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Secretary Mattis Media Availability with General Townsend and Special Envoy McGurk

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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, Commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
Aug. 22, 2017
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(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEC. MATTIS:  But, of course, welcome to you all, here.  Thanks for coming out so the story can be told of Iraq in 2017, not the Iraq of yesteryear, but of where we're at today.  

I'm, of course, honored to be joined by Ambassador Brett McGurk, the president's special envoy, the presidential envoy, to the region; and by our field commander, Lieutenant General Townsend.  The -- I want to take a couple of questions for you, so I'll keep my remarks brief, but we continue to stand right alongside our Iraqi allies.  

Three years ago, if you think of what Prime Minister Abadi came in, what he inherited, and look at where we stand today, thanks to his steady hand on the tiller and his strong leadership; thanks to the ISF, through very severe casualties; and the coalition, standing right along side them, today, the security for the Iraqi people has greatly improved.  

Cities have been liberated, people freed from ISIS, from Daesh.  The economy is recovering.  The -- clearly, Iraq is reengaging with the region, and ISIS is on the run.  They have been shown to be unable to stand up to our team in combat, and they have not retaken one inch of ground that they've lost.

We're dedicated, from the American side, to the strategic framework agreement, which means that we will continue standing by the Iraqi people and their military, make for a brighter future, maintain the stability that will have been earned at a very, very high price, and maintain their secure borders with Iraqi forces holding their borders, those same borders, open to regional commerce.

We in this coalition will remain steadfast with our Iraqi allies all the way through the defeat of ISIS.  It's not over yet.  There's hard fighting ahead.  They're aware of this, and they are committed to it.  In fact, they want to accelerate it.  And at the same time, we want to avoid any obstacles to the teamwork.  And so far, that is working very well.

I'll now have Mr. McGurk share a few comments, and then our field commander will comment.

SPECIAL ENVOY BRETT MCGURK:  Just very briefly, I think Secretary Mattis's visit here in Baghdad is part of a -- really a lot of diplomatic activity that's happening, here in Baghdad, just even over this coming week.  

The border with Saudi Arabia, the Arar border crossing, closed since 1990, is reopening again.  The Saudi trade minister is actually arriving here in Baghdad shortly.  

The Turkish foreign minister will be here later this week, and we very much are encouraged by improving relations between Baghdad and Ankara.  And also, of course, we were in Jordan yesterday to see His Majesty, and -- very detailed discussions between Jordan and Iraq about reopening the Turaibil crossing out in western Iraq.

So we're looking very closely at the future beyond Daesh, and we're encouraged by the leadership of Prime Minister Abadi with this regional engagement.  We think it is really delivering some results, and a very promising development here on the ground.

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you, Brett.

General Townsend.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND:  Thank you, Secretary.  

Good afternoon, everybody.  You're here at a great time.  There's a lot happening right now in our fight to defeat ISIS, both here in Iraq and in Syria, as well.  The fighting is tough, but the momentum was with our partners in the Iraqi security forces and in the Syrian Democratic Forces.  We've got a 73-member coalition that's strong, and our partner forces are taking the fight to the enemy.  

As I approach the end of my tour of duty here, I've been reflecting a bit.  And a year ago, the liberation of Mosul was just some ideas and some lines on paper.  The liberation of Raqqa was not even that.  This week, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi announced the start of operations to liberate Tal Afar.  This follows the intense fighting and the hard-won victory in Mosul that took nine months.  

But we've seen our Iraqi partners quickly refit and transition their force into a new offensive in Tal Afar.  We'll keep supporting them, the coalition will, with equipment, training, intelligence, precision fires and combat devices.  

In Syria, we're in our third month of operations to defeat ISIS in Raqqa, their global capital.  The Syrian Democratic Forces are exerting pressure on ISIS from multiple fronts throughout the city, but the fighting's difficult and they face a really tough job.  

Daesh's defeat is inevitable.  They're surrounded and cut off.  And their cruelty, though, continues to shine through as they hide among women and children and show no regard for non-combatants.  

Victory over ISIS is assured in Tal Afar and Raqqa.  The coalition must continue to disrupt ISIS's ability to inspire new recruits, deprive them of sanctuary, interrupt their revenue streams, destroy their equipment, kill their fighters and deny their ability to attack us at home.  

We'll remain united with our partners, committed to our partners in the lasting defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and to prevent them from exporting their terror around the world and protect our homelands.  

Thank you. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you, General Townsend, and for your leadership out here that has been absolutely critical to throwing Daesh on their back foot, throwing ISIS into the position they're in now, which is very unenviable from anybody's perspective, especially from theirs.  

We can take a couple questions here before we have to get on the plane.  

Go ahead.  

Q:  Can I go first?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  Okay.  

General Townsend, just quickly, Popular Mobilization Forces are integrated in the offensive in Tal Afar.  They're part of the federal police formation.  They're part of Iraqi Army formations.  

This is different than in the case of Mosul, where the U.S. argued strenuously that they shouldn't be involved in the offensive operations on the town.  And because they're integrated, they're benefiting indirectly from coalition air support.  

How many PMF are involved?  How do you intend to prevent any possible abuses in Tal Afar by the PMF?  And why was this policy adjustment made on the U.S. side, since they are indirectly benefiting from U.S. support?  

And to Secretary Mattis, just really quickly, do you intend to ask the -- President Barzani not to proceed with his referendum on September 25th on independence?  And why should he cede to this request, since he's turned down previous American requests from senior officials?  

GEN. TOWNSEND:  Okay.  So -- thanks, Michael.  There are PMF involved in the fighting in Tal Afar, and there's some simple reasons why.  So there were no PMF in Mosul or Tal Afar last fall.  

And so when we made the operation -- made the plans for the operation to liberate Mosul, we asked the government of Iraq to limit the PMF involvement there.  And the -- and the prime minister did that.

He gave them the mission, though, which actually has turned out to be quite fortuitous in the battle of Mosul, to go cut off the lines of egress and infill out -- in and out of Mosul, and they did that.

And so they were -- they are now -- they've been up there for about nine months, in and around Tal Afar, so they're a fact of life on the battlefield.

What we're doing is we're supporting the Iraqi security forces.  We're not offering direct support to the PMF.  We're supporting the Iraqi security forces, and all the Iraqi security force units are under the command of the Iraqi security forces.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, when we get to Erbil here, in an hour, we'll be talking about a host of issues.  The referendum is one of them.  Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS and to let nothing distract us, and that's the point I'll make when we get to Erbil.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I feel obliged to ask you a question about Afghanistan, because it's the first time we've seen you since the president made his announcement.  I'll be very quick.  

I know you put out a statement, a brief statement of your own, in which you said or implied that there would be more troops involved, and -- which has been reported for weeks and months.

Can you -- can you fill in the blanks a little bit to explain how many more troops -- or what will be the total number of troops in the country?  You've talked about the difference there.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'd prefer not to go into those numbers right now.  The first thing I have to do is level the bubble and account for everybody who's on the ground there now, the idea being that we're not going to have different buckets that we're accounting for them in, to tell you what the total number is.  

And there is a number that I'm authorized to go up to.  I have to look.  I've directed the chairman to put the plan together now.  We've obviously been discussing this option for some time.  When he brings that to me, I'll determine how many more we need to send in.  

It may or may not be the number that's bandied about up until now.  I've got to get the plan in from the chairman, and you saw that I directed him to get it to me here right away.

Q:  So the report, 3,900, would be incorrect, would you say?

SEC. MATTIS:  Again, I'd rather not say a number and then have to change it later on.  Let me look at the plan that the military brings me.  We've given them the strategic goals.  They now have to line up the different things they have to do, and assign troops to each one of those efforts.

Once I see that, look at the number we have on the ground, reorganize those on the ground to align with the new strategy, and then bring in whatever gap-fillers I need.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, if I could just follow up on Pakistan.  The words were very tough, but those words have been said before.  What's actually going to be done to sort or align that with the strategy?  

If I could follow up, do you believe that the Iraqi security forces are capable of holding territory without a residual American force in the country?

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me -- let me start on that first, Idrees.  The bottom -- what -- your question is a good one.  It's how does the execution differ in some ways if some of the same thing were tried before.  And there's a broader approach to this, and it all comes down to the execution, and we'll have to stand and deliver on this.  

But I understand the question.  You'll just have to watch it unfold in order to really get the answer to it.

GEN. TOWNSEND:  So I think that the Iraqi Security Forces are very capable now, and they will become more capable with our continued training and assistance and advice.  And the goal will be to get them to be able to secure their own country.  

There are plans under consideration by our government that would look at a residual presence in the future.

MR. MCGURK:  I would just note, ISIS has not retaken any ground that they have lost.  Every coalition-enabled operation, we're talking about 80,000 square kilometers, now -- ISIS has not reclaimed any ground.  And part of that is because, before Stephen’s team launched the military operations, who do -- do a lot of work -- political work, humanitarian work, with the U.N., with local leaders, to make sure the conditions are set for the post-conflict phase.

It is exceedingly difficult, but 2 million Iraqis have returned to their homes in liberated areas.  Our coalition operations and other operations have freed 5 million people, now, from the clutches of ISIS.  And again, so far, they have not retaken any of that ground.

So I think, if you look at the statistics and the data, it's moving in the right way, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that continues.

SEC. MATTIS:  Everything we can.  

We have time for two very quick questions, if they're very quick, and very quick answers.

Q:  -- We talked -- we spoke with the CJFLCC commanders, and they mentioned that the command and control of ISIS have been broken, largely.  I'd like to know what you -- what you've seen in terms of ISIS's ability to control its forces in any sort of operations.

And, Mr. Secretary, you mentioned accelerating the fight against ISIS.

SEC. MATTIS:  Real quick; go ahead.

Q:  What -- what would -- what would that entail?

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me -- let me hit the accelerate.  You've seen it, now, for some time, where we have delegated authority down so that the commanders in the field – down to General Townsend.  He further delegates that authority down.  And we give them the strategic framework, down below, that they've got to operate within, and then they rapidly take advantage of any enemy missteps or any opportunities that we create on the battlefield.

Go ahead, Steve.

GEN. TOWNSEND:  I don't know who -- who told you that the enemy's command and control has been broken.  I probably wouldn't use that descriptor.  I'd probably say something more like "disrupted."  And it's also where -- disrupted where.  

So, in Tal Afar and in Raqqa, we've seen some tactical effects on command and control.  And that's going to help us, for sure, and help our partners there.  But these things are rarely -- these disruptions are rarely decisive in and of themselves.  

There are still ISIS leaders.  There are -- there are orders that have been given, and there are ISIS fighters that are going to follow those orders.  There are subordinate -- small-unit ISIS leaders that have been told what to do.  And just because their higher commander is dead or fled, that doesn't mean those guys are going to stop fighting.

So we're still going to have to fight.

SEC. MATTIS:  You've been very patient.  Very quick.

Q:  Well -- well, if you've got a moment -- quick -- when is the -- Mr. Secretary, is your success against ISIS in the -- Iraq, over the past year -- are you going to take something from that into the new Afghan strategy?

And secondly, General Townsend, there's been a sharp uptick in strikes on Raqqa, and human rights groups are saying there's also a sharp uptick in civilian deaths.  Is there anything you can do about that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Very quickly, Paul , we're not going to take something.  We're going to take a lot of things forward, but we also recall that every war is unique unto itself.  

So what applies and what can be used against ISIS elsewhere, we'll pass this to our friends, partners, allies, whether they be in the Philippines or they're -- they're fighting them in Somalia or wherever, Afghanistan.  But the bottom line is we're going to have to adapt to the certain local conditions wherever they're at.

Go ahead, Steve.

GEN. TOWNSEND:  Regarding strikes in Raqqa, there has been an uptick in strikes in Raqqa for, mainly, two reasons.  

One, it's our -- now our number-one priority for the coalition.  Previously, it was Mosul.  So that's another -- one reason is resources have increased.  Secondly, the fight has now entered into the very hardest parts of the city.  And so our partners are needing greater assistance.  

I've seen the reports of, you know, increased civilian casualties.  And it's probably logical to assume that there has been some increase in the civilian casualties, because our -- our operations have increased in intensity there.  

But I would not -- I would ask someone to show me hard information that says that civilian casualties have increased in Raqqa to some significant degree.

SEC. MATTIS:  And, Paul, in that regard, there has been no military in the world's history that has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties and the deaths of innocents on the battlefield than the coalition military, here in the last years, when precision gave us options that we never had before in history.

That said, an enemy that literally hides behind women and children, or forces innocent people to stay in an area that they intend to turn into a battleground are clearly showing who are the people violating every standard of decency.  Also, it fills us with conviction, as far as what we have to do about this enemy.  

We'll continue to do everything we can.  I've seen pictures of Iraqi people in Mosul running to the Iraqi forces, trying to flee, and feeling safe when they get to the Iraqi security forces.  That -- that alone is probably more telling than anything, because there, you see people risking their lives to get from one side to the other.  

We're not the perfect guys.  We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen.  But we are the good guys, and the innocent people on the battlefield know the difference.

Hey, thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Q:  Thank you.