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En Route Media Availability with Secretary Mattis

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
Aug. 20, 2017
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             SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, thanks for coming on the trip.  When you look at the trip and how we're doing the discussions with people, it's going to be a little hard to keep you updated with me talking to you, so I wanted to talk to you now when I got some -- I'm still in control of my time.

 

            So, as you know, we're headed to the Middle East and Ukraine, Europe, and with stops in Jordan, Turkey, and Ukraine for their Independence Day.  You know, basically, I'm out there, there's individual agendas with each one of those stops.  They have things they want to talk to me about; I have things I want to talk to them about. 

 

            And basically, make sure that in Jordan, old ally, old friend, to anyone trying to create peace in the Middle East, stalwart, good bias, frontline against ISIS, just a critical state, and I'll meet with King Abdullah there and General Freihat, who I have not met with before.  He's the chief of defense.  And basically I'm just there to discuss our shared security interests.

 

            I'll go to Turkey, NATO ally, work with Turkey.  They have a lot of concerns.  They're a frontline state against terrorists right there in Syria and all the chaos.  They're a frontline state on dealing with refugees, who are traumatized as any as you'll ever find in I think the history of the world, but reaffirming our commitment to work with Turkey, collaborate on our efforts to address regional security and stability, find or make common ground where, you know, we've got disagreement on who we're working with.  You all know that.  We've worked through those.  Up until now, we have to continue to work those. 

 

            I also want to better understand and help address their legitimate security interests, get a deeper understanding there.  They have a new minister of defense, and for the first time I'll meet Minister of National -- they call it Minister of National Defense there -- Canikli.  And I've had a very straightforward, very open dialogue with his predecessor.  And that's my goal, to continue that dialogue and make certain we're operating with transparency, both ways.  Also meet with the foreign minister and scheduled to meet with President Erdogan there. 

 

            In Ukraine, I'm going there to commemorate the Ukraine's Independence Day, and just to make certain that, you know, that they know we're aware of the values and what they're trying to put together coming out of the history they've had in the past.  It's not easy making a democracy.  It's not easy making a sovereign state, especially right now with the way Russia has been violating territorial integrity.  So I'm going to go to the parade there on their Independence Day, and I'm scheduled to meet with President Poroshenko and the minister of defense, that's Poltorak, and underscore our commitment to a strategic partnership and our support for their sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlight the U.S. train, equip and advise efforts to build the capacity of their forces.

 

            We'll be joined there by Ambassador Voelker, our special representative for Ukraine negotiations.  Remember, again, as in many other places in the world right now, it's a diplomatically led effort there that I support, that I'm in support of Secretary Tillerson's efforts there to work with our NATO allies and Ukraine and continue to press Russia on its Minsk commitments.  And that includes an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and unfettered access by the monitoring -- that's the OSCE monitors there.

 

            So as you can see, everything I'm talking about, the one theme you pick up, Jordan, Turkey, Ukraine, is working by, with and through allies and our military effort always buttressing, kind of dovetailed in behind, underneath our diplomatic effort.  That's a quick snapshot of where we're going, why I'm going, that sort of thing.

 

            So why don't we just go for -- yeah, go ahead.  Questions?

 

 

            Q:  And thanks for taking the time -- (inaudible)

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, sure, yeah.

 

            Q:  We're interested, of course, at each of these stops, but I'd like to ask you first about Afghanistan, because it's timely and so forth.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Of course.

 

            Q:  Today the president wrote on Twitter that he had made a decision about Afghanistan at Camp David.  Can you say anything about that?  And can I ask you also, given that you've said -- you've told us in the past that you -- although you were given the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, that you not intend to make any changes until after a strategy had been set.  I'm wondering, with the events in the past 24 hours, do you now feel you are at the stage where you can make those kind of moves with troops?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, well, first, let me make sure I stated it right before.  I might make some minor changes, you know, 100, you know, security troops in, you know, 75 engineers were working a project coming out.  There's a very strange accounting procedure I inherited that I'm -- what I'm probably going to end up doing is out putting everyone into one thing and saying, here's how many are really there now, because it's more I found out than what I've read in the newspaper when I got here.  And so I'll establish what that is.

 

            But I was not willing to make significant troop lifts until we made certain we knew what was the strategy, what was the commitment going in.  In that regard, the president has made a decision, as he said.  He wants to be the one to announce it to the American people, so I'll stand silent until then -- until that point.

 

            Q:  And so if -- I'm not asking you what the decision was, I'm asking you whether it sort of frees you to move ahead with the troop --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  That will be the decision though.  So I really can't right now, because you'd legitimately then be able to ask another question and I’d have to fill in the blank.  And I'd prefer just to keep this rather methodical right now due to the gravity of the decision and all.

 

            Q:  If I could follow up on that, part of this is, of course, Pakistan and this South Asia strategy and how Pakistan plays into that.  Obviously, your predecessors have tried to push Pakistan to take action against safe havens.  How do you believe this administration can actually have an impact on Pakistan?  Because it's been tried before.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, you defined it accurately.  It is a South Asia strategy.  It is not just an Afghanistan strategy.  So if you look at the region, it's a South Asia strategy, and we'll be addressing those issues in it.

 

            Q:  How will you address Pakistan differently?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Well, once he announces what the strategy is, we can get more precise on Afghanistan troop levels, what we're going to do with that.

 

            Q:  Do you know why he's waiting to announce the decision?  Because he is quite quick in announcing things.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  I think it was -- the president had to make strategic decisions.  As I've said before, he delegated to me when he came in tactical and operational decisions.  He did not delegate one ounce of the strategic decision.  And -- you're falling apart there.  Okay.  No sweat. 

 

            And so I think once -- he really did come in with very different courses of action.  I think he now needs the weekend to collect his thoughts about how he's going to explain it to the American people.

 

            Q:  Last question.  I mean, without getting the decision, are you satisfied with the decision that he's made?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  The process was rigorous.  And it involved all members of the cabinet -- of the national security staff, I would say, writ large.  You know, attorney general and homeland security, since we're trying to protect America, State Department and Treasury Department, and so it involves significant allies.  It has impacts on our budget.  Director of OMB was in on it.  The national security adviser and the chief of staff were coordinating to make certain everyone who had equities was heard eventually.  I'm very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a preset condition in terms of what questions could be asked or what decisions would be made.

 

            Q:  Do you have an Afghan question? 

 

            Q:  Yeah.

 

            Q:  Go ahead.

 

            Q:  You mentioned earlier in the week that you were going to -- you were fine-tuning several options to the president.  Was that still -- did you present him with, you know, three or four options?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, there were several options.  And we -- the reason we had to get back together was he kept asking questions on all of them and wanting more and more depth on it.  And in putting that together, it caused us to integrate the answers more.  In other words, the more pointed he became about what he would look at with that option versus this one meant we could better define what are the relationships with allies or what are the -- what's the level of effort needed and what's the cost, the financial cost.  And so we just kept sharpening those -- yeah?

 

            Q:  And you expect that this week, this next week the decision will be announced?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  (Inaudible) -- I think he put something out -- and he's going to talk to the American people.

 

            Q:  Sir, I'd like to ask you --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Why are you quitting?

 

            Q:  I'm not quitting.  (Laughter.)

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Well, what are you doing?  I hear this is --

 

            Q:  I'm not talking in front of the television here.  This is --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, okay, I'm sorry -- you got classified stuff -- (inaudible)

 

            Q:  That's right.  I'm not worried about your classified stuff.  I'm worried about my classified stuff.  So --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Well, my secrets are bigger than your secrets.  (Laughter.) Yeah, it's been normal for me to look over and see you there, calculating, watching, listening to everything.

 

            Q:  (off mic)

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, we'll still invite you, then.

 

            Q:  So I have a question, sir, on ISIS.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  ISIS?

 

            Q:  Yeah, on -- ISIS has claimed credit for the terrorist attacks --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Barcelona?

 

            Q:  -- in Barcelona in Spain.  Do you -- are there indications that this attack was, indeed, planned by their external planning kind of folks in the caliphate and in the Euphrates River Valley?  Was it directed from outside, as best you can tell?  And is their capability to plan these external operations in any way diminished, since they've moved it out of Raqqa into the Euphrates River Valley?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  We know that ISIS's ability to conduct external operations has been diminished, but, you know, this is a temporal thing.  It diminishes.  They move it around.  They reconstitute it.  This is a usual game of cat and mouse of war. 

 

            As far as Barcelona in particular goes, I don't have that level of fidelity right now.  We have a lot of information from our allies.  And we have a lot of information out of the combat zone.  But we look for whether or not an attack is planned, coordinated, maybe inspired, maybe none of those, maybe a lone wolf that just suddenly declared himself an ISIS -- in other words, a branding issue.  It takes a while to put all the pieces together.

 

            We know we have disrupted external operations by ISIS in Europe.  We know that without any doubt.  But again, I mean, it's not like we get complacent and sit on our laurels then, because they can always reconstitute.  And so we keep fighting them.  This is where -- one of the reasons I'm going to Jordan in order to visit with an operation there, where almost two dozen nations and intelligence services and others are part of what Secretary Tillerson's put together with the 70-odd nations in the defeat ISIS campaign, which also includes Interpol for a reason.

 

            So as we get all these inputs in, we'll be able to know, was this one simply inspired by them and it was a group of people?  Or was it planned by the external operations cell?  Was it actually coordinated by them?  Or was it decentralized and all that?  I don't have all that information yet.

 

            Q:  Since ISIS has moved its operations into the so-called MERV, the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and Mayadin and Abu Kamal and Al-Qaim, and all of these cities and towns, how do you foresee this next phase of the campaign against the Islamic State?  And are there -- who is going to be the force that's going to prosecute this fight?  And are there ways you can accelerate it, since the caliphate is shrunken, but still intact?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  In some -- I was telling those -- Mike, you understand, I don't want to tell the enemy what force, how it's going to unfold and that sort of thing.  I just -- you know, I'm always uncomfortable with that.  We will continue to move against ISIS.  And I'm not going to give a whole lot of details on upcoming operations.

 

            Q:  One thing we saw about -- with the exercises --

 

            STAFF:  Who are you with again?

 

            Q:  Los Angeles Times.

 

            STAFF:  Okay.  Do you live there or do you live back here? 

 

            Q:  No, I live in D.C.

 

            STAFF:  Okay, go ahead.

 

            Q:  North Korea, with the new exercise that just kicked off, that are set to kick off the 21st --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Ulchi Focus Freedom Guardian?

 

            Q:  Right, so we notice that the numbers have been down a few thousand from previous years.  We're wondering, was that by design to kind of take pressure off and not --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  The numbers are by design to achieve the exercise objectives.  And you always pick what it is you want to emphasize.  And right now, there's a heavy emphasis on command post operations for the integration of all the different efforts.  That is something that is more staff-driven, and it's not so much the tie-in to troops in the field or a number of ships at sea. 

 

            Sometimes it's better to leave them in their fundamental training mode rather than being out on the ground waiting for orders as staffs are learning how to work together.  Meanwhile, they're sharpening their combat skills while the staffs are sharpening integration skills. 

 

            This right now is an exercise to make certain that we're ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there.  And because of the specific circumstance, we want it to be a command post -- heavy command post exercise.

 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- numbers, it's not because of North Korea or response to them?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  No, it's just -- you know, the exercise is set up months in advance.  What do we want to accomplish?  Where have we seen difficulties in coordination in the past?  And you look at past -- what are called after-action reports, say there's a weakness, let's work on those next year, and they put it together, really come out a year ago's exercise.  And then little by little, you refine it until you have the right organization to put yourselves through your paces.

 

            Q:  So it would be a mistake to say it's been scaled back because of North Korea's objections?  Because some people --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, this is an exercise for the defense of Korea.  It's a combined exercise.  And it's all worked out way in advance by the alliance officers in the -- you know, yeah.

 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- change then, in response to recent events in North Korea?  It has not been scaled back in response to recent events?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  No, this is a fully defensive exercise for the defense of South Korea and to accomplish the exercise objectives.

 

            Q:  Can I take another crack at Bob's question?  Obviously, as a student of history, you'd be concerned about -- you know, sort of a World War I scenario or a sequence of events where one party takes an action, another one might react and things spin out of control.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yeah.  Yeah.

 

            Q:  Have you approached the Korean -- the situation in the Korean peninsula with that lesson in mind, trying to avoid actions that the other side might misinterpret and it could lead to an inadvertent escalation?  And how so?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Just one of the reasons you're asking these kinds of questions, because we're very transparent in what we're doing just to avoid miscalculation.  North Korea knows this is a fully defensive -- for whatever they may say for public consumption, they know this is a defensive exercise.  It's been going on, you know, for decades.  I mean, the name has changed over the years, but it's the same exercise that's been going on.

 

            So it's calculated to not allow for miscalculation.  But this is an area where it takes -- it takes -- I'd just call it a transparency that permits people to see what's going on.  There's a reason why their correspondents are going around -- as a matter of fact, they even said based on -- I saw in one of the newspaper articles this morning that based on past photographs of what the command posts look like, it will mostly be officers and NCOs hunched over computers.

 

            So you can see the kind of transparency in the past that they can even draw in their mind's eye a vision of what this thing looks like, not, you know, 20,000 troops landing across beaches in Pohang, South Korea, as an exercise.  You know, it's something different. 

 

            Q:  (off mic)

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, go ahead.

 

            Q:  With AFP.  I'm filling in for Tom.  I don't know if you know Tom, but --

 

            STAFF:  Tom Watkins.

 

            Q:  Tom Watkins, skinny British guy.  The Iraqi military had a pretty rough time in Mosul.  And some said they needed a little more downtime to prepare for Tal Afar, but they've already --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Who said that?

 

            Q:  Some of our people in Iraq were saying that they're hearing that.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Very rough fighting.

 

            Q:  They had rough -- and they had a lot of equipment they needed to work on.  But they're starting into Tal Afar today, according to reports.  Are you concerned that they need a little more rest?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  No.

 

            Q:  (off mic)

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

 

            Q:  How do you think that campaign is going to go?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  I never -- you know, one good thing about something like this is when generals and people above them just go silent when the young guys go into the fight.  Don't -- don't say it's going to be easy or hard.  Don't say it's going to be fast or slow.  Just go silent.  You're in something that -- people will speak with gravely voices and be paid a lot of money to speak on television screens about how it's going to go.  Sometimes they're right; sometimes they're horribly wrong.  I'd prefer just to let the reality come home.  There's nothing to be gained by forecasting something that's fundamentally unpredictable.

 

            Q:  It's --

 

            Q:  Always one more.

 

            Q:  Is it fair to say that the president could announce the South Asia strategy next week?  I mean, what's the sort of timeline?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I don't --

 

            STAFF:  There's nothing (inaudible)

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  There's nothing out on -- I mean, what did he -- I didn't read the tweet.

 

            Q:  So he made decisions at Camp David, including on Afghanistan.  That's all he said.

 

            STAFF:  That's all he said.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Okay.  So we'll see when it comes out.  But, you know, I mean, there's nothing -- there was nothing precooked.  It's not like we actually had, you know, it all pre-cooked, and so bingo, he makes a decision.  I mean, he's going to be sitting alone at a desk for a lot of it.  He's got to write it down, you know?

 

            Q:  But you're fully informed on that decision?

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

 

            Q:  You've been fully informed on what the decision is.

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  Yes. 

 

            Q:  After -- and after it's announced, and after the White House makes -- does its explanation, might it be possible to talk to you somewhat further on the ins and outs of it?  Would it be --

 

            SEC. MATTIS:  If it happens on the trip, I'll do my level best -- I may not be right away, if I'm in the midst of these long days I've got planned and all.  But I'll talk to you as soon as I can.  And, again, Michael, you know how I am about talking about upcoming operations.  I'm always trying to -- you know, I'll tell you what I can.  But this is --

 

            STAFF:  Thank you.

 

            -END--