Defense Secretary Mattis and General Dunford held a joint press conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday, August 28, 2018. Each provided an opening statement and then the Pentagon press corps asked questions. Topics covered almost all the conflicts the U.S. is involved in around the globe.
Questions: Why the U.S. is still supporting the Saudi and UAE coalition in light of possible human rights abuses.
Answers: The answers revolved around the U.S. trying to mitigate the effects of war on the population as well as try to defeat the ISIS and al Qaeda presence on the Arabian peninsular. It is a complex situation. US support to the coalition is not “unconditional”. The conflict is between forces supported by Saudi Arabia (and allies) on one side and Iran on the other. The U.S. is providing intelligence, training, and air refueling. It also is helping Saudi and UAE air assets with improving the targeting process so that less civilians are killed.
SECDEF Mattis said:
“The reality is that that battlefield is a humanitarian field, and we recognize . . . the tragedy there. That’s why I emphasized that we are working with the U.N. special envoy to try and end this, to drive this to a U.N.-brokered negotiation.”
Question: How does DoD reconcile its statements that ISIS is on the ropes with reports that ISIS is still very strong.
Answer: Dunford says he doesn’t believe all statistics he sees in the press; some are valid and some are not. He doubts the recently cited 30,000 ISIS remaining in Iraq and Syria is accurate. Mattis says that ISIS is down to less than 2% of territory once held. Fight isn’t over. The Middle Euphrates River Valley “. . . still has a significant ISIS presence.” There is still some work to be done to train up local security forces to stabilize the areas cleared of ISIS. In addition, the Secretary of State is working with regional nations for the funding of basic services – water, electricity, etc.
General Dunford said:
“In Syria, 2,000 U.S. and additional coalition forces are working to enable the 50,000 Syrian Democratic Forces in clearing the remainder of ISIS from the Euphrates River valley and in stabilizing those areas that have been cleared of ISIS.”
Questions: Any progress on negotiations with North Korea? Is it time to restart military exercises with South Korea?
Answers: Mattis says negotiations with Korea is a long process and it is DoD’s job to support the diplomats in this effort. Suspending the exercises was a good faith effort coming out of the Singapore conference; but at this time there is no discussion about suspending any future exercises in 2019. The next ‘big’ exercise is Foal Eagle to be held in the spring. A number of smaller exercises have still taken place.
General Dunford said:
“Our priority in the US. Indo-Pacific Command is supporting the State Department-led diplomatic and economic efforts aimed at denuclearization of the Korean peninsular”.
Questions: How long will we be in Afghanistan? How is the success of the Taliban in the Ghazni attack explained? How about the fall of districts in the countryside? Is the South Asia strategy working?
Answers: The U.S. will remain there for as long as needed – and we are only one of many nations committed to Afghanistan. It is easy to attack a town or city but the Taliban can’t hold it – don’t jump to a larger conclusion based on the Ghazni city attack. In regards to districts – it is a tough fight for the districts in remote areas. Mattis says that we need more time to implement the South Asia strategy – the Taliban are feeling the pressure to go with a negotiated settlement. Says US will “. . . stick with the strategy.”
General Dunford said:
“Our primary mission remains countering terrorist threats to the United States. Our forces, alongside forces from 40 NATO and partner nations, are also training, advising and assisting more than 300,000 Afghan forces who are responsible for security in Afghanistan.”
Other Issues and Topics
Meeting Challenges. Mattis said that the Defense Department is working hard along three lines of effort: increasing lethality, strengthening alliances, and reforming how DoD spends the taxpayers’ money.
Lead Paint in Army Lodging. Mattis says it is a moral obligation to ensure Army families have safe housing.
Turkish Arms Purchases. Mattis says that Turkey has some decisions to make on purchase of Russia equipment. NATO can’t integrate a Russian anti-missile system into NATO defenses. This is at odds with being a good NATO member.
Niger. Some of the pre-deployment training, personnel management, and deployment processes have changed to address some of the problems highlighted by the ambush of the SF team in October 2017.
Africa. There are over 7,200 U.S. forces supporting African nations in the terror fight – opposing groups like Boko Haram, ISIS affiliates, and al Qaeda. DoD will continue to support the French-led effort to build partner capacity in the region.
Privatizing Afghan Fight. Mattis didn’t speak highly of Eric Prince’s plan of using contractors to win the Afghan war.
Europe. The Russians have continued to be a problem in Eastern Europe – especially with their activities in Crimea and Ukraine. There have been 13 joint exercises in Europe this year conducting training and engagement in response to the Russian threat. Mattis says the NATO summit yielded tangible results – with more spending on defense with member nations recommitted to the 2 % GDP target on defense by 2024.
Video: Watch the entire one hour long press conference.
Transcript: Read the transcript of prepared statements and the questions and answers, DoD, August 28, 2018.
“Mattis: U.S. Military Becoming ‘Stronger, More Lethal, More Agile'”, DoD, August 28, 2018.
“Dunford: U.S. Forces Busy Implementing Defense Strategy Worldwide”, DoD, August 28, 2018.
“Exercises to Resume on Korean Peninsula, Mattis Says”, DoD, August 28, 2018.
Photo: Image from the Pentagon press conference August 28, 2018.