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Media Availability by Secretary Mattis En Route to India

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  What we'll probably do here is, we'll talk for a little bit.  I'll say some words on the record.  We'll switch over to some Q&A on the record, and then once you wear me out or I wear you out -- whichever comes first -- we'll go off the record.  So. 

You OK with that?

Q:  Sounds great.

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.  (inaudible).  Yeah, I know it's a little cramped in here but it's quieter here than if we do it back in your space. 

First -- well you're going to be standing there for a while, Ryan.  You know? 


SEC. MATTIS:  Maybe we can -- yeah, you want to come up here, Ryan?  Is that easier for you, if you're not (inaudible) over? 

I was just talking to Idrees (Ali) here for a minute, and he said I probably had a more exciting day than you, yesterday in San Diego.  San Diego's a great Navy town, as you know.  It's a -- it's a town that -- for some reason, our re-enlistment rates go up when the sailors and Marines are stationed near San Diego.  So you probably saw why. 

But I did spend yesterday out with one of our task groups that was going through training.  And for all of you who've had a weekend off in August, or maybe a little vacation with your family, I would just point out that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines on active operations overseas, and certainly in training, have been quite busy while your families and you were enjoying any breaks. 

The group that I met out here -- I flew out about 60 miles off the coast -- is a U.S. Navy task group.  I linked up with them and visited several of the ships.  They're on Day 27, to give you an idea of the unrelenting training schedule that this group of ships and sailors have been on. 

And on Day 27, they were going through very complex operations, which was what I wanted to watch.  Very complex, very challenging, very demanding operations.  I got to go out and listen to the commanders and get their appreciation of how they're doing. 

I talked to some of their sailors, some of the young folks on the ships.  And -- and just get a good flavor for it, get a finger feel for it.  Not reading reports in the Pentagon, but -- but actually talking to the people doing it. 

So it was a very -- as always, when you get down to the very, very competent and unselfish young people who do this for our country -- all volunteers, young men and women who look right past any hot political rhetoric and sign up.  

Very high spirits, 27 unrelenting days.  At times it goes around the clock, 24 hours a day, flight ops and exercises, defensive, strike, all that put together. 

So it was very -- very educational for me.  We're now headed across the Pacific, of course, to visit India.  This will be my second visit to India as secretary of defense.  Obviously, I've been there before. 

And it's also a continuing dialogue between our nation's leaders.  In my case, I have met with Prime Minister Modi twice, once in New Delhi and once in Shangri-La.  

I was also present for the discussions in the White House with Prime Minister Modi.  And what we see is a continuing growth of the consultations between us.  It's on a very firm foundation. 

I do have to say, I'm going to India at a difficult time for India.  They've just -- I think for any of us who have watched the floods that hit India up in Karala, it was the worst flooding there in over a century.  People's lives were lost. 

But the Indian military's performance was very effective.  It obviously earned them a lot of appreciation from the people of India.  But we know it was a tough time. 

And for the families that have paid -- have lost people, I mean, just on a human basis -- that will be in the back of our minds, of course, when we're going through the discussions there. 

Because when a country goes through something like that, it's not over at the moment the flooding stops, of course. 

But my visit is a firm indicator of what we see as India's place among our most strategic, and  I would even call them "consequential" emerging partners. 

And not just in the Indo-Pacific Region, but in the world, as India steps up to its legitimate role as they see it in the community of nations. 

During Prime Minister Modi's visit to the White House last year, the president, President Trump, said -- and I quote here – “The friendship between the U.S. and India is built on shared values.” 

We all know those values are based on democratic values, and that's what we see in the world's two largest democracies that exist.  We don't have to create those values, (inaudible) those values exist.  This is not an opportunity we are creating, it's an opportunity that is resident in the two countries' politics. 

I think it's no more evident than -- than our respective founding documents.  The Indian constitution and our constitution both start with the words, "We the people."  

And it says something about the way democracies count heads; they don't beat heads.  That is what sets us apart for like-minded nations, nations that are democracies and for shared -- what I would call just and responsive governments. 

Our nations share more than just democracy, of course.  We share a steadfast commitment to a safe and a secure, a prosperous and, especially, a free Indo-Pacific. 

Free of terrorism and freedom for each nation to make sovereign decisions on their own, based on their own interests. 

This is underpinned by our steadfast commitment to the rule of law, the freedom of navigation, freedom from coercion for all nations no matter their size or the age of their independence. 

And as the world's largest democracy, we see India as taking on a greater regional and global responsibility, a stabilizing force.  

So we are coming -- Secretary Pompeo and I -- are coming to New Delhi for the continued consultations.  And I believe we will be reaffirming much of our shared vision for the region, alongside our Indian counterparts, Minister Swaraj and Minister Sitharaman, during this first two-plus-two meeting between the U.S. and India at the ministerial level. 

There had been scheduled meetings before, scheduling challenges on both sides have interrupted those schedules.  We did not cancel them; we simply kept postponing them until we could find a mutually convenient time.  The normal give and take in -- in the tempo of the offices that we and our counterparts occupy. 

In the two-plus-two, we look forward to discussing diplomatic and security issues, of course.  That's our portfolios.  And my – and for my part, we'll certainly be looking at how do we counter terrorism, increasing defense innovation.  In both countries, I might add, they have a strong technological bent in India, so this two-way street, not a one-way.  And we are all, of course, looking for how can we enhance stability in South Asia?  And I would point out that creating greater maritime security, considering the ocean that the Indian subcontinent faces, that will be something that is in the best interest of all the nations of the world that want to increase prosperity and the free trafficking of goods.

Secretary Pompeo and I will also meet with Prime Minister Modi and National Security Advisor Devol to reinforce our appreciation for India's role in that regional and global security framework, and thank Prime Minister Modi for his personal leadership in enhancing U.S.-India relations.  We look forward to discussing our respective visions for further strengthening this relationship.  Relationships don't stay the same, ever.  They get stronger, or they get weaker.  You pay attention, or you lose attention.  So we are there to pay attention.  We do not take the relationship for granted, and we'll be working to strengthen that. It is a steady relationship with honest discussions built on common ground that we share as democracies, but it's ground that provides a firm foundation for our future relationship, a foundation that can take any perturbations in stride without -- without alarm.

That said, we also recognize that we stand at a unique moment in history. Specifically, we recognize the opportunity to grow the U.S.-India strategic partnership, to deepen our security relationships, broaden the friendships and ensure a more safe, secure, prosperous and free Indo-Pacific region.

So that, I hope, gives you some of the framing ideas of why we're going there, what it is we intend to discuss, who we're talking with and really, I have not mentioned the number of phone calls between my counterpart and me.  They're -- they're relatively frequent.  When either of us has an issue, or when either of us just wants to make sure we're aligned, it's -- I would say it's a very transparent relationship I have with -- with my counterpart.

So I think that's enough on -- for me to talk, here.  We'll take some of the -- some of your questions now. Idrees.

Q:  So sir, before we go to Asia, if I could just quickly ask about Syria.

SEC. MATTIS:  Syria, ok.

Q:  Yeah.  I mean, over the past few weeks, the Russians have talked, or accused the United States of using, you know, the talk about chemical weapons to strike Syria and (inaudible) assets.  And then, CENTCOM has talked about the Russian disinformation campaign going on in Syria, and sort of that.


Q:  If you could talk a bit about that, and how you see that developing, and how concerning that is.

SEC. MATTIS:  Thanks for bringing that -- I should have brought that up in -- in -- in my opening remarks.

We have zero intelligence that shows the opposition has any chemical capability.  We -- we have not seen it used in Syria.  There were some attempts, of course, by ISIS to use it in Iraq.  Those attempts were very sophomoric; basically, generally failures.  You know, a -- a grenade with some kind of mustard agent in it or something, but nothing on the lines of what the White Helmets and the United Nations have seen exposed by the -- the Assad regime's violation of the chemical -- the prohibition on chemical weapons. 

So when we start hearing stories about this, and we have fairly good penetration of many of the opposition groups, and certainly, we have a history now of how many years of a tragic war that did not have to happen, but for Assad, did not have to happen; but for Russia's regrettable vetoes in the United Nations, did not have to happen but for the Iranian's support of Assad's murders.  We have seen the repeated use in this fight by the Assad regime.  

So we have made very clear that by putting out innuendo, that somehow any chemical weapon use coming up in the future could be ascribed to the opposition, well, we want to see the data.  And right now, we have data -- not just American data, not just U.S. data, but international data -- that the Assad regime has done this before, and we are watching very closely for this.  We cannot see anything that indicates the opposition has that capability. 

Q:  Do you see any indications that the Assad regime is getting ready to use chemical weapons in (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I -- I'd prefer not to answer that right now, Idrees.  I would -- I think the best answer to that is: we are very alert.  

Q:  India question?  A couple -- a couple of Indian questions.  Hanging over this -- the summit is the question of India's purchase of the S-400, which has caused great concern in -- by Turkey, obviously.  What is your level of concern about that purchase?  Will you be bringing it up, and is there a potential that the United States could sanction India if they don't back off the purchase?

SEC. MATTIS:  Certainly, the S-400s will probably be brought up.  I anticipate it'll be brought up by India, by the way.  Again, we have a very transparent dialogue.  It's a dialogue between two coequal nations, sovereign nations, and we'll discuss anything that they bring up, and certainly, there'll be issues we bring up.

I want you to remember that freedom means that at times, nations don't agree with each other.  That doesn't mean we can't be partners.  That doesn't mean we don't respect the sovereignty of those nations.  So I'm sure it will come up there, but it's right that I not speak here before I've even heard their point.  So first, I want to listen to my counterpart.

Q:  I'd like to ask you about an Indian modernization question.  You just saw one of America's strongest carrier battle groups with the greatest technology, one would argue, on Earth.  What are some of the modernization benefits that India would receive from the United States, as this relationships (sic) deepens?  And you may be signing  that -- that security, that communication security agreement.

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that last part again for me?

Q:  And the -- the benefits that may accrue if you -- if that long -- that security -- communications security agreement gets signed.

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, I got you now, yeah.  We have been discussing how we can more openly communicate back and forth.  Because of the sensitivity of some of the technology, as you rightfully described right there, we have to know that when we share this with another like-minded nation, that we can keep it secure, just like we do when the Navy talks to the U.S. Army.  It -- it's no different.  You maintain security over this kind of technology.

So we'll be talking to them about this.  There's been a lot of work done by our staffs.  They have their own processes for approval of something like this.  We have ours.  No two nations have exactly the same authority levels or organizations that have to check off -- check the box, and also, we'll see where each other's at on that.  I think that we're pretty much there already, on the American side.  We'll see where they're at.  Our staff's been meeting, and once we get that put in place, that does give us the opportunity to share some of the sensitive technology you were referring -- you were alluding to.

Q:  One example?  Of sensitive technology that you can...


SEC. MATTIS:  No, no.  It's sensitive so I -- I don't talk about it.  But...


SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, well, one of our readers was interested in knowing:  Are you concerned that as the economy heats up, the U.S. Army is going to have to lower standards in order to meet its recruiting goals? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Interesting question.  You know, if we’d go back to when we went to the all-volunteer force, we knew we'd be competing.  We compete in -- in terms of, can we get young people to come into the military and go to college afterwards? 

Some go straight into college so we try to bring them in to other programs that we have, ROTC being one.  

But the bottom line is that in this competitive world, we're always competing for the high quality that, so far, we've been able to maintain.  With some years where it -- it dipped down in terms of quality and all, which is really the focus of your point. 

There's a reason why young -- young people at age 18 have to still sign up for the selective service.  We always assumed when we went to war -- matter of fact, that was the assumption when we went to the all-volunteer force, that conscription would go back into play. 

We've not done it during this very long war.  And yet so far, the quality standards have not dropped.  You know, at this point -- and I speak to my own time in the SecDef job.  
In fact, the Army, as you're probably aware, has actually raised its -- tightened up some of its standards over the last, I'd say, three or four months.  I -- I'm not quite sure of the time frame, but recently.

So we're going to be looking at it, but we have no doubt that as the economy improves, we have more competition.  It's that simple.  So we'll have to adjust our recruiting in order to maintain the quality standards.  But it will be a challenge, I think.  

Q:  Are you tracking the progress of integrating women into Army and Marine Corps infantry units?  If so, are you satisfied with the progress? 

SEC. MATTIS:  It is probably too early to talk about progress because the numbers are so small.  I think you need a larger cohort before you can evaluate something like that.  

You can if -- make broad assessments based on very few -- very, very few numbers.  


Q:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary. 

Can -- on Afghanistan, can you give us a sense of the magnitude and scope of the threat that you see from ISIS?  And how your strategy towards the Taliban feeds into that. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Very interesting question.  

A year ago, we had assessed that it would be the level of -- of combat between ISIS and the Taliban.  I think that would have been crossed off by some people as wishful thinking. 

Our intelligence people warned us a year ago, this is probably going to turn into a stiff fight between the Taliban and ISIS.  And the reason for this is, they are ideologically opposed in some fundamental ways. 

So what we see now is some pretty hard fighting going on between those groups in certain locations.  

Now it's not everywhere, but remember ISIS is isolated in certain provinces.  It's not -- it has nowhere near the breadth of reach of the Taliban. 

So we are still trying to -- remember, the fourth “R: in our “four-R strategy” is reconciliation.  We are still believers that there is a way forward for the Taliban to reconcile in an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process. 

We do expect that we and the international community will support the Afghan government in this, in all ways.  And that neighboring countries will. 

But ISIS, we do not see that being a reconciliation issue.  And as strange as it might sound, here we both view -- both the Taliban and the NATO alliance supporting the Afghan government -- view ISIS in the same light. 

So we would see that this fighting will probably continue between them, and we will continue to hit ISIS hard. 

Q:  Do you need the Taliban to help you to defeat ISIS and...

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that again?

Q:  Do you need the Taliban to help you to defeat ISIS?

SEC. MATTIS:  Do we need the Taliban?  I think what we need the Taliban to do is to recognize that if they live by the Afghan constitution, they can still get their say. 

If they can run on their -- their policies, they don't need to be setting off bombs.  If they'll stop using bombs and if they'll break with al Qaeda and ISIS, which clearly is going on, you see this move toward a potential reconciliation with Taliban. 

And that, I think, is what we need, is the reconciliation where they rejoin their own people, the Afghan government.  And that in itself is what helps to defeat the ISIS, that -- that political accommodation will turn into a security reality that's much harder on ISIS.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, what's your current assessment -- or what's your -- sorry, what's your current assessment of the ISI in Pakistan's support of the Haqqani network? 

And can you tell us, do you have any, like, read of -- or -- can you share with us any -- any feeling about why they announced -- the Taliban announced Haqqani's death yesterday? 

SEC. MATTIS:  On your second question, no.  I saw their -- their acknowledgement of it.  We're -- we -- as you know, we've been -- we keep a very close eye on Haqqani.  And we have our own views on it.  Right now I’m not satisfied that I'm firm on how -- why they -- why they announced it when they did. 

As far as the ISI, let me just say that Pakistan has a new government, against the odds of some skeptics.  There was a peaceful transition of power.  Government's being put together. 

As you know, Sec. Pompeo is going in there and we do expect that Pakistan will be part of the community of nations that give no haven to terrorism.  I mean, that's what we expect of all nations in the world.  And so that's where we're at on it.  

ISI is part of the Pakistan military.  The Pakistan military is part of the Pakistan government.  So, that's where it lies. 

Q:  Are -- are you -- are you suggesting you're taking a wait-and-see approach under the new government?  To see, before you make any public assessment of their support or not, to the...


SEC. MATTIS:  I'm going to see Sec. Pompeo when we get into New Delhi.  He's coming in out of -- out of Islamabad, and I'll talk with him at that point. 

But right now, I don't want to talk publicly when I'm not sure where the ball lies.  I don't want to talk about a week ago, a year ago.  I want to see where the ball lies today.  So that -- that's where I'm at right now. 


Q:  How much do you concern the Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean?  And then what is the...

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that again?  

Q:  How much -- how much concern do you have about the Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean?  And also how do you hope to enhance the maritime cooperation with India in terms of, you know, the threat of the China?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, on India -- the question has to do with India and China.  India and China share a border, you know, share borderlands.  Of course there's going to be a relationship there, and in terms of having a stable, you know, security situation, I think that's in the best interests of -- of peace and stability in South Asia.  But at the same time, I would just say that that in no way conflicts with us and India, or us and China having stable relationships.  It's all part of how nations need to try to get along.  It's why it's in the founding charter of the United Nations' charter, why it was set up.  So I think this is -- this is all healthy, but we've got to find a way to have productive relationships between all -- these large nations, especially.

Q:  Can I ask you, on the pushing for the quad corporation, which consists of the U.S., Japan, the Australia and India.  So could you tell me the significance of the -- the role which could be played by Japan to push forward that framework?

SEC. MATTIS:  The quad – your – his question is about the quad framework.  This is Japan and Australia, India, the United States.  And from our perspective, just take a look at what is the common -- the common ground there.  They're all four democracies, OK?  They're all four vibrant democracies.  They will have their own interests, but as a result, we think because they're governments, really, again, of the people, then we can work with them. 

And so we will continue to strengthen, I believe, the quad framework.  We'll have to see where nations are willing to do so.  Some may be willing to do so in -- in certain areas of maritime domain awareness, for example, or -- or exercising together.  And that's why we go -- why we consult with each other.  That's why once in a while, we get together, whether it be at Shangri-La or us coming to New Delhi now.  So we'll have to explore this.  I do see an increasing willingness on the parts of -- of the quad nations to work together to explore new opportunities, and we're wide open to that. 

Yes, go ahead.

Q:  Similar to India, Turkey's also interested in procuring the S-400 system, and now...


Q:  Turkey.

SEC. MATTIS:  Turkey, yeah.

Q:  And so now that's put their F-35 jets in a sort of limbo.  So how do we essentially maintain the strategic or partnerships, but...


Q:  ... at the same time, amid them wanting Russian systems?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, it's a good question.  Turkey is a NATO ally.  The F-35 program is still ongoing.  They've put a lot of money into it themselves.  We are going through this current issue between us, and we are engaged in, I would call it, frequent, right now, very frequent, discussions at very high levels to try to sort this out.  So I can't give you a good answer right now, but I believe that on both sides, people -- I believe there is sincerity on both sides to try to work this out.  And so we're -- we're engaged in it right now, and I -- you know, I need to work with them directly on this, as does Secretary Pompeo and others on our side.

Yeah, OK, let's go off the record...

Q:  Can I ask you more on-- on Afghanistan, the narrative this week has been "Scott" -- Austin Miller's taking over as new commander.


Q:  What are some of the new...

SEC. MATTIS:  One thing, one thing to remember his predecessor, Gen. Nicholson, has been there over two-and-a-half years.  There -- that's a long time for a general be in a combat zone, responsible day-in, day-out for it.  So the first plan is make – is a degree of gratitude we in the Department of Defense, we in the executive branch, and I know in Congress feel for his leadership.

Gen. Miller has been wounded twice in this war.  He has fought in Afghanistan.  He's fought in Iraq.  He was embraced by the NATO coalition.  It was not a hard sell.  They were -- they were very welcoming.  Not one dissenting concern.  And remember, he commands a lot of people where other nations are putting their young people on the line, too.  So yeah, he -- he's in place.  Now go ahead with your question.

Q:  What new challenges does he face, in terms of trying to pull together reconciliation between -- that -- that the prior eight or nine commanders didn't face?  Or is a lot of it going to be continuity?  Nothing...


Q:  What's changed, in terms of the nature of challenges now, that he's going to have to grapple with?

SEC. MATTIS:  I wouldn't make it either/or, Tony.  I think that what you're -- you're seeing here is after the initial takedown of al-Qaeda, and Taliban's refusal stop fighting, or to break with al-Qaeda, and the war's shifted differently, and soon we had 140,000 coalition, probably 100,000, around that, U.S., and 40,000 from total, I think it was about 40 nations at that time; went up to -- no, 50 nations, excuse me.  We then -- we began a phase of where we are coming out.  We -- you know when that started.  The West Point speech may have plussed us up, but in the same speech was the statement, "In 18 months, we're coming out."  So at that point, we were coming down. 

When we came into office, we did an evaluation, and here is where you find the answer to your question.  And we decided to realign our forces almost totally to the mentoring job; to reinforce those, but only based on a regional appreciation.  So that was signed in, although several nations, confident that we would -- that was going to be our strategy, they began reinforcing us as early as June.  By August, when the president signed the South Asia strategy, we then got around, between June and, I'd say, two months ago, around 800 more non-U.S. troops.  We also sent in several thousand more U.S. troops, and we now, at the latest summit, came up with over 1,000 non-U.S. coalition troops, and they -- 50 nations had dropped to 39 during our pullout time; has rebuilt to 41, the two being United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

And so now what we're doing is we have several hundred thousand Afghan troops who are doing the fighting, and all you have to do is look at the casualties the Afghans are taking, versus what the NATO, the contributing force they're (inaudible), and you see who's doing the fighting.  We're in the field.  We're mentoring, that sort of thing.

So what has changed is you have seen a cease-fire initiated by the Afghan government that the Taliban, I think, had little choice but to respect part of it, because their young guys were coming into the cease-fire regardless.  You see the -- the continued operations.  It is now routine where we never, before a year ago, saw all six corps conducting offensive operations at the same time.  That has now become routine.  Not even - I don't even tell you about it; it's not newsworthy.  It has become the norm.

Still hard fighting.  But right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage.  It now has some framework, there's some open lines of communication.  So I think that is the difference.  The steadfast nature of a nation reinforcing are going to stay, the Afghan Army fighting now continually on an offensive basis.  Certainly still vulnerable and isolated outposts, that sort of thing.  Or if the enemy masses covertly into a city and then sets off bombs, those are, I think principally done, to give a sense of doom in the information sphere. They're not militarily significant other than the tragedy of killing innocent women and children, which our adversaries seem to take a certain amount of pride in.

But right now, there are a lot more indications that reconciliation now reinforced by the State Department has put additional staff into the embassy with that sole effort.  You're seeing this now pick up traction.  So that's the way I'd see it, characterize the difference that we see now, along with several hundred thousand Afghan forces, are better trained, better equipped, and have NATO mentors out in the field with them.

OK, now we'll go off the record.