DOD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Cone via Teleconference from Iraq
COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning. And good evening to General Cone in Iraq.
I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon briefing room Lieutenant General Bob Cone, the deputy commanding general for Operations with U.S. Forces-Iraq. He is also the commanding general for III Corps and Fort Hood.
Lieutenant General Cone assumed his duties as deputy commander for operations in Iraq in March of this year. This is the first time he has joined us in this format. He will be speaking to us today from Al Faw Palace in Baghdad to provide an update on current operations and the new mission profile under Operation New Dawn.
General, with that, I’ll send it to you for any opening remarks you’d like to make, and then we’ll take questions.
GEN. CONE: Thanks very much. I’ll keep my remarks very brief.
And first of all, let me thank those that are here today for coming out and asking questions. Really appreciate your participation in this conference.
Let me begin by saying that although the role for U.S. troops in direct combat operations here in Iraq ended on the 1st of September, the United States commitment to Iraq and its people has not ended. Our work continues every day under Operation New Dawn, with three primary mission sets. And those are advise, train and assist the Iraqi security forces; to continue to conduct partnered counterterrorism operations, to support the government of Iraq, U.S. embassy and U.S. agencies in improving Iraqi civil capacity; and of course, inherent in all of these missions is a level of force protection for all U.S. forces and civilians as they go about their duties.
As the deputy commanding general for operations, I am focused on several subtasks within this mission set. First, strengthen the Iraqi security forces to help continue to build their capacity for providing security in Iraq. This includes a wide array of tasks associated with advising Iraqi tactical units in the conduct of combat operations across Iraq. However, equally important is the emphasis that we have placed in helping the Iraqi security force develop complex systems, such as intelligence and logistics functions, that will be essential to their future success.
I would also add that we are focused on working with the Iraqis to ensure they are both a learning and adaptive organization with the practices necessary to professionally grow and improve in the future.
The second part of my job is keeping pressure on the extremist networks in close partnership with the Iraqi security forces. In this area, I can also cite significant progress on the part of the Iraqi special operation forces community. The capability to conduct counterterrorist operations is essential to maintain the security environment over the long haul here in Iraq.
Let me be clear: The nearly 650,000 Iraqi security forces are fully responsible for maintaining the security environment in Iraq today. We are supporting them in their efforts and are proud of how far they’ve come to date. Despite several recent high-profile attacks, Iraqi security forces have created an environment where violence is 20 percent below the 2009 average. It should also be noted that September and October of 2010 have been two of the lowest months on record for violence since 2003.
Sadly, Iraq still has extremists that attack innocent Iraqi civilians to try and stay relevant. But Iraq and the Iraqi people have rejected extremist ideology and sectarianism. We still have work to do here. And the just under 50,000 brave men and women I have the pleasure of working with are focused and committed to ensuring that Iraq becomes a sovereign, stable and self-reliant country.
With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.
COL. LAPAN: Viola.
Q General Cone, this is Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News.
How do you see the Iraqi security forces’ expertise currently, and how it is evolving on some of the capabilities that you provide to protect the U.S. civilians working in Iraq right now, and that will have to be turned over to someone else in December -- after December 2011, such as counter-IED capabilities and so forth? What are some of the key areas that you feel that they may be able to take on? What kind of expertise do they have in those areas?
GEN. CONE: Yeah, the Iraqi security forces are a capable COIN force, and it’s focused on counterinsurgency and internal security. And as a result of their efforts, we’ve seen attacks at a -- at a level right now of 14 to 15 attacks per day across the nation.
They have work to do in a number of specialty-type capabilities that they’ll continue to need work on. They have an emerging explosive ordnance detachment capability. They have some emerging forensic capabilities. They have some route-clearance capabilities. And all of these things are on glide path in the next 14 months as we continue to work with them and assist them, but they are emerging and carrying on.
I’d say, to your question, we will always have a requirement to provide some level of security for Americans that are in this country for the foreseeable future.
And I think it’s important to understand that -- you know, the proposals that we’re talking about post-2011, I think, have provisions for security -- personal-security detachments, et cetera, as we transition responsibility to the embassy.
So, good progress, a lot of work to do, and I think a good plan ahead.
COL. LAPAN: Kevin?
Q General Cone, this is Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes. The political stalemate there has gone on so much longer than anyone has -- had expected. It has to have some sort of effect on your mission, particularly with training your counterparts in the Iraqi forces. Where does that stand now for you guys? Are you at a level of any kind of frustration? Are you completely immune? I can’t imagine you are. What -- how is this affecting your job?
GEN. CONE: Well, I think -- I view it as a real opportunity. The Iraqis that we work with on a day-to-day basis, particularly some at the higher levels, you know, we’re not certain they’re going to keep their jobs. Guys like the minister of defense, minister of interior traditionally have turned over.
But I think what’s been inspiring for us is how hard the Iraqis have worked in this environment, and, again, not for a single individual or for a particular party in power. They have done it based on an emerging understanding of the role of military forces in a democracy, an emerging democracy, and under constitutional law. And many of them will point out to you that what they’ve done in the last eight months is really about the Iraqi people and the constitution.
And I think if you look at some of the polls that show the acceptance of the Iraqi security forces by the Iraqi people, I think they recognize the fact that a lot of these Iraqi policemen and soldiers, frankly, have carried on in this -- in this post-election time frame and performed some of their best work.
A lot of people speculated, you know, in the March time frame, well, what happens if there’s not a government? How will this work? I will tell you, it has really caused the Iraqis to do some self-examination in some ways and step up, particularly in the senior leader ranks. And I -- so I think it’s been a positive development overall. I think they’ve had some modicum of success.
You know, certainly attacks like we saw on the 31st of October and the 2nd of November are upsetting to them. But the fact of the matter is overall the security situation has been maintained. And the big difference of course is, you know, a year ago it was the U.S. assisting them or actually out in the streets with them. And this year, they’ve actually done better, and it’s largely been exclusively through their efforts with us in an advisory role.
Q General, Charley Keyes from CNN. You spoke several times about the lessening of violence. But you just mentioned those attacks last week, those coordinated attacks.
Could you just speak in a little more detail how you react to them, what impact they have on the overall security atmosphere, and what you see as their purpose?
GEN. CONE: Right. First off, I’m in a sort of a learning and teaching mode at this point. And so I think, as I talked about the Iraqis being learning and adaptive, one of the things I’d give them credit for is they ran a national after-action review on Saturday at the Ministry of Defense, and did a very logical and rational assessment of the attacks. And they were quite critical of their own performance, I think, in a healthy way in terms of improving for the future.
So I think, again, they work tirelessly.
And I can tell you that in terms of them being on alert for an extended period of time, and them, frankly, looking hard at how they’re doing checkpoint operations, whether they’re getting intelligence to the right places that they need to get it to. And, again, our job is to coach and teach and support them as they work through that analysis.
So I think, first off, there’s a very healthy analysis. We assess, I think -- it’s no secret, I think, al Qaeda has taken credit for both the Christian church bombing and the attacks on 2 November. And again, we’ve analyzed that as part of the al Qaeda campaign.
Of course, we had been really since about the 25th of August without a -- you know, a significant attack. And then we saw these attacks, again, targeted against the Christian community. And I’d point out that the grand ayatollah, Sistani, has condemned that, as have other Sunni leaders in the country. And again, I think the Iraqis are working through very hard the protection of minorities, both ethnic and religious minorities in the country. They recognize their responsibility. And I think they’re upping the ante, as we continue.
As you know, there are a series of meetings going on today, and they are on high alert. They’ve taken everybody back from leave. And they’re at 100 percent and focusing right now on improving security, and on critical areas and nodes.
COL. LAPAN: Joe.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. Are you noticing, sir, any potential interference from other funded groups from the neighbors like Iran, for example?
GEN. CONE: Well, you know, there is a history of some influence here from Iran. And, again, you know, this is a very complex region. Iraq has to develop, you know, positive relationships with its neighbors. And I think that’s very important that Iraq moves on in that direction.
We see all sorts of Iranian influence, some of it positive, in fact, and, in fact, we believe some of it negative, although it’s very difficult to attribute that to the Iranian government or in fact does some of this lethal aid come across from other sources within Iran.
I think you would say that probably in the last couple months, in this period of government formation, I think that we think that the Iranian influence has diminished somewhat. And I think overall, that’s probably appropriate for where we are, at least on the violence side, at this point in the formation of the government and in the current delicate political situation that we’re in.
Q (Off mike.) Regarding al Qaeda activities in Iraq, do you know if al Qaeda in Iraq appears to have become increasingly disconnected from al Qaeda in Pakistan, al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan?
GEN. CONE: There are -- there is a belief that since the major attacks that took place in April, al Qaeda has been under significant duress, or at least the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq, and has struggled to reconstitute at least its high-end authorities and linkage back to al Qaeda senior leadership, although I would argue, you know, they clearly are still effective, as evidenced by the attack we saw on the 2nd of November.
Again, this is sort of a different form of lower-level cellular formation, and there have been, we believe, some interim leaders that in fact have been -- have been named. But the level of connectivity between those leaders and al Qaeda senior leadership is uncertain at this point.
Q General, hi. It’s Andrew Tilghman with Military Times. I’m wondering if you could give me any insight as to what the deployment schedules might look like heading into next year. I think that General Odierno had said something about the possibility of a six-month deployment schedule. As you look into 2011, do you see any changes on that timeline?
GEN. CONE: No, I think the Army has a plan in terms of sustaining the 50,000, and then obviously, when we reach the point when we will begin the final drawdown, some of the units that are coming in. But I think as we have analyzed it, what we’re telling all units is to plan on a 12-month rotation over here. And I think that’s prudent. You know, there may be some puts and takes as we go along the way, but in fact I think what the soldiers are being told by their Army leadership right now is pretty much on tap.
The 50,000 force has worked out well for us. You know, we’ve been in that set now for a couple of months. We did an assessment across the board to make sure that we had everything that we needed or we had things that we didn’t need and in fact have managed, underneath the 50,000 number, some minor -- minor changes, probably less than a thousand in terms of adjustments of little things like aviation or MPs or civil capacity teams, and then identifying some excesses and sending them back. But by and large, the current brigade rotation of one-year sets will continue.
Q General, hi. It’s David Cloud with the L.A. Times. I want to explore the glide path you talked about over the next 14 months. I’m curious whether the Iraqis that you deal with speak to you about a desire to have U.S. forces at some low level continue in Iraq after next -- after a year from December. Obviously, that question has kind of been in abeyance for a while because of the political turmoil there. But it’s not completely out of the question. I would assume that there would be some follow-on agreement that would allow some continuing small-level U.S. presence.
What do the Iraqis you deal with say about their desire to see that?
GEN. CONE: Yeah, if I were to -- if they were to say that to me, what I would do is take it as an opportunity, as a learning point about the fact that they’re soldiers and that their job -- they should leave political decisions to politicians. And the reality is that what I tell them to do is make sure that you give your best military advice when you are asked, in regard to what capabilities, what are needed, et cetera; not, certainly, trying to bias the situation in any way. But I think it’s very important that they learn what the role of the soldier is or the military leader is in terms of providing advice as time goes on.
And again, that will be a political decision and it will be, I presume, you know, at some point between the Iraqi government and the U.S. government. And it will be based on higher-level objectives. But right now we have a security agreement that says we will be out of here by the 1st of January 2012.
And I think what’s been really interesting is -- from my perspective is the credibility that we get by making an agreement with another nation and then honoring it and self-enforcing. I run a committee that basically tracks down violations of the security agreement. And in my time here, a little over eight months, we have not had a single incident. I mean, we’ve had, you know, accusations of, you know, violations of the security agreement. When they’re investigated, what we find is there are none.
So we hold this meeting and basically say, has the United States -- literally, the Iraqis kept a step forward, and say, "Have the -- has the United States violated a security agreement?" And they say no. And then we move on to other issues. But I think that’s very important in building credibility in this part of the world, the fact that we said we’d be at 50,000, and the fact that, barring a political change, we will be at zero on the first of January, 2012.
Q Leaving aside the politics, though, which I understand, in your military judgment, will the Iraqis need continuing partnership and assistance after 2011 to fulfill the security requirements they face?
GEN. CONE: We have a comprehensive plan right now to work with the Iraqis. And that’s why -- I will tell you frankly we are very busy right now working with the Iraqis. Really when you focus on, sort of -- there are 19 major capabilities that we work on with them, and then identifying the conditions that need to be established by the time we leave. We’re working. We have a plan where we can leave here on -- as scheduled. There are things that someone might like to do or think could be done better. But again, I think those things will come into the political negotiation.
Q Okay. General, Larry Shaughnessy from CNN. I wanted to ask you about your other role as head of III Corps and Fort Hood. After the Article 32 hearing for Major Hasan is done and the other pre-trial matters are taken care of, a commander’s going to have to decide if there’s a recommendation for a court martial, to either go ahead with it or not. And then there might well be a recommendation for a death penalty.
Will you be involved in that in any way, as the commander of III Corps?
GEN. CONE: I won’t from here.
And again, it depends on the timing of all this that plays out. And in fact, when I left, I signed over legal responsibility as a general court martial convening authority to my deputy when I departed the country.
So I’ve been over here. It will depend on how far this all progresses, and it will depend on other legal considerations that will be assessed at that time. But again, right now I am removed from the Fort Hood case, and I have -- I have legal authority here over a like number of soldiers. So again, we’ll deal with that, I think, in the future.
Q There was a legal fight over whether or not you should be deposed in this -- in the Hasan case. Did you ever sit for a deposition in the case?
GEN. CONE: I did not. I was in the process of deploying as that came down. And again, I think certainly given the technology we have today, you know, we could have done it from here, but to my knowledge there was never any request to be deposed since I’ve been here in Iraq.
So, again, you know, these are all, you know, important legal processes that we follow the procedures exactly to the law to make sure that this is -- this case is fairly tried.
COL. LAPAN: Okay, General, it looks like you’ve exhausted the Pentagon Press Corps of questions, so I’ll send it back to you for closing remarks.
GEN. CONE: Yeah, I -- again, I’d just like to thank everybody again. You know, Veterans Day is coming up, and that’s really important for, I think, for so many who’ve served this country and serve as an inspiration to everyone. And again, they’re in our thoughts and prayers here in Iraq.
Here, we are -- continue to grow capabilities and capacity for the security forces of Iraq, and again, things continue to move all the trends in a positive direction.
I’m -- again, I’m proud of the work that our service members are doing in Iraq. And I can tell you that each and every one of them is making a difference.
Again, thanks for coming to the press conference, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today. Thank you very much.
COL. LAPAN: General, thanks again for your time.