Cruz.
We operated within the envelope of a safe and secure environment due to the -- those forces that were there at the time, and have continued to do that. So we've been able -- "we" being the U.S. military and the joint task force -- have been able to focus our efforts on humanitarian assistance and, of course, security tasks that were associated with doing just that.
Q (Off mike) -- but how much longer do you think those U.S. troops are going to remain in Haiti?
GEN. KEEN: Well, we're -- as I mentioned, we're in a transition phase. We started transitioning the size of our military force, as I have said before, dialing it back or dialing it up based upon the conditions on the ground. And we have done that since February, with the departure of the aircraft carrier. We continue to do that today.
I expect us to -- on or about 1 June to be able to stand down the joint task force.
We will be able to do that, because of the capability that's being built up and has built up by civilian organizations, whether it be USAID's increasing capacity but more so the increasing capacity of nongovernment organizations that are really running much of the humanitarian assistance efforts within the country, to include these displaced-person camps that I mentioned.
They're being run and supported by NGOs under the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Coordination. So as they build up that capacity and get into more of the recovery and reconstruction phase, the need for our military diminishes.
So we are adjusting the size of our military accordingly. And I anticipate us being able to close down the joint task force. That does not mean that U.S. Southern Command will not continue to have an enduring military presence in Haiti.
We -- I was in Haiti on the day of the earthquake. I was there working with the U.S. Embassy on some security cooperation engagement that we were going to have later this year, medical readiness exercises, humanitarian assistant construction projects like building classrooms for schools and also emergency operations centers and talking to them, about how to prepare for natural disasters.
That will continue. In fact later this month, we are going to have the beginning of a robust New Horizons exercise, we call it, led by the Louisiana National Guard. That will continue through the month of September. That will have over $2 million worth of projects focused on some of these engagement activities.
And of course, we will continue with our presence there through that period of time.
After 1 June, I suspect to be around 500 within that task force that will be doing those type of engagements that, by the way, have been coordinated very closely with the United Nations and USAID to fit within the post-earthquake requirements in what is needed.
Q Just to clarify, you're at 2,200 now. And on June 1, the headquarters disappears. So what does that mean for the troop levels? And you mentioned the 500.
GEN. KEEN: Yeah.
Q Does that mean the troops go down to that number?
GEN. KEEN: The troops -- the troops that are part of the Joint Task Force Haiti would also redeploy, and that would include some engineering forces we have there now; that would include -- on 1 May, I expect the Battalion of the 82nd, that's there right now, for them to redeploy in accordance with our current plan. And we have some other units there. So that -- the troops that are part of the joint task force would redeploy.
I mentioned this New Horizons Joint Task Force of about 500 troops. They will come in prior to the redeployment or the standing down of our joint task force, doing those activities I mentioned. So there will be a period of overlap as the joint task force leaves and this New Horizons comes in focused on different requirements and support.
Q General, could you step back a minute from your strictly military role? Give us your sense of how things are in Haiti now and what needs to be done next. And I mean, you've been there a lot. You know, give us a sense of where things are going to go in the next year, say.
GEN. KEEN: Well, I wish I had a crystal ball to provide clarity to your question and answer it.
I think there's a unique opportunity in Haiti today that did not exist before the earthquake. Clearly, the light of the world is shining on Haiti for the obvious needs. The world has responded significantly to avert a tremendous catastrophe. There were no food crisis; there were no loss of life due to shortage of potable water. Clearly, while over 230,000 people died, many, many were saved, thousands were saved, because of the tremendous response medically, not just on our military and other militaries, but the international community, NGOs, as I mentioned.
I think there -- as before the earthquake, Haiti, being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, had tremendous challenges, from poverty to education to infrastructure. Clearly, all those need to be addressed as the government of Haiti develops its long-range vision, and as had been articulated at the donors' conference and talked about in terms of where does Haiti need to go to the future and how do they build back Haiti better, using, I think, what former President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, have stated is a certainly -- a vision of the government and others who are looking to support the country there.
As I left Haiti, I saw lots of hope as I walked around the streets, particularly when you look in the faces of the children, the smiles on their faces, the gratitude that they have, certainly from our military's presence there, but the presence of the international community there. But the proof of the ability to realize their hopes is going to be in how you're able to apply all of these donor nations' contributions, and how they've been able to build a strategic plan, and then how the government is able to lead forward, because this is about Haitians leading Haitians.
So whatever plan is built would need to be a Haitian plan. And I know that the government is working very hard with the international community on just that. I had the opportunity to meet with President Preval and Ambassador Merten, our ambassador to Haiti, as recently as Thursday afternoon -- and they talked about that very issue -- and also had an opportunity to spend some time with the prime minister on Friday, talking about that very issue, about the various commissions that are being set up and how they move forward.
Q So, General, it's fair to say, then, that you expect around the 1st of June the specific earthquake relief operations will end and then this National Guard effort will be back on sort of normal engagement of the type you were working on, on your pre-earthquake trip or the trip that ran into the earthquake.
GEN. KEEN: From U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. military perspective, I think that captures it fairly well. I would not say that the earthquake relief ends on any certain date, because I think, for the people of Haiti who are certainly in the displaced homeless that are in these camps, the impact of the earthquake will linger for years on their life. And the international community, as well as our own government's response to it, is providing a critical need for them today and will continue to provide that and determine how they move on and build back better, as I said.
But from our U.S. military's perspective, we will support -- continue to support USAID and our U.S. government efforts, but we're reshaping it based upon the needs on the ground.
Q Can you tell us from your unique perspective the last several months, what lessons did you learn from this effort? What needs to be done by the military and by civilian agencies, the international community, to be ready for the next disaster, wherever it happens?
GEN. KEEN: Well, I think as you well know, our military looks very closely at trying to determine how we can learn from each particular operation that we participate in. And this is no exception.
And we have a robust lessons-learned team with -- supported by Joint Forces Command that's looking at this as well as others. From my personal standpoint, I'll give you three things that I have taken away from this that we need to sustain and then three that I think that we certainly can look at, that we need to improve and work for.
The first one on sustain is, respond quickly. I think that our nation among leading the effort here responded very quickly and provided critical support at a critical time and in fact provided hope to the Haitian people where hope did not exist.
And having walked through the streets the morning after the earthquake, that was the question I got most often: When is America coming? And I could say with a great degree of certainty, America is on the way. Because I knew that our president and the secretary of Defense had made decisions to send aircraft carriers our way, send troops our way, alert the global response force.
And while it took time to build up the capacity to provide aid, it happened I think much faster than most expected it to, given the logistical challenges associated with only having one small airport to push supplies through.
The second one I thought we sustained that we need to keep working on in all operations is coordination and collaboration.
At the same time, coordination is one of the major challenges that we face in any operation, but certainly this one where you have, as I mentioned, over 140 nations, over a thousand nongovernment organizations, all trying to do their best to provide essential aid. How do you coordinate that overall effort and work with the United Nations, which is leading the humanitarian assistance effort there? But we put in place, under the leadership of USAID and working with the United Nations, mechanisms to try our best to coordinate and collaborate and develop partnerships in places that did not exist before. So I thought that was a sustainment of -- from my perspective.
The other one is, focus on what's important. And what was important on the first day after the earthquake was saving lives. And what's important today is still saving lives, with some longer-term vision of how you move forward from here; but getting together to make sure everybody keeps in focus that we have a lot of people in need and -- the Haitians. And in fact, how do you avert a crisis of -- health crisis, for example, so you don't have diseases that take root in some of these camps? People are working very hard to ensure that doesn't happen and, fortunately, we haven't seen that to this point.
The three improves that I would give you was: determine requirements quicker -- and that's easy to say, and it's very hard to do. But clearly, we want to respond as fast as we can with as much as we can. But hopefully, we can determine the requirements as soon as we can, so we respond with the right capabilities. And that's as much -- was my job on the ground, trying to determine the requirements with the host nation -- with the Haitian officials, with the U.N. And I wish we would have been able to do it better, to ensure that we get the right capabilities there at the right time.
I think we -- stepping back after a period of time, it's an area that I know I will personally look at and say, how could I have done this better? And how can we do this better in the future, with having the right mechanisms to determine that?
The second was -- is understanding everyone's capabilities. Again, all of our services responded, so internal to the joint task force, it was important that the Army leaders within our joint task force understood the capability of our Marine brothers and our Navy brothers so we could apply all these capabilities in the right place. And over time we came to appreciate that much better, but not just within our own service, what our own services bring and the jointness of it, because we were fortunate to have a lot of great men and women from all the services who had worked together in a lot of other places, and we knew each other well enough to bridge that.
But at the same time, what capabilities are there from the civilian sector? What NGOs are in country with unique capabilities? What we found very quickly, as there was tremendous capability already there in Haiti, it was a matter of finding them, linking them together in some cases, or understanding the U.N. I personally had not worked real closely with the U.N. before, so this was a unique opportunity. So one of my personal tasks early on was to understand the U.N. and how it functioned and be able to work closer together with it.
The third one was anticipate challenges sooner -- anticipating challenges, such like what are you going to do with a thousand homeless Haitians as we developed camps? These camps that have developed in Port-au-Prince area, nearly 1,300, according to the U.N., developed spontaneously. They were not, obviously, set up and organized in any fashion.
They just developed spontaneously, because people didn't have anywhere to go.
And then how do you take that and work with the government, to provide the necessary lifesaving support to them, in order to move beyond that and then go to where they need to go in the future? Trying to anticipate some of those unique ones.
The unique requirements that we quite often said here are the three S's. And the three S's -- you could add a fourth. But the three S's I'm talking about are settlements, sanitation and shelter.
That was what was facing us every day as we went through the streets of Haiti. Do you have -- you know, whether the settlements, the shelter -- do they have anything over their head? And the sanitation and all the implications of that.
The fourth S of course is security, which we were fortunate to have the United Nations forces there working with the Haitian national police. In a broader sense, all we had to worry about was security in support of the humanitarian assistance tasks that we did.
And then I'd leave you with three challenges that we worked with every day and had to focus on: logistics, logistics, logistics. In its essence, humanitarian-assistance operations are logistics based. Getting things, people and critical supplies there and getting them there in the right order and the right magnitude, to provide the best assistance you can.
The second one is unity of effort. I mentioned that a couple of times. Getting everybody working on the same page, if you will. And the last challenge is what we in the military call our humanitarian assistance common operating picture.
It wasn't like our normal military common operating picture that you may see in Iraq or Afghanistan. This was about where all the hospitals were at, where all the displaced persons were at, where the roads were blocked, which roads were open, where the police were at or were not at, where there may be pockets out there we didn't know about in existence.
In terms of being able to share that, we decided early on to make this operation totally unclassified in order to provide total access to everyone working there.
And then how do we build, using things like Google Map, a common operating picture so everybody could access it through Internet, for example, and all the humanitarian organizations? That was a challenge and continues to be a challenge, and we're learning a lot about that as we -- as we go forward.
Q Thank you.
Q Hi, General. As I understand it, there's still a lot of Haitians who have nothing but a tarp as shelter. So how long is it going to take to get all of them something more permanent?
GEN. KEEN: Well, the goal of the United Nations and all the humanitarian organizations was to have every Haitian with one tarp by 1 April, every Haitian with at least two tarps by 2 May. In reality, the last figures I saw, they were about 90 percent there, based upon their surveys and contacts and getting everyone under some type of shelter. But clearly, a tarp is a tarp, and it doesn't provide the level of shelter that we -- everyone would like.
At the same time, as you go around the streets of Haiti, you see a lot of tents. So it doesn't mean that tents were not being used or being donated. In fact, what's happening is, as they move out of these spontaneous settlements, like the camp we're -- been -- over the last week been moving most of the at-risk displaced persons out of the Petionville Club displaced persons camp -- that I know many of you are aware is being run by Sean Penn -- the 2,000 displaced persons that are moving from that camp are moving into another settlement called Corail.
When they arrive there, the family is issued a number of things. One of them is a tent that's already set up for them. So they are received, they're given some food, they're given some other non-food items. They're led by a Haitian Boy Scout to their tent, and that's their new home. So we're taking them from being under one or two tarps, under a dangerous situation on the side of a golf course hill, to a(n) area that's flat, that is graded to where it doesn't have standing water, and issued a tent.
But it's going to take time, and there is working -- and the United Nations plan is, over time, to go from tents to transitional shelters. And obviously, the government's long-term plan, how do you get back to developing the infrastructure to accommodate the housing plans. But it's a -- it's a work in progress, and there's no mistake that we're obviously into the rainy season. And the hurricane season is approaching, and living in a tent during a hurricane is a -- is not optimum. So they're looking at how do you protect the most vulnerable in the population as best you can, going into the hurricane season.
So all those things are being thought about and being addressed as best you can. But the problem and the challenges are significant as they go forward.
Q And just a quick clarification. The military mission ends on June 1. There will be a brief time when you have 500 National Guardsmen there. After those 500 leave, how many U.S. troops will remain in Haiti?
GEN. KEEN: Well, the 500 are not just National Guardsmen. They're also Reservists. So it is a -- it is a total Army effort, with the New Horizons exercise from our Reserve component and National Guard forces.
I think, you know -- I think, you know, post-New Horizons exercise, the determination of our engagement with U.S. Southern Command will be based upon what we need on the ground, and those types of plans are being examined right now with USAID and others. So I can't give you an answer to the question of what level of forces, if you will.
What I can say is, U.S. Southern Command -- Haiti is within U.S. Southern Command's area of responsibility. Like I was there before the earthquake, I will continue to be engaged with our staff from U.S. Southern Command, and General Fraser will be there tomorrow to continue to look at how we, from a U.S. Southern Command -- (inaudible) -- can continue to support the country team and USAID efforts as as they move forward.
MR. WHITMAN: Gordon -- (inaudible) -- is the last one, I'm afraid.
Q Sir, hi. I just wondered -- when you mentioned that -- determine requirements quicker -- I just wondered if you had -- one of the three improves you mentioned -- do you have like a specific recommendation for the -- to -- for the higher-ups about how they should assess the requirements faster? As I recall, it took a day or so, it seemed, from this side of the military, to figure out -- to get the assessment team on the ground, all that. Is there a kind of a specific recommendation that you would make to try to make that -- compress that time frame?
GEN. KEEN: Well, I don't have anything just yet that I can offer to say -- except to say that we -- you know, we have the mechanisms in place, I think, for the most part, and we know the experts that need to be brought forward, or if they are not existing, they're -- this is a little bit easier if you're looking at a hurricane and you can see storms gathering and think about it before the fact. This obviously being completely no notice, the level of devastation and destruction presented a unique set of circumstances.
Looking back on it, I don't know how we could have done it any better or any differently.
But it's clearly something, under ideal circumstances, we do want to have something -- and a way to do that to support the government and their country team, and also the unique circumstances of the Haiti capacity to -- for first responders and ability to understand better, you know, how many -- how many buildings had collapsed, how many first responders did exist, how many hospitals were operational that first day. I mean, we started gathering that information just by the fact of receiving reports, but it was not something that was immediately known, and took, as you mentioned, a number of days to do that.
I think we recognize that this is an immediate challenge. We have to focus efforts -- not to say we didn't have -- "we" being the international community -- I mean, I -- they were out, they were -- they were working towards that end. Part of it is how to gather the information to a central location to have total situational awareness from everybody's perspective on what the requirements are. And Haiti presented a unique set of circumstances and challenges that probably don't -- wouldn't exist if you had the same effect in another country. But I think it's something that we recognize that we continually need to improve. I think if you went and looked back, previous disasters in different places, it would not surprise me to see this same item mentioned as something that we can always do better.
But we need to look and see, in particular, like you said, what can we put in place from a U.S. government -- a disaster relief/response effort overall.
Our DART team which leads this effort by the way -- USAID, which responded literally within hours, came there and was plugged in almost immediately. But it was just a tremendous challenge.
So my hat's off to the efforts of Mr. Tim Callahan who led that team. And we plugged into them to try to do our best at that. But it's something I think that we always have to do better.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, I want to thank you for taking the time this morning.
And thank all of you for your interest in this topic. Thank you.
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