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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

PETER COOK:  Good afternoon, everybody.

By now, you should have all received the statement from Resolute Support regarding the death of a U.S. service member today in Afghanistan.  I wanted to begin by expressing the sincere condolences not only from Secretary Carter, but from all of us within the Department of Defense to the family of the service member.

We are still gathering details on exactly what happened, but we understand that this service member died as a result of injuries sustained from an improvised explosive device while the individual was partnered with Afghan forces in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan.  The mission was conducted as a part of a larger U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism mission targeting ISIL in Afghanistan. 

The secretary was briefed on the casualty and spoke directly with General Nicholson earlier today about it.  Again, the secretary's thoughts and prayers are with the family of this fallen service member, as well as the service member's team mates.  The process of notifying next of kin is still underway and our operations against ISIL in Afghanistan continue alongside our Afghan partners.

I also wanted to update you on the department's preparations for the approach of Hurricane Matthew.  This is a serious storm, and while we have not received any specific request for assistance at this point, we do stand ready to provide support in the region as needed.  U.S. Southern Command is standing up a joint task force commanded by Rear Admiral Cedric Pringle in anticipation of a request for support, and is moving nine helicopters from Honduras to the Cayman Islands in preparation.  The Navy is also looking at possibly deploying ships, to include the George Washington, the Comfort, and the Mesa Verde, if necessary.

Over the weekend, approximately 700 family members, as well as 65 pets, were evacuated from Naval Station Guantanamo to Naval Air Station Pensacola, using four C-17s and two C-130s.  These family members will stay at Pensacola until it's safe to return.  The remaining military and civilian population will shelter in place and be prepared to support recovery efforts once safe to do so following the storm's passage.

The detention facilities at Guantanamo can withstand the current projected storm strength, and the 61 detainees there will shelter in place.  If the storm should intensify, there is a plan in place to move the detainees to alternative shelters on-base.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Yes, Paul?

Q:  Peter, just a couple more questions on the casualty in Afghanistan.  Is there any indication that he was specifically targeted, or the Americans in the patrol were specifically targeted?

MR. COOK:  My understanding, Paul, again, that this was an improvised explosive device that was present where they were in Nangarhar province.  So I'm not aware of any indication this individual was targeted specifically.  Again, we're waiting to get details back from Resolute Support.  This is still an ongoing operation out there.  So when they have more information, I know they'll be prepared to share it and I have basically what they've provided already.

Q:  But do you know that the IED was set off as opposed to detonated remotely?

MR. COOK:  Honestly, Paul, I cannot say with certainty right now, based on the information I have at this point.  But I know that there were no other, as I understand it, no other casualties reported.

Q:  And lastly, I've seen some reports in recent days of an intensification of ISIS campaign threatening others against cooperating with the U.S.  Does this change at all --

MR. COOK:  You're talking Afghanistan here?  Or -- I'm sorry.

Q:  In Syria.  But this is -- the -- the press release from ISAF today said that this was on a patrol against IS Khorasan, right?

MR. COOK:  Yes, that's right.

Q:  Do you -- does this change anything in terms of the way that the U.S. is positioning or using its forces?  And does this -- does the same apply for any of its partners on the ground?

MR. COOK:  Obviously, this is a tragic situation.  We'll wait to get all the details.

But just as a reminder, we have been working with, partnering with Afghan forces in this counter-terrorism effort against ISIL in Afghanistan for some time now. This is again an offensive action against ISIL because we do not want to let this group be able to take root in Afghanistan as it has in other places. And we've had success on that front with our Afghan partners. And that was part of this operation. 

We'll continue to target ISIL in Afghanistan and ISIL wherever it appears. Again, this has been an effort that's been strongly supported by the Afghan government. Again this is a partnered operation with the Afghans.

Q:  (Inaudible) -- offensive action. Can you say that this individual was in combat?  In Afghanistan?

MR. COOK:  We've talked about this before. We are targeting ISIL in Afghanistan. We have soldiers in harm's way. This clearly was a tragic situation. It highlights the risks that our service members are taking every single day in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and we've been quite clear about that. And this is again an effort to try and address a threat not only to the Afghan people and the Afghan government but a larger threat to the United States and we'll continue to target and go after ISIL wherever it appears. 

And in this instance it was in Afghanistan.

Q:  But you can't say he was killed in combat?

MR. COOK:  This was a combat situation. Clearly this was a service member who faced risk alongside Afghan partners and we offer our condolences to the family. This is a very difficult situation. But I think as the Secretary has made clear, going after ISIL, wherever it metastasizes, including in Afghanistan, is an important goal for the Department of Defense right now. To protect the American people. And we're gonna continue to do that, and this service member lost their life in that mission.

And again, we will wait to get more details on what happened here. 

Q:  Can you say what branch of service this individual was from?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to at this time. 

Q:  I'd like to go to Syria. If anybody has more Afghanistan questions?

Q:  Just to clarify what you said earlier, no other U.S. or Afghan service members were wounded in this IED attack?

MR. COOK:  That's my understanding.

Q:  How many other U.S. --

MR. COOK:  I'd actually also point out to the best of my knowledge no Afghans were injured as well. Again this was a partnered operation. The Afghans are there with us.

Q:  How many other U.S. service members were going on this patrol?

MR. COOK:  I don't have those details. 

Q:  Can you give us a little more information on the time -- was this an overnight patrol, was this a --

MR. COOK:  It was earlier today. So I don't have the precise time in Afghanistan. Again these are the kind of details that I know Resolute Support is working to obtain and to share that with you when they can. But this was the preliminary information they got from out in the field. 

Q:  (inaudible) -- but I'll defer back to Lucas first.

MR. COOK:  Tara.

Q:  Was there any other enemy contact made, or was this just one IED explosion?

MR. COOK:  Those are details that Resolute Support is hoping to get a complete picture of what exactly what's happening and I'm not in a position right now to share all those details. I honestly don't know. So they'll be trying to relay that to you as best they can, but what we do know is that this individual was injured from improvised explosive device.

Q:  Do we know by chance were they inside a vehicle or on foot patrol?

MR. COOK:  My understanding is this was a foot patrol. They were not in a vehicle.  But I -- I want to be careful.  Again, I'm getting this information from Resolute Support and, as you all know, until we get a complete picture, I'm not sure I can say with certainty all these details.  I'd like -- I'd like for you to wait to hear exactly from them what transpired here.


MR. COOK:  On this?

Q:  Yes, well, Afghanistan.

As you know -- (inaudible) -- has run a fairly aggressive campaign or a mission, whatever, in Kunduz.  Can you just expand a little on the nature of what U.S. forces are doing there?  I know they are serving in an enabling capacity, but can you expand a little bit on that?

MR. COOK:  I know that we have enabling forces there that have been in support of Afghan security forces, and that it's the Afghan forces that have retaken the city center and moved, as I understand it, gathered control over Kunduz once again. 

So our forces have been in a -- in a support role, but this has been Afghans in the lead and Afghans in charge of this -- this operation. 

Yes, on Afghanistan?

Q:  Yes.

MR. COOK:  Barbara? 

Q:  No, not on Afghanistan.

MR. COOK:  Let's stay on Afghanistan for a moment.  I'll come back to you. 

Q:  One more on Afghanistan, before my question on India.

MR. COOK:  Yes?

Q:  Afghan people and president is blaming that these terrorist you call them ISIL, al Qaida, or Taliban, they come across the border from Pakistan, keep going and coming back, the doors are open. 

How much you agree with that?  And what role you think Pakistan is playing to -- with the U.S. to fight against these terrorists in Afghanistan?

MR. COOK:  Well, as you know, we have an ongoing conversation with Pakistan dealing with the issue of counterterrorism.  And Pakistan shares with the United States the -- the threat of terrorism.  And I can tell you that in regards to -- to these operations, that we have been in touch with the Pakistani government about the movement between these -- across these border areas, and that's a conversation will continue having. 

We think it's important for both countries, and for all parties in that region, to address the issue of terrorism.  And we'll continue to make every effort we can to work with our partners in the region to address that issue.

Q:  And one more on India?

MR. COOK:  Sure, go ahead. 

Q:  These recent attacks on Indian forces in Uri, where India is saying or blaming that it was the hands of Pakistan or Pakistan-based terrorists which are wanted by the U.S. and India.  And Pakistan is still supporting them; and if the secretary has spoken to anybody in India or with the defense minister of India?  Or what are the views the U.S. now has as far as these? 

Tensions are very high between India and Pakistan now.  Many are calling there might be another war between the two countries because these terrorists have killed, attacking India one after another.  And how much India can tolerate and enough is enough.  That's the view from the Indian people.  And they are seeking U.S. support in this effort. 

MR. COOK:  Well, again, U.S. officials I know have been in touch with both India and Pakistan.  I don't have any particular conversations with the secretary to read out.  The one thing I would say is that we also are aware that the Indian and Pakistani militaries have been in communication with one another, and we encourage these continued discussions between India and Pakistan as a means to -- to reduce any tensions that -- that may be out there.  And we're encouraged by that and we certainly would encourage those conversations to continue.

Q:  And any view from the secretary that Pakistan is threatening with a nuclear war against India?

MR. COOK:  Again, the secretary would hope, as the United States government would hope, that -- that tensions between Pakistan and India would be lowered and that there would be an effort at communication here to try and address those concerns.  And that's certainly a view that he shares with others in the U.S. government.

Q:  And just one more quickly.  You think how much this building knows that these weapons in Pakistan could be or may be in the hands of terrorists -- Pakistan-based terrorists, because they are the ones those are threatening also to use them against -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK:  Well, I think our views on -- on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons are clear.  This is obviously something that this government and others around the world want to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.  And that's something that our views on that are quite clear. 

So, yes, I'll go Dan and then to Barbara.

Q:  Thank you, Peter. 

On Kunduz, there's air power assisting the Afghan operations in the city.  Can you provide any granularity on where U.S. troops are in terms of how they're supporting this?  Are they working from the airport to coordinate airstrikes or anything like that?

MR. COOK:  Yes.  I'm not going to get into the location of the U.S. forces, other than to say that we do have enablers providing support to Afghan forces in the area.  And there has been some air support.  My understanding there was a helicopter engagement, air-to-ground engagement in defense of Afghan forces.  I believe that happened earlier today; the last 24 hours or so. 

But beyond that, I don't have -- I don't have any other indication about particular air support that's been provided.  But we do have enablers there, as you said.  But I want to be clear.  This is Afghans in the lead.  This is Afghans who have retaken areas that -- where the Taliban may have been present in the last 24 to 48 hours.  And I know that the Afghans, I think they've said publicly that they feel much better about the situation in Kunduz today than they did, say, 24 hours ago.

Q:  There's also Taliban -- pretty strong Taliban aggression in Nawar and Rashid Khandeshin  in Helmand province.  What kind of U.S. support are the Afghans getting with the operations that are underway there?

MR. COOK:  My understanding and -- and, first of all in Nawar in particular, is that ANDSF has basically recovered the district center and it's now secure.  ANDSF forces carried that out.  And there are strike aircraft enablers in the area to support the ANDSF.  But I'm not aware of U.S. forces on the ground.  But airstrikes, I think, have been in support of those ANDSF forces. 


Q:  Two completely different topics, if I may.  First on Syria.  While the Defense Department has long said there's no military solution -- (inaudible) -- for the ISIS situation or for the regime in Syria, Aleppo is in dire straits.  We know there've been repeated meetings across the administration about what, if anything, can be done. 

So, what is Secretary Carter and this department's position right now?  Are you still opposed to even limited airstrikes or military action to push the regime back from eastern Aleppo?  Are you opposed to U.S. military action?

MR. COOK:  Again, Barbara, the focus for the secretary has been to support the U.S. government's efforts, Secretary Kerry's efforts to try and find a political and diplomatic resolution to the situation in Syria, the civil war in Syria.  And that continues to be his position and the position of the U.S. government.  

We think there's still an opportunity for the international community to do more to try and address what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. 

And we certainly think there's more that the Russians and the regime can do to try and reach that diplomatic and peaceful resolution, as opposed to the -- their current actions.  And so that will be -- remain the focus for the secretary and we'll continue to assess the situation and -- and provide whatever counsel the president needs.

Q:  I guess the question is, you know, even Secretary Kerry has publicly even earlier today expressed his dismay at the Russians.  So how long -- how long does Secretary Carter go on with diplomacy?  And my question really is:  Has he ruled out in his mind any notion of U.S. military action, whenever, wherever, even if it's down the road?  Does he just simply rule that out and reject that notion?

MR. COOK:  Well, you know, Barbara, that the military focus, as determined by the commander in chief for the United States right now, is on ISIL in Syria.  And that remains Secretary Carter's focus as well.  We continue to make progress against ISIL in Syria, as we are against ISIL in Iraq.  And with regard to the civil war, we continue to provide support for Secretary Kerry and his efforts.  He continues to try and reach out to the international community, even as we do not see much in the way of any response -- positive response from the Russians and the regime to his outreach so far.

And with regard to -- I'm not going to get into hypothetical situations about the future, but we continue to assess the very dire situation in Syria right now in terms of the civil war.  It's a humanitarian catastrophe.  And -- and the United States continues to urge all parties to try and reach a diplomatic and political resolution because we think that's the only solution for the civil war.

Q:  Can I shift to another subject? 

MR. COOK:  Sure.

Q:  Equally difficult.  I know that you don't want to talk presidential politics.  Everyone has made that abundantly clear.  But I do want to ask you, there is now since the weekend what can only be described I think as a national conversation among the veterans community themselves about whether or not people, veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress simply cannot handle the stress of war. 

I don't want to box you in.  I'm sure you're aware this was something that Donald Trump said.  So I want to publicly make sure you're aware of that.  But there is a national conversation among the veterans community about whether that is actually true, not true, insensitive -- whatever you want to call it. 

So, politics aside, what can you say about this department after 13 years of war and its understanding of post-traumatic stress, and whether or not veterans -- some veterans are simply not, to quote, "not strong enough to handle it"?  Or is there something else about post-traumatic stress?

MR. COOK:  Barbara, I'm going to disappoint you here, because you know the secretary has made clear that we're not going to weigh in on the presidential race in any way.  This is a very important topic, the broader topic you talked about.  But I'm not going to wade into electoral politics and the comments from the candidates with regard to this issue.

If there are veterans groups who want to speak to this, I certainly encourage you to reach out to them for their views on this topic, but I'm just not going to wade into presidential politics.  So, I appreciate your warning me that that's where this was coming from.  So, thank you.


Q:  Can we ask you about the Russian missile system that's arrived in Syria?  What can you tell us about it?  What type of system is it?

MR. COOK:  I'm -- Cam, if you're referring to the Russian government's own announcement about a system, we're certainly aware of their announcement that they plan to install a system in Syria.  Obviously, we will carefully track military developments and installations, if you will, in Syria, particularly as they affect the coalition operations.

But the one thing I would point out is that this is a system -- last I checked, the Russians said that their primary goal was to fight extremism, ISIL and Nusra, in Syria.  And neither one has an air force.  So I would question just what the purpose of the system is, if they're installing.  Maybe the Russians have a better explanation.

Q:  What's your understanding of what type of system it is?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it to the Russians to describe what they've -- (inaudible).  My understanding is they had a public announcement today about a --

Q:  So the U.S. has not seen this missile system?

MR. COOK:  I'll just leave it to the Russians to describe the equipment that they're bringing into Syria.  They apparently had an announcement this morning.

Q:  But there is -- if the system did come in, how concerning is that for the U.S. military with U.S. planes flying in Syria?

MR. COOK:  Well, we obviously want to monitor these kinds of systems and the -- what they -- the implications are for the coalition aircraft.  We continue to have -- take every step that we can to ensure the safety of our air crews flying over Syria.  That is something we take very, very seriously, as I think you all know.  

We continue to maintain the de-confliction channel with the memorandum of understanding with regard to safety of flight with the Russians, which we think is important to maintain, even as we have these disagreements with the Russians, because we think it's in not only the coalition's interests, but also Russia's interest, to maintain that line of communication with regard to safety.

And so we'll continue to use that as appropriate.  And again, we -- this is something that we take very, very seriously, the safety of our air crews and we'll continue to do so.

Q:  Follow on Russia?

MR. COOK:  Let me go to someone who hasn't had a question.  I'll come back.

Q:  On Cami's question, I mean, is it fair to say whatever the details of the system that they're bringing in, if it is a sophisticated and powerful surface-to-air missile system, I mean, wouldn't the secretary and others in the building consider that to be a threatening move?  I mean, there's only a few sets of aircraft flying in Syrian airspace, as you point out yourself.  Wouldn't that pose a -- wouldn't bringing that kind of system into that theater pose a risk to U.S. aircraft and U.S. pilots?

MR. COOK:  Well, it depends on how the Russians plan to use it.  But we certainly have -- again, we want to continue to maintain that de-confliction channel with the Russians to make sure that they know how serious we are about maintaining the safety of our air crews.  And -- and as you point out, ISIL doesn't have an air force and neither does Nusra, which are the two groups that the Russians have said they're most concerned about.

So this is something we'll watch carefully.  But it should be clear to the Russians and everybody else operating in Syria how seriously we take the safety of our air crews -- the coalition air crews, I should point out.

Q:  Do you think that poses a risk to the U.S. aircraft and forces operating in the area?  Or it doesn't pose a risk to those U.S. aircraft and forces operating in the area?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it to the Russians to describe why they've brought the system in there.  But I'd just say that we continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our coalition air crews, and we will continue to do so.  And those air crews, as well, I should point out, have the inherent right to self-defense.

So far we've been able to de-conflict operations over Syria through the memorandum of understanding in the midst of our disagreement with Russia.  That has successfully been able to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation.  We certainly would expect that we can continue to avoid any misunderstanding or miscalculation.

Yes?  I'm sorry -- I was going to call on Bill before.


Q:  Thank you.  The HVI strike that you announced last night --

MR. COOK:  Yes?

Q:  -- does this indicate a wider effort against Nusra in Syria?

MR. COOK:  This is the individual we targeted, as you know and as we spelled out in the release, is someone that has been part of Al Qaida for some time.  Someone who was among the senior leaders of Al Qaida.  And it is not the first time we've targeted Al Qaida leadership in Syria, and so it represents a continuation of our counterterrorism efforts, particularly focused on Al Qaida leadership.

Q:  He was also a co-founder of Nusra.  It seems like you're taking great pains to say that he wasn't part of Nusra.  So --

MR. COOK:  He's part of whatever group you want to say he's part of.  We know he was part of Al Qaida and that's been --

Q:  I guess the larger question is why aren't we striking Nusra?

MR. COOK:  We're targeting terrorist leaders, particularly those affiliated with Al Qaida, because that's been a goal of the U.S. government since 2001.  We'll continue to do that.  And again, we are identifying -- this was an individual who has been part of external plotting outside of Syria, including targets in Saudi Arabia.  And this was a target that we felt was appropriate to take, given the threat he and Al Qaida as a group continues to pose to the United States.


Q:  Recently, the United States Congress had stated that -- (inaudible) -- resources should be in place as soon as possible in South Korea.  How fast that this process is going to Move along?

MR. COOK:  I know that the hope is to deploy the THAAD system as quickly as feasible in order to substantially improve the missile defense in place for the Republic of South Korea.  And we'll be working very closely, as you know we have been, with the Republic of South Korea with regard to installing that system as quickly as possible.  But I don't have a particular date for its completion.

Q:  Secretary Carter recently he mentioned about nuclear deterrent.  So what is the exact -- (inaudible) -- nuclear deterrent?  How they can -- (inaudible) -- for if North Korea using nuclear first, then U.S. can using -- (inaudible)? 

MR. COOK:  I think you've heard the secretary speak often, and he spoke most recently on our trip visiting U.S. nuclear facilities, and part of the nuclear enterprise here in the United States.  And I think he made clear our view of the importance of the nuclear deterrence; maintaining that deterrence, not just for the United States, but for our allies as well.

And it's something that he feels strongly about and something that's been U.S. policy for some time.  And North Korea and others should realize that that deterrence is real and will continue to be.


Q:  Hi Sam -- (inaudible)-- USNI News.  Today the president of the Philippines told President Obama to go to hell; threatened to break up with America, and has consistently thrown out some messages that are kind of in diametric opposition to what the Defense Department says is an ironclad relationship with -- with the Philippines.

The DOD announced a program for $42 million in investment into maritime domain awareness, to make a -- a pretty big deal of the enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines.  But you have a head of state that's making some pretty severe claims and some pretty intense statements as to the relationship with the United States.

Has the Pentagon or the administration or anyone received any kind of notification from the Philippines as of yet as to sort of their commitment with U.S. defense agreements going forward?  Is there any reaction from the secretary or any reaching out to -- to his counterparts over in the Philippines to kind of clarify the situation?  Because there's -- there's a lot of ambiguity in an area that's pretty -- pretty busy militarily.

MR. COOK:  As you may know, the secretary just met with the -- his Philippine counterpart in Hawaii as part of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Informal that the secretary just hosted.  Spoke with Secretary Lorenzana during the course of those meetings.  He had a good and productive conversation with -- with his counterpart.

And what I would just refer you to again is what the secretary said and what we've been saying for some time, and that is we have a 65-year alliance relationship with the Philippines.  We have shared security concerns.  We've had a history of cooperation on a range of fronts, not just military, but also with regard to humanitarian catastrophes.  And we have shared values with the Philippine people.

And we think those -- that enduring relationship is important.  And we're confident that that will continue, and we continue to work closely with the Philippine military on a range of fronts.  And -- and that's an alliance that requires U.S. commitments, and they are commitments that we're going to meet.

And just to answer the first part of your question, I'm not aware of any specific change that's been -- that's been notified to us with regard to our military-to-military relationship.


Q:  On Somalia, just can you affirm that the U.S. has not conducted any strikes since the strike on September 28th?  And then get us up to speed with where the Pentagon is on investigating this attack that the U.S. says killed nine al-Shabaab members, and that some liberal Somali government officials are saying killed 13 members of local forces.

MR. COOK:  I can tell you that there's -- the review is under way.  I don't have anything more with regard to -- to that review.  And I'm not aware of any additional strikes since then, but I'll check on that and try and get back to you.

Yes, Dan?

Q:  Sort of a two-part question as it relates to Russia.  First, on one hand, you've raised some questions.  And, you know, consistently I think there's been a lot of questions raised about whether what Russia says and what Russia does matches.

On the other hand, you're referring us to Russian statements on what they're putting in-country in Syria and things along those lines.  Are those things kind of in conflict?  And can we really trust what that's -- what's being said there?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it for you to assess whether or not you can trust what the Russians are saying and doing in Syria.

Q:  Okay.  Second point.

MR. COOK:  You've highlighted some inconsistencies that we've seen as well.

Q:  Okay.  Second point, Russia pulled out, or indicated at least that it will pull out of the plutonium treaty this week.  From a Defense Department perspective, from a military perspective, are there any second- and third-order effects at this point in terms of discussions, what that means for the United States and the military?

MR. COOK:  Yeah, I think the -- the White House and State Department I think have weighed in on this already.  This is a nonproliferation agreement that certainly the United States felt was not only in the U.S. interests, but also in Russia's interests.  We're disappointed in their decision.  I'm not aware of any immediate impacts on the Department of Defense beyond, of course, just the goal -- the president's goal, others’ goal of trying to reduce the amount of plutonium that might be out there in the world and the threat that that poses.

And so again, this was an agreement that Russia had reached previously, and we're disappointed with this decision.  And I'll let my colleagues at the White House and State Department talk about the broader -- the treaty itself and the arrangement -- the agreement that produced this.  But I think it's fair to say that we're disappointed with their decision.


Q:  Going back to Syria.  Has the White House made any specific request to the Pentagon to prepare any kind of military action against the Assad regime?

MR. COOK:  Lucas, I'm not going to get into private conversations that the leadership here is having or might be having with the White House.  You know that this is a conversation, that the situation in Syria is a very serious situation.  And we have multiple things happening there. 

We've got the ISIL fight, which is, again, we're continuing to make progress against ISIL in Syria, as we are in Iraq.  That remains the primary focus of the Department of Defense and Secretary Carter in Syria, is ensuring that ISIL is delivered a lasting defeat and does not continue to pose a threat to the United States.

And that remains our primary focus.  We will continue to assess the broader situation in Syria.  As you know, it's a complex situation, not only a civil war, but we've got a number of players on the ground in Syria.  And it's something we'll watch very carefully and continue to provide whatever counsel, advice and options that -- that the president and his national security team need.

Q:  Does the Pentagon need to wait for a specific request to start planning any kind of military action?

MR. COOK:  We are a planning institution, Lucas.  We do planning all the time. 

Q:  Earlier, you mentioned on the hurricane relief that no specific request had come down to the Pentagon, but you were making preparations anyway to get these ships underway. I was wondering if the same thing applied to Syria.

MR. COOK:  I have learned in my short time in this building that we plan for a lot of things.  And you can be sure that we are planning for a whole host of things, as you would expect the senior leadership in this building to do on a range of fronts.

Q:  Does that include any kind of humanitarian aid drops to the citizens who are trapped -- the hundreds of thousands of Aleppo citizens that are trapped in the city?

MR. COOK:  Well, you know, Lucas, that the United States has been the biggest contributor of humanitarian assistance, first of all, to the people of Syria.


MR. COOK:  We -- there was an agreement that Secretary Kerry -- an arrangement that he had negotiated to get humanitarian assistance into places that were in desperate need of that assistance.  And you saw as well as anybody else that that assistance did not arrive.  So we certainly would -- would continue to work with the United Nations. 

I'll defer to my colleagues at the State Department on this because they've been in the lead.  The United Nations has been taking the lead in terms of trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria who desperately need it.  We're very supportive of that effort.

And at this point, it's a question of access for those U.N. convoys, which my understanding may still be in the region, that getting access to that assistance is what's most important and that's something that's gonna have to be determined by actions of people on the ground.  And that includes most notably the regime and their Russian supporters.  

Q:  If the United Nations asked the U.S. government to help get those aid convoys into Aleppo, would the Pentagon help out with that?

MR. COOK:  Of course we do whatever the commander-in-chief asked us to do.  This is I'm sure a conversation that, again, my colleagues at the State Department are having on a regular basis.  We stand ready to assist in whatever way we can.  To my knowledge, those requests have not come.

So yes, Paul?

Q:  Peter, just to follow up on that.  Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken was asked before I think it was Senate Foreign Relations on what the Plan B is.  The implication is that the diplomacy is on the verge of crumbling.  What is the U.S. Plan B? 

And when he was pressed for an answer, among his responses was that there's been a new round of options given to the president.  His term was "some old, some new."  To follow up on what Lucas was asking, is -- is the Defense Department considering any new military options for operations in Syria that it wasn't considering previously?

MR. COOK:  Paul, again, I'm not gonna get into internal deliberations between the White House and the national security leadership and what's going on.  I think what Secretary Blinken indicated -- Deputy Secretary Blinken -- was that a range of options were being assessed, not necessarily military, still talking about diplomatic other steps that can be taken by the whole of the U.S. government.

This is a very serious, dangerous and tragic situation in Syria.  And obviously, given -- in light of the -- of the collapse of these talks with the Russians over a cessation of hostilities, that I think what he was referring to was a re-assessment of what our next steps will be.  And I think that's -- we -- obviously the secretary will be part of that conversation going forward.

Q:  The context was in consequences, which will either be probably military or economic.  Can you say whether this cessation of the diplomatic process has led to an intensification of looking for more options instead of the Defense Department's usual tempo of always having options to provide?  Has this led to a new call from the president to ask for alternatives?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to characterize our tempo or pace.  We will continue to provide the advice and counsel that the president and his national security team need in terms of the situation on the ground in Syria, both as it relates to the civil war and as it relates to ISIL.  

I really want to emphasize that our primary focus remains the fight against ISIL, which is taking up a substantial part of what's happening in Syria.  And we will continue to focus our efforts on that front.  Even as the State Department and the United States government as a whole continues to -- to do what we can to try and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people in the civil war.

But our focus remains right now, Paul, on -- on the ISIL fight and delivering ISIL a lasting defeat.

Yes, Thomas.

Q:  Peter, just going back to some of the earlier questions about the missile system that's now in place in Syria.  Operationally -- I understand your point about you guys continuing to de-conflict and so on with the Russians.  Operationally, does this change anything for U.S. -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  Our operations will continue.

Q:  Okay.  With the -- with the S400s that were put in place last year in November and now this, does it appear -- would it be your military assessment that Russia is appearing to be ready to perhaps declare its own no-fly zone?

MR. COOK:  You'd have to ask the Russians what it is they're planning to do with these systems. 


MR. COOK:  They have installed systems that have certain capabilities.  We have an air campaign that we're waging in Syria and we're going to continue to wage that air campaign.  They can explain to you or try and explain to you what it is that system's for.  But as we noted before, the two groups that they say they're most concerned about, ISIL and Nusra, don't operate air forces. 

So, I'll leave it to the Russians to explain what they're doing there.

Q:  Without trying to get into hypotheticals, if they did -- if they did declare such a zone, would that affect anything the U.S. did operationally?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into hypothetical situations. 

STAFF:  (off mic.)

MR. COOK:  Yeah, Okay.  I've got time for one more here.

Q:  Just two quick follow-ups, one on Thomas' --

Q:  I beg your pardon.  In the past -- I'm sorry, Tara.  In the past, everybody's been allowed to ask one question.  I've noticed that people here have been asked upwards of seven questions.


MR. COOK:  I'll get to you as well, Nancy.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Okay.  So is it the Pentagon's understanding that the S-400 system is still in Syria, which is a more advanced system than the S-300?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it to the Russians to tell you where their systems are and what they're -- what they're doing.  They have air defense systems in Syria.  We've seen them.  If they've made adjustments today, I'll leave it to the Russians to explain what the -- what the rationale is behind that.

Q:  Okay.  And then just really quick one on the Philippines.  You said --

MR. COOK:  Quick, because I promised to get to Nancy.

Q:  -- a few minutes ago, you know, the Pentagon is in the business of planning.  With everything that's happened with the Philippines of late, are alternative plans being made to perhaps reposition some of the U.S. commitments to rebuilding sites or doing humanitarian locations if U.S. efforts are not -- are no longer wanted by the Philippines?  Or is it just a wait-and-see approach and see if maybe Duterte's comments are more bluster than they are, you know, fact?

MR. COOK:  We -- we're not making any changes at this point to the EDCA agreement and we'll continue to work closely with the Philippine government in terms of implementing it.  And of course, our larger alliance relationship, we're allies.  And we'll continue to have our conversations as appropriate with our Philippine counterparts. 


Q:  I wanted to follow up on a few things you mentioned earlier.  To Bill's question about the high-value target that was possibly killed, which you announced yesterday, my understanding in your answer is that this department sees a difference between Nusra and Al Qaida.  Is that correct?

MR. COOK:  You should take from answer that we targeted an individual who is a member, a legacy member of Al Qaida, and we targeted that individual because that person has posed a threat to the United States and because we've been -- well-documented our efforts to go after Al Qaida, wherever they may be.  And this individual was in Syria.

Q:  Legacy Al Qaida suggests then that you see a difference between -- I'm just trying to understand for clarity -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK:  We've targeted people who are members of Al Qaida and Al Qaida affiliates.  In -- in this instance, this is someone we know has had a long history with Al Qaida.

Q:  Would you carry out similar targets potentially against Nusra targets?

MR. COOK:  We would target people who are, again, as part of our authorization for the use of force against Al Qaida, anyone who's part of an Al Qaida affiliate.  As you know, Nusra has been a very public affiliate of Al Qaida for some time.

Q:  And then on Aleppo, does the secretary see a distinction between what is happening there and the fight against the Islamic State in terms of mission, if you will?  Does he make a distinction between the instability in Aleppo and the ability for groups like the Islamic State to continue to operate in places around the Middle East?

MR. COOK:  I'm not sure I understand your question.

Q:  Does he see a distinction between the instability in places like Aleppo and the ungoverned space, and the war against the Islamic State?  Or does he see them as interrelated?

MR. COOK:  I think the secretary does see the fight against the Islamic State in Syria as distinct from the civil war itself, and the effort by opposition groups to try and deal with a civil war that has caused so much suffering and pain for the Syrian people, and because we have a regime in Syria that no longer has legitimacy to govern. 

And he sees that there's a political and diplomatic solution to what's going on in the civil war.  He does not see a political or diplomatic solution to ISIL.  There's a military solution and that's the one we're carrying out.

Q:  And then on the U.S. troop death in Afghanistan, as I understand it, he was part of a mission that was confronting ISK.  Is that correct?

MR. COOK:  Yes. 

Q:  And he was getting combat pay? 

MR. COOK:  This was an individual serving in Afghanistan.  I'm not sure the exact nature of his compensation, but I --

Q: Are there servicemen in Afghanistan who are not getting combat pay?

MR. COOK:  I don't believe so, but I can check that for you.

Q:  Is he eligible for combat awards like the Purple Heart?

MR. COOK:  I'll check that as well.  Again, this was someone who was serving his country in a counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, targeting ISIL, and was doing so bravely and honorably and on behalf of his country, and we should all remember that today, on a very difficult, tragic day for this department. 

Q:  I'm having a hard time understanding why this department continues to make a distinction between serving in combat, as you put it, a combat situation, and a combat-related difficult situation.  I just -- I think it would be helpful for the public to understand why this department is reticent to say that he was serving in combat.  I'm just having a hard time understanding the need for such a distinction.

MR. COOK:  We've talked about this many times.  This was a very dangerous situation.  This was certainly a U.S. service member in harm's way, conducting a counterterrorism mission against a foe that has presented a clear threat to the United States.  And this individual was carrying out that mission.  

As you know in Afghanistan, we have a broader -- two separate missions.  We have a counterterrorism mission.  We also have a separate effort to try and support the Afghan government, the Afghan national security forces, in which they are in the lead for the security of their own country.  We're providing enabling train, advise and assist support, very different from the kind of mission we were carrying out in Afghanistan previously, as you know, when we had a significantly higher number of troops in which they were in the lead.

So you have to draw the distinction between those two missions.  This person was carrying out part of our counterterrorism mission, working alongside Afghan forces because ISIL is, of course, a threat most prominently in Afghanistan to the Afghan people and the Afghan government.  And this is a tragic situation in which we did suffer a casualty today. 

And you can call it -- this was someone who was in harm's way, a combat situation to be sure, but I think you have to draw a distinction between our mission in Afghanistan today and what we were doing, say, even five or 10 years ago.


MR. COOK:  This has got to be quick because I'm nine minutes late.

Q:  Does the secretary believe that Aleppo's days are numbered?

MR. COOK:  The secretary obviously sees the pain and suffering going on in Aleppo; sees the results of indiscriminate bombing in Aleppo, and has the very same concerns that you've heard expressed from throughout the U.S. government.  

This is a very dire situation, and one that we think requires action from the international community, certainly from those from the regime and from its supporters.  They have an opportunity to change the outcome in Aleppo.  They have an opportunity to address the humanitarian situation in Aleppo.  We have not seen them in a forthcoming fashion do what is right in Aleppo to try and ease that suffering of the Syrian people, and we certainly wish that they would make -- take advantage of that opportunity.

Thanks, everybody.