BARRY PAVEL: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Atlantic Council. I’m Barry Pavel. I’m the vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. And on behalf of Atlantic Council, Chairman Governor Jon Huntsman and President and CEO Fred Kempe, welcome to what I’m certain will be a very dynamic and thought-provoking conversation on the U.S. strategy in the Middle East, specifically but not exclusively regarding the threat posed by ISIS.
This event is part of our Commander Series, which is generously supported by Saab North America, and we are delighted to continue our relationship with Saab in this format. And I thank Michael Andersson, Saab’s executive vice president here, for being here, and I also wanted to welcome several Atlantic Council board directors who are here today for this very important event.
This fits with a large and growing body of work that’s being done here at the Atlantic Council on Middle East security issues and on a few other issues, such as sort of the global trends that affect the region as well as other trends like the rise of nonstate – of nonstate actors. Certainly we’re doing a lot of this in the Scowcroft Center, including a war game that we recently conducted on the state of play over the next six months between ISIS and the U.S.-led coalition. We’ve written publications on regional trends and how they affect the Middle East out to 2020 and much more. And the Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East here is doing a large – a wide variety of work on very related issues as well led by Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, who is the director of the Hariri Center, a wide variety of work on issues such as how to deal with ISIS, how to deal with jihadists. Ambassador Fred Hoff and Faysal Itani, among many other scholars and former officials, are just doing a lot of work and leading a lot of the thinking on the U.S. role against jihadists in the Middle East.
Many of us at the Atlantic Council just returned from a week-long trip to the Gulf led by Governor Huntsman and Mr. Kempe, and it was quite clear to us that our partners in the region are paying extraordinary close – extraordinarily close attention to America’s commitment to this operation against ISIS. The widespread consensus seems to be that the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS will indeed take years as President Obama has suggested. And we feel so fortunate here today to have General Austin with us this morning to discuss the U.S. military strategy in this vital region. He is the official charged with implementing the military dimensions of U.S. policy in the Middle East broadly, including ISIS, and so we very much look forward to hearing his thoughts on the challenges confronting the current operation, the successes to date and other important regional issues that affect his job as the military commander. And these certainly include the challenge posed by Iran, but a wide array of issues, as you might expect as well.
I’d also like to welcome Jake Tapper, our moderator and anchor for CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper”, for joining us today. Jake, thanks for being here, and it’s also nice to have another Philly boy on the Atlantic Council stage.
This event could not be more timely. The U.S. is engaged in this fight against a brutal adversary with our allies and partners in the Middle East, and this adversary clearly has a reach that goes beyond the Middle East, as we’ve seen, unfortunately, in a range of headlines and other developments an uncanny ability to recruit new foot soldiers, including over 2,500 Westerners – and the numbers are growing, unfortunately – social media playing a very important role. We’ll want to get into that aspect as well. And certainly the fact that a lot of the – this is playing out right alongside a NATO ally here at the Atlantic Council, also garners our attention.
The ISIS threat has forced the U.S. and its partners and allies to refocus much of their resources and attention on Iraq and Syria, but there are certainly other defense and security priorities that occupy General Austin’s attention. Afghanistan, with new President Ashraf Ghani, is working to move his country forward after the most recent election. The P-5 plus one is looking at still working on a deal with Iran with a new deadline, November 24th, approaching rapidly. Should that fail, per President Obama’s stated policy, there certainly is the question of a military response on the table. There’s also developments in Yemen on the security front that are very concerning, so no shortage of very important issues that we could – that we will undoubtedly address today.
I could go, but this is clearly a rapidly changing and volatile region. General Austin’s implementation of the U.S. military strategy is critical to ensuring our success working with our allies and partners. And so as I said, we’re very lucky to host him. He’ll focus specifically on the military operation and on how U.S. forces are planning to deal with his theater today and into the future.
Please note that today’s event is on the record, and you can tweet alongside @ACScrowcroft, and the hashtag is #ACCommanders. And without further delay, I’d like to welcome Michael Andersson on the stage to introduce General Austin.
MICHAEL ANDERSSON: Thank you, Barry. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Again, my name is Michael Andersson. I am the executive vice president for Saab North America. Saab has been a very active supporter of the Atlantic Council for many years, and we have jointly produced the Commanders Series since the very start in 2008.
The Commander Series has become an important platform for discussions of key issues in the U.S.-military affairs and defense policies and a close connection to the trans-Atlantic relations. And we are very pleased to see that so many of you could join us here today.
It is an honor for me to introduce our special guest today, General Lloyd Austin III. General Austin assumed command of the United States Central Command in March of 2013 after serving as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army. Over the course of his nearly 40-year career he has commanded at every level. At the start of the Iraq conflict in 2003, then Brigadier General Austin was part of the spearhead with the 3rd Infantry Division into Iraq as the assistant division commander for maneuver. He then served as the commander of the 10th Mountain Division and Joint Task Force 180 in Afghanistan. In 2008, he returned to Iraq to serve as the commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, and in 2010 he pinned on his four-star and assumed command of United Stats Forces-Iraq, responsible for overseeing a successful conclusion of Operation New Dawn and a transition of the troops and equipment out of the country.
In his current position as the commander of the U.S. Central Command, he’s responsible for the 20 countries that make up the Central Region. And as you can imagine, with all that’s going on right now in Syria, (Yemen ?), Afghanistan, the job keeps him extremely busy, I assume.
We’re very grateful that he could join us today and share his views and perspectives on the current security challenges in the region. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming General Lloyd Austin III. (Applause.)
GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: Well, Mr. Andersson, thank you for that introduction and thanks to you and Barry Pavel for inviting me here to participate in this forum. And also I’d like to thank Frank Kempe as well. I’ll make some brief opening comments and then I’ll be happy to answer your questions. And I think we’ll start with Jake. And Jake, we appreciate you doing this as well.
You know, I often tell people that as a commander of U.S. Central Command, I am responsible for an area that consists of 20 countries – 20 countries with 20 different stories, some good and some bad. It is an area that is often characterized by fragile political transitions and civil wars and sectarianism and ungoverned spaces. And when things go badly there, it has a clear and sizable impact on the region and around the globe.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom in the Middle East. It’s also an area that is rich in history and culture and tradition. It is a fascinating place with much to offer, and it is one of the most strategically important regions, holding well over half of the world’s proven oil reserves and plentiful natural gas reserves, which are crucial to the global energy market.
The U.S. and our partner nations have vital national interests in this part of the world – interests that include the free flow of resources through key shipping lanes, and the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and also the defense of our homeland against a very real and persistent threat of terrorism and extremism.
And for these and a host of other reasons, it is an area that merits our focus and our attention and our continued collective efforts.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have been actively fighting extremists since 9/11, more than 13 years now. But the fact is that we are nowhere near finished. We’ve had a definite impact on al-Qaida and other violent extremist group capabilities. We’ve disrupted their efforts, and most importantly, we’ve successfully kept them from conducting another large-scale attack on our homeland.
However, extremists such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, still pose a significant threat. And we’ve seen this demonstrated very clearly over the past several months as we’ve watched ISIL wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria. And I’ll talk more about the situation in Iraq in Syria, which I know is on everyone’s mind, but first I’d like to briefly mention some of the other countries that are in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. And I’ll start with Afghanistan, which represents one of our top priorities.
In somewhat of a good-news story, in my opinion, today Afghanistan’s national security forces consists of nearly 330,000 Afghans. And they, not us, are in the lead for all security operations. And they’re managing to keep the levels of violence comparatively low across the country. Also, the average life expectancy for Afghans has increased by 20 years. And opportunities for Afghan women have improved, and education and literacy levels have increased. You know, it really is remarkable when you consider how far the Afghans have come in a relatively short period of time. And I do believe that they can be successful going forward.
However, they’re going to need a bit more time and a bit more help. The Afghans are good enough to provide for their own security. And they continue to demonstrate this on a daily basis. But they still need help with sustainment, and that includes resupply operations, particularly to remote and mountainous areas. They need help with fixed- and rotary-wing aviation and also with intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance, among other things. And we want to do all that we can to enable their success and to aid them in building additional capacity.
We cannot afford for Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for extremist groups. And at the end of the day, increased instability and diminished security and even tyranny would not only affect Afghanistan but also the central region – Central Asian region as a whole – and keeping in mind that Pakistan is next door, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
Of course, lasting security and stability can only be achieved if there is a credible, reliable and responsive government in place. And fortunately, we’ve been encouraged by recent political events. And certainly, the inauguration of Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, and the signing of the bilateral security agreement represent progress. And I will tell you that as I look at Afghanistan, I am optimistic and hopeful, hopeful that things will continue to trend in the right direction.
The next country that I’d like to talk about is Iran. Now, obviously, we’re not in a current fight with Iran. However, that’s not to say that our relationship with Iran is an easy one.
Our diplomatic corps has been hard at work trying to reach a deal with the Iranians with respect to their nuclear program. The November 24th deadline is fast approaching. And while we remain hopeful, it is unclear how things will play out. But whatever the outcome, whether there is an agreement or no agreement, whatever the outcome, the region will have changed forever. And we have to be prepared for what comes next. And we will be prepared.
Of course, if we do reach an agreement, that’s not to say that Iran will no longer pose a threat to our interests or the interests of our partners. Indeed, we remain concerned about their behavior in other areas. You see, in addition to their nuclear program, Iran has significant cyber and theater ballistic missile capabilities as well as the ability to disrupt the flow of commerce in the straits. Iran also routinely engages in malign activity through its Quds forces and through support to proxy actors. And so our relationship with Iran remains a challenging one, and we will continue to pay close attention to their actions going forward.
At the same time we’re watching with interest at what goes on in Lebanon and in Egypt, in Pakistan and in Yemen – and we’re paying close attention to the situation in Yemen. Over the past several months we’ve seen the Houthis assert themselves in an effort to increase their leverage over the Yemeni government. And they’ve had a degree of success. And this is particularly concerning when you consider the potential impacts of Houthi advances going forward. Just this past Friday the Houthis issued an ultimatum giving President Hadi 10 days to form a government or warning that if he failed to do so, all options are open. This would seem to indicate that the Houthis intend to establish – that the Houthis have an intent to establish an alternate body. And so we’re very, very interested in seeing how this plays out in the coming days.
At the same time, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which I consider to be one of the most dangerous al-Qaida affiliates – AQAP has increased its attacks in Yemen, both against the government and against the Houthis. And this is also cause for significant concern.
Needless to say, the Yemeni government is under enormous pressure from multiple fronts, and we’re in danger of losing a key partner in our counterterrorism fight. And so we must do what we can to continue to help President Hadi and the government to stabilize and re-assert control.
At the same time, we’re very, very focused on the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The barbaric organization ISIL has been wreaking havoc in both countries. They’ve also essentially erased the border and declared their intent to rule the Muslim world.
And what I would tell you is that ISIS is not a monolith. Over a period of years, the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Maliki, alienated the Sunni and Kurdish populations, and there was growing unrest. ISIL saw the opportunity, and they launched their attack into Iraq absent resistance from the Sunnis, who viewed ISIL as a means for bringing about a change in their government. And the Sunnis simply refused to fight, and in doing so, they facilitated ISIL’s push through the country. And unfortunately, the security forces that did remain were largely incapable of mounting a credible defense against ISIL.
You know, after we departed in 2011, the leadership of the country made a series of poor decisions. And among them was a decision to stop training the Iraqi security forces and to stop maintaining their equipment. And as a result, their skills atrophied, and the condition of their vehicles and their weapons systems deteriorated. And this precipitated a numbers – a number of defeats early on in ISIL’s push towards Baghdad.
And fortunately, over the past few months, we have seen some progress made and namely by the Iraqis. And most important, they put a new government in place, and Prime Minister Abadi has vowed to be more inclusive, and he’s taking actions to make things better for the Sunnis and the Kurds and other minority groups.
At the same time, we have teams in Iraq that are helping the Iraqis to develop plans to counter ISIL and to regenerate and restructure their security forces and eventually to re-establish their border. And this represents our main focus, enabling the efforts of the Iraqis.
The actions that we’re taking in Syria and in particular the airstrikes are intended to help shape the conditions in Iraq. Specifically, they are designed to disrupt ISIL’s command and control and to attrit their forces and to ultimately slow down the flow of reinforcements from Syria into Iraq. And I’m confident that we are having the desired effects.
And of course, we’re not doing this alone. Indeed, our efforts are intended to enable the broader whole-of-government approach that is currently underway. And equally important are the contributions being made by our coalition partners and in particular the five Sunni Arab-led nations of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. Their active and public involvement has greatly enhanced the fight and also sends a clear message to ISIL and to other violent extremist organizations that their actions will not be tolerated.
Ultimately, the intent of our regional campaign is not simply to destroy ISIL, although that is a primary objective. But even more important, we want to do what we can to change the conditions inside of Iraq and Syria so that what we’re seeing happening there now does not happen again in the future. And the key to doing so is to enable the indigenous forces to develop the capability to defend their own borders and to provide for the security of their sovereign territory. And that’s the goal our advise-and-assist and train-and-equip efforts in Iraq and in Syria.
I do also want to point out that amidst the chaos and the discord that exists in the Middle East are opportunities. And we have to constantly be looking for those opportunities because it’s through them that we will effectively shape outcomes in the region going forward. And we pursue them principally through our long-standing and historically strong military-to-military relationships, recognizing that the best method for mitigating risk is to leverage our partners’ unique capabilities and by enabling them to play a larger and more – and more active role in combating common enemies and addressing various challenges.
And we build their capacity in a number of ways, namely through our robust foreign military sales program. The CENTCOM region actually accounts for half of the total global foreign military sales. And our partners in the region want U.S. equipment, and they want it because they recognize that it’s the best in the world.
We also conduct numerous joint training exercises with our partners and allies. And among them are large-scale multinational exercises, like the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, which is ongoing right now, and it includes some 45 partner nations. And I was just in Bahrain last week, and I can tell you that the exercise is an extraordinary feat to say the least.
Most important, we build capacity through our physical presence in the region and through our continued and close collaboration with our partners in different countries. You know, as a CENTCOM commander, I spend about half my time traveling through the Middle East and South and Central Asia. And I meet routinely with senior military and civil leaders, and they share their concerns and ask for our support. They also provide invaluable insights on their – on the security situation, and it is through these engagements that we increase awareness and effectiveness and strengthen our partnerships and build trust among nations.
At the end of the day, all of us have a vested interest in seeing a stable and secure region achieved. And success will require everyone working together towards this common goal. This is not just the military’s responsibility. This is not just the State Department’s responsibility or even America’s responsibility alone.
As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, and I quote, “peace cannot be achieved by one man or one nation. It results from the efforts of men of broad vision and good will throughout the world,” end of quote.
And so it is not solely our responsibility, but clearly, we have a share in the task at hand. And again, we have a vested interest in seeing stability and security achieved in that remarkable and strategically important part of the world.
And having spent the better part of the past decade serving in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside the outstanding sailors and soldiers and airmen and Marines and Coast Guardsmen and civilians who make up America’s team, I can assure you that the United States military remains the very best in the world. And we will continue to do our part. We will continue to contribute to this team effort going forward. And we will keep doing what is required to keep our nation and our interests around the globe safe and secure.
Thank you again for the opportunity to join you here today, and may God bless all of you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America. And I’ll be happy to take Jake’s questions. (Applause.)
JAKE TAPPER: Thank you so much. Can everybody hear me?
I’ll assume that’s a yes.
Thank you, Barry. Thank you, Michael. Thank you, General Austin for being here, for taking our questions and especially so close to Veterans Day, when we honor former troops. Thank you so much for your service. We appreciate that very much.
There are a lot of questions that a lot of us have, but perhaps no question more pressing – and I was a little concerned that you were going to do it during your speech – but last night there were some strikes against the Khorasan Group in northwest Syria, and according to senior military officials, one of the people believed killed was a French national named David Drugeon, somebody who was known as being a bomb-maker, an innovator when it comes to explosives, thought to be the one coming up with the plan to dip clothing into explosives to make them a weapon, to weaponize clothing, to hide explosives in personal electronics. What can you tell us about these strikes? How sure are we, are you that David Drugeon was killed?
GEN. AUSTIN: What I tell you, Jake, is we did conduct a number of strikes, and the strikes were focused on the Khorasan Group. I can also tell you that we’re still assessing the results of those strikes. And until we have a full readout of, you know, how things went – and it’ll take some time to do this – I would not want to speculate on the effectiveness. But we’re still in the assessment phase.
MR. TAPPER: Was he one of the targets?
GEN. AUSTIN: He is clearly one of the – one of the leadership elements and one of those dangerous elements in that – in that organization, and so any time that we can take their leadership out, it’s a – it’s a good thing.
MR. TAPPER: Is it true that the French were reluctant to participate in the strikes because he was a French national?
GEN. AUSTIN: No. That’s not true. To my knowledge, the French were not engaged to participate in these strikes. And I have a lot of knowledge on this – (inaudible).
MR. TAPPER: I’m sure you do. That’s why – (laughter) – that’s why I’m asking.
There also were strikes against the al-Nusra Front, I believe, or – is there anything you can tell us about those?
GEN. AUSTIN: There were no strikes conducted against the al-Nusra Front.
MR. TAPPER: Oh, OK.
You touched on Afghanistan, and I obviously want to focus a lot of the conversation on ISIS or ISIL, but I do wonder, how concerned are you – you talked about the – your determination to make sure Afghanistan never again becomes the safe haven for terrorists that it was pre-9/11. How concerned are you that with the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of this year, there is the potential that what happened in Iraq and Syria could happen in Afghanistan?
GEN. AUSTIN: You spend a lot of time in Afghanistan, Jake, and you know that Afghanistan is a completely different situation from Iraq.
You know, what caused what we saw happen in Iraq to happen was a failure of the government to do the right things in terms of embracing the Sunni community and the Kurdish community. When we left Iraq, I think a number of great people from the coalition had worked hard to provide the Iraqis with some pretty significant capability. Again, as I said earlier, the Iraqis – the Iraqi leadership made some – made some poor choices. They didn’t invest in the right senior leadership. They didn’t continue to invest in training. They didn’t maintain their equipment. And so the atrophy that we saw was a result of that, and it was really a result of poor governance.
What we’re seeing in Afghanistan, Jake, is a – is a very capable Afghanistan national security force. And we see the Afghans wanting to take this – and they have taken the responsibility upon themselves and are doing a great job. We’ve seen a change in government, in leadership here, most recently, and we’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing early on with President Ghani. He is certainly reaching out to all the right elements, he is embracing his security forces, he has taken counsel on board and I think all of those things make me hopeful about the future.
MR. TAPPER: As the person in charge right now of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria, are you able to do everything you need to do?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, it’s – I think we’re having significant effect on the – on the ISIL element. And of course there’s a lot to be done. The question is, you know, how soon can we get the Iraqis to develop the capability to do what they need to do to sustain the effects and the conditions that we’re going to create going forward, working together? You know, we’re working this as a part of a coalition. We have some 60-plus nations, as you know, Jake, that have signed up to be a part of this coalition and that’s extremely encouraging. And so I think, you know, as things go on, as things evolve, we’ll see more coalition capability come to bear, we’ll see – we’ll see the Iraqis make some more progress but, you know, the situation will continue to change. I think, you know, ISIL is continuing – it continues to lose capability on a daily basis because of the pressure that the coalition continues to put on it.
MR. TAPPER: I’m sure you’ve heard individuals from the Free Syrian Army saying that the coalition isn’t doing enough to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army when it comes to the fact that they’re on the ground, when it comes to the fact that they are eyes and ears on the ground and could be helping better coordinate strikes. What’s your response to that criticism?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, as you know, Jake, we’re focused on Iraq as our main effort. And what we’re doing in Syria is really designed to shape the efforts in Iraq. And what we want to do is take away the enemy’s ability to command and control, his ability to sustain himself, his ability to project combat power and his ability to move forces back and forth across the Iraq-Syria border. And so we remain focused on the main effort and, again, what we’re doing in Syria is designed to support that. And I think we’ve been – we’ve been effective thus far in the things that we’ve done in Syria to atritte his capability. You know, we’ve attacked his ability to – his vehicle parks, his maintenance facilities, his command and control facilities, his ability to generate revenue, as we’ve gone after his mobile refinery capability and some of his crude collection capability. So when you add all these things up over time, I think we’re being – we’re being effective. So –
MR. TAPPER: Why are you focused on Iraq and not a joint effort in Iraq and Syria?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, I think, you know, we have a couple of things that are going for us right now in Iraq that we don’t have in Syria. The first thing is that we have a new government that, I believe, is going to focus on the right things and be inclusive of the Sunnis and the Kurds and certainly I’m hopeful that they will, going forward. And there is a force on the ground that we can work with. And, again, you heard me earlier say that, you know, that force had much atrophied from the time that we left to the time that this happened but it – nonetheless, it is a force that we can work with to create the right conditions on the ground there going forward. And it takes an air and a ground effort to be successful here, Jake. We don’t have that in Syria right now and it’s going to take some time to create that, so –
MR. TAPPER: You talked about the coalition; it’s obviously not a simple task to negotiate this coalition. What are some of the political sticking points that you have to – that you have to work out? Obviously, not every member of the coalition, to say the least, likes each other.
GEN. AUSTIN: I won’t go down that road, Jake. (Laughter.) I’m sure they all like each other. But they all have – they all have different interests and, certainly, they all trust us, they enjoy working with us. And so we serve as, you know, a central point of leadership and I think our efforts will – through our efforts, I think we’ll be able to hold the coalition together and move forward.
Now, as is the case with every coalition that’s ever occurred since the beginning of time, you really have to manage the various interests to make sure that we stay focused on what we think is central to our efforts here, and that’s the defeat and the ultimate destruction of ISIL and the ability to reestablish the control of the sovereign space of Iraq and reestablish their borders and regenerate and restructure their military and also – or, security forces – and also ensure that they have some sort of governance in that country, Jake, that – that’s going to be responsive to the people, which was the problem at the very beginning, here.
MR. TAPPER: This war against ISIS, we’re told, could take years, perhaps even decades. Is it important for this coalition of 30-plus countries to stay together for decades, potentially? And if so, how do you keep that coalition together?
GEN. AUSTIN: I’m not sure it’ll take decades, Jake, but we – we’re not sure how long it will take altogether. I will tell you that, as a corps commander in Iraq a couple of years ago, I had, you know, 160,000-plus of the world’s finest troops, all the air that I could ever ask for and it took – I mean, things didn’t happen overnight; it took time to get the right things done, but we continued to focus on the right things and continue to use our – you know, our capability to our advantage and, over time, I think the results speak for themselves. But, in terms of the coalition staying together with every member, that’s going to depend on each country’s self-interest and what’s happening in that country, what things that they have ongoing politically and that sort of business. So it’s not unreasonable to think that one or more countries may decide that they need to do something to focus on something else at some point in time in the future. But I don’t see decades, Jake. I – it will take – it will take years.
MR. TAPPER: Have you ever combated an enemy that was so skilled at propaganda?
GEN. AUSTIN: This adversary is about as good as I’ve ever seen, Jake. I think that, you know, a number of the folks who are in the ranks of this organization have been in this business before. And so they’ve learned the lessons of Iraq and other places and they really understand the value of trying to dominate the media space and they work that very, very diligently. And, again, I think they’re about as good as I’ve ever seen.
MR. TAPPER: Do you think that the beheadings as a tool of propaganda and terror have ultimately helped them become more feared and more popular among some young disenfranchised Muslim youth?
GEN. AUSTIN: I think there are some – probably some people out there who are attracted to this movement because of that. I would also tell you, though, Jake, that there are legions of people around the world who are disgusted by that and because of that kind of activity, the international community has very quickly united to say, we’re not going to tolerate this and we need to do something about this because some of those folks that are in there doing these kinds of things right now, they could wind up on our doorsteps back here at home, whatever country you’re from. And so we’re concerned about that. And so – I mean, you saw a coalition come together very quickly to focus on this. I think it works both ways. I think, in the end, this is going to work against this enemy more so than it works for them or in their favor.
MR. TAPPER: Obviously, as I don’t need to tell you, the United States has spent a lot in Iraq: a lot of money, more than 4,000 U.S. troops, tens of thousands of wounded troops, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians. What makes you confident that this effort will go better than the last one?
MR. TAPPER: Well, Jake I think you know I – three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan so, you know, I’m – I fully understand and appreciate your comments, there. I can also – I can also say that you can never guarantee the outcome of any conflict. What I can tell you is that there are a lot of lessons learned from the past. And there are a lot of folks that – and we’ll put those lessons into play and continue to work on the things that we think – that we know will be successful if we – if we maintain course and speed. One of those things, by the way, Jake, is to not alienate the people that you’re trying to help. And so, from the very start, we were very careful about, you now, our air campaign in terms of, you know, who we were – who we were – who we were killing and who we’re not killing – most important.
The counsel that I got from a lot of our Arab partners in the region was, you know, as we started down this road, be very careful, and we were very careful. You are very careful. And I think if you take a look at the precision of our efforts here, in terms of what we’ve done, it’s paying dividends for us. It demoralizes the enemy because he knows that if we can see him, we’re going to destroy him. And it reassures the people in the country that we’re not – that we’re careful and we’re not – we’re not going to destroy them. We’re going to protect them as best we possibly can.
So that’s a lesson learned from the past, and so far, Jake, I think it’s working pretty well for us. And we’re going to continue down that path.
MR. TAPPER: How small have the civilian casualties been?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, I don’t know of any – you know, every civilian casualty that we –is reported to us, Jake, you know, we’ll investigate. In this kind of a campaign, whenever you drop a bomb, you never know, you know, what the outcome is going to be. But we’ve not seen a lot of – a lot of reports of collateral damage. And certainly every one that we’ve looked into, we’ve not found any evidence that there was in fact, you know, unintended consequences that – which resulted in the loss of human life, civilians. So –
MR. TAPPER: There was a –
GEN. AUSTIN: Now having said that, this is war. I don’t have people on the ground. I don’t have people everywhere. We know that there’s probably some things out there that have happened. But you know, they’ve not – we’ve not seen the evidence of that that, you know, we can – we can sink our teeth into.
MR. TAPPER: I just want to make sure I understand this correctly. So are you arguing that you are more cautious in waging the campaign, the airstrikes against ISIL, because you’re so – you’re so concerned about not alienating allies, not alienating the Arab street by – because of civilian casualties, more cautious than the U.S. was in previous operations? Is that – is that a fair interpretation or –
GEN. AUSTIN: I think we were cautious in – certainly I was there, so I think we were cautious and very deliberate about what we were doing in all the days that, you know, gone by that we’ve been fighting.
I think we have greater capability now, Jake, to be more precise, to not only hit targets with precision but hit them while they’re on the move with precision, and certainly we have greater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability than we had when we started the Iraq campaign, for example.
And you know, I think we did things as best we could, and we did a lot of things right. I mean, I was on the – on the leading edge of that great – that great capability that was deployed in OIF 1. You know, I didn’t – there was not a bomb that I asked for that I didn’t get, and they were pretty good. We’re better now, and we – and I think we have to continue to use our capability to our best advantage. So –
MR. TAPPER: How concerned are you about ISIS getting the capability to shoot down U.S. aircraft? And how concerned are you about ISIS getting warplanes themselves, which has been speculated about in recent weeks?
GEN. AUSTIN: You know, we remain concerned about protecting our airmen. And by the way, to this point, they have a remarkable record of performance. And every former airman that’s in the room here will tell you that any time you get in a cockpit and fire it up, fire up the engine there, you never know what’s going to happen. You – and no matter what your skills are. But our folks have been extremely, extremely professional in the execution of their – of their duties here, and I – and they deserve a lot of credit.
I am always concerned about the enemy getting the capability to shoot down aircraft. I will tell you that that’s factored into every mission. Our mission profiles are such that, you know, again, we’re not going to put our airmen in unreasonable – at unreasonable risk, and so far I think we’ve done a pretty good job over there.
MR. TAPPER: What about ISIS getting the capability to fly war – aircraft themselves, warplanes themselves?
GEN. AUSTIN: I don’t think that’s currently a significant threat there, Jake. I know I have some fighter pilots that are hopeful that that happens – (laughter) – but I don’t think that that’s going to happen in the near term. So – it – I mean, you can get in a cockpit and fly an airplane. The question is, you know, do you have the ability to sustain an air effort? Do you have the maintenance? Do you have the ordnance? Do you, you know – I mean, you can do a one-off kind of thing, and – but I don’t see this enemy being able to generate a capability that will give us a problem.
MR. TAPPER: How many members do you think ISIS has at this point?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, I know that that number’s bounced around a bit. I think it’s somewhere between 9(,000) and 17,000. And again, without having the HUMINT on the ground, the human intelligence on the ground to confirm or deny, it’s very difficult.
You’ve heard numbers, you know, 30,000 and upwards, and I think that can be true, based upon what ISIS is doing. If it rolls through the Sunni population or the Sunni-populated areas and generates a bunch of local support, those numbers can quickly swell. But I think the core fighter are somewhere between the 9(,000) and 17,000 range. So –
MR. TAPPER: And you’ve expressed optimism that the tide is turning against ICE and – ISIS. What have you seen that makes you confident that the tide is turning?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, you saw the way ISIS performed at the beginning of this – I mean, large convoys and formations of vehicles flying black flags. They really just kind of overpowered the Iraqi security forces and initially overpowered the peshmerga forces in the north, up in Kurdistan.
You no longer see that. You no longer see that because they are afraid to congregate in any sizable formation because they know if we can see them, we’re going to engage them, and we’re going to hit what we’re aiming at.
They have extreme difficulty in terms of communicating with each on a daily basis, because they’re afraid that we’re listening. Again, if we can acquire them, we’re going to destroy them.
We have attacked, as I said earlier, his ability to generate revenue, and it’s getting increasingly difficult for him to sustain himself with fuel and, you know, refined products and that sort of stuff.
And so we’re seeing this on a daily basis. And as we listen to them, we know that the – that the impact of the precision strikes is demoralizing to them.
So this will take time, Jake. And this enemy still has capability. Don’t misunderstand me. There’s still, you know, a fair amount of capability out there in its ranks, and this is going to take more time to play out. But I think, as we have done in the past, if we continue to focus on those things that we know are the right things, if we continue to use our capabilities to their best advantage, we will be successful, and we will be successful in this campaign, Jake.
MR. TAPPER: I’ve just spent the last week interviewing Democrats and Republicans, and I have to say I’m a little taken aback by the fact that you’re actually answering every single one of my questions. (Laughter.) So thank you for that.
I’m going to ask – I’m going to ask one more question and then I’m going to open the floor, which is, you talked about the funding of ISIS, and we’ve heard that they do a lot with the oil refinery, they do a lot with kidnappings. There’s also been a lot of speculation and anonymous sources saying that they get funding from some outside sources, including one of our allies, Qatar. How successful has the United States been and the coalition been at stopping the funding from anywhere other than the things that they can’t control, like the kidnapping and the oil?
GEN. AUSTIN: Yeah, I think some things have been done, Jake, but I think that most folks in the U.S. government would tell you that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done and will be done.
You heard me talk about the whole-of-government approach in going after this enemy here. Threat financing is one of those things that it takes the entire – you know, the capability of the entire government to get after this. And again, this is going to take time. But I do believe that because of what’s going on now, over time, we will significantly limit this enemy’s ability to generate funds.
And again, you’re right, multiple sources – donors, kidnapping, looting, you know, the petroleum industry, you name it – taxing people as they go through and control areas of land. But I think, you know – and again, a lesson learned from Iraq – we fought hard in Iraq against al-Qaida, as you know, Jake, and about the time that we figured out that it took not only kinetic pressure on this – placing kinetic pressure on this enemy, it also took slowing down the flow of foreign fighters; it also took, you know, going after the financing; and when we began to do those things in a – in a credible way, I – you know, we began to crest the hill there. And the same thing applies here. And so you’ll see the whole-of-government approach really get after those two pieces, amongst other things.
MR. TAPPER: All right. Great.
Barry, should I just call on people?
MR. PAVEL: Yeah.
MR. TAPPER: I’ll start with you.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. TAPPER: No, you. Yeah.
Q: Thank you. Welcome, General. I’m Barbara Slavin; I run an Iran task force here at the Atlantic Council, but two questions. First, how much of an impediment is it to your effort that the Turks still will not allow planes to be flown to do bombing runs from Incirlik? And on Iran, how do you manage to coordinate in such a way that you don’t accidentally kill any Iranians who are advising Iraqi forces, who are helping the Peshmerga? And what’s your view on the militias? The Shia militias that the Iranians support? Are they necessary until you can get the regular Iraqi security forces up and running? Thank you.
GEN. AUSTIN: So is that three questions, or – (laughter) – first of all, with respect to Iran, we’re not coordinating with Iran, as you know. And what was the first question again, Barbara?
GEN. AUSTIN: Oh, Turkey. Yeah. You know, if the Turks – or when the Turks – when and if they decide to be more forthcoming in helping the coalition, it will clearly be value added. But I would also tell you that the coalition – if it doesn’t get, you know, more than what Turkey has signed up for, we’ll still get it done. I would say that, you know, we remain optimistic. Turkey has skin in the game here, obviously, and it’s got a set of concerns that it’s focused on, and we need to be mindful of that. And again, it is a remember of the coalition, and I think they will add value no matter, but the more access, basing and overflight rights we can get, I think the better of we’re going to be. So –
Q: And the Shia militias?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, Shia militia – you know, having been the last guy in Iraq – last four-star commander in Iraq, that was a thing that we remain concerned about throughout, and so what we’ve seen from the Shia militia is, you know, to date, they’ve been well-behaved – or, not well-behaved, but they haven’t engaged any of our troops and demonstrated an overt willingness to come after us.
That could change, you know, if the conditions on the ground change, but, you know, it’s something that we are mindful of as we’re conducting our business, and certainly, as I work through force protection issues on a daily basis, this is one of the factors that goes into the equation, as – I mean, there are many factors that go into that equation, but clearly, we’re hopeful that the Shia will continue to help the country of Iraq. We are there to help the Iraqi government.
MR. TAPPER: I could just follow up on one of Barbara’s questions about – obviously, the United States’ policy is to not coordinate with Iran, but I don’t think anyone would begrudge the United States from taking measures to make sure that Iran is not alienated in a fight that does not necessarily involve them against ISIS. Is the coalition involved in making sure that nothing ever happens to Iran that would hurt the mission?
GEN. AUSTIN: Jake, you know, the leadership of the coalition is really interested in making sure that we are successful in what we set out to do in helping the Iraqi government. If you’re asking whether or not the coalition is – you know, an element of the coalition is coordinating with the Iranians, you know, I – not to my knowledge. And certainly, you know, whether or not we do that in the future is a policy issue that my boss and his boss are going to continue to work on.
MR. TAPPER: All right, fair enough.
Q: Thank you very much. John Warner, former member of Congress. You’re going to have a tough decision on your desk, I think, pretty shortly. Not that you don’t have a lot today. And that is, you stressed, as a good tactician, the balance between air and ground. And the ground situation – while the air is very clear, and the potential is there – the ground is not that clear. You’re going to become dependent upon the Iraqi forces for your principal complements of ground.
Now let’s go back in time. In years and years, the military came before the Congress of the United States and said, we’re going to restructure an Iraqi military force. And literally billions of dollars were contributed to that program, and you and many others struggled to put it in place. Now, you’ve said some of the things today as to how and why it didn’t function in the time of need. So what are you going to tell the parents of young men and women today going into our armed forces? If you have to say to the president, I think it’s time, we’ve got to strengthen the ground elements with our own people, how are you going to answer that in the face of the disappointment we had in the earlier phase of training Iraqi forces?
GEN. AUSTIN: Well, sir, it’s good to see you again, and as I’m looking at you, I was remembering you and me and so many others wandering around the landscape of Afghanistan. Thanks for your support over the years. Yes, sir.
Q: Thank you and your family for a decade of service in a region that it’s not easy to serve.
GEN. AUSTIN: So let me say up front that if I think we need to – you know, we need to – you know, we need to do more things, or you need more or better capability, I won’t hesitate to make that recommendation to my boss. It’s what military leadership should do, and certainly, the chairman and I are – we remain focused on providing our best military advice.
Now, the leadership always has a number of other things to consider, you know, beyond my recommendation. He’s got a lot of inputs from various elements. I think that this is different. I think it’s different because, number one, there is a different government in place. And I think – I think the Iraqis should have learned from the lessons of the past. I think the initial indications that I’m seeing from Prime Minister Abadi and from the minister of defense are very positive. I think they want to do the right things and will do the right things given the opportunity.
But, you know, if more capability is required, then certainly, I’ll make that recommendation. But I’ll tell you, sir, that if the governmental piece of this doesn’t work – you know, if the Iraqis – if the Iraqi leadership cannot find themselves to be inclusive of the Sunnis and the Kurds, no matter how many troops you put on the ground, this is not going to work.
And so that really deserves to remain a main effort from our standpoint, making sure that they’re doing the right things to correct some of the things from the past here with respect to governance.
MR. TAPPER: I’m being signaled that that’s it; that’s all the time we have. I want to thank General Lloyd Austin for answering our questions and for being such a great guest here tonight. (Applause.)
GEN. AUSTIN: Thanks, Jake. Thank you.