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Media Availability by Secretary Carter Enroute from Washington D.C. to Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
February 20, 2015

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Okay. Everybody, good afternoon, good evening, whatever it is. I'm going to pass the mic over to the secretary here in a second, but just to revisit the ground rules, this is obviously an on-the-record event.

The secretary will open with a few comments, sort of previewing what our next stop is going to be and what his goals and objectives are for that. And then we'll start taking questions.

I will moderate. I will pass the mic around, just raise your hand. When you get the mic, please identify who you are and the media outlet that you're with before you ask your questions.

I would ask you to limit the follow-ups if you can so that we can try to get more questions in than fewer.

And with that, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Thanks, John, appreciate it.

I see a number of familiar faces here. And let me just start off with thank you to you all. I don't take for granted what you do. It's a very important part of overall service. And this is my first time being in front of you.

And I want to tell you that I know many of you, I've know many of you for years, very much welcome your participation in what we do. Thank you for your interest in the subject that my office represents, and your communicating that and the information needed to your audience.

I don't take it for granted. And I appreciate it. I'll try to be as open and as helpful to you in doing your job as I possibly can.

Before I get to the purpose of this trip today, let me do a little trip down memory lane with you that might interest you. I have been in this plane; this is the first time as secretary of defense, but by no means the first time in my life.

And the first time I ever encountered this aircraft, I was working in the office of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. And I was in my mid-20s. And a scientist brought in to work on a number of issues, among them nuclear command and control.

And one of the issues at the time was what the layout of this very floor plan should be. And there were two theories of the case. One was that this aircraft was about the individual in the front.

And the layout that resulted from that was one in which there were rows and rows of seats for distinguished visitors, spouses, press -- press corps, and so forth, and one communications officer way in the back.

The other layout favored by the nuclear command and control community had one little capsule up there for the senior leader, and row after row after battles -- of row of battle stations, manning all the various kinds of radios that were -- with which this aircraft was equipped so that no matter what happened there would always be a means of communication in this very desperate circumstance, which, of course, this being at that time the peak of the Cold War, meant an all-out nuclear exchange between the United States and the then-Soviet Union.

I think you can see how that debate was resolved, largely in favor of the communications suite in the back. But I'll never forget the bulkheads here going back and forth as the design process evolved.

Then over the years I've been in here many times working for other secretaries of defense, and now come here for the first time in this position myself.

The reason for this destination, Afghanistan, in my very first week in office as the secretary of defense, is because this is where we still have 10,000 American troops. And they come first, in my mind, always.

Their welfare, particularly when they're in circumstances like this, are what I wake up to and wake up for every day. And I feel that and want them to know that. And so that is where this trip began, and begins in my mind.

Some of you know that I've been here numbers of times in the past, beginning especially in 2009. So I'm familiar with territory, familiar with the mission, familiar with many Afghan leaders, and have come here at this time in addition to honoring our forces here, to confer with the Afghan leadership, and our own military leadership, and our ambassador here so that I can make my own assessment of that progress, and my own assessment of the way forward.

I promised the president that I would do that. I would begin to get my own thinking together in this, as in all subjects, so that I can better inform his thinking. And that's the other reason why I come here.

I think you know what I'll be doing, and I'll be conferring with, as I said, the ambassador, with General Austin, General Campbell, with the Afghan leadership, starting with the president, President Ghani, the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and their senior leaders to get a sense of President Ghani's and their assessment of progress and their assessment of the way forward.

I'll be here, as you know, for a couple of days, and traveling to other locations around the country. And I look forward to talking to them, both our own folks and members of the Afghan leadership, and, once again, acquainting myself with this important place and the progress that has been made and how things are going since the end of combat operations at the end of 2014, and the inauguration of our counter-terrorism and "train, advise, and assist" lines of effort, which are the ones going forward.

So with that as an opening, let me thank you, once again, for being with us and doing what you do. And then I'm ready to take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Bob Burns from AP.

And since this is the first question, may I just say, thank you for carrying on the sort of tradition of doing these en route interviews, very helpful to us to get started -- get the trip started.

Question about Afghanistan. In your recent public comments about Afghanistan, you said something to the effect that it's important to finish it the right way. I'm wondering if you can elaborate on what you mean by that.

And does that include getting peace talks started with the Taliban, keeping U.S. troops there longer than 2016?

SEC. CARTER: Sure, well, I think, Bob, I have said that. And the president said that when I had my first meeting with him in the Oval Office on Tuesday. We're looking for success in Afghanistan that is lasting, and the lasting accomplishment of our mission here, and how to do that, what the best way to do that is, is precisely what I'm here to assess.

The other part of your question is on reconciliation. President Ghani has made that a priority of his. And that's a priority that we support. I'm sure that he'll share his thinking about that with me, or when I see him.

That's a process the United States has long supported, all the years I've been associated with the campaign in Afghanistan, but is Afghan-led, and remains Afghan-led.

So I'll have a better chance to assess that after I've heard from him, because he is really in the driver's seat of that process. Obviously we're supportive of it, but it's Afghan-led.

Q: Hi, Mr. Secretary, I'm Dion Nissenbaum with The Wall Street Journal. Thank you, again, for coming out here, as Bob suggested.

I wanted to ask you, there have been a few things that have happened lately. Islamic State is now flying its flag in Afghanistan. The United Nations is saying that the civilian casualties were the highest in 2014, since before the surge.

These are things that suggest like it's trending the wrong way. And I'm wondering if you do think things are trending the wrong way, and if that -- if that raises more concerns for you about the need to keep troops beyond 2016.

SEC. CARTER: Well, I've seen reports of people essentially rebranding themselves as ISIL here in Afghanistan, as has occurred in other places. The reports I've seen still have them in small numbers and aspirational.

And as to the progress of the overall campaign, I've observed and admired and tried in my various capacities over the years to contribute to that myself, but that's what I'm here to find out: How do things stand now? And what’s- excuse me- the best path forward?

Q: (off mic)

SEC. CARTER: I'm -- no, I'm coming here to see how things are going, but I- it has been a long time since I've been here, and I want to see how they're going. I don't have any particular reasons to be concerned.

But this is a complicated situation. It’s been an evolving situation. And I think the important thing isn't only what's going on, but how to, as the president said the other day, kind of complete the campaign and achieve our objectives in a successful way.

And that's why what's going on matters, and why it matters that we assess that and make whatever adjustments we need to do in what we're doing.

Q: Hi there, Phil Stewart from Reuters.

Just following up on that, do you think that you can complete the campaign in Afghanistan with thousands of troops still in the country? Or do you really have to go to an embassy presence to do that?

And before when you answered the question about increasing levels of violence, one thing that strikes our colleagues in Afghanistan who work for, you know, Reuters and The New York Times and others is that the warning signs are there that the Taliban could come back like the Islamic State resurged in Iraq.

Are you concerned about that? And have you heard -- do you know about General Campbell's recommendations? The three things there.

SEC. CARTER: Let me take the last one first. I've certainly spoken to General Campbell. But we'll have much more opportunity to speak to him and the other commanders here on the U.S. side over the next few days.

I have seen reports of all kinds, giving assessments of how things are going in Afghanistan. And I—I’m just coming back in to the government now and trying to wrap my mind around it. That's precisely the reason for my visit.

And I forget what the first one was.

Q: (off mic) the same thing happened in Iraq that happened in -- the same thing happening in Afghanistan that happened in Iraq.

SEC. CARTER: Well, I think the reason to -- the reason that we have worked so hard here in Afghanistan, and are going to continue to work so hard, including assessing what we're doing, and reassessing what we're doing, is that we want a lasting result here.

That's what we set out to get, and that's what we -- that's the whole purpose.

Q: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Craig Whitlock with The Post, how are you?

I would just like to probe a little bit deeper on the questions you're going to be asking in making your assessments. And you've been to Afghanistan before. I know it has been a little while, but not that long.

But what questions are you going to have not just of U.S. commanders, but of the Afghans, of how their security forces are doing, of the state of the Taliban? I'm sure you're going in with already a list of metrics you want to assess in making this bigger picture assessment, is that right?

SEC. CARTER: Yeah. That's a very good list, indeed. How are the Afghan security forces doing? What's their assessment of the battlefield situation? What is their assessment of their prospects going forward? And what's the best way that we can support them going forward?

And from the U.S. side, similarly, what's their assessment of what we're doing? And what do they think is the best way forward in order for us to have the result that, as I indicated, we've been aiming for for so long, which is to get a result here that is a lasting one.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We've got time for two more. Dan?

Q: Just one on Afghanistan, and then another on Iraq. This is Dan De Luce from AFP.

On Afghanistan, you talked about reconciliation. But there seems to be another kind of wave of very cautious speculation, optimism, statements from Pakistan and so on, a new Afghan president whose relations with Pakistan seem to be on a positive trend.

Do you see the possibility of peace talks, Afghan-led, as you say, in a better place? Better prospects?

And then I have a second question.

SEC. CARTER: Well, that's something I want to ask President Ghani. He’s obviously made this a priority. And it's our view that it ought to be his process and him be at the lead. So I'll be able to ask him that myself.

And, I'm sorry, the second part?

Q: On Iraq -- you said you really wanted to obviously visit the troops in Afghanistan, there are obviously troops in Iraq as advisers and so on, more than 2,000. That is, as you've mentioned, a pretty high priority, obviously.

Do you plan to go and visit them? And why not on this occasion?

SEC. CARTER: You're absolutely right. We do, and I will. And I believe -- and you're going to have to tell me whether we've shared the whole itinerary here of this trip.

So I will not be going to Iraq on this trip. I'm trying to assess the situation in Iraq, Syria, and the region more generally. And so my approach to doing that is to draw in people from Baghdad, including all of our military leaders, of the campaign in -- against ISIL both in Iraq and on the Syrian side, and in the region, and their political counterparts.

This is important because this is a -- I don't know everything about this, this is something I'm beginning to learn about. But I do know this, this is a complicated politico-military situation.

And I wanted to have -- and it's a regional issue. And I wanted to have all of that expertise represented.

And then finally I needed to make it a short trip. This is my first week and I've got a lot to do back in Washington. And I wanted to go and return as quickly as I could, and still learn what I think I needed to learn, and this is the way to do it.

But of course I'll be back there, and in the years ahead everywhere we have people, because they are -- as I said, that's what we wake up for in the morning.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay This will be the last one. Justin?

Q: Thank you. Thanks, Mr. Secretary, Justin Fishel with ABC News.

So yesterday CENTCOM laid out some plans for Mosul, for an Iraqi-led invasion of Mosul, to retake Mosul. And commanders have said and have been saying that they would, if necessary, authorize or request JTACs on the ground, U.S. boots in limited numbers on the ground.

Is that something you're open to? Would you support that if requested by commanders?

SEC. CARTER: On your first point about offensive against Mosul, I think -- the only thing I would like to say about that is that is one that will be Iraqi-led, and U.S.-supported. And it's important that it be launched at a time when it can succeed.

And so I think the important thing is that it will -- it get done when it can be done successfully. And I -- even if I knew exactly when that was going to be, I wouldn't tell you.

And to the second part of your question, of course I'm open, I'm always open to advice from our military commanders about what the best way to achieve success is. And that is a question that will come down the road.

But I think what's important is that the campaign to retake Mosul succeed. And we're committed to that success, and not to a particular timetable, that makes sense.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. Thanks, everybody, appreciate it. And we're going to end it right there.

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