September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Admiral Dennis C. Blair Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command Interview - Channel News Asia Singapore; January 28, 2002

United States Pacific Command
Adm. Dennis C. Blair Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command Interview - Channel News Asia Singapore January 28, 2002

Adm. Blair: Glad to be here.

Question: Admiral, there is speculation that the war on terrorism was going to be directed at Sudan and Iraq but it seems to have shifted to Southeast Asia. Why is that?

Adm. Blair: I think the first thing is that Afghanistan was probably a unique first phase of the war. There we had a government that was actively assisting, providing sanctuary for an international terrorist organization and military means were most appropriate there. I think if you look around the rest of the world, particularly in our part of the world, you don't see governments who are like the Taliban government really actively supporting the international terrorist organizations. So this next phase of the war I think is going to be much more a case of cooperating with countries in order to root out the terrorist infrastructure and terrorist organizations that are there. And virtually all other governments, certainly in our part of the world, are much more cooperative in that area. And the U.S. will primarily be involved in assisting those countries in ways that we can help -- those countries working with each other. Because I think we recognize this is really a common scourge.

Question: Right. So would you say that the [war] has moved to Southeast Asia now?

Adm. Blair: I'd say it's really moved worldwide, not just to Southeast Asia. Other countries you mentioned, I don't have day-to-day information because they're not really in my part of the world. But as I talk with my colleagues I know that the government of Yemen is taking action against terrorists in this organization and has received some assistance from the United States. There are conversations going on with the government of Sudan for us to take action. So I think it's wrong to think that chapter one was Afghanistan, chapter two is here, chapter three is here. I think what you're seeing are a bunch of simultaneous actions really suited to the particular country or the particular region. But Southeast Asia is certainly a region in which there are international terrorist organizations. The countries of the region are working effectively against them, cooperatively.

Question: So the recent arrests in Singapore and the breakup of the organization. How has that impacted your command, the Pacific Command?

Adm. Blair: It's made us feel safer, frankly, because we have a lot of our forces that come through here for visits. For example here in Singapore we had a carrier battle group scheduled to visit in late December; also one of our amphibious ready groups with a Marine expeditionary force on board. The Singapore government made that series of arrests in December, and when we took a look at that we figured that Singapore was even safer than it had been before. We went ahead with those port visits. The sailors who were here I talked to later, they had a great visit. They felt they were safe. So it's affected us positively. But I think we can't stop right here. Prime Minister Goh himself has said that there's more to do in terms of continuing to pursue these terrorist organizations to make sure Singapore and this whole part of the world is even safer.

Question: What is the U.S. role for Singapore?

Adm. Blair: Singapore is one of our strong supporters across a wide range of factions. As you know we have a very small number of forces who are actually here. They're all in terms of support, but our carrier battle groups stop here on the way. They're able to tie up at that wonderful new pier at Changi which Singapore built, and enables the sailors to be alongside a pier and not have to be out in a man-of-war anchorage. It means that we can do maintenance and transfers much more effectively there. When I landed at Paya Labar Airfield I saw another U.S. airplane that was on the ramp there in Singapore. It helps us as we move through the region to go on to other places. I think something that a lot of people don't know about is that we cooperate very well with the Singapore armed forces in terms of high technology aspects. Singapore has a very small but very highly technologically proficient armed forces and we work with them on some pretty cutting edge military technology applications which are in both of our interests.

Question: Would you say collaboration has been stepped up?

Adm. Blair: I'd say, if I had to characterize it, it's not new but it's more intense in the areas. And in the area of combatting terrorism they have really stepped up.

Question: I'm sure you had a chance to view the tape that was found --

Adm. Blair: Yes, I did.

Question: How do you react to the tape?

Adm. Blair: I react to that as sort of a suspicions confirmed. There are people out there who are actually making tactical plans against, to take actions which would cause damage both to American sailors and to our Singapore hosts in this country and it just makes we think we have to redouble our efforts to find them and take them out of action before they can hurt our people.

Question: What are you doing?

Adm. Blair: We, it's important to recognize that even before this tape we had the USS Cole attacked in Yemen. Before that, in Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, there was a truck bomb that blew up about 20 airmen who were stationed there. In between there was the attack on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi. So the armed forces of the United States and our official embassies and all have taken a lot of action to defend themselves. Putting bigger fences, standoff distances. I know anybody coming to our embassy here in Singapore has to sort of run a gauntlet unfortunately that we have to now that we didn't do before. So we were emphasizing protective measures pretty well. I think after September 11th we and many other countries of the region have gone over onto the offense. Most dramatically in Afghanistan, as everybody has seen, but I think Singapore's actions, the actions within the United States, we aggressively arrested terrorists and interrogated them for cells, have made a difference. And I think that we're all safer because our countries are going on the offensive ourselves now, not just waiting back behind a big wall or more standoff distances.

Question: So being more proactive.

Adm. Blair: I think being more proactive makes us safer.

Question: Here in Singapore, are there concrete steps that we've taken to really set up security of American facilities as well?

Adm. Blair: We've done some things internally in terms of our procedures, the way we provide inner security, we call it, where we have responsibility. Also talking with our Singapore counterparts and friends here we see increased Singapore security. I was happy to see my security here yesterday at Paya Labar as I made my way up to the gate. More guards, more barbed wire, more careful procedures. Those sorts of protective measures have been stepped up by -- And they are Singapore's responsibility, and they're not cheap. Every time you see one soldier out there on patrol there are five behind him in order to maintain that security. So we see Singapore taking those aspects. We've done some things within our ships in terms of our policies to make ourselves a tougher target. The net effect, plus the offensive actions, have been to I think make us all safer.

Question: Admiral, moving on to the Philippines. By February you will have 650 U.S. troops for training?

Adm. Blair: That's a rough number, but it will vary.

Question: What exactly will be the role of the U.S. troops?

Adm. Blair: Combating terrorist insurgent groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group is a complex operation. You need equipment, you need intelligence, you need training, you need good tactical doctrine and so on. Our effort is to assist the Philippines in that area. There's no question that this is a Philippine operation. They're in charge. Everything that we bring is in support of their actions. It's also important to remember that this didn't start just yesterday. About a year ago we trained a Philippine company to be more effective in hostage situations and that company is operating in the Philippines.

Question: The light reaction company.

Adm. Blair: The light reaction company, the LRC. It's up to the Philippines, but I anticipate we may well be doing more of that sort of training. We can provide intelligence, primarily technical intelligence, in which we have advantages to complement the human intelligence which is pretty well developed by the Philippines. You bring those together you get a much better picture of what's going on. We learned things in our operation against terrorist groups around the world and our special forces soldiers who will be working with the Philippines can bring to bear. The Philippines themselves of course have learned a lot. They've been working there in Basilan and Jolo and so on for months themselves.

Question: But for all of the decade the government has not been able to stamp out the Abu Sayyaf.

Adm. Blair: Uh huh.

Question: So a question with the U.S. troops or U.S. intelligence or expertise can actually combat this?

Adm. Blair: I think we have pretty smart, flexible, a lot of good people who learn pretty quickly and are generally pretty effective. In Afghanistan, for example, I can't tell you how many people came up to me before that happened and said Admiral, nobody can win in Afghanistan. Look at the British, look at the Soviets. That's just a pit that you'll never be able to be effective in. Right now you see in the Philippines, "remember General Pershing, remember the years earlier." My feeling is there's a renewed sense of urgency on the part of the Philippines. The international terrorist threat to all of us has given a new impetus to it. We've got smart soldiers who are very adaptive and they can, working with their Philippine comrades in arms who in my observation are also very good soldiers, can win this thing.

Question: Is the edge technology, then Admiral?

Adm. Blair: Certainly the U.S. has a technological edge but it's really not just owning the technology, it's using the technology. In Afghanistan, for example, you probably saw that wonderful picture of a special operations soldier on a donkey calling in with a satellite to B-52 airstrikes. It's blending technology with performance. The other thing that's very important in the Philippines, and Mrs. Arroyo said it very eloquently, it's a war on terrorism and a war on poverty. We in uniform cannot finally solve problems like the ones in the southern Philippines. It has to be economic development, social development, along with a better security region in order to be effective over the long term. So a big part of the Philippines program is not just going down with military forces but it's bringing in economic development to the people that will have some better life.

Question: We have both heard the accusations that the U.S. troops are coming to the Philippines through the back door in the guise of training. Because if you had come in on a combat role that would be against constitutional restrictions. So you come in to train. How would that really work? Is the U.S. actually going to patrol with the Filipino troops? How would that work, Admiral?

Adm. Blair: The U.S. troops that accompany Philippine commanders go as advisors to that commander. They are not running the show. The Philippine commanders make the decisions. They can ask for assistance.

Question: But they have the right to self-defense.

Adm. Blair: Yeah. I mean if you're caught in a firefight as a part of the team you help return fire with the people around you. But we're not having U.S. units under U.S. control fighting. It's Philippines units with Philippine officers under Philippine control with U.S. advisors in the advisory role.

Question: But you would expect some sort of confrontation. Would the modus operandi be going to look for the hideouts, and obviously there will be some confrontations and exchange of fire? Would that be the MO?

Adm. Blair: It will depend. You do have to anticipate that there will be, there has been shooting in Basilan in the past and I don't imagine it will all stop, so the U.S. soldiers will be with the command elements of the Philippine units and they will be participating in that command element.

Question: But is that where the decision actually -- that point would be hard to determine whether there should be Filipinos, should be U.S. troops (inaudible) a single platoon.

Adm. Blair: Right.

Question: So in that sense you could say the U.S. troops will be playing more than a training role, but a combat role?

Adm. Blair: I think you'll find that really the key is who's in charge. Who is giving the commands. That is clearly the Philippine chain of command. Let me set the numbers in perspective for you. For example, a Philippine battalion will have maybe 600 people. Assigned as advisors to that battalion will be on the order of 10 or a dozen people working with the command element primarily. So we don't have U.S. soldiers out in fire teams making assaults here. We have U.S. soldiers advising the command element of the 600 person battalion. Now if that command element where the U.S. advisors are located somehow gets involved in a firefight, then the U.S. soldiers do what the Philippine officers and soldiers on the left and right of them are doing. But it's not that U.S. soldiers are being used as any sort of an assault element or leading element. They're part of this larger Philippine structure which has the responsibility. So maybe I'm missing the point here, but for those of us who are involved in it it's very clear what the rules are, it's very clear what the rules of engagement are, and it's agreed by both governments and it keeps the Philippines in charge of this problem which is what President Arroyo wants and intends to do.

Question: Will this fight be extended to, against the Islamic Liberation Front as well? Do you see that happening?

Adm. Blair: Our advisors are against and supporters are against the Abu Sayyaf Group not against the MOR Islamic Liberation Front

Question: And on roughly January 26th at the Exercise Cope Tiger opening ceremony in Singapore a U.S. official is quoted as saying that the U.S. is ready to do whatever it needs to do should Asian countries request help in fighting terrorism. How far will the U.S. go in helping Asia fight terrorism?

Adm. Blair: Well, that was a nice forward-leaning statement by that particular official, and we know what he's saying. This is a common fight; that we are all threatened and we all have to contribute as much as we can to making our own citizens safe and those of our partners in this coalition. But the practical matter as we go into each of these situations the governments confer, they decide what is appropriate. We work out questions like the one we just discussed of how would forces be used and who would be in charge and what would be effective, and then we make a plan together. I anticipate that that would continue. I think that what we feel is a primary responsibility is of the governments concerned. It's not up to the United States to go into countries --

Question: So you would be invited?

Adm. Blair: We would be supporting in cooperation with the governments concerned, yeah.

Question: Actually if Indonesia -- Some have said that Indonesia has seemed to be, because of all the political considerations, has been a bit tardy in responding to terrorist arrests and interests. President Bush has said, in what the White House calls its Bush Doctrine, we will not make a distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them. We have to force countries to choose. If Indonesia continues to be slow in this anti-terrorism war, would the U.S. make Indonesia choose?

Adm. Blair: No, President Megawati has visited Washington and talked with President Bush about our common efforts. I was in Indonesia last month talking with Indonesian officers about it. I think we both share the same goals against international terrorism. As you know, there is some lively debate about to what extent the Indonesian groups within Indonesia are tied with Afghanistan and al Qaeda and so on, and you get statements from the Indonesia group leaders that are sort of ambiguous themselves. You know, "I admire Osama bin Laden but I don't have any connection with him." So that whole swirl of debate is going on and it's a little confusing. But I think that the Indonesians recognize, and this is what I found during my visit, they have a big country lots of islands, lots of borders, lots of different groups within the country, and maintaining order within their country from a whole series of challenges is tough, whether it be controlling sectarian violence in Sulawesi or an insurgent movement in Aceh or whether it's taking care of illegal immigrants who come from Iraq all the way down on their way to Australia. So I think the Indonesians recognize that they've got a tough challenge of controlling what's going on in their country. International terrorism is an aspect which is one more threat and I think they're working on it.

Question: Was there already a plan with respect to this in terms of U.S. presence?

Adm. Blair: In terms of U.S. what?

Question: Military presence in Indonesia. Is there a plan in place already?

Adm. Blair: We're talking with the Indonesians about this all the time. Our military relations with Indonesia are very much reduced after East Timor. They went into a very minimal area. We still have a small number of exercises with them. We still talk in multilateral conferences. We still have visits. As I say, I went to Indonesia. But it certainly is not what it was several years ago and it really won't be until the Indonesian armed forces do a better job of the accountability standards which are really expected of modern armed forces. That being said, we are cooperating on international terrorism, cooperating on individual things which are in our interest are important and we're pursuing some of those.

Question: What is the hardest thing about this war for you?

Adm. Blair: The hardest thing is the illusive enemy. What it really calls for is great cooperation with law enforcement, with intelligence, with customs, with aviation authorities. Within each government you have to get those entities together in order to be able to move effectively and quickly across traditional organizational boundaries. Then you have to, with other countries, have the same sorts of connections. So it really require unprecedented cooperation. And I think both within our countries and certainly among our countries and between our countries this requires a degree of flexible, open communication and action that we haven't seen before. And the things that the enemy demands of these terrorists, as you've seen from the ones that have been shown in the Singapore papers, they buy a plane ticket, they come in, they buy explosives, they leave, and they do this all in a few days, then they can pose a threat to our citizens. We have got to be able to move information around our countries, among our agencies, take quick action, stop them, grab them in ways that are just new to all of us. So it's that type of speed, communications, cooperation that I think will challenge all of us.

Question: Are there any particular needs of the U.S. in this war against terrorism? A case in point, the detainees at Guantanamo, have been declared by President Bush that they are not prisoners of war but the Geneva convention demands that, the tribunal decides that on a case by case basis. And to date the U.S. said that there won't be such a tribunal. As a military officer, how do you react to the decision?

Adm. Blair: What I find in this war against terrorism is that our past rules and our past practices provide a starting point for how we have to approach this war but continual adaptation and rethinking is necessary in order to be effective and we shouldn't let the terrorists have sanctuary behind old rules any more than they should have sanctuary behind other barriers. Now we can't turn our constitutions upside down and turn our practices upside down and become countries that sacrifice the things that have made us great in terms of our traditions, but we've got to be very creative about taking action against these people who in our case have killed 4,000 of our citizens as well as citizens of 40-some-odd other countries, and they did that with a relatively small number of people, a relatively small expenditure of money, and they could do it again unless we are very aggressive and very ruthless against them.

Question: Do you feel this decision by President Bush jeopardizes U.S. troops in the sense that other countries could say that if the U.S. is not complying with the Geneva Convention then why should I, and therefore why should I report the Americans that are captive in my country?

Adm. Blair: There's clearly a difference between a U.S. serviceman in a uniform like this trained and disciplined the way our forces are and most of the people in Guantanamo. I think most people recognize that.

Question: Admiral Blair, about yourself before we end, how do you juggle all this? I mean you have a family yourself, and you travel 40 percent of the time, and you make all these visits. What's your day like?

Adm. Blair: The main thing I have is a lot of good help. That's my main asset. A wonderful staff who does most of the work. And then a tremendous group of allies and partners that I can work with. So it's fun talking with a country like Singapore. If we can agree on the general directions then the great people who work in our armed forces around the world will take care of the details. So I try to stay concentrating on the big questions, knowing that the well trained, the dedicated people will make it all happen, so that's my secret

Question: And this new war, is there one thing that really makes a difference about how you do your job, what would that be?

Adm. Blair: I think the, as I mentioned, I'd say it's, unprecedented cooperation is going to be the key to success and I try to set that tone and that way of approaching it, that's the way I work. I find some people who work for me and who work for others do it even better than I had imagined and that's how we win. That's how these things happen. I think the example of this sequence of events here in Singapore and in Malaysia, the Philippines. In the last month it's really illustrated that, the comparison of intelligence, the actions that were taken made things safe for both American sailors and for Singaporians.

Question: Are you happy with the way things are progressing?

Adm. Blair: I am happy but not satisfied.

Question: What do you think you need to do?

Adm. Blair: I think we need go bear down even more, work harder, cooperate more, pursue the intelligence. One area I think we need to understand a lot more about is the connection between international terrorism, illegal migration, drug smuggling, piracy. I have a feeling that these shadowy activities, many of which in this part of the world are unfortunately going on, have connections which we don't understand. We need to bear down until we can understand them. I think we need to overcome some of the suspicions between and among our countries which sort of keep us from cooperating against this new threat. We need to do more of that. So there's plenty of work to do.

Question: How long do you expect to be in the Philippines? Troops to be in the Philippines in the fight against Abu Sayyaf?

Adm. Blair: Pardon?

Question: How long?

Adm. Blair: I would say that it's going to be months but not years.

Question: What is the timeframe for this war against terrorism?

Adm. Blair: I would say years but not months.

Question: Admiral Blair, thank you very much for being here.

Adm. Blair: Thank you very much.

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