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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | Oct. 4, 2018

Department Of Defense Press Briefing By General Joseph Votel via teleconference from Tampa, Florida, on Operations in the Central Command Area of Responsibility

[Eds. note:  The very strong messaging from our government regarding holding a government accountable for attacks on U.S. personnel, etc., was sent to the government of Iran, not Iraq.]

COMMANDER SEAN ROBERTSON:  Good morning.  I'm Commander Sean Robertson and I'll be facilitating this morning's briefing.

I apologize.  We are having some technical difficulties.  We were troubleshooting up -- right up until the last minute, but we are going to have to go audio-only this morning.

We will begin our brief with a quick communications check.

Sir, can you hear me?

GENERAL JOSEPH L. VOTEL:  Sean, we hear you loud and clear.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  This brief should last approximately 45 minutes.

Today, we have General Joseph Votel, commander, United States Central Command, for an update on the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

Sir, the floor is yours.

GEN. VOTEL:  Okay.  Good morning, everybody.

And thanks, Sean, for setting this up.

And for all, I apologize for the technical difficulties, but I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with you this morning -- talk with me this morning a little about what's going on in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

I recently finished a 19-day trip across the CENTCOM area, meeting and talking with foreign leaders, civilian and military dignitaries, representatives from governmental and non-governmental agencies, U.S. and coalition partner commanders and, most importantly, our fine young men and women in uniform.  So I want to use that as a framework to share with you some of the highlights and observations this morning, and then I'll be happy to take any of your questions.

In Afghanistan, we executed the change of command from General Mick Nicholson to General Scott Miller, and we also passed the one-year anniversary of the president's South Asia Strategy.

We remain in a tough fight, and General Miller is assessing conditions and making tactical improvements that he deems necessary, all within the context of our current overall strategy.

This approach, this strategy, remains conditions-based, focused on achieving reconciliation and stability through military, political and social pressure, using available authorities and resources.  These are the ends, ways and means of the strategy.  And this strategy is sound and it is working, whereas the Taliban's strategy of waiting us out is an untenable one.

In conjunction with this approach, we remain committed to methodically and unrelentingly rooting out and eliminating ISIS-K fighters.  We continue to work with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to develop the capabilities needed to seize and retain the initiative against the Taliban, and to effectively counter ISIS Khorasan.

While this has been a difficult and bloody summer, especially the last several weeks, we are seeing some improvements.

During the recent Shia holiday of Ashura, the citizens of Kabul enjoyed a peaceful holiday, free of Taliban and ISIS-K violence for the first time in many years, all due to increased tempo of operations by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

The Afghans are committed to securing their people as the country moves forward to conduct its first parliamentary elections in eight years, later this month.  The taste for peace and reconciliation remains strong following this summer's cease-fire, and we continue to see local reconciliation initiatives around the country.

To be clear, there is more to do to turn the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces into the force Afghan citizens deserve, and a challenging fight remains as we work with regional and international partners to apply the military pressure to the Taliban that will convince them that reconciliation is the only way forward.

In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces are successfully planning and conducting independent offensive operations against the remnants of ISIS.  While in Syria, our partners continue to make steady progress in liberating the final remnants of ISIS's physical caliphate.

That said, it's important to understand that while the territorial defeat of ISIS in these areas is an important milestone, the lasting defeat of ISIS is our ultimate objective.

In Iraq, we are committed to a responsible presence, at the invitation of the government, to continue our support to the Iraqi Security Forces and ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS.

In Syria, we will remain with our partners to ensure the defeat of ISIS and provide an opportunity for a negotiated political resolution of the Syrian conflict and humanitarian crisis, consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.

Recent pledges of more than $300 million in new funding for stabilization and humanitarian aid from our coalition partners is a welcome start to consolidating our military gains.  And we continue to advocate for greater global burden-sharing as part of our ongoing defeat-ISIS military operations, stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

In contrast, Russia and Iran continue to exacerbate the seven-year civil war in Syria by propping up an Assad regime bent on repressing its own people, including through the use of chemical weapons.

Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terror, continues its malign influence and destabilizing the activities across the region.  None of these activities are helpful or supportive of peace and stability, and all introduce greater risk to an already complex and volatile environment.

To this end, I was recently able to meet -- while I was in travel here -- to meet with all of the Gulf Cooperation Council chiefs of defense, plus those from Egypt and Jordan, to discuss our growing cooperation and collaboration on integrated air and missile defense, maritime security and countering terrorism.  And we all committed to moving forward together in these three areas.

I also had the opportunity to visit Yemen on this trip.  Yemen is suffering from a toxic combination of civil war, terrorism and malign influence that not only threatens the existence of its people, but also adds to instability in the region and threatens our national interests.

At the direction of the secretary of defense, I've developed a strong relationship with the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Mr. Martin Griffiths.  We consider him to be our main effort.  And our interactions with members of the Saudi coalition are focused on providing Special Envoy Griffiths the maximum opportunity to bring the warring parties to consultative negotiations aimed at a political solution.

Yet Iran continues to export missiles, rockets and unmanned aerial systems to the Houthis, prolonging and expanding the conflict, adding to the suffering and humanitarian disaster, threatening critical waterways and disrupting the process towards peace.  These are not the actions of a good neighbor, but of one that threatens the peace and stability of the region.

For our part, we are consistently emphasizing with the Saudi-led coalition the importance of absolutely minimizing civilian casualties, as well as being transparent and responsive on reporting and accountability.  And we are working with them to improve their processes to effectively defend their homelands.

We also understand that military efforts in support of the U.N. goal to resolve the crisis in Yemen is only one small part of the solution.  As we see in many areas, lasting solutions only come as a result of a comprehensive approach to security, governance, development and humanitarian assistance.

Before I open it up for questions, let me comment on one additional topic:  recent reporting about military capabilities being reallocated or shifted from the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

Let me be clear that none of these movements had been a surprise to us or to our partners in the region.  Over a year ago, Secretary Mattis outlined very clearly in the National Defense Strategy where the priorities lay for the Department of Defense.  And I have spoken with all of my counterparts on several occasions about the National Defense Strategy, and what it means for CENTCOM and for the region.

We at CENTCOM understand we're in a new era of great power competition and we have been planning accordingly, as have our planning partners -- our regional partners.

These changes in materiel or capabilities do not signify a change in our level of commitment to any of our partners in the central region.  This area remains key to many of our vital national interests and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners there.  As our National Defense Strategy highlights, we will succeed not only because we are more lethal and innovative, but because our networks and partnerships are stronger.

Last but certainly not least, I want to close with a word of thanks to our Congress, as none of this would be possible without the recent rapid passage of the National Defense Authorization Act and the accompanying appropriations bill that secures our funding for these critical missions.

And with that, Sean, I'd like to open it up for questions from the -- from the -- from the press pool.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Thank you very much, sir.

For all questions, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your question.  All called on will have an opportunity to ask one follow-up.  In order to better facilitate your question -- we'll -- we'll just leave it at that this morning.


Q:  Thank you.

General, this is Bob Burns from A.P.

The announcement this morning that an American service member was killed in action in Afghanistan today -- there was no context or any details provided.  And I understand that next-of-kin notification would prohibit you from going into complete detail, but can you give us some sense of whether this service member was killed in -- in combat against Islamic state or the Taliban, or was this a suspected green-on-blue attack?  Or can you elaborate in any way?

And if I may ask a second related question, you mentioned that this has been a bloody and difficult summer for Afghan forces.  Is the trend moving in the wrong direction in terms of Afghan casualties?

GEN. VOTEL:  Thanks, Bob.

Well, as you suggest here, I'm going to be very -- very brief on this as we go through the notification process on that.  And -- and obviously we're tracking this very closely.

My -- the initial reports that I've seen is this is as a result of combat action and -- and not a result of anything else that you have seen.

In terms of attributing it to anybody, ISIS or Taliban, I think we'll have to find out more at this particular point.

But, of course, our thoughts go out the soldier's family and to the unit that he came from.

With respect to the -- to the Afghan casualties, certainly this is something that we are paying very, very close attention to.  And it is -- it is, as you might imagine, an area of important focus for General Miller and our team on the ground right now.

And what -- what we are trying to do is make sure that -- that the Afghans are employing their forces in a -- in a manner that doesn't unnecessarily expose them to -- to these kind of large casualty-producing incidents.

One of the particular ways we're trying to do that is through reducing their dependence on these remote, poorly defended, difficult to support and sustain checkpoints that they have in -- in various parts around the country.  And so, its specific focus with the Afghan leadership, both political and military, as well as with our -- with our advisers on the ground to help them reduce this.

I -- I think when we do look at the casualties that are -- that the Afghans are absorbing, we do link them back largely to some of these more defensive static positions that -- that they have a difficulty supporting.  So we're working specifically with that.

With respect to the overall casualty piece, the Afghans are -- are sustaining themselves.  I would just share with you, a paraphrase here, a comment made by the national security adviser at the change of command ceremony.  He emphasized, we have a bloody nose, but we are standing, and we are fighting, and that's exactly what they're doing right now.

So they -- they are able to sustain this.  Certainly, we're paying very, very close attention to that to make sure that -- that their -- their combat losses are being replaced.  But right now, they seem to be sustaining this going forward.

Q:  Good.

A quick follow-up, General.  Just to be a little more specific of my question, did they -- has the number of Afghan casualties increased this year over the previous year?

GEN. VOTEL:  It's my understanding that it -- that it is increasing.


Q:  Barbara Starr from CNN.

General Votel, could I ask you to be -- I want to ask you about Iran, and ask you to drill down a little bit into some specifics.

As Iran extends its influence, especially in places like Syria and Iraq, are there concerns that you have that U.S. -- U.S. forces could get caught in the middle of some of their operations, their -- their claimed operations to go after ISIS?  Could -- do you have concerns that you -- your troops would be caught in the middle of that?

And the second part I wanted to ask you about are their weapons, and specifically their missile shipments into places like Iraq and Syria.  Are you now seeing them, especially with Syria, ship in parts to be assembled in an effort to try and avoid detection that they're shipping full missiles into these areas?  In other words, are they getting into assembly operations in Syria, and possibly even Iraq?

GEN. VOTEL:  Thanks -- thanks, Barbara.

On the first part of your -- your question there, absolutely.  We -- we certainly are concerned that with -- with the impacts of some of their activities on our -- on our personnel, on our facilities, on our activities there.  And as -- as you've seen, some very strong messaging from our government to the government of Iraq (sic) that -- that we will hold them accountable if -- if an attack is carried out against U.S. personnel, facilities or activities.

And -- and so we do take that very seriously.  And, of course, we remain very vigilant and prepared to -- for that eventuality.

I would -- I would just highlight to you the -- the recent Iranian strikes we saw in the MERV.  I think this is an example of what does give us a little bit of pause.

You know, I do think these kind of uncoordinated activities are a threat to not only our forces, but they're a threat to military and civilian air and aviation that operates in the area.

As you know, professional militaries deconflict their operations to ensure safety and that did not -- Iran took no measures like that in this particular case.  So I -- I kind of characterize what they're doing as reckless, unsafe and escalatory in this regard.  And so I do -- we do have concerns about that.

On the second part of your question with respect to, you know, facilitation of -- weapons and other things like that, we have -- we've certainly seen some indications of that, and our efforts have been to try to expose that and bring that to the attention of the appropriate -- appropriate forces to -- deal with, particularly in Iraq.

So we don't have that mission; our mission is strictly focused on defeat ISIS.  But we are concerned about them moving these types of capabilities into Syria.

Q:  (Inaudible) follow up, two things.

Are you confirming -- do I understand you correctly that Iran has shipped ballistic missiles into Iraq?  And are you also saying that Iran has shipped missile parts for assembly into Syria?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I would not be -- I'm not going to be that specific, Barbara.

I would just say I think -- I think there is -- we believe they are moving lethal capabilities into -- into Syria that -- that threaten -- threaten neighbors in the -- in the region here.


Q:  Thank you, general, for doing this.

I just wanted to go back to Afghanistan and push back when you said that the South Asia Strategy is sound, is working, and that waiting out the U.S. and the Afghan government is an untenable strategy, because I want to take you to Khaki Jabbar in Kabul district, which is less than an hour from Kabul.

And VOA's done some reporting saying that right next to a police compound, the Taliban now shop there, they've made that a stronghold, they've cut cell phone service, sometimes 12 hours a day now.  They've demanded people quit government jobs; they've killed people who haven't.

So my question for you is how -- how can you say that their strategy is untenable when they're gaining so much ground in areas very close to Kabul?  And how is the U.S. strategy tenable when you've just said that the casualties are increasing by the Afghan security forces?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yeah, thanks.

I -- I think I draw a distinction between, kind of, the overall strategy that we are applying here, kind of the ends, ways and means focused, the end-state being reconciliation that we're focused on here, the -- the -- the ways that we're doing that through military, political and social pressure, and then the means, the resources and authorities that we have there, and then the -- and then the tactics that, kind of, fall in underneath that.

You know, certainly we have seen some areas here where there are -- the Taliban is -- exercises a level of control.  And the Afghan forces are working to, you know, preserve control of the areas that they have and then expand into other areas.  And eventually we'll have to move into these areas as -- as well.

And so, you know, I draw a distinction between the overall -- the overall strategy and -- and what's playing out on the ground.

You know, we do see on occasions that the Taliban has the -- has the ability to temporarily seize the initiative, but they don't have the ability to hold it long-term, as we saw it in Ghazni several weeks ago, the series of -- series of attacks that frankly, were largely unsuccessful; that while inflicting casualties, also absorbed a greater number of casualties on their forces and didn't achieve anything other than an information operations effect.

So I don't think they have the capability to do that.  They're -- they're not going to succeed by holding small areas out -- out around here that are -- are going to -- are going to allow them to -- to attain a military -- a military victory.  I -- I don't think that's going to occur.  And our strategy is designed to -- to prevent that from happening.

Q:  Thank you for that, General.

I just want to follow up, too, because you did mention that they have the -- they can temporarily seize things.  But -- so, how does that affect the election security?  Because temporarily seizing things for an election could cause a catastrophe.  So, how do -- does the U.S. military and the Afghan government plan to counter that approach if they use that during the elections?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yeah.  Great -- great question.

And -- you know, so as a -- you know, as I -- as I mentioned in my remarks, here, obviously the upcoming elections is an important period.  And that's been -- that's been an area of specific focus here for our force -- our coalition forces on the ground, to make sure that we're working with the Afghans as -- as much as we can to ensure that -- that they can secure their people, and they can secure these locations.

So, the way that they are doing that is by, you know, making sure that they are supporting and helping with distribution of -- of election materials out to the provincial centers, and then down into the district centers.  That is underway and it is, frankly, on-track with where we expected it to be at this particular point.

This -- this will also mean that there will need -- the Afghan Security Forces will also need to be present.  And they will need to be actively operating in areas from which we would expect the Taliban or others, ISIS, to conduct attacks.

So, one of the -- one of the things that, as I -- as I mentioned in my remarks, again, about the Ashura period here, this is a period in which we have typically seen some attacks on this.

But by being active, by being patrol -- by being out -- out in the areas where we would expect these operations to emanate from, we are taking away the initiative from the Taliban and others to do that.  And we expect that we will continue to do that as -- as -- as we move into the election period.


Q:  Thank you, General, Jeff Schogol at Task and Purpose.

Erik Prince is arguing that with six months and 3,600 contractors, he can do a better job in Afghanistan than the U.S. military.  Do you agree?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I, absolutely, do not agree.  And I think this has been addressed by a number of -- a number of others, including the secretary of defense, and the government of Afghanistan, and I think, recently, members of Congress.

So, I -- I do not agree that that -- that that would be a -- a better approach.

Q:  If I could follow up, what are the downsides of having 3,600 contractors take over the war in Afghanistan?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, the most significant downside is that we turn our -- turn our national interest over to contractors.  And as the secretary of defense has said, I don't think this is a very -- very good strategy.  We have vital interests here and we are pursuing them with legitimate forces that -- that can do that.

More -- even -- even broader than that, the -- the bilateral -- bilateral security agreement that I think is in place with Afghanistan does not allow this.  So the Afghans don't want that.  They would have to -- they would have to approve this as well.  And, I think, as you've seen from -- from their comments, they do not -- they do not support this either.

Q:  One final one:  Is there any update in the search for Austin Tice, the Marine veteran who went missing in Syria seven years ago?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, we always -- of course, we always maintain vigilance for any information or any leads that would -- would -- would lead us to recovering Austin or any -- anyone else who is missing there.  I don't have anything specific to report to you at this time.


Q:  Thank you, General.  Tuna Sanlif from Turkish Radio Television.

One of the main purposes in Manbij roadmap between Turkey and the United States was to clear Manbij from YPG terrorists.  There are still YPG elements there.  When will Manbij be totally cleared from YPG?  As Turkey is accusing the U.S. as not -- not meeting its obligations in that Manbij roadmap because 90 days passed.

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, thank you for your question.

First off, I think we are on track with where we need to be with the -- with the Manbij roadmap.  Many of those times were -- we highlighted that this was a conditions-based -- conditions-based approach to this.  But I do assess we are on track with where we need to be with respect to them.

My understanding is that most of the YPG, if not all of the YPG, is out of Manbij right now.  But, of course, as we continue in the -- in implementing the roadmap, there are specific activities within that to ensure that that is the case.  And I think that will occur in due course as we continue to implement the implement the roadmap.

And, you know, as the secretary has recently commented on, we're engaged with our Turkish partners right now in moving to the combined joint patrols.  That -- the leader training has begun for that and we'll move into the collective training here very shortly.  And then we look forward to executing all of that.  And we look forward to sustaining the very high level of stability that is already present in Manbij.

So I think we're on track with where we need to be.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  As I'm looking at the time and the number of the list of questions that I have, I'm going to ask you to only go with a follow-up if you have -- if you have something that relates to the initial question that you asked.

Kasim, we'll go to you for a follow-up to Tuna’s question.

Q:  Thank you very much for doing this, General.  Kasim Ileri, Anadolu Agency.

Turkish presidential spokesman said that the whole roadmap, Manbij roadmap was supposed to be implemented fully in 90 days and we are yet to start the joint patrols.  Who is to blame for this delay, Turkey or the U.S.?  And do you think the U.S. is committed to its obligations on the roadmap -- Manbij roadmap?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, first of all, no one is to blame.  This is a -- this is a conditions-based application of the roadmap.  And that we have always been very clear of that from the beginning and we are moving forward with this.

And I -- I'm sorry I -- I don't recall the second question.  Can you say -- that second part of your question, can you say that again?

Q:  Given the time it has taken, can you say that the U.S. is committed to its obligations under the deal?

GEN. VOTEL:  Absolutely.  We are absolutely committed.

The leadership that we have moved up into Turkey right now to do the training is coming right off the line and it represents, kind of, the cutting edge of our leadership that is involved in this area and knows the most about that.

So, we have had extraordinarily excellent support from U.S. European Command in helping work with our Turkish NATO partners here to set up this training.

So I -- I think we are absolutely committed to this, and -- and the fact we've executed 54 independent patrols here that -- that have helped lower tensions along the -- in the Manbij area, I think is a very good indication of how we've done this over several months now.


Q:  Thank you.  This is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.

General Votel, what's your take on Russia's announcement to deploy S-300 missile defense system to Syria?

Have you seen any evidence that the system has been deployed?  And if yes, do you know where -- what are the locations where the system will be?

VOTE:  Well, I think we've certainly seen what's been -- what's been out there in the media, and we do believe that that system is -- has been moved into Syria.

I won't comment on any particular locations or anything like that as they as they go through all of that.

But to the first part of your question, I -- my personal view is I do consider this deployment to be a needless escalation, and maybe perhaps a little bit of a -- a knee-jerk response to the downing of their aircraft -- the Russian aircraft -- here a couple weeks ago.

It has nothing to do with defeat of ISIS, which is Russia's purported mission and purpose for being in Syria.  It appears to be an effort to provide cover for Iranian and Syrian regime nefarious activities.  And so I consider this to be a needless escalation.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Sir, you cut out on us for a large portion of that response.  Could you touch on your key points on that again?

GEN. VOTEL:  Absolutely, Sean.

So on the S-300 deployment, I would just say I think we assess this to be a needless escalation.

Our -- we've seen what is in the open-source reporting here.  We do believe the components have arrived in Syria.

I won't comment on any specific locations or anything with respect to that, but obviously, we remain very vigilant to that.

I would note that, you know, this has really nothing to do with defeat of ISIS, which Russia has purported as their principal reason and purpose for being into -- in Syria, and I do think it is a bit of a knee-jerk response to the downing of their aircraft a couple weeks ago.  And it appears to be an effort to cover for Iranian and Syrian regime nefarious activities in Syria.

So again, I think this is a needless -- needless escalation.

Q:  Quick follow-up, sir:  Do you think -- but does it pose any threat to U.S. forces in the region?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, we are -- we're aware of the capabilities of the system here, but I would just highlight to you that our forces here been operating under a latent anti-air threat for some time, and we will continue to do so.  And that is why we deconflict our operations with the Russian Federation to avoid miscalculations, and we will continue to do that, and we will continue to operate as we have been in the area.

So I guess I would just leave it at that.

Q:  Sir, Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg.

Just a couple follow-ups on the S-300.  The U.S. spends billions of dollars to defeat weapons like this, so what is the -- why the concern over this?  Is this the older model P that's closer to the U.S. Patriot, or the newer V model that's closer to a THAAD, and thus, a greater threat?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I -- Tony, I won't get into any details here in terms of the type of system that it is.

But, you know, again, I think we are very aware of the capabilities of this system and the potential threat that it can -- that it can pose.

And so, you know, we remain vigilant and ready to deal with any threats.  But as I said, we've been operating in an environment like this for some time, and we expect to continue to do so.  And so, we will continue to pursue the methods that have been successful in keeping us safe and keep others safe as we move forward.

Q:  Quick question, the -- a follow-up.

The F-35 did its first combat mission last week in Afghanistan.  Given the deployment of the S-300 in Syria and the S-400 in Iran, do you see the need now to start permanently rotating F-35 stealthy fighters into your AOR?

GEN. VOTEL:  Tony, I -- I have not made that assessment as of this -- this point.

We're -- we're obviously very proud to have the F-35 in the CENTCOM area, and we're very -- very excited that their first combat delivery in Afghanistan took place in, obviously, in our area.  By all accounts, it performed extraordinarily well.  And so, we're very, very glad to have that.

But I remain very confident in not only the capabilities that are being provided to me by the Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force, but, more importantly, in the people that we had leading -- leading these formations.  And I'm confident that we will be able continue to pursue our mission in this environment.


Q:  General, this is Fadi Mansour with Al Jazeera.

On Tuesday, President Trump said that he spoke to King Salman of Saudi Arabia and told him that he wouldn't last two weeks without the U.S.  Since Saudi Arabia falls under the CENTCOM, your area, do you agree with that assessment?  And what was the president exactly referring to in means of maybe protection about Saudi Arabia?

GEN. VOTEL:  I would refer you to the White House for comment on the president's statement.

I -- I would just say that Saudi Arabia is a -- is an important -- very important partner for us in the region.

And as I -- as I mentioned in my opening comments, I had the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia on my -- on my most recent travel and meet with their military leadership.  They were part of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus two, Egypt and Jordan, meeting we had.  They certainly are a leader in all of that and we continue to work very, very closely with them on our collective defense needs.

And so, I assess our military relationship is -- with them is very strong and will continue to be strong moving forward.

Q:  Yes, but as a quick follow-up:  But your own assessment, can Saudi Arabia last for more than two weeks without the U.S.?

GEN. VOTEL:  Again, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to comment on that.

We've been partners with Saudi Arabia for a long period of time.  And I'm very appreciative of the very strong relationship that we have had with them and that we will have continuing to go forward.


Q:  Thanks, General.  Tara Copp, Military Times.

I want to follow-up on Bob's question on the KIA in Afghanistan.  Could you tell us a little bit more about what region?  Was it the east or southwest?  Was this an IED or direct fire?

And then separately, in Syria, since there is a diplomatic change of mission, and the U.S. intends to be there as a counter to Iran forces, what sort of planning changes have you started to make for U.S. forces in Syria to be there for the long term?

GEN. VOTEL:  Thanks.

So, just out of respect for the process of notifying our next-of-kin and other things like that, I'm not going to speculate on anything further in terms of locations or of the mechanism that led to -- led to this death here.  I -- we'll reserve that for when we are certain we've done the notifications on that.

With respect to the second part of your question here, I -- you know, we remain vigilant all the time.  You know, I would just highlight to you that, yeah -- first off, we remain vigilant to the -- kind of the changing situation on the ground.

As we -- as we complete -- as our partners on the ground in Syria complete their operations against the physical caliphate, what we will need to do it -- is something that I think is similar to what we have seen in Iraq.  And that is, we'll have to move from what I would describe as major combat operations to something that is more akin to wide-area security.

And what this will mean is that we will need to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces.  We'll have to work and train their internal security forces that are answering to their civil councils.  We'll have to work with some of their provincial forces that secure the static locations.  And we'll need to make sure that we can continue to keep the pressure on ISIS and the remnants of ISIS that have gone aground and, you know, will undoubtedly try to reappear in the environment.

So I see us, kind of, shifting from, kind of, the major combat operations like we're doing right now, to something that is much -- much more broadly focused in terms of wide-area -- wide-area security.

Along the way, we will make the appropriate assessments on the forces that we need to have on the ground.  And I'm not going to -- to pre-stage -- pre-announce any kind of decisions here in terms of that.  That will be a discussion between the commander on the ground and myself in terms of what we need there.

But what I would tell you is, we will not keep unnecessary things on the ground.  We will focus on making sure that we have the capabilities in place to keep pressure on ISIS, to make sure that we are supporting our partner in making sure they can -- they can be trained and ready to do what they need to do, and we can -- we can preserve the stability so that our diplomats can move forward with their efforts to resolve this politically.

So I see us, again, like we've done in Iraq, moving to more of a wide security approach here, the -- that -- and working with our partners to make sure we can keep the pressure -- pressure on ISIS.

Q:  What about supporting the diplomatic goals of pressuring Iran and countering Iran for the long term?  What's the military role in that?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I -- you know, I guess the -- the most important thing I would just tell you is, in -- on ground in Syria, our mission remains the defeat of ISIS and stabilizing, you know, the liberated territory to prevent a resurgence.

So, we're certainly aware of the very significant efforts under way here to put pressure on Iran to change their -- their behavior.  And while we don't have any direct military tasks that have been given to us in terms of that, we do recognize that -- that our presence on the ground, our development of good partners on the ground does have an impact on Iranian activities.

As I often talk about, many -- in many ways, one of the most important things that we do to counter Iranian influence is build very strong relationships in the region.

That's part of the reason why I -- we had this regular meeting with our -- with our Gulf Cooperation Council CHODs in Egypt and in Jordan.  These are important partners in addressing that particular threat.

So building those strong relationships is really important, and having good partnerships in place.

You know, beyond that, we will, you know, we see things, we have the ability to monitor and expose things.  We -- you know, by our presence we offer a deterrent effect here.  So while we don't have any specific military tasks, our focus remains very strictly focused on D-ISIS right now.  I think we do place an indirect role in supporting our broader pressure campaign against -- against Iran.


Q:  Good morning, sir.  This is Tom Squitieri with Talk Media News.  Thanks for doing this.

I want to move back east to Afghanistan, please.  Yesterday the foreign minister of Pakistan wrapped up a 10-day trip to the United States, and in his remarks at the peace -- U.S. Peace Institute, he said -- he challenged that U.S. military and members of Congress to come into Pakistan, we'll take you anywhere you want to go, to show there are no safe havens any longer and that over the last two years, the dynamic in Pakistan has changed in regard to what Islamabad is doing to help bring a political solution to Afghanistan.

Do you agree with this assessment, sir?  And if not, how would you assess it?

GEN. VOTEL:  So, thanks.

So, I've seen some of Foreign Minister Qureshi's recent comments as -- as well.

And I would say this:  There is -- there is no doubt, and we've acknowledged this, that Pakistan has conducted operations in their country to root out terrorist organizations in certain areas, particularly areas up in -- up along the border with Afghanistan.  But we do assess there still is presence in Pakistan and we need them to continue to do that.

You know, I -- I noted very clearly that the foreign minister in his comments when he met with the secretary of state and the national security adviser, you know, emphasized that Pakistan would continue to support effort -- efforts for an Afghan-owned and led peace and reconciliation process.  And he further acknowledged that, you know, peace and stability in Afghanistan was vital for their own stability and -- and progress.

And so, you know, we -- as we often talk with the military leadership in Pakistan, we need them to continue to stay engaged in this.  We need them to help lower the violence in Afghanistan.

And they need to do that by making absolutely sure that there are no -- there are no instructions, direction, other things coming from Taliban leadership that remains in Pakistan to their fighters on the ground.

They need to ensure that they continue to ensure that there can be no movement back and forth and that fighters can't come back into Pakistan to -- to get aid or medical care or other things with that.

We have to -- we -- they have to help us lower the violence in Afghanistan.

And they need to use their influence with the Taliban to force the Taliban leadership to come to the table.  And they can do this, they can put pressure on them to do this.

And those are the two things that we have continued to emphasize with Pakistan that they -- that they need to do.  So I do acknowledge that they have done a lot in their own country, but there is more to do and it is those specific areas right there where we are seeking their -- their closest assistance.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  As we start to run out of time, I'm going to ask you to limit yourself to just one question without a follow unless it's absolutely necessary.


Q:  Hey, sir.  It's Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.

Can I -- can I ask you, we -- we've learned that General Robin Fontes is being replaced as the commander of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan.  Are you guys looking for a -- for a shake-up, a change in that?  Are you pleased with -- with the training mission in Afghanistan?  Or are you looking for a -- a new approach, maybe, under General Miller?

GEN. VOTEL:  First off, I would just say General Fontes has done a fantastic job.  I -- I frequently seen her when I travel and meet with her people when I travel to Afghanistan.

She's been in place for a long period of time, well over a year, I think probably closer to about 20 months, I think.  So it's definitely time for her to -- to rotate out and -- and take on other responsibilities.  So this is not anything of any kind of shake-up here with that.  And, you know, so I -- I do consider this to be a kind of a normal rotation of leadership that -- that's place.

Clearly, continuing to put an emphasis on the development of Afghan National Security Force capabilities is -- remains an incredibly important task force, and so this -- I -- I do expect General Miller, as it was under General Nicholson, that this will continue to be a very -- very significant effort for us.

We are -- we, and many of -- many of our NATO partners are investing a lot of money into the Afghan forces to make them capable.  So this has to -- this has to be focused on, and it has to be successful.

And so I expect that General Miller and the team going forward will continue to approach this with the same vigor that General Nicholson and General Fontes did.


Q:  General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

You said that Iran is moving weapons into Iraq and Syria.  And I'm wondering, has that increased over the past few weeks, compared to when you first became the CENTCOM commander?

GEN. VOTEL:  You know, I -- I -- I'm not sure I can characterize all of that.

I -- I think the -- the, you know, fact of the matter is Iran -- this is a technique that Iran uses across the region, where they provide lethal capabilities to their proxies that threaten stability and threaten neighbors across the region.  And so this is a well -- well-developed tactic and procedure for them, and it's something that they do.

I -- I won't comment on the levels of increasing or other things like that.  These are these things take place over time.

But I would just highlight, of course, that this is a well-established tactic that -- that Iran uses across the region, and it is incredibly destabilizing.

Q:  You mentioned that Iran did not check in with the coalition before launching those missiles into Syria.  Would you like to see a hotline established so that you can speak to your Iranian counterpart the way General Dunford speaks to his Russian counterpart?

GEN. VOTEL:  I think there is a mechanism that -- that is already available:  The Iranians can talk to the -- to the Russians.  We have a well-established professional communication channel with the Russians that has worked well, and has kept our respective forces safe as we've operated in this very complex airspace right here.

So I think that there is something -- something available that -- that they could -- that they could use right now.

Q:  Thank you.


Q:  Good morning, General.  This is Nancy Youssef from the Wall Street Journal.

John Bolton, while at the United Nations, said that the U.S. wanted to see massive changes in Iranian behavior in the region, and yet you've talked about the fact that the U.S. troops that he said will stay there until Iran leaves don't have a specific military task tied with Iran.

Do you think that U.S. troops with no specific task tied to changing Iranian behavior, plus the drawdown of a carrier strike group presence and defensive (inaudible) -- is the U.S. militarily in a position to yield massive changes in Iranian behavior?

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Sir, we're not hearing you -- we're not hearing this response.  If you could hold on one moment for us.

GEN. VOTEL:  Okay.  Yes, thanks.

Okay.  Nancy, yeah, I -- I think that -- I think that we are -- we are well-prepared for this.

As I mentioned, you know, the principal pressure campaign that's being applied against -- against Iran is -- is largely diplomatic and economic, and it doesn't necessarily include specific military tasks that are with that.

But we do recognize that many of the things we are doing are -- are parallel, and they do support countering some of -- some of Iran's, you know, malign influence, not only in Syria, but also in -- you know, across the region.

You know, with respect to -- you know, you mentioned, you know, the no carriers and things like that in here, you know, I -- I would just tell you that, you know, I -- I think we remain engaged in the region, we remain very committed to the region, and we remain prepared to respond rapidly and massively if -- if the situation requires.

You know, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, building partnerships that increase and expand our collective capability and capacity is one of the most important things that we do on a regular basis.

And I would just -- I'd give you a couple examples here.

In 2002, we began the Combined Maritime Force.  We started with nine nations.  Now we have 33 nations that contribute to the Combined Maritime Force in the waters of the CENTCOM area.

And in fact, the three task forces that compose that are all being led by GCC countries.  First time ever for this.  And these are just taking place in -- both in and outside of the Arabian Gulf.

You know, we've got 79 nations and entities that support our efforts in -- in -- in Iraq and Syria.  We've got 41 NATO allies and partners that support our efforts to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces.

And we have multiple smaller partnerships around the region that help us with addressing violent extremism and other concerns there.

So I -- I think we are extraordinarily committed and engaged in the region, and we will continue to be.

You know, the departure of carriers and other things here, are frankly, many times driven by standard rotations.  And we have the ability to integrate the defensive capabilities of our partners, and we have other capabilities besides some of those things to do that.

So I -- I do think we're doing a good job with that.

And I do support what the secretary has announced here.  It was part of our -- part of the National Defense Strategy, to be strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable.

I think this is good.  I think this keeps our adversaries off-balance.  I think it preserves our OPSEC.  I think it gives us flexibility to seize opportunities, not only in the CENTCOM region but in other areas.  And I think it reassures our partners and allies.

So I'm -- I remain pretty confident about our posture here with respect to Iran in -- in the region.


Q:  Hi, General.  Ashley Roque with Jane's.

I wanted to ask about the 1st SFAB and lessons learned (seeing ?) as they're finishing up their time in Afghanistan.  And how do you -- has there been a request for the 2nd SFAB to come in?  And would there be a lag time between that?  Or would you want them to file in right after, or at the same time?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, we're -- we will work through all of that with the department here.  There -- we have a process for making the announcements of specific forces.  And so, I'll leave that to the department to make that announcement on that.

But I would just tell you, I am extremely pleased with the performance of the 1st SFAB, and what they have done on the ground.  And I think that the proof is really in the pudding when you talk to our partners out there, the Afghans, and what they are seeing out of this.

I mean, this -- the fact that our Army was able to, very quickly, develop a purpose-built organization specifically designed for advise and assist operations, I think, is quite phenomenal.  And I think it has made a significant difference for us.  And I think it has really put some real backbone into our by, with and through approach here.

And -- and last week I had the opportunity to travel out to Fort Carson, Colorado, and I had -- I met with many of the organizations that are getting -- that we are preparing for future deployments into Afghanistan.  And we talked a lot about the SFAB.  We had some of the next organizations that were there, learning lessons and applying that, and getting an understanding of this.

So I think we're in very, very good shape with that.

In terms of gaps between all of that, we have the ability -- we -- you know, I won't talk about how we manage our forces in and out of -- in and out of theater.

I would just tell you that I remain very confident that we will have the appropriate and professional coverage that we need with our Afghan partners as we bring all forces in and out of -- in and out of theater.

Q:  And just a quick follow-up.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  I'm -- I'm sorry, I need to -- sir.

Q:  Thank you.  Tom Watkins, AFP.  Thanks for doing this, General.

Just a quick follow-up to your response to Nancy's question:  Do you see America as being on the road to conflict with Iran?

GEN. VOTEL:  No, I -- I don't.  I -- I don't think we're seeking to go to war with Iran.  And I don't think that's what we're -- what we're focused on.

I think the -- the president has made it very clear that the Iranian regime needs to cease its destabilizing behavior and policies that spread violence and human misery throughout the -- throughout the Middle East.

And -- and the principal way that we are approaching that, right now is through diplomatic and -- and economic pressure.  And I support that.

I don't see that as necessarily, as being on the road to war with Iran.  I don't think we are.

Q:  You have said you're prepared to respond rapidly and massively if required to?

GEN. VOTEL:  Absolutely.

And as you well know, the headquarters like mine have -- have plans.  That's one of the key functions that we do.  We've had these in place for -- for years, frankly.  And we routinely review them, we routinely update them.

And so, I -- part of my responsibilities is to be prepared for the unexpected, and for worst-case situations.  And so, we take that very seriously and -- and as does the entire Department of Defense.

And so, I feel very confident in -- in our abilities, if ordered and directed, to respond to a situation and do it as quickly and as strongly as we possibly -- possibly can.

So, I consider that to be kind of, normal military activities for us.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  We have time for just one last question.  Ryan.

Q:  General, thank you for doing this.  Ryan Browne with CNN.

On Yemen, we don't hear much about the campaign against AQAP.

Can you talk a little bit about that and what the status of that is?  Are they still considered the most dangerous plotting group of al-Qaida?

And is there a permanent U.S. on-the-ground military presence in Yemen?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, first off, with respect to al-Qaida, obviously we're always concerned about al-Qaida.  And, you know, we -- as you've -- you've obviously tracked for some time here, we've had ongoing operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula for some time.  And I do think we've had a significant impact on their ability to, you know, plan and conduct external operations and to be a -- be a viable organization.

That said, as we find with many of these organizations, this requires constant pressure.  And so we -- we seek to -- to continue to apply pressure on them and we will do that.

And we're doing that with our partners on the ground.  Some of our Arab partners and the Yemeni partners -- I did have an opportunity to meet with some of our Yemeni leadership when I was -- when I visited the country here a few weeks ago.  And again, we had a chance to talk about that.

They're very -- they're very supportive of our -- of these efforts that we're working in conjunction with them.  And we'll continue to do that to keep pressure on -- on al-Qaida.  And so we always take al-Qaida very, very seriously.

You know, with respect to the permanent presence on the ground, I won't talk any -- any specifics and certainly not anything in terms of -- of numbers here.  But we do have elements on the ground that support our -- our ongoing missions here for counterterrorism.  And I'll just leave it at that.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay, that's all the time we have for questions this morning.  Sir, did you have any final words for those here?

GEN. VOTEL:  Thanks, Sean, I do.

And thanks to all of you for your questions and for staying with me this morning.  I appreciate this and I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

And I would just close by -- with one last comment, and that is that I am still filled after over 38 years in the military here with awe and humility at what our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families accomplish and sacrifice day in and day out.

And I think it's really important for the American people to know and appreciate that as well.  They are excellent and they represent our countries so well.  I couldn't be more proud of them for what they do every day for us in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

So thanks again.  I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  General, thank you very much for your time and have a great day.

GEN. VOTEL:  Thanks, Sean.