BY SIMON ATEBA/WASHINGTON DC
The United States Government will continue to partner with Nigeria and other nations battling a deadly Boko Haram insurgency in West and Central Africa, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday without giving many details.
Captain Jeff Davis, Director of Press Operations at the Pentagon, said at a press briefing with foreign journalists in Washington DC that the U.S. Government’s focus is to continue to develop the capacity of countries fighting Boko Haram so they can tackle the terrorists themselves.
“We do have a relationship with Nigeria and with a number of other countries in the region where Boko Haram is active to be able to help them develop the capacity to fight them themselves. That’s an ongoing effort, and we will continue to work in that regard,” he said
“One of our core missions and the core strategy that we employ in Africa is helping our partners increase their own defensive capabilities. We concentrate our efforts on helping African nations and on regional organizations to build capable and professional militaries that respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law so that they can more effectively contribute to stability in Africa. We do that through military-to-military engagements, programs, exercises, and operations, all of which are coordinated with the Department of State as well as the country teams in each of these countries, as well as, of course, with the host nation government,” he added.
On the reported arms sale to Nigeria, Captain Davis did not give many details. “I don’t have anything to announce with regards to that,” he said.
“So just I’ll tell you process-wise how arms sales work. A lot of people think that we’re the ones who make the decision about arms sales because we’re the military. It’s actually not us; it’s a State Department-led process. They’re the ones who approve it. We often have opinions about it and we voice those through an interagency process. So the way that you would see an arms sale announced is it comes out of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. So once it’s been approved by the State Department and goes to us for – to be executed, essentially, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, on their website – you can sign up and subscribe for those updates – puts out the information. And there’s usually – it’s usually done at a time when we have a 30-day notification to Congress. And we have to notify Congress; they don’t have to approve it per se, but if they don’t act within 30 days, then the sale’s approved. But we’re the ones through our contracting mechanisms that goes about executing the contract for them,” he added.
Below is the transcript of the press briefing on Monday May 15.
FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS, DIRECTOR OF DEFENSE PRESS OPERATIONS
TOPIC: DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE BRIEFING FOR FOREIGN JOURNALISTS
MONDAY, MAY 15, 2017, 2:00 P.M. EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Thank you for being with us. We have with us today Captain Jeff Davis, Director of Press Operations at the Pentagon. He’ll do an opening statement, then we’ll do Q&A. Please identify yourselves and your outlets as you ask questions, and we’ll have a transcript out either this evening or tomorrow morning. Thank you for joining us. Thank you, Captain Davis.
CPT DAVIS: Thanks. Hey, thank you for coming. So, actually, I see a few familiar faces, but for the non-familiar faces, I wanted to tell you a little bit about the Pentagon and the reason I came here today. This is a chance to reach out to a lot of the foreign press who maybe don’t get over to the Pentagon on a regular basis.
Who here – who’s ever been to the Pentagon or covered the Pentagon? Most of – well, a little over half.
QUESTION: A long time ago.
CPT DAVIS: A long time ago. Well, so covering the Pentagon as a reporter is – I think it’s a pretty cool beat. We are the most open Executive Branch office building in this town to press. You may not know that. I say “Executive Branch,” I don’t count Congress, but if you count the Executive Branch, we offer more access to press than anyone else does. The State Department –you’re restricted with your badge to the first floor and can’t go up in the other upper floors or they’ll tackle you. (Laughter.) A similar arrangement at the White House – you can go from the press briefing room and in a little maze there to a couple of the inner offices, but beyond that, nothing.
The Pentagon – we offer full, open access to reporters who do have credentials to get in and we have about 40 or so reporters who physically work there every day. We give them office space, we give them places to file. All of the TV networks have studios there where they can broadcast live. And we actually just recently – I don’t even think we doubled, I think we tripled our amount of space dedicated for print outlets to be able to have there. So it is definitely an open arrangement.
We have also about 23 – I think is the current number – of press officers in the press office at the Pentagon and we’ve divided the entirety of the Department of Defense into 23 pieces, so you can find somebody there who knows a little bit about whatever your area of interest is. We have all the different regions. We have people who do – someone who does Africa, someone who does Europe, someone who does Russia and Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, and that’s just on the regional desks. And then we have other desks that cover everything from personnel issues.
Personnel issues are very broad where we are. We’ve got traumatic brain injuries, suicide, women in combat, transgender that are all covered in that area. We’ve got intelligence, special operations, budget – oh, by the way, we manage a $600 billion-a-year budget, and larger than the GDP of some countries is the size of our budget, and that alone takes a spokesperson to be able to explain the intricacies of that.
So it’s a very exciting place to work and it’s a really diverse beat. The reporters who cover the Pentagon regularly will tell you that it’s good in that you can be covering different subject matters. You’re not going to be out there scooping each other all the time. You can run off in different directions. But when there’s one piece of breaking news, they all can come together pretty well and cover it.
That said, we have in our culture in the military a very decentralized mentality, decentralized culture. We don’t claim to be able to speak to everything going on in this massive institution – $600 billion-a-year, four million people in almost every country on Earth that we have some sort of a presence – we don’t claim to be able to speak to all of that, and we do have a corporate culture that pushes things down to be able to provide information, tactical-level details at a lower level. So you’ll find that the vast majority of media interactions that take place on a day-to-day basis are not even taking place in the Pentagon; they’re taking place further down the chain of command where they should be.
The other point I just wanted to bring up in talking about our office and the reason that a couple of lights are on, but not the big bright lights and the cameras aren’t rolling – it goes to this. It goes to this uniform I’m wearing. We who wear the cloth of our nation, who wear the uniform in our country, are apolitical. We’re here to serve whomever our Commander-in-Chief is. We have just gone through a transition very recently and it’s important for those of us who do this, particularly in the spokesperson role, to be able to know that we have the absolute trust of our leaders and the confidence of our leaders, no matter who they are. And the chain of command that I had prior to January 20th had equal confidence in me that the chain of command currently does.
And so that means – being apolitical means that in our business as we deal with you and the press, we tend to do it more so in a strict ‘Five W’s’ fashion, and the reason I don’t like cameras is because when the cameras are rolling, you get more drama and theater, and there’s an expectation that I’m here to defend the policy or be an apologist for it, and that’s not our role in the uniformed military. Our role is to execute the policy and to carry it out, not to be apologists for it. So when we brief, when I brief, we do it off camera. It’s much more collegial, I think the people tend to be – you all tend to be a little nicer when the cameras aren’t rolling. But it also focuses the discussion on actual facts – who, what, when, where, why – without having to get into defending it necessarily.
So that said, I wanted to give you a quick update. We do these off-camera briefings – we call them gaggles – once or twice a week. It depends on the schedule, it depends on other things that are going on. But a quick update for you just to take you on a walk around the world: I wanted to start on a couple of points with ISIS, what’s going on in Iraq and Syria, a little bit on Afghanistan, a little bit on Europe, and finally wind up in the Asia Pacific region.
First off, you may have seen the news last week about the fall of Tabqa. Tabqa is a city along the Euphrates River just to the south of Lake Assad, and the dam, in fact, that holds Lake Assad back is called the Tabqa Dam. That city was liberated last week officially by the Syrian Democratic Forces. These are our partners that we work with on the ground in Syria. They had started as predominantly Kurdish. They have actually changed their ethnic composition substantially over the last year as they’ve made progress further down into Arab-controlled areas where they’ve gotten to become majority Arab.
But to walk through some of that, in northern Syria, U.S. and coalition advisers today are continuing their operations to defeat ISIS. The Syrian Democratic Forces that I spoke of is a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian force that’s fighting ISIS, often to liberate their own hometowns in northern Syria, and were providing training and equipment to the Syrian Arab Coalition, which is a predominantly Arab component of the SDF. To date, we’ve trained more than 6,000 members of the Syrian Arab Coalition. And to date, since the SDF began beating back ISIS in northern Syria, they have liberated more than 35,700 square kilometers from ISIS in Syria. That’s why when you hear us talk about the SDF being the most effective force in fighting ISIS since Syria, the numbers prove. They have not been matched by any other partner, any other party or player on the ground in terms of their ability to defeat ISIS and reclaim territory and liberate it.
So again, this retaking of Tabqa and the liberation of the Tabqa Dam, a very strategic dam, the largest hydroelectric plant in Syria, is an important operation that we’re doing in preparation for isolating Raqqa, the Raqqa isolation. Raqqa, as you know, is the capital of the caliphate for ISIS and taking Tabqa back is a critical part of that.
Next, to Iraq. I wanted to mention that today is day 85 of the liberation of West Mosul operation. I wish I could show you the map I see every morning that shows the size that ISIL controls in western Mosul. It’s a classified map so they wouldn’t let me hand it out to you. But it shows in stark color this area that ISIS controls and western Mosul is getting smaller and smaller and is really now limited to this old city of western Mosul and the area immediately surrounding it to the west and the north. The progress there by Iraqi Security Forces has been substantial. We, of course, last year saw east Mosul fall. I don’t want to say it was easy. It was actually quite hard and ISIL frontloaded a lot of that battle by throwing DBIEDs at these forces in a much faster pace than we had anticipated. But they did ultimately win, did ultimately liberate it, and now have begun this process of retaking West Mosul, and it is going quite well.
Iraqi Security Forces over the weekend continued to make progress against stiff resistance in West Mosul. These Iraqi Security Forces are supported by the international coalition that supports them with combat advisors on the ground for their forces who are directly engaged in combat as well as air and artillery strikes, intelligence and logistical support, and training to enhance the long-term effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces.
To date, the coalition has put about 97,000 Iraqi Security Force members through various types of training. And just yesterday, as part of this progress, the Iraqi Security Forces gained an additional two kilometers along the forward line of troops, and the total gains in West Mosul since the offensive started in February is now 566 square kilometers in West Mosul.
The ISF continues to demonstrate their ability to conduct complex combat operations in a challenging urban environment by coordinating several major axis of advance as they engage ISIS and dismantle the lethal network of traps, IEDs, and fortifications that have been left behind in this city that is, oh, by the way, still full of civilians. This is something that is a huge military challenge. ISIS had two years to dig into this city, two years to burrow into tunnels, to prepare vehicle-borne and house-borne IEDs – improvised explosive devices – to set up booby-traps, to set up oil pits that they could burn to create obscuration fires. This has been a very formidable enemy particularly in the west side of the city where they are now.
Next, I wanted to touch real briefly on Afghanistan. I know there’s been a lot of news on it lately, but just an update on the operations there. As you might know, we have about 8,400 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan right now. That number did come down a little bit last year. They perform two complementary missions. There’s two components to this: One is the part we do with NATO, which is to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces; and the other is a U.S. only – not a NATO mission – a U.S. only counterterrorism mission that we do also hand in hand with the Afghan forces, and that’s focused primarily on – lately on ISIS-K, ISIS Khorasan province – the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan – but as well on remnants of al-Qaida. Our main objective is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States and our allies, and we remain focused on the defeat of al-Qaida and its associates as well as the defeat of ISIS Khorasan province, or ISIS-K as we call it.
The Taliban, as you may know, tried eight separate times last year to overtake a provincial capital in Afghanistan. They failed every single one of those times, and they have yet to do it successfully this year as well. And you’ve heard General Nicholson talk about it in his open testimony and elsewhere that Afghanistan remains a formidable challenge.
Next, on Europe, I just wanted to mention some things going on there that may interest you. We remain committed to a persistent rotational presence of air, land, and sea forces in Central and Eastern Europe for training and exercises. To enhance deterrents, we also augment presence in Europe through continuous armored brigade rotations as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. We’re also committed to our allies. NATO will continue to be the guarantor of peace and stability in the North Atlantic area. Our commitment to collective defense under Article 5 of the NATO charter is clear. And this summer, we expect there to be numerous exercises with more than 20 nations in the Black Sea and Baltic regions of Europe. This collective training involves a joint and combined force of tens of thousands of ally and partner nation personnel, and training together helps maintain joint readiness, build interoperability, and strengthen relationships across Europe. The Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions and these exercises there are a demonstration of U.S., allied, and partner commitment to security and stability.
You might have heard of two particular acronyms that relate to Europe, and I just want to give you a brief update on what those are. One is called EFP, Enhanced Forward Presence. This is a NATO mission. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence is a demonstration of allied solidarity to defend NATO territory against any possible aggression, and the U.S. is a framework nation of this effort. We are responsible for deploying the battlegroup to Poland, and there’s three other battlegroups that other NATO countries are doing in each of the three Baltic countries. Our battlegroup consists of about a thousand soldiers from the Second Squadron, Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment as well as another 350 personnel from other nations.
The ERI, or European Reassurance Initiative, is a budget thing. It’s money. The European Reassurance Initiative is a funding measure to assure our NATO allies and partners of the U.S. commitment to the security and territorial integrity of NATO. In 2017, the budget for that is $3.42 billion. And as you probably know, we’re entering budget season now soon.
Let me give you one quick update on Africa, and then I’ll – actually, let me do this. I’ll switch gears. North Korea. There was news on that over the weekend. And as you know, we announced over the weekend – actually the Pacific Command announced that they had detected and tracked a North Korean missile launch that took place about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday afternoon. It was launched from a place called Kusung, K-u-s-u-n-g, and landed in the Sea of Japan. The type of missile is still being assessed, and the flight was not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile. What happens anytime there’s a launch from North Korea or anywhere else in the world is our North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, in Colorado Springs makes an immediate determination if there’s a threat posed to North America. It did make an assessment on this one and assessed that no, it did not pose a threat.
You’ve heard our leaders say that we continue to call on North Korea to refrain from provocative destabilizing actions, rhetoric, and to make the strategic choice to fulfill its international obligations and commitments to return to serious talks. This weapons program that they have is unlawful, and it represents a clear grave threat to U.S. national security. North Korea openly states that its ballistic missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons, to strike cities in the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. And as we’ve spoken about with regards to China, North Korea is a liability for China, not an asset, and China will partner with us to demonstrate to North Korea that it stands alone in its pursuit of illegal weapons of mass destruction. And of course, we remain steadfast and ironclad in our commitment to our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan.
Finally, let me give you a couple of updates on Africa. Africa is an enduring interest for the United States, and its importance will continue to increase as African economies, populations, and influence grow. Relatively small but wise investments in African security institutions today offer disproportionate benefits for the rest of the world in the future which creates mutual opportunities and reduces the risks of destabilization, radicalization, and persistent conflict. The United States has about 5,000 personnel on the continent in Africa on any given day, the bulk of which operate from Camp Lemonnier, which is in Djibouti.
A main tenet of our effort is limited forward presence on the continent with a focus on building our African partner nation capabilities across a range of functions sharing information with them so that they can have better situational awareness and can be more effective.
I will actually pause there and wanted to take some questions and see what might be on your mind. We’ll start here in the front, second row here. Yes, sir. If you wouldn’t mind, since we don’t know each other, let me know your name and what your outlet is.
QUESTION: Okay, yes. My name is Simon Ateba of SimonAteba.com, an online newspaper in Nigeria, and I want to just talk about Africa and Boko Haram. This year was Boko Haram kidnapped four women in Cameroon. Yesterday there was attack suicide in Nigeria. The day before it was in Cameroon. So the Boko Haram is spreading. And I’m trying to know what the U.S. Government is doing to combat Boko Haram, and if you can give us an update on the arms sale that the Nigerian Government is trying to secure or has secured with the U.S. Government. Thank you.
CPT DAVIS: Sure. And this is probably one of – an example of one of those things where I’ll have to have somebody else get greater detail for you from AFRICOM, the commander for United States Africa Command.
I can just tell you that with regards to Boko Haram, you’ve seen our nation’s leaders speak about it and the threat that it serves, and I think the issue with the girls being kidnapped obviously raised this issue in the consciousness for most Americans. We do have a relationship with Nigeria and with a number of other countries in the region where Boko Haram is active to be able to help them develop the capacity to fight them themselves. That’s an ongoing effort, and we will continue to work in that regard.
As I was saying before as I talked about Africa, one of our core missions and the core strategy that we employ in Africa is helping our partners increase their own defensive capabilities. We concentrate our efforts on helping African nations and on regional organizations to build capable and professional militaries that respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law so that they can more effectively contribute to stability in Africa. We do that through military-to-military engagements, programs, exercises, and operations, all of which are coordinated with the Department of State as well as the country teams in each of these countries, as well as, of course, with the host nation government.
Laurie. Oh, yeah. Go —
CPT DAVIS: Say again?
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, I don’t have anything to announce with regards to that. So just I’ll tell you process-wise how arms sales work. A lot of people think that we’re the ones who make the decision about arms sales because we’re the military. It’s actually not us; it’s a State Department-led process. They’re the ones who approve it. We often have opinions about it and we voice those through an interagency process. So the way that you would see an arms sale announced is it comes out of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. So once it’s been approved by the State Department and goes to us for – to be executed, essentially, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, on their website – you can sign up and subscribe for those updates – puts out the information. And there’s usually – it’s usually done at a time when we have a 30-day notification to Congress. And we have to notify Congress; they don’t have to approve it per se, but if they don’t act within 30 days, then the sale’s approved. But we’re the ones through our contracting mechanisms that goes about executing the contract for them.
So, yeah. Laurie, your —
QUESTION: My question concerns Turkey and U.S. support for the YPG. Turkish – there have been a few Turkish officials and in the Turkish press the threat to close Incirlik if the issue isn’t resolved. Have you heard that from – officially when you speak – when U.S. officials, defense officials speak with Turkish officials? Is there any hint about closing Incirlik to U.S. access, and is that a concern of yours?
CPT DAVIS: Well, I mean, first things first. One, I don’t – I – we need to be very careful. I don’t want to get ahead of the visit that’s happening tomorrow with President Erdogan coming here. But we have worked very carefully and methodically over the last week and prior to that to be able to explain exactly what we’re doing in Syria to our Turkish allies, and that’s the first and foremost thing to recognize. Turkey is an ally; it’s an ally through NATO. It’s also a partner in the fight against ISIS, a partner through the hosting of the bases in Incirlik and elsewhere that it provides, and a partner in their actions to help close the border and seal it from ISIS being able to come in and ISIS terrorists being able to go out.
As I was talking to you earlier, mentioning about the effectiveness of the Syrian Democratic Forces, this is the only force that is militarily capable of retaking Raqqa, the caliphate of ISIS, any time in the near future. They’re poised and they’re postured to do it, but they need some assistance to get across the finish line, essentially. And this group, partnered with the enabling force from us and the coalition, being the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future, we are going about the process of equipping them. But we’re doing that while we’re keenly aware of Turkey’s interests in their security. And our leaders have worked very hard to reassure the people and the Government of Turkey that the U.S. is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally. And we continue to prioritize our support for the Arab elements of the SDF, and we fully support returning Raqqa to the care and governance of local Arabs when it’s complete.
QUESTION: In private discussions, have Turkish officials raised —
CPT DAVIS: So I just will stop you right there when you said “private discussions.” I am not going to be able to help you on that.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Andrei Sitov; I am a Russian reporter with TASS here in Washington, D.C. Thank you for coming over, Captain, and thanks to our friends at the FPC as usual for hosting the briefing.
I must say that we feel that the Pentagon is an open organization. We feel we have access; Colonel Baldanza and others provide all the answers that we need, basically.
CPT DAVIS: Good.
QUESTION: But still it’s good to have you here in person and to be able to ask you some basically small things along the lines that you mentioned. First, Syria, obviously. The – my understanding is the U.S. was the one who proposed safe zones in Syria. And now they are talking about de-escalation zones. Are you, the military, the U.S. Military, prepared to honor those zones and support them?
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, so good question. And I know there’s been a lot of discussion about that. I could just tell you as a practical matter this is actually something that’s not really – does not really have an effect on the coalition. The zones that have been proposed are all well to the west of the Euphrates River Valley, where the focus of effort is on fighting ISIS. So we’re certainly aware of it. I know others in our government are working along that line; certainly as a nation we’ve made clear that we support any effort that helps reduce violence. But as a practical matter for the United States Department of Defense, where our focus is on fighting ISIS, we’re talking about different locations.
QUESTION: So basically you have no policy guidance on this, even for your own forces so far?
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, so it has not altered our operations in any way.
QUESTION: Okay. On Afghanistan – in April you announced 300 Marines additionally going there. Is this a permanent presence now, or is this rotational?
CPT DAVIS: Into Afghanistan?
CPT DAVIS: I guess I’m not familiar with that announcement, but it might’ve been just a rotational.
QUESTION: A rotational.
CPT DAVIS: We have been operating at a troop level of 8,400 since late last year.
QUESTION: And lastly, you mentioned this armored brigade presence in Europe. And General Scaparrotti recently was testifying, saying that it’s not enough; he wants more. Again, is this something that is being practically considered, or is it in theory? Any general wants more, in theory. (Laughter.)
CPT DAVIS: Sure. You know us well.
QUESTION: So is it a practical (inaudible) —
CPT DAVIS: Right. No, I don’t have anything new to announce on that. Certainly our, like you said, our leadership will often speak, as they’re supposed to, particularly in open testimony, to draw attention to their recommendations. But no, we don’t have anything new to announce there. We have made some substantial increases, as you’re well aware, in our presence and our commitment to Eastern Europe, both financially and militarily. And we’ll continue to do that.
So – yes, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you, Captain. Mouzer Sleiman, Al Mayadeen TV, based in Beirut, Lebanon. I’m going to follow up on the question on Syria, the de-conflicting zone or the safe zone. Does United States support this proposition that despite the different version of naming, but does United States in the discussion between the military support the de-conflicting zone? And what is the role going to be for United States in those zones?
CPT DAVIS: Sure.
QUESTION: And also, connected to it: What kind of facilities, operational facilities, that United States have now in Syria? And how those facilities can help or assist in the mission to attack ISIS and defeat ISIS and al-Nusrah?
Last thing: The maneuvering on the border with Jordan, is there going to be any military action connected to – against terrorist organization coming from these maneuvers in Jordan?
CPT DAVIS: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the last thing you spoke about.
QUESTION: Well, there is – military maneuvers between 20 countries have been —
CPT DAVIS: Oh, you’re talking about the exercises that are taking place?
QUESTION: Exercises, yeah.
CPT DAVIS: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: There are many speculation where – that this is maybe kind of preparation for some kind of military action on that front.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah. On the latter, no. If we’re talking about the same thing, this is just a routine military exercise. We do dozens of them all over the year – all over the world every year.
To your earlier question, I don’t want to pass the buck, but understand from the Department of Defense standpoint, we are concerned about fighting ISIS in Syria. That’s our sole mission there, and that’s what the coalition does. It’s not – the coalition is not fighting Nusrah or any of the other groups. We have done some unilateral counterterrorism strikes, not part of the coalition, where we have gone after core al-Qaida groups that are affiliated with Nusrah, but that’s a little different.
So to your question, we’re not the right entity of the United States Government to speak about the U.S. Government policy on the de-escalation zones. That really needs to come from State Department. I’m not trying to weasel out of the question with you, but we’re just not the – we’re just not the ones who are the lead on that. Our operations are focused on ISIS, and that’s well to the east of what we’re talking about.
QUESTION: I understand that the different entity or making decision on this, but does – what is the Pentagon position when – when you have discussion about the de-conflicting zone? Do you see it as a positive step toward the goal of United States or not?
CPT DAVIS: We – yeah, we see anything that reduces violence in western Syria, where the people there have been through horrific personal devastation over the last couple years, as positive. But again, it’s the State Department leading these discussions with the other parties involved. As a practical matter, as Department of Defense executes policy. We don’t make it. We are still executing the policy of fighting ISIS with the coalition along the Euphrates River Valley full stop.
QUESTION: Okay. Is the de-conflicting on the air with Russia still continue?
CPT DAVIS: It does.
QUESTION: And it is on a regular basis?
CPT DAVIS: It does, yeah.
Toru Takei, how are you?
QUESTION: Thank you. This is Toru Takei of Kyodo News. Thank you, Captain, for doing this. I have a question about North Korea. Do you have any updates on the type of the missile they launched over the weekend, and was this a KN-17, and how serious is the threat of this to the United States?
CPT DAVIS: So we are still assessing this launch from over the weekend. I apologize; I can’t give you classified assessments of it. But it’s obviously a program that we continue to watch. We watch not only the program but we watch the – our own ability to defend against those threats. And we work very closely with our allies from Japan and the Republic of Korea to be able to ensure that we can defend our countries. But I don’t have anything more than that for you.
QUESTION: Heka Elkoudsy from Asharq al Alwsat newspaper. I want to follow up on ISIS with the upcoming trip of President Trump to Saudi Arabia. Is there some kind of steps to enhance the cooperation with Saudi Arabia in fighting ISIS? Are you asking for escalating the efforts to fight ISIS, or not what kind of demand or request are you asking military to Saudi Arabia?
The other question regarding ISIS, too. We have seen that President Obama’s administration has captured a lot of ISIS leaders, and they have been held in Guantanamo. Now we only have 41 —
CPT DAVIS: I’m sorry; that’s actually not true.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: Not true about President —
CPT DAVIS: Not true about ISIS being in Guantanamo.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s my question. You haven’t captured —
CPT DAVIS: No, we have not —
QUESTION: — any leaders.
CPT DAVIS: We have not had any —
QUESTION: Is that a strategy to cause them not to capture?
CPT DAVIS: We have not had any new detainees taken to Guantanamo since 2008.
QUESTION: Yeah, I mean, it was al-Qaida during Obama’s administration. My question is your – do you have a strategy of killing them instead of capturing them?
CPT DAVIS: Well, so a fundamental difference – that’s a good question. I’m glad you asked it. But yes, we have not – there has been no increase in population of detainees at Guantanamo Bay since 2008. And of course, ISIS – I don’t think the caliphate was declared until – was it 2012-2013?
There’s a difference now between what we had during the time we were putting detainees into Guantanamo Bay, detainees that were coming from the battlefield in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The difference is we’re dealing with functional governments on the ground. Afghanistan has a functional government. Iraq has a functional government. Syria not so much, but we do have a partner force there with the Syrian Democratic Forces that is able to take care of detainees on its own. That’s why the Law of Armed Conflict and rule of law are a big part of the training that we provide them. But ultimately, there’s simply not a need right now for us to have a place to house detainees because our partners on the ground are the ones who are taking them.
QUESTION: How about Saudi Arabia —
CPT DAVIS: Oh, I apologize; I don’t have anything to preview on that trip, and that’s obviously a presidential trip. We have a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Secretary has met with his counterpart. Secretary Mattis has met with his counterpart probably about six or seven weeks ago, as I recall. And we’re very interested in ensuring that Saudi Arabia maintain the ability to defend itself against external threats, against its – against the violations of its territorial integrity, which happen in the south where the – with the border with Yemen. And we consider them a partner in the fight against ISIS and we’ll continue to going forward.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Donghui Yu, with China Review News Agency of Hong Kong. My question is on THAAD in South Korea. And it was reported by the media that the delivery of additional component of the THAAD has been suspended to wait for the final decision by the new administration of South Korea. And can you confirm that?
And secondly, President Moon has sent an envoy to Beijing to re-negotiate with China in this regard. Are you concerned that there would be any change of this deployment or not? Thank you very much.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, thanks for asking that. So THAAD, Theater High-Altitude Air Defense System, there was a decision made – an alliance decision, a decision with the United States and South Korea – to deploy this system there. This system has the ability to defeat North Korean missiles. And clearly, for reasons we’ve already discussed today, North Korean missiles are a threat and a threat to the – a threat to the region and very destabilizing.
We recently completed the deployment of the first battery there. It achieved initial operating capability. That’s not the full-up, operational seamless capability that we want, but it has an initial ability to be able to defeat North Korean missiles.
I understand that there is concern about this in China. And frankly, it’s perplexing why that is. This is a system that is 100-percent defensive in nature. It does not have an offensive capability. It is meant to defend against North Korean missiles. So the – that that should be considered a destabilizing act by others is curious and incomprehensible, in my view.
The issue of what we do going forward – obviously, we are there in South Korea as the guests of the Republic of Korea, there to fulfill an alliance requirement. It’s an alliance obligation. We have to maintain the capabilities there that we need to defend the Republic of Korea. Everything that we do there, everything that – every soldier on the ground, every base that’s there, every mission that we conduct, is conducted with that in mind; that it is there – that the U.S. forces are there to defend the Republic of Korea against aggression from the North, and that’s true with this. But obviously, we’ll continue to discuss this going forward with the new Korean government. I wouldn’t make too much of changes in government. They have had many changes in government over the years. We have had many changes in government over the years. But this is an alliance that has endured many, many changes in government over six and a half decades.
QUESTION: May I have a follow-up? You mentioned the first stage of the installment of the battery has been operational, right? Is it enough to shut down the missile launch by the North Korea? Is the expand radar installed in the first place?
CPT DAVIS: So I won’t be any more specific than to tell you it has achieved initial operating capability to shoot missiles, but we won’t provide detailed technical specifications beyond that, for reasons I hope you understand.
So let me go – let me get some other faces we don’t normally see. Sir, the yellow collar. Yeah.
QUESTION: Dmytro Anopchenko, INTER Television Channel Ukraine, U.S. chief correspondent. Sir, can you give me an understanding about the position – DOD position about providing military aid to Ukraine? What I mean – there are more than $400 million provided in at least – in small batches, which will work until September. And the main question for the country: Will United States provide the lethal arm to Ukraine? The position of the Obama administration was known; Obama administration was against this. Do you have an understanding what is DOD position?
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, a good question. I don’t have any new policy changes to announce with regards to Ukraine. We obviously continue to do the things there that we’re doing, but I don’t have anything new for you. I’m sorry.
Yeah, Joe, and then we’ll —
QUESTION: Quick question, Captain Davis.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: Last week, you mentioned that a U.S. team is going to examine the Tabqa Dam. Could you give us an update on that piece?
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, I don’t have an update since we last talked. As – so this had come up last week. The Tabqa Dam, which had been held by ISIS for probably two years, had – there was a need to be able – there was not a need but a desire to check it to make sure that it didn’t have any structural problems. We have no indication of structural problems, but we do know that some of the hydroelectric generation capacity was damaged in some strikes, and we want to check that. This is obviously an important natural resource for the – national resource for the people of Syria and we want to ensure that it continues to serve that function.
QUESTION: Quick – another quick question: In regards to Raqqa, is it a fair statement to say that Turkey will not play any role in the Raqqa operation?
CPT DAVIS: Well, again, our position on this is that the – we will continue to talk with Turkey. Turkey is an ally. They’re a partner in the fight against ISIS. But the party on the ground that is able to get this done most quickly and most effectively is the SDF.
QUESTION: Captain Davis, there are some reports coming out of Syria or videos on social media – U.S. Special Forces were videoed, filmed fighting ISIS in eastern Homs province. Can you confirm that?
CPT DAVIS: Doesn’t sound right. I’ve not seen it.
QUESTION: And also —
CPT DAVIS: But —
QUESTION: — there are reports that the – some U.S. – or U.S. – yeah – coalition airstrikes caused some civilian casualties in Abu Kamal in Syria, and we also saw that there are some strikes in the list of CENTCOM press releases. Can you confirm or have a reaction to that?
CPT DAVIS: So I don’t. I know that the second one you speak of – seen the reports and I know that CENTCOM is looking into it. We have a process that you know, of course, but for the benefit of others, where – first off, we have a very rigorous process that we go through to try to avoid killing innocent civilians, and there’s not been another nation in the history of warfare that has gone through as an excruciating a process that we do to prevent it.
That said, we’re not perfect. War is difficult. Civilian casualties do happen. When they do, we – our process is first to do an assessment, a credibility assessment, of the allegation. Sometimes we get the allegation from social media, sometimes we get it from press reports, sometimes we get it from human rights organizations or international monitoring groups. We take all of them seriously. We do a quick credibility assessment. The credibility assessment just makes sure that time and space masses up – matches up to what the allegation is. If it’s determined to be credible, then we do an investigation.
And that’s a process that has worked well. It results in a monthly release. So again, on this one, new information; I don’t have anything. But the – but we do have a process, obviously, for looking into it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
CPT DAVIS: Oh yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Regarding the cyberattack, President Putin said a couple of hours ago that – he tried to make – to suggest that it was technology or malware from the United States, who was originally the one who’s responsible for the attack or at least the one that was used in the attack. Do you know if Russia is behind the attack, and do you have any defense concerns regarding the cyberattack?
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, thank you. I don’t – simply don’t know on your question. I can tell you that the last report that I had this morning was we have yet to see any indications of this popping up in any DOD systems. The lesson learned from all of this that you’ve probably seen is the importance of updating software and having patches put on and doing software updates, and this is something that specifically targeted a vulnerability in an older system without patches.
So we have through our United States Cyber Command very significant efforts that ensure that our systems are safe and not vulnerable to these things enough, and that’s done through very quick patches that are created when problems are discovered.
We’ll go – go – sir, right there.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ping Liu from China Youth Daily. I have a follow-up question about THAAD. You have said that the THAAD system in South Korea has got its initial operation capability, but there’s an unsettled issue that President Trump said that he wish South Korea to take the – around the around 1 billion deal, and South Korea said no. So what’s DOD’s position on this dispute? And do you think dispute can still can affect the future of the project?
And question two is about the Asia Pacific. A few days ago, Secretary Mattis said that he endorses the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative proposed by Senator McCain. And in this five-years plan, Senator McCain proposed around 7.5 billion for Asia Pacific. And so President Trump also proposed the Fiscal Year 2018 for a 54 billion increase in DOD budget. So is this Asia Pacific Stability Initiative budget included in President’s budget request? Thank you.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah. So great question, and understand we haven’t rolled out our Fiscal Year ’18 budget request yet. That’ll happen hopefully in the next couple of weeks, and when that rolls out, it’s called the President’s budget because we send our budget input up to the – to OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, and then it is released by the President to the Congress.
There’s a – you raise this issue of this Asia Pacific security initiative. This was something that originated as Congressional discussion. It started on the Hill. I will tell you that it on the surface makes sense that we would want to have adequate resources to fund our forward presence there. There’s some discussion about whether that goes into what’s called OCO or base budget, which I’m probably making more confusing for you. We have a base budget and then we have Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO. I know that our feeling is we would like to get as many things that are in OCO actually into the base budget as we can, not fund things out of OCO that don’t need to be. So that discussion’s ongoing, but on the surface it certainly sounds good, the idea that there would be additional funding to be able to have forward presence in the Asia Pacific region.
On THAAD, I don’t have anything more for you than what I said before. We have an alliance agreement with the Republic of Korea to deploy this system and there’s been no change to that.
So – yes, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Sir, this is Jahanzaib Ali. I’m the Washington correspondent for the ARY news TV, Pakistan. Sir, my question is about the presence of Daesh in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how much it concerns you, because there is already a big challenge of Taliban. They – as you know, they are controlling 11 districts in Afghanistan right now and intensified their attacks on Afghan security forces, too. So how much it is challenging there?
And secondly, sir, as you know that President Trump is likely to announce new Afghan policy in this month or the next month, so what kind of recommendations Pentagon has made regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan? Thank you.
CPT DAVIS: Sure. Well, first off, any time we talk about recommendations to the President, those are private, and Secretary Mattis is very resolute that he wants his advice to the President to be private. So I don’t – I don’t think I’m able to help you too much on that.
On the issue of ISIS in Afghanistan, I’d say it’s both a problem and a symptom or a sign of – it’s a reflection of progress is what it is. When ISIS is on its back in Iraq and Syria, it is no surprise that it’s popping up in other places that are more hospitable compared to Iraq and Syria. Iraq and Syria, because of the success of the mission there, has become less hospitable.
So we have seen this affiliate grow in Afghanistan, called ISIS-K or ISIS Khorasan Province. But we have focused a lot of effort on it, and you’ve certainly seen that covered widely in the press, both with airstrikes and operations on the ground in conjunction with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
So it is continuing to be a challenge, but at this point I don’t see it growing. I see it, if anything, struggling to maintain what little hold it has. And you’re talking about a very small area in the mountains of Nangarhar region. It’s not something that presents the level of threat at this point that it would probably like to, but we will continue to work with our partners there to defeat it. We don’t want it to establish a foothold.
So yes, ma’am, in the back.
QUESTION: My name is Taghreed Alresheq. I’m from Al Ghad newspaper in Jordan. Jordan said it doesn’t want any sectarian militias on its southern borders with Syria. Do you have any information, you as Pentagon, about the existence of any such militias on the borders with Jordan, on the northern Syrian border, like Hizballah and some specific Iranian militias?
And another question: What if these militias really threatened Jordan? What would the U.S. do? Thank you.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah, I apologize; I don’t have much on that for you. We obviously have a strong military-to-military relationship with Jordan. Jordan is an important leader in the region and a – one of the – one beacon of democracy and stability in an otherwise difficult region. But I don’t have anything specific on the border threats with regards to Syria.
So I’m looking for some new – way back there in the corner, in the far back. Sorry, some of you are familiar faces. You see me at the Pentagon, so I apologize if I’m skipping you.
QUESTION: Thanks. Zhenhua Lu from the South China Morning Post. Two things if you can update us. One is about North Korea already engaging in talks with U.S. or U.S. engaging in talks with North Korea. It was reported by South Korea’s news agency, happened in Norway, so it’s official or unofficial? Could you share with us information?
And second is about the FONOPS. Till President Trump took his office, there is no FONOPS carried out by U.S. Navy, and I talked to one expert on South China Sea. She said it’s very soon. So how soon is it and if any schedule? Thanks.
CPT DAVIS: I’m sorry, tell me – what was the first one again?
QUESTION: North Korea.
CPT DAVIS: Oh, North Korea and —
CPT DAVIS: Yes, that’s why I was – that’s why – so that’s diplomacy. I’m a military guy. We don’t do diplomacy. Take the Blue Line train to Foggy Bottom. The State Department’s there; they can help you. (Laughter.)
But to your other question, I’m glad you asked it – freedom of navigation operations – because that’s one that it’s unfortunate that that issue, if you do a quick word association game and you say “freedom of navigation operations,” the immediate thing that comes back into the person’s mind is China, and that’s actually not what freedom of navigation is about.
We did last year, last fiscal year, freedom of navigation assertions against 22 different countries all over the world. Many of those countries are friends and allies. It’s not about one country. It’s not about one body of water. Unfortunately, I think the public narrative has made it about China and the South China Sea. It’s not that. It’s about asserting international rights to navigate in waters that international law accepts, and these are rights and benefits that benefit all countries on Earth, to include China.
So we do these. We will continue to do them. But we don’t intend certainly to tell you about them in advance, and we do tell you about them after. There’s an annual report that comes out every year. We’ve been doing it, as far as I can tell, since 1991 that it’s posted online – probably more, probably longer than that – where we disclose these operations publicly, because we want the world to know where we’re doing freedom of navigation operations, and we’ll continue to do those.
So yes, sir. We’ve got to wrap it up here after a couple – I’m a little over. Sorry.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. One – William Emerson with TV Asahi. Just one follow-up on the issue of FONOPS. Is there any truth to the fact that FONOPS are being suspended against China while the —
CPT DAVIS: There’s no – there’s no truth to it.
CPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just wanted to confirm that. And then the other one was given that the missile launch by North Korea was in striking range with – within Guam striking range, are there any actions, or are you planning any actions or operations with your bombers stationed there?
CPT DAVIS: Not that we care to preannounce. (Laughter.)
So, all right. I can take one last one. I’ll – I know you. You’re a Pentagon face. I’ll go way back in the back there. It’s the curse. If you’ve covered the Pentagon, I’m sorry I’m skipping you. Oh, you there in the glasses.