Transcript

Secretary of Defense Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley Press Briefing

July 21, 2021
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley; Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, good afternoon, everybody. We'll get started here in just a second.

Just a little bit of ground rules. We've got about 30 minutes. Both the secretary and the chairman have opening comments. We'll let them get through those first, and then I'll moderate and -- and call on questioners. Please identify who you are and what outlet you are with when you ask your question, and please limit the follow-up -- follow-ups so we can get through as efficiently as possible.

With that, sir, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, John, and thanks to all of you for coming today.

I'd like to start by talking briefly about my trip later this week to our priority theater of operations, which is, of course, the Indo-Pacific, and then I'll add just a few words on Afghanistan, which is very much on all of our minds here.

And I'd like to start by saying I'm looking forward to my second trip to the region as secretary of defense. This time, we're heading out to Southeast Asia, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to engage in person with leaders there.

I'm especially looking forward to making keynote remarks in Singapore about how we're strengthening one of our unmatched strategic assets in the region, which is our powerful network of allies and partners. I'll follow up -- I'll follow that up with stops in Vietnam and the Philippines, where I'll meet with my counterparts and other leaders.

And so it's going to be a busy trip. There's no shortage of national security interests that we and our partners share in this dynamic region, and I'll be carrying a few key messages and agenda items. The first is simply that the United States remains a reliable partner, a friend who shows up when it counts.

We've been there to maintain stability and let sovereign -- we've long been there to maintain stability and let sovereign states in the region make their own choices, and today, we've moved urgently to help our partners tackle COVID-19 and to build back even stronger afterward.

I'll also continue to make the case for a more fair, open and inclusive regional order, and for our shared values to ensure that all countries get a fair shake. We don't believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules, or worse yet, throw them over the transom, and in this regard, I'll emphasize our commitment to the freedom -- to freedom of the seas. I'll also make clear where we stand on some unhelpful and unfounded claims by China in the South China Sea.

And finally, I'll be working closely with our partners about how we're updating our -- and modernizing our capabilities and their own capabilities to work together to tackle some changing forms of aggression and coercion that we're all seeing. And I'll be talking with our friends about how we're -- we'll work hand-in-hand to pursue our new vision of integrated deterrence.

Now, let me briefly talk about where we are on Afghanistan. I'm very proud of the professionalism that our forces have displayed. Our drawdown continues in a safe and orderly manner, and we're still on track to finish up by the end of August. The president has made a decision that we're going to get it done, and we're going to get it done right, and we have four ongoing key tasks. We remain committed to protecting our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and to providing funding to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and to advising Afghan security ministries, and to preventing the -- the reemergence of transnational terrorist organizations.

And we've added a fifth urgent task, and that is working closely and urgently in support of the State Department as they relocate brave Afghans and their families who have provided such exceptional service during our long mission. These are friends of the United States who have done exemplary and courageous work, and we take our obligations to them and to their families very seriously. You've seen that we'll be hosting the first group of Afghans at -- on Fort Lee in Virginia, and we expect them to arrive soon and most likely, will stay there only for short while as they complete their parolee paperwork. We're also working on several overseas locations to host other individuals not as far along in the visa process as this first group, and some of these locations belong to us, and some are in third countries, and when we can provide more details about which ones we'll use, we'll -- we certainly will.

This is a priority for the administration, and not only do we in the Department of Defense have a responsibility to these brave men and women and their families, so, too, do we have a responsibility to support the State Department as it carries out the president's directive.

And of course, even though our mission in Afghanistan is not over, I would be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to honor the American and allied troops who have served bravely over the last two decades of war and those who gave their lives there. We owe them and their families a debt that we can never repay.

We know these are difficult times for them and we will never forget all that they gave for their country.

And so now, for more context on where we are in Afghanistan, let me pass this over to the chairman.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary. I appreciate that, and I appreciate your comments and your leadership every day.

And good afternoon to everyone.

I want to extend also a thank you to all of you, because you're a reminder that freedom of speech is alive and well and freedom of the press is a principle in our Constitution.

Last week, I traveled to Norfolk to attend a ceremony recognizing a new operational capability: the first and only NATO headquarters on U.S. soil, Joint Forces Command Norfolk, which is part of a vital network of strategic alliances and partnerships that enable us to project U.S. military strength throughout the world.

And during those discussions that visit, we also talked about the changing character of war, the geostrategic changes and the challenges that we're going to face sometime in the future.

Also last week, the secretary and I were honored to welcome home General Scott Miller from Afghanistan. And I want to publicly thank him one more time for his incredible leadership as the longest serving commander in Afghanistan. Twice wounded in combat over the years, Scott Miller is an American hero of the first order. He is representative of the more than 800,000 servicemembers who have served in Afghanistan across the last two decades and we should always remember their faithful service.

General Miller and his team, along with CENTCOM and many others in the joint force, have paved the path for a safe, orderly and responsible transition.

The sheer volume of movement involved in this operation has been extraordinary. 984 airlifts over the last less than three months have enabled us to reach almost 95 percent completion on the retrograde. To include equipment, we also moved 9,000 people, both civilian and military.

Furthermore, all the military operating bases outside of Kabul have been fully transferred to the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the Afghan security forces. A small contingent of predominantly military personnel, but some civilians and contractors, along with Department of State, remain in Afghanistan to provide security and bolster our diplomatic presence in Kabul. The forces here are key to achieving the five ongoing tasks that the secretary laid out in his comments.

A major component of sustaining a robust diplomatic presence in Kabul is to maintain a functioning and secure airport in Kabul. So we continue to dedicate our security resources to that, to secure the embassy, to secure the international zone and secure HKIA, the international airport in Kabul for our diplomats, our personnel and our continued support to the government of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Security Forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country, and we will continue to support the Afghan Security Forces where necessary in accordance with the guidance from the president and the secretary of defense.

The future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people, and there are a range of possible outcome in Afghanistan. And I want to emphasis repeatedly, and I've said this before, a negative outcome, a Taliban automatic military takeover, is not a forgone conclusion. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments as necessary.

Additionally, we're always going to maintain the capability of self-defense. We possess the military means and have several options at our disposal to fully protect our force in Afghanistan and throughout the region.

In CENTCOM, if needed, the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is on station. The package of long-range bombers, additional fighter-bombers and troop formations are postured to quickly respond if necessary and directed.

Further, we will always protect our nation. We maintain an agile over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability that is set up and effective now to detect and address any terrorism threat to the United States. In addition to our mission in Afghanistan, we continue to defend this country from all kinds of other threats. We're monitoring Russia, North Korea, Iran. We watch China closely while maintaining strategic deterrence to safeguard great power peace.

The Department of Defense ensures no terrorists are able to launch attacks from Iraq or Syria or Africa. We keep a watchful eye on Haiti and Cuba, and we do all these things while we serve here at home as well, and I want to recognize the great efforts of our Reserve component, our National Guard and our active-duty soldiers that are fighting wildfires in California and the Pacific Northwest, and as of Tuesday morning, California and Nevada National Guard C-130 units are operating near Sacramento, California, and have flown 205 sorties and provided 4.5 million pounds of fire retardant, and we will continue to provide support as required. Our Joint Force is incredible because of the skill, determination of our men and women and their leaders, and there's task that they cannot accomplish.

Thanks for the opportunity, and look forward to your questions.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, sir.

Bob?

Q: Thank you, John. I have a question for each of you.

Secretary Austin, both you and General Milley have mentioned a number of times that the United States intends to continue providing -- supporting Afghan forces through financial assistance and remote logistical assistance. But given the tenuous state of security there, the -- the Taliban offensive, I'm wondering whether in your view, the U.S. should do more beyond August 31st to prevent a collapse of the government.

And if I could pose a question to General Milley also. General Milley, you're portrayed in books published this summer as having sounded the alarm privately about the possibility of President Trump manufacturing a crisis involving the military either domestically or overseas in order to stay in office after January 20th. I'm wondering, would you now set the historical record straight, and were you concerned about the possibility of a coup, and on what basis was that concern?

SEC. AUSTIN: So on the first piece, Bob, thanks for your question there. We -- we are doing a lot to support the Afghan military and the Afghan leadership as we speak. You know, we talked a lot about the fact that we're going to stand up nodes to continue to provide security assistance. We've stood up a node in -- in -- in Qatar that's operational now. We -- we have provided -- begun the provision of the aircraft that we mentioned to you earlier, that we're going to provide on Friday three newly-refurbished UH-60s that landed in -- in Kabul, and they'll continue to see a steady drumbeat of that kind of support, going forward. We've talked about, you know, setting up a -- a -- a node to be able to conduct over-the-horizon strikes. That node is in place.

Q: After August?

SEC. AUSTIN: After August, our focus, as we've said, is on those threats that -- that present a -- those -- those -- those elements that present a threat to the United States of America, so it'll be a counterterrorism focus there. So -- and that's currently where we stand, but we have not changed that.

But make no mistake that we remain committed to helping the Afghan Security Forces and the Afghan government going forward, and -- and we are doing what we said we were going to do in terms of putting the pieces in place to ensure that we can provide that support.

GEN. MILLEY: And Bob, thanks for the question. Look, I know there's a lot of interest out there on all of these books that are out there and quoting me and lots of others, et cetera. I'm not going to comment on what's in any of those books. Let me just say this, though: I always personally provided the best military professional advice to President Trump previously, to President Biden or any other president. I always provide that best military advice to the secretary of defense, whomever is the secretary of defense, and I do that for the National Security Council, as well. And -- and I will speak also for this one time on the part -- on behalf of the Joint Chiefs. The same applies to them. We've always adhered to providing best professional military advice, bar none. It was candid, honest in every single occasion. We did that all the time, every time.

The other thing that I think is important to note here is that I, the other members of the Joint Chiefs, and all of us in uniform, we take an oath, an oath to a document, an oath to the Constitution of the United States, and not one time did we violate that. At the entire time, from time of commissioning to today, I can say with certainty that every one of us maintained our oath of allegiance to that document, the Constitution, everything that's contained within it. And we also maintain the tradition of civilian control of the military. We did that without fail, and we also maintained the tradition of an apolitical military. We did that then, we do that now, and we will do that forever, all the time, Bob.

SEC. AUSTIN: I -- I'd just like to add a comment to that, Bob. I -- I've known the chairman for a long time. We've fought together. We've served a couple of times in the -- in the same unit, so I -- I'm not guessing at his character. He doesn't have a political bone in his body. And I -- I think -- you know, I -- I clearly have tremendous faith and confidence in the chairman. What I want to make sure we do is main -- maintain our focus on -- on the threats ahead, maintain our focus on our pacing challenge with China and -- and all the things that we're trying to do to make sure that this force is ready to meet the challenges of the future.

MR. KIRBY: Courtney?

Q: Secretary Austin, on Afghanistan, are -- are you concerned that as the Taliban gain ground, that Al-Qaida will be able to move back in and be able to strengthen enough to attack the West? And if so, can you give us a sense of how long, and the estimates are before they will be able to have that capability?

And General Milley, I know you -- you don't want to talk about the book, but you -- you have not denied any of the recent reporting that's been out there about you, including the comments, including some of the actions. And the American public and members of the military, because of your -- your silence on it and the -- in denying it, have no reason to believe that -- the vignettes are anything but -- but accurate. So looking back now, I know you said that you didn't violate, and you maintained apolitical. But looking back now, were you too political at the time? And are you concerned about the message that that sends to the rank and file?

SEC. AUSTIN: You know, Courtney, on your -- on your first piece and -- and whether or not we're concerned about Al-Qaida coming back, that's something that we are watching very closely currently, and we will continue to keep an eye on. Again, you know, our major focus going forward is to make sure that, you know, violence, terrorism cannot be exported from -- from Afghanistan to our homeland. And so we'll maintain the capability to be able to not only observe that, but also address that if there -- if it does emerge.

The Taliban early on committed to not providing a safe haven for Al-Qaida. We expect for them to meet that commitment. If they want legitimacy going forward, I think that's something that they'll have to consider. That's -- that's one way to earn it. And so, we'll see what happens.

But most importantly, we will maintain the over-the-horizon capabilities to be able to address this threat or any threat if it emerges.

You heard me say a while back that, you know, my rough estimate was that it would take two years for them to develop that kind of capability and it was a medium risk. I've not changed my -- my assessment there. But again, a number of things that could happen that could speed that up a bit or slow it down.

GEN. MILLEY: So, Courtney, I hear what you're saying but I'm not to comment on any of the books.

But I want you to know and I want everyone to know, I want America to know that the United States military is an apolitical institution, we were then and we are now. And our oath is to the Constitution, not to any individual at all.

And the military did not and will not and should not ever get involved in domestic politics. We don't arbitrate elections. That's the job of the judiciary, and the legislature, and the American people. It is not the job of the U.S. military. We stay out of politics, we're an apolitical institution.

Q: But are you concerned that some of these comments that are attributed to you are making it -- pulling you more into politics than you necessarily -- or your office should be?

SEC. AUSTIN: Look, let me -- let me just make a comment here. I -- you know, it's really important to me that this department remain apolitical. And so we're going to do everything within our power to make sure that our troops, our leadership both civilian and -- and military remain focused on the task at hand and understand that they are not a part of the -- of the political apparatus there. So we will remain apolitical.

MR. KIRBY: Tony?

Q: Mr. Secretary and General, I -- closer to home, you've got a yawning gap in leadership among the weapons buying bureaucracy here. You don't have an under secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, you're seven months into the -- into the administration.

Michael Brown pulled out last week. Your capable acting is leaving. How concerned are you? I mean -- the Pacific's important, your trip’s important, but your -- the business of the department -- a lot of money being spent here. How much -- how concerned are you? And have you suggested to the White House a new candidate?

And for this -- General Milley, a non-book question. You talked about the Afghans having the capability to defend themselves, 300,000. We spent $74 billion on them. They're facing about 75,000 Taliban over the -- the president said this. In layman's language for the American people, given the numeric superiority of the Afghans, why does it appear that the Taliban is winning?

SEC. AUSTIN: Tony, on your first question in term -- regarding the numbers of people that we've had confirmed thus far, certainly we'd like to see more.

This is something that the deputy secretary and I, and my whole -- all of my leadership remained focused on each and every day. And we continue to work with the White House to make sure that we have quality and qualified applicants to -- to fill these seats.

We have six that have been confirmed so far, and 10 that are -- that are waiting for a vote and five more that are in committee. So the process continues to work. And I think that you'll see that when the confirmations do occur that they'll be experienced, quality people that will add a lot of value.

And of course, you know, I'm concerned about the -- the A&S position that you mentioned, and absolutely, we'll make a -- we'll -- another nomination -- provide another name to consider -- for the White House to consider. And -- but that's an ongoing process, and -- and again, when we do get that person, it will be the best person available.

And, you know, again, I consider that job to be very, very important, but we'll continue to work with the White House on the issues.

GEN. MILLEY: And -- and Tony, what I would tell you is a couple of things. One is you know as well as anybody else does that warfare is not just about numbers. So yes, you cited some correct numbers there. And the Afghan Security Forces writ large, the NDS, the police, the Army, et cetera, they're well equipped, they've been well trained over the years -- the past 20 years, at -- at great expense to the United States and other international allies.

But there's other factors that determine outcomes. The two most important combat multipliers actually is will and leadership. And this is going to be a test now of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan Security Forces and the government of Afghanistan.

Right now, you’ve talked about the -- the narrative that the Taliban are winning. There clearly is a narrative out there that the Taliban are winning. In fact, they are propagating an inevitable victory on their behalf, they're dominating a lot of the airwaves on -- on that sort of thing.

I would tell you that as of today, more or less -- I guess it's about 212, 213, it's in that range -- the 200s -- of the district centers are in Taliban control. It's about half of the 419 that are out there. You've got 34 provincial capitals in Afghanistan. None of them have been seized, as of today, by the Taliban, although the Taliban is putting pressure on the outskirts of probably about half of them -- 17 of them, in fact -- and what they're trying to do is isolate the major population centers. They're trying to do the same thing to Kabul.

And roughly speaking, the order of magnitude -- a significant amount of territory has been seized over the course of six, eight, 10 months sort of thing by the -- by the Taliban. So momentum appears to be -- strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.

The Afghan Security Forces, though, are consolidating their forces. So part of this is they're giving up district centers in order to consolidate their forces because they're taking an approach to protect the population, and most of the population lives in the provincial capitals and the capital city of Kabul.

So they are, right now, as we speak, adjusting forces to consolidate into the provincial capitals in Kabul. And they remain -- that's why I say it remains to be seen over the rest of the summer. Right now, the balance is relatively low cause of Eid, but after Eid, we're going to find out -- we're going to find out the levels of violence, whether it's going to go up, stay the same. There's a possibility of a negotiated outcome that's still out there. There's a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover or a possibility of any number of other scenarios -- breakdowns, warlordism, all kinds of other scenarios that are out there.

We're monitoring very closely. I don't think the end game is yet written.

MR. KIRBY: We've only got time for a couple more. Barb?

Q: I wanted to ask both of you a question -- somewhat for both of you, following up on your recent House testimony. Mr. Secretary, for you first -- could you explain in more detail your views on when you think and under what circumstances critical race theory should be an appropriate part of military education? I know you brought -- you were asked about it in that hearing and you addressed it briefly but I'd like to better understand your views on that.

And for you, General Milley, in that hearing, you said to Congress that you wanted, in your words, "to understand white rage and what it is that caused thousands of people to assault the Capitol and try to overturn the Constitution of the U.S., what caused that. I want to find that out."

Can you offer a more detailed explanation what led you to the conclusion of white rage, and since you talked about it publicly before Congress, in your view, what is white rage and why and when should the U.S. military be concerned about that? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Barb, you've -- you've heard me say that the critical race theory is not something that this department teaches, professes, embraces. You've also heard a couple of people at academic institutions say that, you know, they have required this to be reading for their students in -- in specific courses.

But because that is the case does -- does not mean that this department embraces this theory. And I stand by what I said earlier. And Barb, I don't want us to get distracted with the -- with the critical race conversation. This department will be diverse, it will be inclusive and, you know, we're going to look like the country that we support and defend. And, you know, our -- our leadership will look like what's in the ranks of -- of -- of our military.

And so I'm committed to that, this department's committed to that, the Chairman's committed to that and that's what we're going to stay focused on. And so, you know, we're not going to spend too much time debating the merits of -- of this theory or any other theory. We're going to stay focused on making sure that we create the right force to defend this country and promote our values.

And I know that's important to you and all of you in this room, as well, Barb, and -- but I thank you for that question.

GEN. MILLEY: So Barb, in -- in the minute or two left, first of all, I'm not going to address specifically white rage or black rage or Asian rage or Irish rage or English rage or German rage or any other rage, right? The -- the events of the 6th of January happened, those are all going to get sorted out, historians will sort it out, commissions will sort it out, and so on.

But I do think it's important that we, as a professional military, not only understand foreign countries and foreign culture and foreign societies -- that's important that we do that -- but we also need to understand our own society and -- and understand the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and the society they're coming from, and I think that's important for the leadership to study. Thank you.

Q: But with due respect, Sir, you said the words "white rage."

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, I said I'm not going to discuss it right now. I think it's a very complicated topic and we don't have the time to go into the nuance of it right this minute. I can do that later, I'll be happy to do that later, but right now is not a good time to do that. It's too -- it's too complicated.

MR. KIRBY: We've only got time for one more, guys, and I want to get to -- to -- over here. Ryo, go ahead. Yeah.

Q: Thank you for taking my question. My name's Ryo Nakamura, with Japan's Nikkei Asia. Yeah, I have a question to both of you.

To General -- to Secretary Austin -- on your trip to Southeast Asia, China continues to militarize the South China Sea, despite the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operation military exercises security cooperation with allies and partners in the region. So what will you do differently to change the trajectory of China's behavior in the South China Sea?

To General Milley, on Taiwan, you mentioned in the House Armed Service Committee last month China intended to develop their capabilities to seize Taiwan by 2027. Do you feel a sense of urgency that the U.S. and allies in the region, such as Japan, should develop an operational plans and conduct joint military exercises for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: So on the importance of freedom of navigation of the seas and the skies, this is -- this is really important, not only to the United States of America but to all of our allies and partners in the region and around the world.

And so, what we will -- what we have done and what we will continue to do is to work with our allies and partners to make sure that -- that we can navigate, you know, the skies and the -- and the seas to the degree that we should have the right to, in -- in accordance with international law. And so our emphasis will remain on that.

And our emphasis will also remain on making sure that we keep those alliances strong and that -- and that our allies and partners know that they can count on us going forward. And that's the message that I'll take to the theater.

GEN. MILLEY: And I think to answer your question on -- on Taiwan, the -- the geostrategic nature of the globe has been changing for quite some time. And it's -- we're in the middle of that change as well.

And as we go forward, China is the pacing threat for us in uniform, the United States. And it's been directed now by the secretary of Defense, the president and the previous as well. So we are gearing our capabilities, our programs, our training, our skills, our activities, et cetera, militarily with China in mind. There's no question about it.

And we will work very closely with Japan, with other countries -- South Korea, Philippines, Australia and other allies and partners in the region to make sure that we have proper capability to deal with it, whatever comes to us in the future.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. I'm afraid we have to go now. Appreciate...

Q: A follow-up on...

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MR. KIRBY: ... appreciate your -- thanks very much. I'm sorry, we've got -- we've got to go. Sorry. Sorry about that.

Q: One more question...

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