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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Okay, good morning, everybody. I don't really have a topper. Do I have my list? But -- thanks. I know there's interest in a certain Reuters report from last night, so let me just level set at the top. The Secretary's looking forward to yet another meeting with his Israeli counterpart. I talked about this yesterday. You can expect that they will discuss a full range of mutual and shared security interests in the region. At the top of that will be Iran and the continued destabilizing activities that Iran continues to conduct and to lead in the region. The threat that they still pose, it's a threat that -- that we understand well -- as long -- right along with our Israeli friends, and Israel is a great friend and a partner in the region, and again, the Secretary's looking forward to this.

I've seen the press reporting. I will tell you this -- we routinely conduct exercises and training with our Israeli counterparts and I have nothing to announce to or speak to or point to or speculate about today.

With that, we'll go to questions. Yeah?

Q: I have a different topic.

MR. KIRBY: You can ask whatever you would like to ask.

Q: So now that the transition to a non-combat mission in Iraq is complete, can you please update us on the troop -- U.S. troop level there and where the remaining forces will be operating from? And also, if you can, just explain or give us more details on the mission itself -- the new mission -- advise, assist and enable. Is it an open-ended mission, what kind of weapons or equipment the troops will have --

MR. KIRBY: Okay, there's an awful lot there.

(Laughter.)

I mean, that was like seven or eight.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: So look, I mean, let me just -- let's just back out here, right? I mean, number one, we had agreed to, with the Iraqis -- and we're there at their invitation -- to transition the mission to advise, train and assist by the end of this year. And as you've seen, we -- the technical talks today reaffirm that and we've done that essentially.

The -- I don't -- there is no significant posture change in Iraq right now. The numbers are still where it -- where they were, which is about 2,500. And remember, this is a change in mission, right, not necessarily a change in physical posture. Not to say that that posture won't change over time, but as you and I are speaking here today, Wafaa, there's been no major change to that.

And I would also remind that -- and we've talked about this before -- it -- you know, we had been making this transition for quite some time. It's not like, you know, today, they snapped a chalk line and (poof), you know, all of a sudden, there's a massive change in the daily operations of our men and women over there.

They have been working themselves out of offensive combat operations against ISIS for quite some time and the bulk of what they've been doing, it has -- the vast majority of what they've been doing for a while now has been advise, assist and train.
So this is the natural evolution, this is in keeping with our commitments to the Iraqi government, and, you know, we look forward to that partnership now going forward.

I'd point you to CENTCOM and to OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve) for your -- I think it was your sixth question about, like, where they are and what bases and all -- I don't have that level of granularity.

Q: Also, is this like an open-ended mission? Are -- is -- did you agree on a timetable?

MR. KIRBY: What was agreed was that we would transition the mission by the end of the year and -- and we've done that.

Q: -- new mission?

MR. KIRBY: That's something that -- I mean, I would say that's something that will be determined by our Iraqi partners. Right now, the mission continues. I don't have a you know, I don't have a deadline on the other end of it to speak to today.

Q: -- as a follow up, John -- so it's -- case the Iraqis requested some kind of aerial support orders, a target -- terrorist target in Iraq, do you have the capacity and the authorization to conduct such strikes?

MR. KIRBY: The mission is advise, assist and train. That -- and that, again, has been the mission for a while now. I really would rather not, at the Pentagon, get into tactical speculation and hypotheticals. I'd point you to OIR to speak to how they conduct advise, assist and train. And I think that's a better place for you to go for those kinds of hypotheticals. I don't have that level of dexterity on it.

Q: Can I ask a question on Ukraine? Since the summit between President Biden and Russian President Putin, has the department detected any changes in the posture of, the make-up and number of Russian troops and equipment near the Ukraine borders?

MR. KIRBY: Without getting into intelligence assessments, which I have been loathe to do, we're monitoring it closely and there still is a very sizable military presence in western Russia, near Ukraine -- near Ukraine's borders. There's been no major changes to that posture since the discussion yesterday.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: -- the day before, sorry.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Yeah, go ahead.

Q: On Iraq, so in -- we know that since several years, the -- for several years, the -- the mission was the U.S. troops on the ground were advising and assisting Iraqi --

MR. KIRBY: As I said --

Q: -- forces --

MR. KIRBY: -- this is a transition that has been long in the making.

    Q: -- so does -- this change of mission, does it cover airstrikes, as well? Like, no airstrikes anymore?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to talk about tactics here. That -- you can pulse CENTCOM or OIR for the advise, assist mission and what that looks like, but again, this has been a transition that's been going on for a while, okay?

Yeah, Tara?

Q: Along those same lines, will the Iraqi people notice anything different? Will troops be still going outside the wire? Are they going to be staying on bases for those training and advisory --

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'd point you to OIR to talk to tactical issues. I really don't want to get into that from here. But a I think it -- I need to remind the mission has been advise, assist and train for quite some time and there hasn't -- it -- there hasn't been a lot of specific operations, as you put it, outside the wire by U.S. men and women.

So there won't be a dramatic shift, from yesterday to tomorrow, based on how we've already been working ourselves into this new mission. And what we hope the Iraqi people see is the continued competence and confidence of their security forces in the field fighting against ISIS, and they have been fighting bravely against ISIS, and we think that that -- and we certainly would -- expect that that's what the Iraqi people will continue to see.

Q: There's a second topic. Do you think we'll get a briefing in the next two weeks or so about the extremism review? Are -- is that near completion?

MR. KIRBY: It is -- it is nearing completion. I don't have a date certain to give today, but it is nearing completion, and rest assured that when we have reached completion, we will absolutely share it with you and talk about it with you.

Yeah?

Q: Are you tracking any changes along the border between Russia and Belarus, or Belarus over -- closer to the eastern flank of Europe?

MR. KIRBY: No, nothing that we haven't --

Q: And Russian troop levels, because there has been -- there was some discussion about Russian exercises there a few weeks ago. And so I'm just wondering if (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, look, I mean, the Russians and the Belarusians can train and operate together. That's their -- you know, that's about their bilateral relations. I don't have anything to add to that.

The issue isn't -- the issue is what's happening in Western Russia along Ukraine, and we continue to monitor it. There still continues to be a sizable level of force and capability there. We haven't seen any major changes to that in the last 48 hours.

Q: And then I have a question about Europe.

MR. KIRBY: Wasn't that also about Europe?
(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- so my other one is, are you tracking any significant changes that you think might take place in terms of the defense policy in Germany with the change of government?

MR. KIRBY: Obviously, look, the new government has to make sovereign decisions for themselves and for the people that they represent, so I certainly would not speak for the new German government. We'll leave -- Germany is an ally, a valued NATO ally, and also a terrific bilateral partner and friend on the defense -- in the defense landscape, and we look forward to working with the new government to continue and to further that relationship, to deepen it, to strengthen it, as well as, you know, inside the NATO alliance. But I'd let the new German government speak for what their priorities are going to be in that regard.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: (inaudible) in case U.S troops in Iraq came under attack. You have the equipment and that capacity to respond, and --

MR. KIRBY: We always have the right and the authority and the capability to defend our troops and to defend our resources wherever we are. That doesn't change.

Q: Would the threat be higher after December 21st?

MR. KIRBY: I think we have to assume that threats to U.S. forces remain credible in Iraq. We have seen in the past our men and women and our facilities and the -- those we share with our Iraqi partners have come under attack by -- by Iranian-backed militia groups. And we're not under any illusion that -- that those threats might still occur.

Now, whether it's going to be higher or lower, I'm not a position to speculate one way or the other here. I would just say, again, two things: We're meeting our commitments to the Iraqi government to fully transition this mission over to our advise, assist and train, number one, and by the -- and by the timeline that was agreed to by our two governments; and number two, as I said earlier, we're there at the invitation of the Iraqi government and we will -- we'll take that obligation seriously, including the obligation to be able to defend ourselves if we're attacked.

Yeah, Abraham?

Q: Yeah, thanks. I wanted to follow up on Ukraine (inaudible). In the last 10 days or so, Secretary Austin's met with his NATO counterparts, Chairman Milley's met with his NATO counterparts. The chief of Polish defense staff was here yesterday. Is Secretary Austin confident that the current level of capabilities and troops on the eastern flank of NATO is sufficient to deter Russia from invading Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: I think, Abraham, you know, it's not about -- it's not about whether, you know, troops on the eastern flank are sufficient to deter -- specifically to deter Mr. Putin. You've heard the national security advisor talk about this, and I'm not going to rehash what he said. There's no reason, as the Secretary said at the Reagan Forum, for this to come to blows or to conflict. There's still room -- and you heard Mr. Sullivan talk about that -- for diplomacy and for leadership, and you heard Mr. Sullivan talk about the kinds of options and consequences that the -- that the administration's thinking through, and I think I'd point you back to that.

What Mr. Sullivan said was, if there is another incursion, and if our NATO allies on the eastern flank desire additional capabilities, that we would be positively disposed to consider those requests. And we haven't got -- we're just not there yet.

Now, to your -- what I think is your broader point is we have a lot -- and I talked about this yesterday. We have a lot of capability in Europe, both permanently forward-deployed there, as well as rotational. So there's a lot of capability to be had on the European continent if there is another incursion, and if our NATO allies request some additional capabilities to assist them. Okay?

Q: And so an invasion of the Ukraine would be a real crisis for those NATO eastern flank members. What I'm understanding you're saying is that you believe that there -- or the Secretary believes there is presently enough capability --

MR. KIRBY: What I said was, the Secretary's confident that we have a lot of capability on the European continent. But you -- you're jumping ahead of where we are right now. If there's a request for additional capability that we would be looking at it would look -- as I said yesterday, I think it was Sylvie's question -- it would depend on what that request is, as to whether it would be fully and wholly sourced out of what's already in Europe, or whether it would require additional capabilities to flow in from elsewhere. But again, we're just not there yet.

Q: Thanks, John.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Tom?

Q: Hi, John. I apologize for being late. If you've asked -- if this was asked already, I apologize. Yesterday, there was a CNN report talking about Pentagon planning for possible evacuation of U.S. citizens from Ukraine, and you were -- you quoted in the CNN article, "We're a planning organization. (inaudible) have plans." Can you specifically say if plans are more general in the type of evacuation of U.S. citizens or different nations, or would there be a specific plan underway for Ukraine, or we -- or are you wait -- I don't want to get ahead of the story, but are you waiting for another trigger point to start those plans?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think I would just point you back to what I said before, Tom. I mean, we are a planning organization, and we -- we get paid to think through all kinds of different scenarios, to include the possibility of civilian evacuations in any number of places around the world.

I mean, it would be irresponsible for us if we didn't constantly try to think through any range of contingencies and scenarios, but what I said in that article remains true today -- it would be wrong to conclude that there's some sort of active effort here at the Pentagon to put together a civilian evacuation plan for Ukraine. I mean, the State Department has spoken to this. You know, they're -- -- there's -- for Americans that are in Ukraine who wish to leave, for whatever reason, there are lots of ways that they can do that. There's no need for military assistance.

Q: And just like you said in regards to the -- the Afghan numbers, that's the State Department purview. In other words, they would have a better idea of how many Americans may have registered with the embassy in Kiev or -- that's not a Pentagon -

MR. KIRBY: That is correct.

Q: Okay.

MR. KIRBY: That's correct.

Yeah, Tony Capaccio? You there, Tony?

Q: Hey, John, sorry, I was mute -- unmuting myself. I want to double check one thing on on the security assistance package to Ukraine. Since you talked yesterday, there's been no movement for additional weaponry. Is that right?

MR. KIRBY: Is that all you needed, Tony?

Q: Well, the other thing -- yeah, I have a question on -- a China question too. I -- shifting gears -- is there any progress on establishing a call between the Secretary and his Chinese counterpart? Is there -- is that in the works and might that happen in this month?

MR. KIRBY: We continue to explore the opportunity for the Secretary to speak to his counterparts in China and I don't have anything on the schedule to announce or to speak to at this time.

Q: Is there progress being made, though, toward that talk, or is this just still a minuet, in terms of whether they will even talk?

MR. KIRBY: As I said, we continue to explore the opportunities for that kind of dialogue.

Q: Okay, fair enough. And a security assistance package? Anything new on that in the last day?

MR. KIRBY: No.

Q: Thank you.

Q: -- on Ukraine, Secretary Austin talked to NATO counterparts the other day. What does -- what was his message to the NATO partners? And is there an expectation from the United States, from the NATO partners? 

MR. KIRBY: Well, I won't speak for our NATO allies, they can speak for themselves. I mean, he has -- we have routinely consulted with our allies and partners, particularly our NATO allies, on what we're seeing and sharing context with them and they are sharing context with us. And our -- message, as an administration, is that we take our commitments under the NATO Alliance extremely seriously.

And as you heard Mr. Sullivan say the other day, if there's a -- you know, if there would be a request by NATO allies for some additional resources and/or capabilities, in the event of another incursion, then we would be, you know, positively disposed to consider that.

Q: Is the United States committed to the Article 5?

MR. KIRBY: Of course we are -- of course we are, and we've said that repeatedly many, many times.

Ryo?

Q: Thank you. I want to ask you about the negotiation on the host nation support for U.S. troops in Japan. The Japanese government reportedly proposed that the Japan would increase the financial contribution by nearly 10 percent. I'm wondering if that proposal meets the U.S. expectation? And are you confident the U.S. and Japan will be able to work out an agreement by the end of this year?

MR. KIRBY: I'll tell you what, Ryo, let me take that question. That's a lot of specifics there, so I'm going to take that one and we'll -- we'll get you an answer back.

Nancy?

Q: I'd like to follow up on your answer about the exercises in Israel, with Israelis. Can we get a list of some of the more recent exercises, including any cyber exercises?

MR. KIRBY: I'm sure we can get you a list of exercises that have been publicly talked about and announced. I think we could -- we should be able to do that.

Q: And then at the Reagan Forum, Secretary Austin said among his regrets about the withdrawal from Afghanistan was the killing of civilians in Kabul on August 29th. And you've also said that the Secretary would be willing to get the families of those civilians killed out of Afghanistan.

My question is what is the status on payments -- condolence payments to those families or getting them out of the country?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, we are very actively working with NEI, Mr. Ahmadi's employer, to get the necessary information that we need to facilitate the family members out of Afghanistan. I mean, there's a very active effort to do that, working with his former employer. And I would say the same about the ex gratia payment.

I think you can understand, Nancy, that in both cases, we'd want to be able to do this safely and in -- and execute them both in a way that the family's safety and security is ensured.

So we're working this very, very hard, very actively, and very directly with NEI, who has made clear that they represent the family's interests and we're doing it, I think -- I think we're doing it prudently.

Q: (Inaudible) clarify a couple points -- Dr. Kahl and the -- and his (inaudible) said at that time, that there were efforts being made and that they were trying to be careful and deliberate. I was wondering if you could give us an idea of what has happened between that time and now? And also, who is leading this effort?

MR. KIRBY: Well, for the department, it's Dr. Kahl, and he's working with -- directly with Mr. Kwon, who is the CEO of NEI, and I can tell you that there has been numerous and -- and recent exchanges between us and NEI about trying to get the necessary information in place so that we can affect their safe departure and affect the ex gratia payment.

Q: I guess I'm just having a hard time understanding why it's taken four months. What is that process that makes it such that they can't get those payments or be evacuated from the country sooner? Could you help me understand that?

MR. KIRBY: I understand the question. I -- again, I think I'd have to just point you back to what I said at the outset, which is that we're working this as hard as we can and as directly as we can with those who -- who are representing the family.

Q: I understand you can't give a timeline, but is this something imminent where you could see them leaving the country within weeks, within months?

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I can't give you dates certain, Nancy, I would tell you. We obviously would like to -- the Secretary would like to help facilitate their departure as soon as possible.
Q: (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: Yes, Mike?

Q: A couple of questions. On the Iraq mission, the change, I just (inaudible) you describe the -- that doesn't mean there was kind of ceremony, will flags be encased and people saluting each other kind of thing with a change --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I don't think so.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- was it mainly symbolic this sort of declaration that we've -- 

MR. KIRBY: No, no, I wouldn't call it symbolic. I mean, again, this is -- what was spoken to today was the end result of a long period of consultations and transition already under way in keeping with our commitments to the Iraqi government that had already been made. So where the agreement was to have that role fully transitioned by the end of the year, and we've met that goal. And it was, you know, that the technical talks were scheduled today -- yes, today in Baghdad. And so that was -- you know, that was the big result of those technical talks was to, you know, formally say that the transition has been made.

But it's not symbolic. It's an affirmation of what we've agreed to do and what we have accomplished. And, again, as you know, Mike, I mean, that kind of transition takes some time. And so we've been working on it pretty studiously for months.

Q: Also does the U.S. -- the U.S. support Ukraine's admission into NATO as a full-fledged member?
MR. KIRBY: I think you saw -- heard the president talk about, you know, who nations ally with and who they partner with is their sovereign choice. And so membership in NATO is an alliance issue. It's not something that any one nation can veto -- or champion except for the nation involved and the alliance. And as Secretary-general said, it's an alliance decision to make.

Q: (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Secretary Blinken is headed to Southeast Asia next week and one of the issues on his -- the agenda of these meetings, it will be security. So in light of that I wanted to ask what the Defense Department has done, if you can give some background on what the Defense Department is doing to help those countries in terms of materiel or training or --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Well, to take your question, I don't have the security assistance and the specifics on the bilateral defense relationships with those countries handy with me today. We were just in the region not long ago. It's an important region. It is that clearly a region and these are countries that are feeling the pressure from China. But I'll have our Southeast Asia team put together some information maybe to help you with that context.

Q: Thanks.

Q: So France has a robust presence both historically and also present day in the Indo-Pacific region. Have we made any outreach effort to talk to them about assistance?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I mean, when we were in Brussels for the defense ministerial, and we -- I think we read that out, he met with Minister Parly and they talked quite a lot, actually, and that conversation was about the Indo-Pacific and the French interest there, and ways in which we can cooperate with them and coordinate with them and assist them as well, not to mention, of course, the -- their ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Africa. So I mean, we -- I'd point you to the readout of that conversation.

Yes?

Q: With Taiwan taking part in the conference the -- the democracy conference, have we seen any movements or increased aggression on China's behalf?

MR. KIRBY: I haven't -- I don't have anything to speak to with respect to the beginning of the Summit For Democracy, and nothing that comes to mind today that we've seen today.

Yeah, Jim?

Q: John, the White House announced three soldiers who will be receiving the Medal of Honor. By my calculations -- and I admit I'm a liberal arts major -- it's 18 years, eight years and three years for the actions that these people will be receiving the award. And the Twitterverse has sort lit up a little bit about why it takes so long. Is this something that the department is looking at? Why is the process for awarding these -- this obvious decoration so long?

MR. KIRBY: I hadn't seen the Twitter comments on this, Jim. I know of no effort by the department to review the procedure. The Medal of Honor is, as you know, the highest military decoration that a service member can receive, and it is for, as the citation says, actions above and beyond the call of duty, and there are very stringent requirements laid out, which you know is in the -- you know, in the instructions laid out for how one -- how one's actions in combat are validated for that medal, and it's -- as it should be, the -- the bar is very, very high for validation of those actions. And then, of course, there's a series of recommendations made by, certainly, one's chain of command if it's a recent action; by one's military department if it's not, all the way up to the commander-in-chief with a series of stops, including the Secretary of defense, for recommendations.

So I think, without speaking to any individual case, I mean, I believe that that's appropriate, and we believe that's appropriate, and that we would all want that -- these kinds of decisions to be properly-adjudicated and taken as seriously and -- and with the kind of scrupulous oversight that the -- that the medal itself deserves.

Yeah?
(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead, Paul. Well --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: All right, go ahead.

Q: That's right. I was --

MR. KIRBY: So all right, so ask Paul's question. So that's all you're getting, though.

Q: Yes, that's what I'm getting, I suppose. So there was a -- a report of -- it's actually a -- a complaint of a National Guard lawyer who says that the inspector general, the DOD inspector general report on the January 6th incident is false, and he -- so I understand it was not your administration. But the inspector general is still here and this National Guard lawyer accuses in very strong terms the inspector general to have lied. Are you aware of that, or --

MR. KIRBY: We're aware of -- 

Q: Do you have a comment?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, actually, I think I dealt with this the other day. I mean, we are aware of this statement made by this National Guard, I believe, an attorney for the National Guard, I think, that he submitted to the January 6th Committee. Certainly, he can speak to his work there. But the Army has, I think, been very clear that they stand by the DOD inspector general's findings and reports, and that they stand by the -- their own accounting of the decisions that were made that day and the transparency of those decisions that have -- that have occurred since then. So I think I would just leave it at that and point you to the Army, and they can --

Q: And what about inspector general? It's not something you can --

MR. KIRBY: I mean, again, I think it's been -- it's been spoken to by the Army Department. If you're asking me if -- so, I mean, as you know, the DOD I.G. is an independent organization here. The Secretary continues to value their work and the effort and the dedication that they've put into it, and the integrity with which they do their job here.

Okay, listen, I've got to go. I've got a 12:15 meeting. Thanks. Appreciate it.