Department of Defense Press Briefing by General White via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Major General Robert White, commanding general, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon Spokesman
MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Good morning, everyone.
Today, we are joined by Major General Robert White, who is the Combined Joint Forces Land commander for Operation Inherent Resolve. General White joins us from Baghdad. He's currently the ground commander of coalition forces involved in Operation Inherent Resolve for Iraq. So I know many of you have questions about what's going on in Syria, but please keep in mind that his focus is military operations in Iraq.
General White, sir, how do you hear me?
MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT WHITE: I hear you fine, Adrian. How do you hear me?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: We hear very well, sir. If you have an opening statement, please go ahead, sir.
GEN. WHITE: Yes, just briefly.
Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me today. I think it's important we tell the story of Iraq and what's going on here.
As Adrian said, my name is Major General Pat White, and I command the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Baghdad, Iraq for Operation Inherent Resolve. I look forward to addressing your questions, but first I want to share a couple of things with you about the outstanding progress being made here by the Iraqi security forces.
You all know we started this mission about three years ago on 17 October, 2014. And since the start of Mosul, the Iraqi security forces have accelerated the fight against Daesh and the collective will to drive this evil out is growing every day.
The situation has considerably changed since I took over this command in July. After Mosul, Iraqi security forces worked tirelessly to set conditions for successive offensive operations to rid this country of Daesh's ruthless and tyrannical ideologies. They defeated their enemy in mere days with simultaneous operations in Tal Afar in the north, (inaudible) in the west, and (inaudible) in the south. And now with a swift and decisive victory in Hawija in the east, the ISF have proven they are capable of executing coordinated attacks, massing their forces, and establishing required mission command of those forces.
ISIS knows that defeat is at its door. Their days are numbered, and Iraqi security forces have reclaimed 95 percent of the territory previously controlled by ISIS, and the enemy is collapsing and surrendering in record numbers. The ISF commanders are looking into the future and they're seeing a secure Iraq under GOI control. Their success is a testament to the coalition's well-coordinated strategy combining three main lines of effort.
First, the coalition is enabling the military defeat of ISIS and has conducted over 13,000 strikes in Iraq to support our partner forces' maneuver. We continue to take a little bit from ISIS each day, and we share in Iraq's triumphs.
Second, maintaining the coalition is paramount to our mission. This includes both our relationships with senior Iraqi leaders and leveraging the strengths of all 23 nations serving together in the CJFLCC.
Third and finally, we emphasize planning for a long-term security posture that will ensure Iraq remains secure after the military defeat of ISIS.
With five enduring training institutions in place currently to build partner capacity, the army and police capability is growing day by day. I'm extremely proud to be a part of this team. Iraq is increasing strength and capability. Our task forces have developed solid partnerships and the CJFLCC staff is wholly committed to supporting the Iraqi security forces as they liberate the remaining ISIS-held regions of this country.
I'd be happy to take any questions you might have.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: First, we'll go to Joe Tabet from Al Hurra.
Q: General White, given the current tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, how do you see the outcome of this crisis? And also, if you could give us your opinion about the status of Kirkuk right now?
GEN. WHITE: Okay, thanks.
You know, this is a political -- political ideal, so let me just first lay it out on the table that we're here to help the Iraqi Security Forces defeat ISIS. What's happening between the KRG and GOI is political in nature and it's for them to resolve.
Our charter is to continue to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to defeat ISIS and that's what I'm focusing on; making sure that we are in place at the proper time with the proper resources to finish off Daesh in Iraq.
To your second point, I believe you said the status of Kirkuk, today, as far as I know, and I walked in here about 20 minutes ago, Kirkuk is still a thriving city with a population that is protected by security forces of the Peshmerga. And I know no different. I expect it to remain that way unless I am told something different here in the near future by those that are above me in the chain of command. Hopefully that answers the question.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.
Q: I have a follow-up question to Joe's.
You are unaware of any -- from what you say, that means -- it implies that you are unaware of any concentrations by the popular mobilization units in the Kirkuk area; that that's -- that you don't know about that, or it's not accurate.
GEN. WHITE: Um, actually, if he asked about the popular mobilization forces, that didn't come through.
We know that the PMF, if I can refer to them that way, have taken up positions in the south as a part of the fight in Hawija. They remain there today. We continue to observe their activities.
And as a reminder, those popular mobilization forces are what I term as the fourth cohort of the ISF that are sanctioned by the government of Iraq. And so they have been an integral part of the successes that the Iraqi Security Forces have had to date.
Q: So, you think that Kurdish reports of concentrations preparing for a major attack are incorrect?
GEN. WHITE: That's actually not what I said.
I said that they are in the south in positions. They have been there for a number of weeks. They are used in the greater scheme of the maneuver for Hawija as a block for ISIS trying to escape south through Diyala and into the Tarmiyah fields. And they haven't moved since they occupied.
Q: Are you concerned about reports that Qassem Suleimani is in Iraq, and is urging the Hashd-al-Shaabi to take action against the Peshmerga?
GEN. WHITE: Yes, I think -- I think he's got frequent flyer miles. He's been in Iraq on numerous occasions. Iran is talking with the government of Iraq about a number of things right now. His presence over time has become something that we are not surprised at in the coalition.
What discussions he's having with his supposed forces are nothing that I am aware of or privy to, and so I don't think I can really help you out there, unless you have something to clarify.
Q: Okay, my final question, then.
So Washington Post today carries a story about the EPF kind of munitions, of IEDs, that were used during Operation Iraqi Freedom to kill American troops and now they have reappeared in Iraq, and they -- they killed a U.S. soldier last month.
Are you concerned about those EPFs and perhaps a link to Iran?
GEN. WHITE: It was a tragic event. Spc. Missildine was a key component and a part of our coalition. And our prayers go out to his family. Again, it was tragic.
That particular munition that you're referring to, explosively formed penetrator, has been used over the last 15 years or so in Iraq and other places in the world. It is being employed in Syria right now. It is a dangerous, dangerous battlefield out there. There are many munitions that are being used against the Iraqis and in some cases -- specifically in this case, Spc. Missildine and his track commander, Sgt. 1st Class Mathis.
And so I'm not sure how to particularly answer your question, other than the battlefield is a dangerous place and it is one of many hundreds of different types of munitions that exist today.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Ryan Browne from CNN.
Q: Quick follow-up on that question. Thank you for doing this.
The -- the IED explosion that was referenced kind of took place somewhere where ISIS has not been for some time, I believe. Is there a concern that that incident might have been carried out by -- that attack on U.S. service member might have been carried out by militias or another group other than ISIS?
GEN. WHITE: That's a great question, Ryan.
Yes. So here's where we stand today.
I've been able to complete an investigation on the type of munition because we recovered the vehicle. The prime minister of Iraq has directed a second investigation to try to determine who the perpetrators could be of that particular attack.
In the area where the attack occurred, there have been attacks against civilians. I don't want to make any assumptions on which group perpetrated the attack until I see the results of the investigation. But that particular spot along Route Tampa has seen violence in the last month or two.
Q: And just to follow up quickly, sir, the fact that there's two -- the investigation by the prime minister, is that normal? Or is it something that is done every time a coalition casualty occurs? Or is this -- the fact that there's an investigation from the prime minister's office, is that unique to this case?
GEN. WHITE: I would -- I would say that there's nothing unique about it. They take our presence here very seriously. They invited us to help them out. And I think he wants to get to the bottom of what exactly happened here. And he's got a little bit more capability than we do to get out among the populace to ask particular questions. I think he's just trying to help us figure this out.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu.
Q: Thanks, General, for doing this.
Russians have been claiming that the U.S.-led coalition is intentionally allowing ISIS elements to flow from Iraq into Syria regime-hold areas in Syria. Can you tell us whether the ISF or coalition has sealed the Iraqi-Syrian border off and prevented the ISIS elements to move into Syria in bulk numbers?
GEN. WHITE: I think the easiest way to answer that is ISIS is on its heel. They know they're losing. Iraq has perpetrated against ISIS a campaign that has been very deliberate and has driven ISIS into an area that remains in the Euphrates River Valley.
I'm sure there are ISIS members crossing back and forth between Syria. But there is no intention by the Iraqi government to drive Daesh into Syria. Their intent is to kill them or capture them.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Could you give your name and affiliation please?
Q: jack Dietsch with Al-Monitor.
General, thanks for doing this.
To your knowledge, is security assistance still flowing between Baghdad and Erbil? Are plans to outfit Peshmerga brigades still proceeding?
GEN. WHITE: Yes, to my -- I'll tell you, to my knowledge to be quite honest with you, the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil is not an area that I delve into. We still have four platforms for training; the Peshmerga, the seventies, the eightees, and the PUK up in Erbil. We are continuing with that training as I stand here today talking to you. Any type of assistance from the government of Iraq to Erbil being cut off. It has to be something you talk to the government of Iraq about.
Q: Got it. But to your knowledge, delivery of U.S. weapons and assistance is still proceeding as planned earlier this year?
GEN. WHITE: I can't answer that. I'm not sure what exactly the plan was and whether it is proceeding through. You know as the great reporter that you are, that the government of Iraq has imposed some restrictions on the government in Erbil. Part of that is movement of goods and services. And I would assume as a part of that, if there was an agreement to move any type of weaponry or support to their forces, that'd be a part of it.
But again, I'm just guessing here and I think that the best way to get an inquiry is maybe pass it back up to the CJTF spokesperson and we can find out for you.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Wes from Politico.
Q: Sir, thanks for doing this.
You mentioned two investigations. Can you describe the results of your investigation into the EFP attack? And whether you confirmed that it was and EFP, and if so, whether there's any forensic evidence that links it to other particular EFP attacks, anything that ties it to other events?
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, no real ties to other events, and again, more technical in nature for our investigation. It was recovery of Specialist Missildine and Sergeant First Class Mathis. The vehicle itself that was struck, it's -- it was a classic ambush spot along Route Tampa, a turn in the road, a dip in the road causing the vehicle to slow down.
Based on the fact that we know it was a steel penetrator for an EFP, the way the angle was, you know, could have been targeting a different type of vehicle, just based on where it entered, and that's about as far as it goes for evidence and our ability to do anything other than understand the munition and the environment along Tampa. And I know that's a really, really, really soft answer for you, but that's about where we are with our investigation.
Q: All right. If I could have a quick follow-up on -- you said it was a steel penetrator, so it was not a copper penetrator? And then also, I mean, are you aware of any ISIS -- any use of EFPs by ISIS in Iraq?
GEN. WHITE: Yes, it was steel; I'd have to get a better answer for you on where other steel penetrators have been used. We do have some evidence cross border, but numbers, and times and dates, I owe you an answer on that.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Carla Babb with Voice of America.
Q: Thank you, General, for doing this.
I want to follow-up on the first two questions that you were asked. Because the Kurdistan Security Council had tweeted yesterday and said that they are receiving dangerous messages that the Iraqi forces, including the PMF, are preparing a major attack in southwest Kirkuk and north Mosul. And those are where the PMF are, and you had just answered that you had -- you were aware that they're aware in those locations, especially the south Kirkuk one.
So my question for you is, have you seen any movement of those forces? Does it look like there's an attack imminent to you? And have you heard the Iraqi forces saying that they are sending these messages to the Kurdish government?
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, I've -- I've actually got absolutely zero proof that anybody at the senior level of the Iraqi Security Force apparatus has sent any threatening messages to the government in Erbil, or their partners in this fight against ISIS, the Kurdish Regional Security Council.
As a natural conclusion to the operation in Hawija attacking west to east, the plan all along has been to mass Iraqi Security Forces as close as possible to the -- the Pesh and the PUK depending upon where you are along the KDL; to close the distance and deny Daesh freedom of maneuver.
I sat in on a briefing between General Abdul Amir, my partner -- (inaudible) -- and the fact that there would be berming operations after to close that space.
And so what we're seeing today is no surprise. It is a part of the consolidation plan. And -- and again, I'm not aware of any direct threats between the government of Iraq, the security force apparatus, and the government in Erbil or their security forces.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, could you please give your name and affiliation?
Q: (Inaudible) with Asia Today.
General, thank you?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: We seem to have some audiovisual difficulties, General. How do you hear us?
GEN. WHITE: I hear you fine. How do you hear me?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Well, sir.
Please go ahead, sir.
Q: Okay, General, a two-part question.
One, what part -- what role you think Turkey is playing or what role do you want them to play in Iraq?
And also second part question, sir, is that what can we learn as far as the situation in Afghanistan is concerned?
GEN. WHITE: Sorry, that came through rather fuzzy. Could you say it again? I'll try to turn my mike down.
Q: Yes, sir. Sorry.
What role you think Turkey is playing in Iraq and what role you think you want them to play?
And second part is, sir, what can the Afghans -- or what can we learn from the situation in Afghanistan?
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, I'm still not picking up that whole thing. Is there a way for somebody to maybe talk differently into a mike somewhere else in the room?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, this is Major Rankine-Galloway.
The question was, first, what role does Turkey play in Iraq and what role would you like them to play? And secondly, do you think that this is any influence on Afghanistan or are there any lessons to be learned from Afghanistan? Over.
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, I'm not sure how to approach that question.
The agreements between the government -- (inaudible) -- Turkey are at national level. We have two members of the Turkish staff as a part of my staff on the CJFLCC. The -- the government of Iraq has agreed to allow Turkey to observe certain activities in the northern parts of Iraq.
That's all I really know about Turkey, I think, based on what the question you asked.
And I'm not -- I'm also not real clear on how to relate how that applies to Afghanistan. I think two different campaigns, two different parts of the world, different environments, common enemy in small areas -- (inaudible) -- areas in Afghanistan, and there is an entire different team and coalition in Afghanistan prosecuting on behalf and with the Afghanistan government.
And if that doesn't answer your question, if you could just clarify.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next we'll go to Otto Kreisher with Seapower Magazine.
Q: Good morning -- afternoon, your time, General.
With the liberation of Iraq nearly completed, more concern has to be shifted to the reconstruction and, more importantly, the reconciliation. There's still major tension between the Sunni and the areas that have been beaten up, and the Shia government regime in Iraq. What role, if any, do your forces play in that reconciliation and reconstruction process?
GEN. WHITE: Thanks for the question. Yeah, it's a natural extension of where we are right now. So after the defeat of Daesh and the liberation of Iraq, I'm sure there will be -- (inaudible) -- immense amount of euphoria as we drive -- (inaudible) -- what we all would like to see as normal.
For Iraqi security forces, though, there's still a job to be done. And so we will offer to the government of Iraq our services to continue to train and advise their security forces, to continue to build their capability and capacity in areas where -- (inaudible) -- lacking.
And so I think there's an important role for the coalition post-liberation of Iraq -- (inaudible) --
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Yeah, audio breakup.
Could you give us one moment while we go to an alternate means of communication? Over.
GEN. WHITE: If you need to repeat any of the questions based on it breaking up over time, just let me know.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, I think we have you back. If you could repeat that -- repeat your response to the question again, that would be very helpful.
GEN. WHITE: Are you talking about the last question on security forces?
Still there, Adrian?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Go ahead, sir.
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, basic -- the answer centered around -- there's still work to be done with the security forces, even after they liberate their major population centers and secure their borders. There's a training component and there's an advisory component that I think we will still have some value for the government of Iraq.
But again, it's their choice. We'll make recommendations to them. They'll make the decisions, but they've still got to develop their police force, their border guard, their army. There are always improvements to be made. I think that's the value of the coalition here as it exists today, with the expertise that we have amongst our 23 nations.
I mean, we're averaging about, oh, 13,000 or so, you know, over a month or two, depending upon the program of instruction for training across all of their energy police, border guard police, policemen, federal police, army, air force and rotary wing. And so I do believe that the services of the coalition post-liberation will be of value to the government of Iraq.
Q: (inaudible) -- post-conflict -- (inaudible) -- security -- (inaudible), there's been some questions about whether we're providing adequate training for the police, you know, who will have a major role in stabilizing the recaptured areas.
How -- how -- what do you say about the status of training, you know, of the national police and local?
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, so there's a -- there's a catch-22 here. So right now, they're fighting Daesh. There's an enemy that has been pervasive throughout the country over the last two-and-a-half years. And they're at a point where all of their security forces had to participate in the defeat of this enemy.
And so now, as they see Daesh rapidly disintegrating before them, they understand the value of beginning to focus on the core competencies of each of their security arms. And so the program of instruction that we offer the police right now focuses on basic beat-cop, you know, understanding. But it's also very offensive in nature because they are a part of the larger government of Iraq efforts to destroy Daesh.
And the same can be said about the army. You know, the program of instruction that we offer for the army brigades runs, you know, beyond six weeks in length and starts at your basic soldier level and works its way up to a culminating event that you could describe as brigade-level for the Iraqis, equates to a battalion in the United States army.
Those programs of instruction, you know, we'll have to take a look at where do they need to move into the future. And so do the police need to be more integrated into a total rule of law training for the government of Iraq, which I think is what you're alluding to? Does the army need to increase its capacity and capability in combined arms maneuver separate from federal police and the counterterrorism service?
And so all of those are -- are what will be discussed with the government of Iraq and the ministers of interior and defense to see where they evaluate their forces as being, and then get feedback from us and see what we have to offer.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Hans Nichols from NBC.
Q: No question -- no question, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Thank you.
Back to Laurie Mylroie from Kurdistan 24.
Q: Thank you.
Sir, you -- you visited Erbil last week, I understand, and you, among other people, you met the head of the Kurdistan -- Chancellor Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Region Security Council. Could you give us some -- could you tell us about those meetings you had, including with Chancellor Barzani?
GEN. WHITE: (inaudible) -- expose anything that was discussed behind closed doors with His Excellency. Some of it was very private in nature.
But in general, because he is the senior representative for their security forces and is responsible for issuing orders to all of their arms, he was concerned that the coalition would stop providing support to his forces in the form of training. I assured him that that was not the case; until I was instructed or ordered otherwise, that that training would continue. And it has to date and we are still programming that training well into the future.
Those were really his major concerns. Other concerns I won't share with you; I think they're private in nature. And most of it has been exposed in some form or fashion as you've seen the dialogue between the government of Iraq and the government in Erbil.
Does that help out?
Q: Thank you very much.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: In the back, if you'd give your name and affiliation, please.
Q: Stephen Carlson, Stars and Stripes.
General, I mean, as you know, like when Mosul was retaken, it was almost completely destroyed. And as I recall, the Iraqi government made a number of promises about reconstruction efforts there to, you know, keep it from falling apart the way it did before.
Is there any evidence whatsoever those promises are being kept? Or like, is there large efforts under way?
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, I think there's -- time -- time is the difference now.
You know, the eastern side of Mosul, you know, you've seen other reports, has almost gone back to normal. Markets are open, kids are going back to school, the university's open, taxis are driving all over the place which is a huge indicator.
On the west bank, in Western Mosul, there are parts of the city that look exactly like East Mosul. There are also parts of the city that saw immense amount of devastation caused by Daesh, and then of course in the fight between the Iraqi Security Forces and Daesh, more destruction.
We do help with the international agencies that are there to assist in the reconstruction of West Mosul and East Mosul. I would -- I would -- (inaudible) -- coordinating factor and a security coordinator, so that they can move around freely within the cities, to both assess and then plan what was most critical and what you described kind of as a -- as a way to get West Mosul back to some form of normalcy.
It'll take years, I think you've seen some of the quotes on dollar values. I'm a sociology major; I wouldn't be able to tell you anything about how much money it would take.
But I will tell you that the people are very resilient. I was in West Mosul the day after it was declared liberated, and there were people out shoveling away their driveways and pushing rubble out of the way so they could get back to normalcy.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: All right. I think we're at the end of the queue. Are there any more questions for General White?
All right. Well, sir, thank you very much for your time today. Do you have any closing words for the group today?
GEN. WHITE: Yeah, just a couple things, call them final thoughts, you know, if you're going to take anything away from today.
And I apologize for some of the comms systems and not being able to stay up on video.
First, the Iraqis are winning. To use a sports analogy, they're 7 and 0. Daesh knows it. They've got a couple more fights under their hands in major population centers that they're planning for right now and the coalition is all in. We've got their back, we've got their support and we will continue to provide everything that we've provided over the past two and half years for the future fight.
Second, I've described it a couple of times and you've heard it elsewhere: Daesh is fighting for survival.
The physical caliphate has been destroyed. It'll be finished off in another part of the world here shortly and they know they're losing. They can see it coming and they're starting to run away, and they're starting to ask for surrender, which is something you would not have seen a year ago.
And so, I think that is indicative of where they are as an organization. They're losing, they know they're losing and there's no way out.
And then, thirdly, I'm proud to be on this team. You know, it -- it takes all 23 nations to contribute to help the government of Iraq do what is being done here, enabling the liberation of Iraq, first, and then the complete destruction of Daesh, second.
We've got to build their capacity for the future so they can defend their borders, conduct counter-terrorism operations for those that elect to stay here, and police their people.
And the Iraqis have a lot of hope. I've been here twice before and each time I left, I thought we had it about right. This time I'm about half way through where -- where we will be in time and space, and it's moving in a positive direction. And so we're here to help the Iraqis maintain that hope into the future.
So, I appreciate your time today, and -- and I appreciate you trying to tell the story of what's happening here in Iraq. It's important. They're an important partner to us internationally. And they've got a heck of a fighting force, one that we haven't seen for years and years and years throughout the world.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you and have a great day.