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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | March 12, 2018

Press Gaggle En Route to Afghanistan

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: OK, well, ladies and gentlemen, we had very successful meetings in Oman.

What do I mean by success? Candid, open discussions. We acknowledged the very, very strong mil-to-mil relationship and broader security relationship.

You know, what we are looking at there is a country that has not been immune in problems in its past, and yet you see a country, that works, and has no violence. And this is a country that had tough times years ago -- (inaudible), and those people have come together in a unified way to create this country.

So the discussions themselves went into all aspects of the security relationship. And remember, this is a country that after 9/11 stood with us, providing unique access to the region. It's a country that has been with us ever since, and has been part of the diplomatic efforts from previous administrations of our own that have been very helpful.

​So we have a long history of partnership with Oman.

We did talk about the civil war in Yemen, and the support we both commit to in terms of the U.N. attempting to broker a peace there, where the war, and disease and all have created a really, really difficult humanitarian situation.

​We did discuss the importance of Gulf cohesion for maintaining stability in the region, in particular, we discussed the GCC rift, and what can be done.

​We're headed now into Afghanistan, where I'll take stock of the security situation. I want to talk to our Afghan partner leaders of the unity government. And I want to talk to our troops, obviously, I’ll be engaging with our ambassador there, and the NATO leadership staff, of all the different nations. We’re up to 40 nations, as the coalition starts to go again.

We do look towards a victory in Afghanistan. Now, what does that victory look like? It's a country with its own people, and with their own security forces, and own law enforcement. Any threats, using their own security forces; certainly, with international support for years to come. As they get better, obviously, the international support will be moderated, as the Afghan forces are able to do more. We see that already, when you compare the numbers that we have there today to the number we had there years ago.

The security forces, once they're able to protect their own people so Afghanistan is not a haven for attacks internationally, we will certainly continue our support for Afghanistan, like we do with like-minded nations trying to overcome these kinds of conditions. 

In that regard, President Trump’s conditions-based South Asia strategy, is our strategic framework. You understand that, it’s four Rs. It starts with a regional approach to make certain that we realign our forces to the advisory duties, reinforce it, the reinforcements are pretty much in place now, maybe a few more coming in. And then, of course, it’s all working to achieve a reconciliation, a political reconciliation, not a military victory. The victory will be a political reconciliation.

​In that regard, the Kabul conference, the pieces that have come out of that, about President Ghani’s offer to the Taliban. It's not saying because the offer's been made, it's going to be easy or smooth, but the offer's been made. There is interest that we’ve picked up on Taliban's side, even going before the Kabul conference. You may (inaudible). 

But we remain steadfast in the support of NATO's mission there. By "we," I mean all of us in the coalition. With President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, we're going to discuss, specifically, the reconciliation process.

​And this follows, of course, the second successful Kabul conference meeting. Why is that important? Because we've always said it's going to be a Afghan-owned, an Afghan-led process.

​I would just say that that's had a lot of substance to it. So that will be where I'm focused, the substance of the reconciliation process.

​Of course, I'll be reviewing the military campaign for its alignment with where we want to go politically.

​But this constitutes what we believe to be the most viable path to peace. And it's also my opportunity to hear directly, unfiltered from troops, allies, from Afghan -- leaders, to get the kind of consultations so we don't have any (inaudible) or something like that. We're going to do dialogue. We're talking about (inaudible). 

​From there, we'll depart for Bahrain.

​So let me take your questions.

​Q: When you say you're going to be taking stock of security, can you be a little more specific about what you're looking for -- (inaudible)?

​SEC. MATTIS: What is the campaign plan to gain sovereignty, Afghan government sovereignty over its country and its major population centers. We've seen the Taliban hit somewhat of a rocky patch back in August, where they've not made progress. We anticipated they would switch to high-visibility attacks on the innocent. The Afghan forces blocked a number of these attacks. They've not blocked them all. But I want to see what they're doing to block these kinds of attacks (inaudible), or offensive mindset, going into the fighting season. (inaudible) -- toward the Afghan forces -- (inaudible) and reconciliation, which is almost an equal priority. 

​Yeah, go ahead.

​Q: The Security Force Assistance Brigade, is that part of this realignment that you're talking about? And what kind of role are they going to be playing in Afghanistan?

​SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. So we talked about realign and reinforce. The Security Force Assistance Brigade is an example, a model of what we're doing. These troops being brought in, are not being brought in to fight; they're being brought in to mentor, advise and assist, accompany those troops, bring NATO fire support, bring NATO planning to bear, as they work.

​So the SFABs, as we call them, the Security Force Assistant Brigades, are part and parcel of this shift in the strategy.

​Q: Mr. Secretary, would you elaborate a little bit on the Taliban’s interest in the peace talks?

​SEC. MATTIS: Right now, we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance for the reconciliation effort. And so, part of this aligning is who is going to be speaking, but also being open to what we’ve had over the last month. Some groups of Taliban, small groups, have either started to. come over, or expressed their interest in talking. In other words, it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop. That would be a bridge too far right now to expect. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government. So we're going to encourage them to (inaudible).

​Q: The Taliban, want to negotiate with the U.S.? 

​SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, right now we want to go by, with and through the Afghan-led process.

​Q: Which parts of the Taliban might be interested? 

​SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, that's difficult to define. 

​Q: Sir, has the fracturing of the Taliban made it more difficult or easier to get to a settlement?

​SEC. MATTIS: Say that again?

​Q: Has the fracturing of the Taliban over the last few weeks made it more difficult or easier?

​SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, it’s a great question. Is it easier, or more difficult. 

​Clearly what we want to do is take advantage of any of the fracturing, whether it's some elements that want to come out.

​But we have seen the efforts to try and do the whole thing, the entire Taliban. And they have been difficult efforts.

​So for right now we see it as a mutually reinforcing way. We start peeling off those who are tired of fighting, but at the same time building this out so that the Taliban leadership actually has a process. We saw it brought up in Kabul, at the second Kabul peace conference, where the actual offer has been made, they would sit down with them.

​So I think it's kind of a synergistic effort where one doesn't -- (inaudible) -- the other. But we want to go forward on both sides.

​Q: Sir, have you -- have you seen any tangible changes in Pakistan since the South Asia strategy was announced?

​SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, good question.

​There have been changes in Pakistan's behavior. One of the reasons I want to go in is actually talk to the people who are dealing with the border issues right now, dealing with intelligence and what they're seeing. And then go back and talk with our intelligence agencies in Washington, D.C., and put together an assessment of this. 

​Q: (inaudible) -- is the initial indication that the border is being better secured?

​SEC. MATTIS: There are operations by the Pakistan military that are helping right now ongoing efforts, and have been for some time. And there are other issues; the fatwa that came out, that came out of Pakistan, for example. That was a step in the right direction. 

​So there’s a number of things that have been going on, but I want to talk to people here and see the reality and how they see it, and go back and talk to intelligence agencies and get a full assessment of where we're at.

​Q: Could I ask you, you have always talked about forcing the Taliban to the table militarily.

​SEC. MATTIS: I think I’ve said setting the conditions where the Taliban realize they cannot win with bombs and killing innocent people, trying to do a better job of protecting the Afghan people. And at that point, setting the conditions for the diplomats to sit down, and the leadership to sit down and try to get this out of the violence and into the diplomatic stance.

​Q: And so everybody's eager for that obviously, but, you know, are we there yet? It just seems like all this talk about reconciliation and peace and talks seems premature when you're just going into the fighting season, you've got your new SFAB force. And it just seems a little cart before the horse

​And do you wish there was a --

​SEC. MATTIS: It's not not cart before the horse. I think Gordon, I think what you have to do is, all wars come to an end. You don't want to miss an opportunity because you weren't alert to the opportunity. So you need to have that door open, even as you increase the military pressure and say this is not going to work. You know, to just be setting off bombs. 

​Clearly if they thought they could win elections, they would probably sign up right away. They clearly don't have confidence in that, so they use bombs. So they have equities, they have ideas, they have this sort of thing that they may want to bring forward, so maybe there's a way they can do that other than using bombs.

​Q: Let me just -- can I just -- one last one, it's just -- do you wish the U.S. would name an envoy or some chief interlocutor to be the U.S. side for peace? Because it can't be General Nicholson or even necessarily --

​SEC. MATTIS: No, Ambassador Bass is our man on the scene. He is a highly capable, richly experienced diplomat of proven skill.

​Q: Sir, there was an inspector general report that came out last month that was very critical of the progress the Afghan government has made.


​Q: Are you confident in -- do you have confidence in President Ghani and Afghan leadership?


​This is hard work. This is very hard work since the Soviet Union invaded and turned the whole society upside down. This is not going to be easy work.

​I have confidence in the unity government, absolutely. I mean, it was voted in, it's got all the challenges a unity government has with the additional unique challenges of Afghanistan.

​So it's hard work, but you saw a successful peace conference with people from a number of countries, a large number of countries there. There was no interruption of that peace conference by violent attacks. It shows that the military, the security force were able to keep it safe. The Taliban were unable to disrupt it. We know there's interest on the Taliban side; we know that.

​So when you put all of these things together, then that's why I think we're on -- on the right track.

​Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

​SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, OK, I got to go to work now.

​You all -- did we get time for them to see --

​STAFF: They're going to see General Nicholson --

​SEC. MATTIS: OK, great. Thank you for that.

​Q: Thank you very much.

​SEC. MATTIS: No problem.

​Yeah, we want to make sure -- I know you spend a week out of your life here, you've got to have something to show for it. So we'll try to keep the access there, then we'll arm wrestle you over what the story is.


​Q: Looking forward to it.

​STAFF: Thanks, everybody.