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Department of Defense Afghanistan Force Management Level Accounting and Reporting Practices Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson White and Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General McKenzie in the Pentagon Briefing Room

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Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.
Aug. 30, 2017
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CHIEF SPOKESPERSON DANA WHITE:  Good afternoon, everyone.

Joining me today is Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie, director of joint staff.  We're here to announce that Secretary Mattis has directed the department to revise how it accounts for deployed personnel carrying out major operations in Afghanistan.

The secretary has been clear about his commitment to transparency in our public reporting procedures, and increasing commanders' ability to adapt to battlefield conditions in countering emergent threats.  Following a comprehensive review of our South Asia strategy, the secretary has determined we must simplify our accounting methodology and improve public -- the public's understanding of America's military commitment in Afghanistan.

DOD's previous force management practice only disclosed publicly the forces under the force management level, not those forces on temporary missions.  

While this procedure supported operational security, it also reduced unit readiness and transparency.  Often, commanders were compelled to reduce the sizes of deploying units in order to meet theater force management levels and limit the time that units could remain in operational theaters.

This way of doing business is over.  Today, the department will release a public approximate number to account for total forces in Afghanistan.  As we have done in the past, we will still protect sensitive units and certain temporary missions.  We will continue to fully report all forces to Congress in closed settings.

With this change, we will balance informing the American people, maintaining operational security and denying the enemy any advantage.  Along these same lines, we are also reviewing force management practices for Iraq and Syria.

To be clear, this is not an announcement of a troop increase.  We are simply being more transparent about the way we communicate America's military commitment in Afghanistan, while still protecting sensitive information.

Our success as a military depends on the support of the American people.  These changes will help us enhance the trust the public has placed in the department.

Now, I'd like to turn it over to General McKenzie, who will deliver a few remarks, and then we'll take a few of your questions.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH MCKENZIE:  Thank you -- thank you, Dana.  

Good afternoon, everyone.  I'm Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie, the director of the joint staff.  What I'd like to do in the next few minutes is provide you with a military rationale for the change in how we're going to report the number of deployed personnel in Afghanistan.

The new force management process that we're going to talk about allows us to balance two competing priorities:  first, openness and transparency with the American people and with our allies, and second, avoiding provision of aid and comfort to the enemy by telegraphing our military capabilities and operations.

We will characterize all forces necessary for the steady-state missions of train, advise, assist and counterterrorism as total forces.  Included in total forces in Afghanistan will be the troops required for short-duration missions, which vary based upon operational conditions, but are not needed for the duration of the operation.

This includes troops in a temporary duty status, troops assigned to combat support agencies and forces assigned to the material recovery element and the Resolute Support sustainment brigade.

Troops that are involved in release -- relief in place and transfer authority of operations will not be included in the total forces reporting, because the transition period between units is very short in duration.

In November 2016, the previous administration authorized the increase of the force manning level to 8,448.  And until now, the department has routinely reported approximately 8,400 forces, with a complex series of authorized exemptions above that.  

Under the new, simplified accounting methodology, the current total forces number in Afghanistan is approximately 11,000.  This does not include any potential future adjustments the Secretary of Defense may make in order to accomplish the president's new strategy for South Asia.

And let me just emphasize, upon closing my remarks, the number of 11,000 is an approximation.  The number may be slightly above that, it may be slightly below that.  It will certainly vary.

Thank you.

MS. WHITE:  Okay.  So with that, I'll start with Lita.

Q:  Hi, Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press.  

A couple questions.  Since you're doing this for Afghanistan -- I did hear you mention Iraq and Syria -- why aren't you releasing the same transparent numbers for Iraq and Syria today?  And I have a follow-up.

MS. WHITE:  So each operational theater is different and we have to consider different concerns.  We are reviewing Iraq and Syria, and the same guiding principles will govern how we roll out those numbers, as well.  

General?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I would just add that, as Dana noted, the fights different in Iraq and Syria than it is in Afghanistan.  But in both theaters, eventually we'll apply the same two pillars:  balancing transparency of reporting with a requirement to protect the forces on the ground and give the commander maximum operational flexibility.  Those numbers will be forthcoming.

Q:  Well, I guess my question is -- as we're all very aware, one of the issues of concern in Iraq is political sensitivities with the Iraq government.  

Are you suggesting that that would be taken into account, thus rather diluting the transparency portion of this?  Or will you do the same exact manner of accounting in Iraq as you are doing in Afghanistan, regardless of this -- the political sensitivities of the Iraqi government?

MS. WHITE:  We are still -- Iraq and Syria are still under review, and we think about every AOR, or every country, differently.  And so, when we have details, we will definitely get back to you -- when we're ready.  But the same principles will guide those -- that accounting, as well.

Q:  But -- I just want to make sure I understand that.  So you're -- you're saying the same principles will apply.  Does that mean you will count them the same?  

Or will there be a lesser degree of transparency in Iraq because you're taking into account what you said, countries were different?  I think the American public has got to know what "transparent" means.  And does it mean the same thing in each country?

MS. WHITE:  Absolutely.  And -- but that is still under review, and when we're ready to roll out those numbers, we will let you know.  

So is David Martin here?  No.  So, Tom Bowman?  Do you have a question for us?

Q:  No.

MS. WHITE:  Okay.  Okay, we'll go down my list.  

Nancy?  Hi.  I understand that you are now with the Wall Street Journal, so congratulations.

Q:  Thank you.  I had a couple questions, one on the -- to follow up on Lita's point on -- I still don't understand if we're actually going to get numbers.  Can you give us a timeline in terms of when we would hear on Iraq and Syria?  I'll just start there.

MS. WHITE:  We'll definitely -- it's still under review.  I don't have a timeline.  I'll let the general talk more to the accounting process that's happening.  But it's still under review, and it's still based on the same principles of transparency.  The secretary is very adamant about applying greater transparency to this accounting practice.

Q:  Who's been doing it?

MS. WHITE:  currently the joint staff.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Joint staff, the theater commander and ultimately, of course, the secretary of defense will be the reviewing authority as we go forward.  We're simply not ready to bring those numbers out.

Q:  And is there a timeline (inaudible) a decision one way or the other?

MS. WHITE:  Again, those numbers are -- we'll give you an answer when we have them.  

Okay.  Hans?

Q:  Yes, if I -- to sort of follow on the same -- on the same vein, you're kind of hinting that the policy in Afghanistan hurts force readiness.  So has the policy for Iraq and Syria changed?  Or are we still laboring under the old FML strictures, where you have certain units maybe left behind because their commander didn't want them counted towards the FML number?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So I'm confident that -- we'll start with Afghanistan, because that's the -- that's the issue ahead of us right now.  One of the key -- one of the key points about the transparent policy and accounting for an approximate number instead of a precise number -- we all recognize that whole units are inherently more prepared, more ready than units that are fragmented in order to meet an arbitrary force management level.

So that's why we're going to have a little bit of flexibility in those numbers in order to -- in order to facilitate the deployment of whole units into the fight.  That same principle will certainly apply in -- in Iraq and Syria, when those numbers are released.

Q:  Okay, so we still have fragmented units fighting in Iraq and Syria?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I think in both theaters, because of the force management caps we've been under.  I don't think either commander is completely satisfied with the nature of the units that they received, and this is an opportunity to try to redress that and deploy whole, organic units that are obviously going to be at a maximum state of readiness to the fight.

MS. WHITE:  Tom?

Q:  I now have a question.

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Absolutely.

Q:  The 11,000 -- does that include the CT mission?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  That includes the CT mission.

MS. WHITE:  Okay.  Tara?

Q:  Just a follow-on on the -- Iraq and Syria.  Could you talk a little bit about the sensitivities or considerations that have led to having a different type of accounting system for Iraq and Syria than there will be in Afghanistan?

MS. WHITE:  Okay.  So we didn't say there was a different accounting system.  We said that this is under review.  And so, when we have -- when we -- and the guiding principles will still be about transparency and giving commanders the maximum flexibility to deploy forces.  So when we are ready to announce those numbers, we'll let you know.

Q:  Okay.  Second, when the Duty Officer also releases contractor and civilian numbers, you know, people in Iraq's -- Afghanistan, are those numbers going under a similar review?  Or do you have confidence that those numbers are accurate?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  We have confidence those numbers are accurate and they don't fall under the -- what we're discussing today.

Q:  Okay.  

MS. WHITE:  Barbara.

Q:  So when you mean -- I have two questions, if I may.  You -- back on this issue of the same principles of transparency, just help me understand.  Does that actually equate -- can you say, does that equate to the same transparency?  You've been saying the same principles, but does that equate to the same transparency?

MS. WHITE:  Again, these are approximate numbers, and Iraq and Syria are both still under review.

Q:  Totally understand.  What I'm asking about, to be -- let me try and just be more precise.  I think you talked about -- you want to apply -- the secretary wants to apply the same principles of transparency.  

But does that mean -- I'm not -- I don't understand.  Does that mean the same transparency will apply?  Or does this leave the door open?  Does principles not equate to the same transparency?

MS. WHITE:  Again, I'll let the general expound on this.  But the secretary is interested -- his directive was to provide more transparency in how we account for troops on the ground.  

Each country has its own, you know, unique differences and concerns and interests.  Therefore, that's why we are reviewing Iraq and Syria, and the guiding principle of that, as the general said, is about transparency and giving commanders the maximum flexibility.  

I'll let the general talk to it.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So Iraq and Syria are still ahead of us, and we're not ready to release that information yet.  But I will tell you that, when I say transparent, I'm talking about accounting for force levels that include those forces that are temporarily deployed.  They will now be reported.

Those forces that are doing a -- we will not report on forces that are doing any of the turnover, as I've previously identified.  But we -- what we want to do is capture, actually, rather than a convoluted set of reporting rules, a very simple and transparent set.  

And I -- so I believe the general principle will be the same.  But we're not prepared to yet talk about that second case.

Q:  And if I may just --

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Can -- can I just get to a couple more people, then I -- when I'll come back to you?  

Idrees?

Q:  Just a follow-on, I mean, what are the factors that are different, in Iraq and Syria, from Afghanistan, -- that it's taken you longer to review for Iraq and Syria?

MS. WHITE:  Well, it's a different -- it's a different operational theater.  I mean, I'll let the general speak.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  Those numbers -- they'll be out soon.  I'm not going to tell you exactly when.  But the fact -- the operating principles will remain the same.

Q:  Sir, if I can just follow up, then, last week in Baghdad, the secretary said that, when he has the complete numbers, he's then going to make a decision on how many additional to send.  Does this now mean that he is -- a decision on how many additional troops --

MS. WHITE:  Now, you're talking about Afghanistan?

Q:  -- Afghanistan  -- to send is now imminent?  I mean, because this was clearly the step that he wanted.  He's got that now.  So where are we, in terms of making a decision on additional troop numbers?

MS. WHITE:  The president -- I mean, the -- sorry, excuse me -- the secretary is fully engaged in implementing the president's strategic guidance.  When we have something to announce, we'll let you know.  

Elise?

Q:  Thank you.  Thank you for doing this.  

Regarding the 3,900 troops that are authorized to deploy in Afghanistan, I understand that's the force management level.  So does that -- will that include -- you know, when we get the numbers, will that include the temporary troops?  Or will there -- will there be, in fact, more than 3,900 troops going to Afghanistan?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  That decision's still ahead of us.  The secretary hasn't made that decision, so I can't comment at all on that.

MS. WHITE:  (off mic)

Q:  (inaudible) -- General McKenzie, have -- so have any -- General Votel, a week or so ago, said that some of these troops might start flowing in, in days or weeks.  Have any of them started moving into Afghanistan as part of the new strategy -- the president's new strategy for South Asia?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  No troops have started to flow.  We obviously plan for a variety of things, but no troops have started to flow.  No decision's been made by the secretary.  No deployment orders have been issued.

Q:  And then one for you, Dana, please.  I know that this is about FML, but I just have to ask you, since you have the opportunity, about transgender, since the SECDEF put out his guidance last night -- or put out his first, you know, written statement about it.  

There were two things that kind of struck me in the statement.  The first was -- said -- said that the soon-arriving senior civilian leadership of DOD will play an important role in this effort.  Who is that, specifically, that he was referencing there?  

And then the second part -- at the very end, he talked about -- there could be some necessary interim adjustments to procedures or some new guidance that he puts out before the review is complete, in six or seven months.  Can you talk about those two elements particularly, and what those meant -- he meant in that statement?

MS. WHITE:  Yes.  So first -- the first thing that we're working on is interim guidance.  The interim guidance will inform the implementation strategy.  The secretary will convene a panel to really look at lethality, unit cohesion, as well as readiness.  Secretary sees everything through that prism.  

With respect to personnel, the secretary has been very vocal about his need to get more of our politicals here in the building.  So that is always -- is always an issue.  Am -- and we have gotten several in the last few months.  But we're still looking for more civilians to show up.  The more people on the team, the more -- the more help we can have.

Q:  But does he not have the staff in place now to go -- to -- for this?  I mean, this specifically -- it's just -- it's unusual that it specifically mentions that people who aren't here yet will play a major role in a review, or in this process.  

So is -- are the people not in place now to actually go through with the review -- (inaudible) --

MS. WHITE:  There are people in places, but we need more people in place to ensure that we have the answers that the secretary needs to make the proper recommendation.  

Tony.

Q:  General, back to the 2,600 delta between 8,400 and 11,000.  For those out there who are trying to come up with a chart or graphic, can you give some examples of the unaccounted-for 2,600 that are -- will now be in this larger number?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  And I actually covered -- covered in the -- in my base remarks, but I'll talk about troops that are -- short-duration missions, not necessarily stay for the entire length of the operations; some troops in a temporary duty status; troops assigned to combat support agencies; and forces assigned to the material recovery element and Resolute Support sustainment brigade.  

I would also just add that one of the things we want to do here is avoid the ability to draw sand charts and graphs on this, to give direct information to the enemy, and sort of preclude telegraphing some of the things that we want to do.  

So we believe it's not in our interest to actually parse this out in great detail, which is why we're adopting a single number.  And I'm again emphasizing that's an approximate number, and that's the number that you'll get from the department from now on.

Q:  On the CT issue, there's 1,200 CT in the task force.  Are those included in the 8,400 number, or are they now just being included in the 11,000 number?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  They're being included in the 11,000 number.

Q:  So before, the 8,400 didn't include that extra 1,200 CT?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Not germane to our discussion right now, whether they were in that or not.  I would tell you now, they're included in the 11,000.

Q:  Thank you.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.

MS. WHITE:  Elizabeth?

Q:  President Trump seems like he's really reiterated, on the campaign trail and as president that he was not interested in giving full transparency about numbers, didn't want to broadcast any movements to the enemy.

So did the secretary consult with the president prior to making this decision for review?  Or what caused him to want to make this decision?

MS. WHITE:  Well, the secretary made this decision a few months ago, about really wanting to bring more transparency to this accounting discussion, for his own sake, for the commanders' as well.

The Secretary talks frequently with the president, and so their discussions deserve the -- the utmost discretion.

Gordon, did you have a question?

Q:  Yes, just quick, on transgender, I want to clarify something from the statement last night.  Would this panel that is being put together include anyone from outside the department?

MS. WHITE:  We haven't yet decided on what the composition of the panel will be.  But when we do, I will -- I will let you know.

Q:  So it's -- you're not ruling out including people on the outside?

MS. WHITE:  We -- we still have not decided on what the composition will be.

Jennifer?

Q:  Yes.  In layman's terms, can you explain why there was underreporting of these numbers in Afghanistan?  To the public's eye, the Pentagon was not telling the truth about how many troops were in Afghanistan.  Is that accurate?

And secondly -- and then, if I could, a follow up.

MS. WHITE:  Well, first I would say we have to remember that the Secretary inherited this accounting program.  And this was his initiative to bring more transparency to the process while still protecting operational security.

I'll let the general speak to it.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  So, given you a number of 11,000, plus or minus a few.  Not a single additional soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, coast guardsman deploys to Afghanistan as I give you that number.  So I'm reflecting the reality of what's been -- really over the last six months or so.  

So this is not an attempt to bring more forces in.  But it's an attempt to actually clarify a very confusing set of reporting rules that has the unintended consequence of forcing commanders to make readiness tradeoffs as they deploy their forces under these very narrow bands of requirements.

It -- so it -- what is does is it actually lets the American people know what their sons and daughters are doing in Afghanistan, how many are there.  And I think that's a reasonable thing.  

But at the same time, it does protect a more specific discussion of those force elements.  And those are the types of things that, we would argue, give aid and comfort to the enemy, and that we would not want to do.

Q:  And is that  -- 

STAFF:  We have enough time for one more question. 

Q:  -- is there still a -- is there still a cap on troop numbers in Afghanistan?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  We have a -- we're saying the number's 11,000 today.  And we're going to go up or down slightly, based on the operational requirements.  That's the total forces in Afghanistan today.

Should that number change significantly, then we will come back in here to tell you that.

MS. WHITE:  Dan?

Q:  Yes, thank you.  Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

I wanted to be clear on, I guess, what drove this, what the secretary's motivation for this was.  Does this tie back in any way to his time at Central Command, where he would have had, you know, a lot of visibility on this sort of issue?  

Or is this something more recent that's driven by policies or discussions, as he's looking at the Southwest Asia strategy now?

MS. WHITE:  Well clearly the secretary is a unique secretary of defense and he has a great deal of experience in command.  And this was something that he took on -- upon himself, when he was looking at the accounting practices.  He wanted greater managerial integrity, and he also -- he has the concerns of commanders who didn't have as much flexibility to deploy troops.

And then this is also about the American people.  We're the Department of Defense.  We owe the American people as much transparency as possible, while still protecting sensitive information.

I'll give them one more.  Marcus.

Q:  Can you give a -- general, can you give an example of where the prior accounting policy actually hampered operations or readiness?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I don't think there'd be a useful example to give, because it cites -- it cites actions and contact with the enemy.  I would just tell you, as a -- as a general principle that forces have been required to deploy that were not completely whole, and that, as anyone can understand, is going to decrease unit readiness going forward.

MS. WHITE:  All right.  Thank you all very, very much.