SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and thanks again for coming out on the trip.
We anticipated that we might not be able to get into Afghanistan due to weather. We got the weather report yesterday. I was fortunate, yesterday before we left Munich to speak with President Ghani at length. We were both there, and we took advantage of that opportunity, knowing I might not be able to see him today as we initially planned. I had a very in-depth discussion about the way ahead in Afghanistan.
And then I spoke today by picture video teleconference with our NATO commander in the field, General Nicholson, and that went on for several hours, and this is all part of my — getting my feet on the deck in terms of getting current on the situations that the coalition faces in Afghanistan, both political and strategically, and identifying the way ahead.
Here in United Arab Emirates I met with his royal highness the crown prince. This is a country that’s been a long-time partner in the region, very long time, going back decades, and we again had very good discussion – I’m in listening mode — out here, that we’ve got our hands around the stability aspects, and what’s going well and what’s not going so well here in the region. And soon enough we’ll move on to our next stop.
So let me go to questions and answers now this — with those few words, see what’s on your mind.
Q: Sir, with the West Mosul Operation kicking off today I’d just like to get your general assessment of –how things are going and — my colleague, who’s there, who’s embedded with the Iraqis, he saw some American special forces alongside, very close to the front line, so I’d just like to know whether or not there have been any changes to the ROE [rules of engagement], on where they can and can’t go since President Trump has taken over?
SEC. MATTIS: The West Mosul Operation, as you know, has been under way in terms of isolating the area for some time now. The attack into the city is something I don’t want to go into details about, because I owe confidentiality to the troops who are actually making the attack. But at the same time we are very close to it, if not already engaged in that fight. The U.S. forces continue in the same role that they were in, in east Mosul. And the coalition forces are in support of this operation, and we will continue as you know with the accelerated effort to destroy ISIS.
Q: You mentioned you spoke to General Nicholson today. I’d be interested in hearing your assessment on Afghanistan, a conflict that President Trump has been noticeably reticent on. Did you get any better understanding of the extent to which Russia is helping the Taliban? And are you in favor of broader authorities for extra U.S. troops being sent back to the country?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, on the situation in Afghanistan right now, again, my point in talking to President Ghani and talking to our field commander, the NATO field commander, is to gain their political and military appreciation to the situation. We’re putting our thoughts together now.
The president has been rightly reticent on it, because he’s waiting for my assessment, and the assessment from the intelligence community. And he’s open to my advice on it. But first of all I’ve got to formulate where I stand, and so this is the normal collection of the information, and to assess what the other countries in the region are doing in Afghanistan to help or hinder us in our efforts there.
So we’re still sorting that out, and here shortly I’ll have my thoughts collected.
Q: Just as a follow-up, do you know how long that will take?
SEC. MATTIS: No, no, but that — it shouldn’t take too long, but I’ve got to integrate a fair number of issues in order to give a good recommendation for the way ahead.
Q: I mean, what’s your — what’s your — last year was another disastrous year for the ANDSF with their casualty rates. . Do you think that this is a sustainable conflict as it’s currently going on?
SEC. MATTIS: I’d suggest that last year was pretty disastrous for the Taliban. They lost their leader. They took no provincial capitals. And you can say, well, that’s a pretty low bar. Actually, considering that this is an organization that knows they cannot win at the ballot box, and they’re using bombs and guns on purpose, they were unsuccessful in gaining their tactical objectives. So I think it was a lot more damaging to the Taliban, and the Afghan Security Forces paid a very heavy price to keep the Taliban on their back foot, but they paid it, they’ve held, and the Taliban is in a worst position today, even though I do not equate that to success on our side.
Q: Do you know the amount of territory being held by the government has shrunk to just 57.2 percent over the — in the most recent assessment?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, the amount of land is probably less important in wars among the people than the amount of — the percentage of people who are protected by the government.
I would not in any way contest it hasn’t been a hard fight all the way through. I think that’s a very accurate point. I would question who came out on the shorter end of the stick. Right now I’d rather be on NATO’s — be in NATO’s position right now than I would want to be in the Taliban’s position.
Q: Sir, President Trump has said that, this week, that the press is the enemy of the American people. Do you agree?
SEC. MATTIS: I’ve had some rather contentious times with the press, but no, the press, as far as I’m concerned, are a constituency that we deal with, and the — I don’t have any issues with the press myself.
Q: And just to follow-up, General Tony Thomas had said that the disarray at the White House was causing some consternation, particularly among those fighting your wars. Do you agree, and what effect is it having?
SEC. MATTIS: You know, I’ve been talking to a fair number of military commanders around the world. I think General Thomas was probably taken a bit out of context, because we all want to see everything moving smoothly. Welcome to democracy. It’s at times wildly contentious. It’s at times quite sporting.
But the bottom line is, this is the best form of government that we can come up with. So the military’s job is to hold the line, and to hold the line and to hold the line, while our government sorts out the way ahead and our people speak.
So we don’t have any disarray inside the military, and that’s where my responsibility lies.
Q: So, could you please lay out your priorities for the trip (inaudible) to Iraq. And let us know a bit about whether you expect — and what message will you deliver to the Iraqis who were concerned about the president’s comments about (inaudible).
And also (inaudible) Iraq (inaudible) United States. Do you plan to reassure then? Do you plan to raise the issue of (inaudible)?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, we’re going into Iraq because I need to get current on the situation there, political situation, the enemy situation, and the friendly situation, and put all that together in my mind, and the only way you can do that is by talking to the people responsible over there on the ground. That would be Iraqi political leadership, our partner in this fight, and we’re going to make certain that we’ve got good shared situational awareness of what we face as we work together, fight alongside each other to destroy ISIS. That’s the point about going in there.
I have not seen the new executive order but I, right now, am assured that we will take steps to allow those who have fought alongside us, for example, to be allowed into the United States. They will have been vetted obviously by their performance on the battlefield it (inaudible), and by the normal procedures, and I’m sure we’ll work our way through this quickly.
Q: My question was about seizing Iraqi oil (inaudible). Was that something…
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I’m sure that we will continue to do so in the future. We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.