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Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2001 - 1:00 p.m. EST
(Also participating was Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. The map shown in this briefing is on the Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Dec2001/g011204-D-6570C.aspl )
Rumsfeld: Well, good afternoon.
The campaign in Afghanistan continues. The situation in the northern and western portions of the country have improved, though there are still a number of pockets of resistance, as you know. The situation remains unsettled in the southern and portions of the eastern parts of the country. But the pressure on al Qaeda and Taliban is continuing to grow.
In Kandahar, the hope remains that Taliban and al Qaeda forces will surrender, but we have reason to believe that Omar may have instructed his forces to continue fighting, which of course is putting the civilian population in Kandahar and that region at risk. Indeed, hiding in the city, the Taliban are in effect using the civilian population of Kandahar as shields.
We've seen in other parts of the country that foreign and al Qaeda fighters have proven to be somewhat fanatical dead-enders and have killed Afghan Taliban fighters that they suspect may wish to surrender or defect.
So the situation in Kandahar is complicated, it's not easy, but one thing is clear. The Taliban and al Qaeda will be driven from Kandahar. The choice really is theirs as to how it happens.
While the amount of real estate they control becomes smaller, we're by no means approaching the end of the campaign. And as we move from the cities to searching caves and shadows, Americans will of course be increasingly at risk. The American people are aware of these risks. They know that victory will not come without a cost.
One of the unpleasant aspects of war is the reality that innocent bystanders are sometimes caught in the crossfire, and we're often asked to answer Taliban accusations about civilian casualties. Indeed, one of today's headlines is, quote, "Pentagon avoids subject of civilian deaths." The short answer is that that's simply not so.
With the disorder that reigns in Afghanistan, it is next to impossible to get factual information about civilian casualties. First, the Taliban have lied repeatedly. They intentionally mislead the press for their own purposes.
Second, we generally do not have access to sites of alleged civilian casualties on the ground.
Third, in cases where someone does have access to a site, it is often impossible to know how many people were killed, how they died, and by whose hand they did die.
By comparison -- and think of this -- consider how difficult it has been to get accurate casualty estimates for the attack on the World Trade Center towers. Initial press reports indicated there were as many as 10,000 people had been killed. On September 22nd, days later, the estimate was 6,818 had been killed. On October 6th, it was estimated that 4,500 to 5,000 has been killed. On October 23rd, it was 4,339 had been killed. On November 22nd, it was 3,682 had been killed. Now, today, almost three months later, we still do not know with certainty the number of people who died at the World Trade Center towers.
And if we cannot know for certain how many people were killed in lower Manhattan, where we have full access to the site, thousands of reporters, investigators, rescue workers combing the wreckage, and no enemy propaganda to confuse the situation, one ought to be sensitive to how difficult it is to know with certainty, in real time, what may have happened in any given situation in Afghanistan, where we lack access and we're dealing with world-class liars.
What we at the Pentagon try to do is to tell the press what we do know that's accurate, and we try to say what we don't know. And we have been doing that consistently. We know this much for certain -- the United States has taken extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties in this campaign. That's not true of Taliban or al Qaeda forces. Indeed, it's not true today in Kandahar. Americans risk their lives each day to bring food and humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans, and to help free their country from a repressive Taliban regime that's making these charges.
We lost thousands of innocent civilians on September 11th, and we understand what it means to lose a father, a mother, a brother, sister, a son or a daughter, and we mourn every civilian death.
But we're not going to make claims that we can't back up with facts, and I would think it would be best if others didn't either.
We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they're innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Myers: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. And good afternoon.
Our main focus, of course, continues to be putting maximum pressure on the al Qaeda and the Taliban forces, especially in the Kandahar and the Jalalabad region. Kandahar remains the last Taliban stronghold, and southern opposition groups there continue to apply pressure to Taliban and al Qaeda forces, as the secretary mentioned.
Additionally, the Marines and coalition forces operating from the forward operating base have begun interdicting lines of communication south of Kandahar. In eastern Afghanistan, we have focused our air attacks on cave and tunnel complexes, basically from Kabul to the Khyber Pass.
We are also working to support humanitarian assistance operations, and we are preparing airfields in northern Afghanistan to help increase the flow of food and other necessities to the people of Afghanistan. Our five planned target areas yesterday were again concentrated against the al Qaeda and Taliban cave and tunnel complexes, as well as Taliban military forces, primarily in the Jalalabad and Kandahar regions.
The majority of our efforts, however, are committed against, of course, what we call emerging targets, by aircraft operating in engagement zones or by aircraft conducting close air support for opposition group forces. We used about a hundred strike aircraft yesterday, including about 80 tactical aircraft launched from platforms at sea and about 10 land-based tactical aircraft and about the same number of long-range bombers. We dropped leaflets in the Jalalabad and Kandahar areas and continued our Commando Solo broadcast missions as well.
Our humanitarian relief support continued also with one C-17 airdrop yesterday, near Kunduz, delivering about 17,000 daily rations. To date, we've delivered more than 2,143,000 humanitarian daily rations.
And then finally, just a note to remind you -- and I don't think we can emphasize this enough -- that this fight has just begun. We've been at this now for about two months. Our number-one priority hasn't changed from the beginning, and that is to root out the al Qaeda network and those who support them. And while we've made progress in this area, much work remains to be done.
With that, we're ready to take your questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you said that American lives will become increasingly at risk when you begin to root al Qaeda and the Taliban out of caves and tunnels once Kandahar falls.
Number one, will American forces, if necessary, be used to defeat the Taliban inside Kandahar? And are you saying that American forces are going to begin, once Kandahar falls or even now, to root the enemy out of the tunnels?
Rumsfeld: No. I've indicated neither. What the import of my comment was is this. When there were relatively clear lines of battle in Afghanistan, one at least knew that most of the people on one side were friends and most on the other side weren't. That situation has changed. It's now a situation where there are pockets of resistance and there are also people floating in the general population who are armed and dangerous. And I -- the reason I make the point is it seems to me that it is a -- not a very tidy situation. It's not an orderly situation, and there are risks that will exist for Americans on the ground in Afghanistan, probably to a greater extent going forward than was the case in the past.
Q: Is the possibility of using American troops to go into caves and tunnels and to go into Kandahar -- is that still on the table, or are you ruling it out?
Rumsfeld: We have not -- I don't believe we've ruled out anything since we've started. I don't -- I tend to not make a -- I make a practice of not ruling things out simply because it's not possible to see into the future perfectly.
Myers: Exactly. We've said just the opposite -- that we're going to use all the whole spectrum of our military capability when and where we need to do that.
Q: May I ask --
Q: General Myers? General Myers, could you elaborate on your comment that Marines have begun interdicting lines of communication? And also could you describe a little bit these pockets of resistance that have been alluded to, as to how many holdouts and who's battling whom?
Myers: Well, in terms of Marines, I think I've said about all I'm going to say, is that one of the things that they're looking at are the -- (break from source) -- Taliban don't leave, that they're to work that problem for us.
Q: So as are there engagements? Have there been engagements or has it just been patrolling without any incidents?
Myers: I don't want to get into that. We expect -- I mean, they are prepared for engagements. They're a robust fighting force and they're absolutely ready to engage if that's required.
Q: Have they set up roadblocks, anything -- (inaudible)?
Myers: They're interdicting the lines of communication, and they'll do that through various means. And I don't want to get into the tactics of it because I don't want to tip off the enemy exactly how they're going to do their work.
Q: Mr. Secretary, does Osama bin Laden have fissionable material, and has he been able to build a so-called "dirty bomb"? And do you believe it's possible that that bomb has been smuggled into the United States, if he has built one?
Rumsfeld: There is intelligence information floating around the world in various countries of various types that reflect the fact that the al Qaeda organization has an interest in weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, radiation, as well as nuclear. I do not know of certain knowledge precisely what kinds of capabilities he may have actually developed and weaponized and have available to him.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
Q: -- could I follow up on that point? Some U.S. officials have said that captured al Qaeda have said that at a meeting with Osama bin Laden, that at least one of those members presented a canister that they claimed was made of radioactive material. Do you know, first of all, if that's a credible report?
And secondly, as you know, General Franks mentioned 40 different sites in Afghanistan that may have evidence to chemical and biological information. Is there any information on that at this time, about materials that have been analyzed?
Rumsfeld: Well, first of all, the sites that the general mentioned were the ones that we were aware of. There may be others. As they say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We are working our way through those sites and have not completed the task. Most, at this stage, are accessible to us; some are not yet. And it takes time to analyze that kind of information, and I don't have anything to announce.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there are reports that more than 2,000 fighters near Jalalabad have announced and are moving into the mountains to begin to look at discrete areas that I guess the U.S. has helped them pinpoint in the Tora Bora area, looking for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda members, and that several helicopters of American forces have also come down in there and are part of this effort. Are you aware that there are 2,000 fighters moving in that direction? And is the U.S. engaged in that?
Rumsfeld: Well, there are -- there's never a shortage of intelligence information, and it's almost always true that it conflicts; that there are conflicting intelligence reports.
I have seen the public reports you're referring to in this instance. The -- as I've indicated here previously, we have been actively encouraging Afghan elements to seek out and find the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership that we hope to capture and stop from executing terrorist acts around the world. There is no question but that at various parts of the country people have responded to that interest in our part.
I would not want to get into specific places or locations or numbers, but we have rewards out. We have been actively encouraging individuals, as well as collections of individuals and units of people, to do exactly that in various places.
Q: This is a hard number to disguise -- I mean, 2,000 fighters, if in fact they are moving to do what the U.S. has encouraged them and asked them to do. You will not comment on whether you are seeing a large movement of Afghans heading out to do that job. You say you want them to do so, but --
Rumsfeld: I have nothing more to add to what I said. I'm not -- we're not trying to disguise anything. People can go see what they want to see.
There are any number of places in Afghanistan, at any given moment, where numbers of hundreds and in some cases 1(,000) or 2,000 elements are moving from one location to another, for all kinds of different reasons. So the fact that you say it's not hard to disguise -- it is difficult to know what any particular element's motive may be, it seems to me.
Q: Secretary Rumsfeld, we're aware of at least one young man who claims to be an American who was fighting with the Taliban. Are you aware of any others? There have been reports of one or two others --
Rumsfeld: That's pure speculation that there may be a couple of others. But until one has a chance to really check those things out, we don't comment on them.
Q: But you don't know who they are or where they might be?
Rumsfeld: No. Well, I -- what I know is, I have been told that there may be a couple of other people who have, at one time or another, contended that they were Americans, and people are looking for them. But whether they're Americans and where they may be, I don't know.
Q: And then one quick, quick follow-up. The -- John Walker, the one person who we do know of -- can you tell us anything about what's going to happen to -- where is he now and where will he be going? Will he be turned over to other authorities or --
Rumsfeld: The last I looked, he's still in roughly the location he was when they found him -- in some reasonable proximity to that.
Q: And did that qualify as a follow-up? (laughter) Was that enough to be a follow-up, or was that actually a separate question?
Q: Mr. Secretary?
Rumsfeld: That was a follow-up.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there are also reports today from the region that bin Laden's top remaining deputy, al-Zawahiri, was injured in a U.S. bombing attack. Do you have any indication that that may be true? Do you have any information to indicate that? And, second of all, do we know if al-Zawahiri is in anywhere close proximity to bin Laden himself? And is it possible that he, too, could have been either injured or killed in American bombing raids?
Rumsfeld: I don't have any information I can add to -- to that subject.
Myers: No. We've had no information. We are aware of the same report, Mik, that you're aware of. But we have nothing further on that.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you expect the operational tempo of the armed services to decrease after the military phase is over? And if not, are you intending to ask Congress to raise the end strength of the active duty forces to ease the strain?
Rumsfeld: It's unclear as to what the operation tempo will be. There's no question but that with -- given the heightened state of alert in the United States, we have any number of Guard Reserve and active duty forces engaged in homeland security activities -- a number that, of course, is considerably higher than in normal circumstances. But we have not made any decisions with respect to end strength.
Q: Can you tell us what the options are in dealing with Mr. Walker, the American who was found in Afghanistan? Do you know what you're going to do with him? And if not, can you tell us a little about what those options are?
Rumsfeld: I guess the honest answer is that I do know a bit about the various options, and I have not landed on one at the moment. It is -- it is an issue that's over here, whereas I've got lots of things that are center -- front and center that we're dealing with at the present time.
My understanding is he is injured to some extent. He is being provided medical attention. He's being visited with by the people in close proximity to him, and we'll get to that in good time.
Q: Do we have any hard evidence that Osama bin Laden is still in Afghanistan?
Rumsfeld: I tell you -- how many times do I have to go back to the chicken coop, where you're chasing the chicken around the chicken coop until you get him, and you haven't got him?
We think he's in Afghanistan. He may not be. No one knows. Someone knows. But it is -- it is a task that's difficult.
We believe we are reducing the amount of real estate that those folks have to move around on -- we know we are -- within Afghanistan. The problem with that is, Afghanistan's got long, porous borders. And, let's -- in the event that he decides to flee, we'll just have to follow him where he flees. I don't know -- we believe he's in Afghanistan, and we're looking for him. But --
Q: Mr. Secretary?
Q: I want to return to the pockets of resistance. We've been told that Balkh, near Mazar, has 2,000 to 2,500 hard-core fighters.
Rumsfeld: It's a big pocket.
Q: That's not a pocket, that's the whole overcoat. (laughter) Can you tell us where other pockets are, what your estimated numbers are, and how you're going to deal with them, coalition and opposition forces; is it siege and negotiations? Is it attack?
And lastly, since the ones at Balkh are said to have regrouped there after their surrender at Kunduz, how can you work with the opposition forces to be sure that troops who surrender don't pick up arms again?
Rumsfeld: Well, we've suggested the reality that in Afghanistan, one can't be certain of that. I don't know how many times I've mentioned that people have lots of options -- Afghan people. And what they may do is they may just drift into the countryside, they may drift into the cities, they may defect and become a part of the opposition, and decide later to re-defect. It is a very complicated, untidy circumstance, and it makes it a dangerous and difficult task. And if one, as you suggested in your question, is looking for certainty, I think we're in the wrong country.
Q: But as far as numbers who are out there and where they're located, sir?
Rumsfeld: Sure. There are pockets in the north and the northwest. There are pockets to the east of Kabul. There are pockets in the Kandahar area, outside of the city. And a new pocket may pop up at any moment, simply because people can move around in that country. But --
Q: But numbers are estimated at what?
Rumsfeld: Well, for the most part, they're relatively small. In some cases, they get up into non-trivial numbers.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned a moment ago about the fact the Taliban are using -- and al Qaeda are using civilians as shields in Kandahar. A few weeks ago, a briefer here --
Rumsfeld: By staying in that city and --
Q: Yes, sir. A few weeks ago, a briefer suggested the possibility that if that continued, which makes air attacks a little bit more difficult, that the possibility would exist that perhaps U.S. forces might be used in an urban warfare type of operation. Given this situation, is the likelihood of that increasing?
Rumsfeld: Well, I think that there's still a chance they'll surrender.
And if they don't, there are two -- at least two reasonably sized forces of Afghan opposition forces that are in reasonably close proximity.
Shirzai has a cluster of fighters, Afghan fighters that have been moving up towards the airport and engaging in some combat. And Mr. Karzai has been coming down from the North and is, you know, several handfuls of kilometers away at the present time. I think, as General Myers pointed out, it's very difficult to reinforce Kandahar at this stage. Nothing's impossible, but it is difficult to reinforce given the fact that we have coalition forces on the ground in various locations keeping -- being attentive to the roads and the passes that would move towards that area.
So my guess is that with some time and with some pressure from those forces, why, we may have some good fortune.
Q: Without the use, sir -- if I could belabor it a little bit -- without the use of the U.S. forces?
Rumsfeld: Well, as I say, we're not going to rule out anything, but we don't have any plans at the present time to be using U.S. forces in that way. We're hopeful that it will get solved in the normal order of things.
Q: What's the latest on that guy, Abdel Rahman, the son of the sheikh? Vice President Cheney said last week there are credible reports that he was in custody. We haven't heard anything since. That's about five or six days ago now.
Rumsfeld: (to General Myers) Do you know?
Myers: No. No, I don't.
Rumsfeld: Sorry, I'm not current on his location.
Q: Back on Mr. Walker. Has the Pentagon yet heard from the attorney that his family hired? And you said that you would, quote, "deal with him in good time." But if he's an American citizen, in fact he would, one supposes, have some rights to due process. So what instructions are you giving the military about what "in good time" really means?
Rumsfeld: Well, I have no knowledge of a lawyer. We found a person who says he's an American, with an AK-47, in a prison with a bunch of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. And he has been characterizing his circumstance. And you can be certain he will have all the rights he is due. We are looking at the various options at the present time. And at that point where we've made a decision as to what we intend to do with him, we'll certainly let the appropriate people know.
Q: Is he a traitor?
Rumsfeld: I am not a lawyer. And there are a lot of words that people have for different categories of human beings that depend on their behavior.
And when I use -- when you use them, you can use them in a question. When I use them they begin to have a meaning because the implication is that I know something about it. And until I've concluded what I think he ought to be called, I'm going to be as careful and cautious and I have been thus far.
Q: Mr. Secretary, a few minutes ago you mentioned a couple of the opposition leaders near Kandahar and the sizeable forces they have. To get back, though, to Jalalabad, do you have the same level of confidence or comfort level with some of the opposition tribes there that have made some of these claims about the 2,000 soldiers going into Tora Bora?
Rumsfeld: The same level of confidence as I have where?
Q: Well, just to give us a context as far as the opposition tribes near Kandahar and the opposition tribes near Jalalabad, this other area where U.S. forces are focusing on -- do you have the same sort of confidence or comfort level with those opposition, anti- Taliban tribes in that particular area as the ones near Kandahar?
Rumsfeld: Well, the ones we have the most experience with, and therefore believe we have the best knowledge of what their behavior might be going forward, are the ones in the North. We have somewhat less experience with the ones in the South and somewhat less experience with the ones east of Kabul. So I don't know that I can really serve the public good by discussing gradations of confidence.
Q: I guess what I'm getting at is just when you hear these claims that there are these forces near Jalalabad that want to go in the mountains, is that a reliable force? Are those reliable claims? Is that an organization --
Rumsfeld: See, I don't know what claims you're referring to. The claims that I've heard I consider to be reasonably reliable. Whether they're the same ones you're referring to, I have no way of knowing.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you update us on what the department has done in its effort to prepare for a potential military tribunal? Has that moved forward at all in the last few days?
Rumsfeld: Let's see. I guess -- the last few days. Today is Tuesday. Yes. I would say it has. I've had meetings with the general counsel. The general counsel has had meetings with others, and we are continuing to look at the variety of ways that one might deal with that issue.
We have -- in terms of moving forward practically, the answer is not at all, because until the president of the United States assigns somebody, there's nothing to move forward on. But in terms of our internal thinking, we are continuing to think through the issues. And as I've said to you folks, it is something we intend to do very carefully in a very thoughtful way after a good consideration and discussion with knowledgeable people from across the country who have background and experience in these subjects. We want to do it right in the event that the president does decide to assign somebody to us.
Q: Follow up? A legitimate follow up. (laughter)
Rumsfeld: Only a legitimate follow up is a follow up on your own question, I thought. Is that wrong?
Q: It's on what you said a moment ago.
Rumsfeld: Oh. Oh.
Q: You said you have confidence in the reliability of reports. What are those reliable reports you --
Rumsfeld: Which context was that?
Q: It was in the context of Jalalabad. You said --
Rumsfeld: Oh, yes.
Q: -- you weren't --
Rumsfeld: Okay. I don't know what you're looking at, but I know what I'm looking at, and do I think that there are some people who are going out and looking? The short answer is yes, I do.
Q: Could you go into more detail?
Rumsfeld: No, I couldn't. I could. (scattered laughter)
Rumsfeld: But I shan't. (laughter)
Q: We can't use that word on television. (laughter)
Q: Mr. Secretary -- (off mike) -- follow up, please. You said earlier that that the American that was being held or controlled by U.S. sources to be certain that he'll be given every right that he has. Do you mean as an American citizen or as a Taliban enemy soldier being held captive? What do you mean by "every right that he deserves"?
Rumsfeld: Well, I guess one would go to the individual and say: Whatever it is decided that any individual -- this or another -- merits by way of rights, they will get.
Q: Quick follow-up on that, Mr. Secretary. Under the tribunals, he cannot be tried if he is an American citizen. Is that correct?
Rumsfeld: I do not recall exactly what the military order establishing the commissions said, but my impression, from all the meetings I have had, is, that is not intended for Americans. Whether it's explicit in there or not, I've forgotten. But -- Pam?
Q: Is there any connection -- do y'all have any intelligence connections between al Qaeda and what happened in Israel this weekend? And is what happened in Israel affecting in any way what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan?
Rumsfeld: I -- when you say, "Do you have any connections" -- my impression of what I know thus far about what happened in Israel is that Hamas has "taken credit for it," quote, unquote. Taking credit for a suicide bombing is a strange phraseology. But --
Q: And is that linked to al Qaeda -- Hamas?
Rumsfeld: I'm not in a position to characterize the linkage, although we do know, of course, that terrorist networks have tended to have relationships with each other, although in this instance and since I'm not in a position to cite it, I'd prefer to not respond.
Q: General, can you give us a sense when those airfields in the North will be ready to receive humanitarian assistance? And what about an overland route? Have the Uzbeks opened that bridge yet?
Myers: They are working that. There is some anticipation that that might happen in a couple of days.
Q: What? The bridge or --
Myers: The bridge. And the airfields -- it just takes time to open them, to make them fully operational.
Q: Do you know any ballpark --
Myers: I don't want to give you -- I know they're working on it very hard, as you probably saw in the reports the other day. They've got snow in Mazar now. I mean, there will be those kind of complicating factors, so it's hard to pin it down.
But they're working as quickly as they can because they understand how important they are to the humanitarian assistance effort.
Rumsfeld: Got a lot of Afghans working on it.
Rumsfeld: They've hired a big, big crew.
Q: Mr. Secretary, some --
Rumsfeld: We'll make this the last question.
Q: Some Afghan opposition leaders have made statements indicating that they have uncertainty about what they would do if they captured senior al Qaeda and Taliban, and some hesitancy about whether they would turn them over. If they were, in fact, to refuse to turn them over, wouldn't that put them in the same position that the Taliban was vis-a-vis the United States, and therefore, you'd be really in conflict -- potentially military conflict -- with such a group?
Rumsfeld: I don't know that I'd come to quite the conclusion you have -- that it would put them in exactly the same position. But the fact is, the cold, hard fact is that we are there for several reasons. We are there to capture or kill the al Qaeda and foreign invaders in Afghanistan who are terrorists; and we are there to change the Taliban leadership and change the government of Afghanistan; and third, to create a country -- contribute to a country that is no longer harboring terrorists.
Everyone we are assisting, whether it's with air support or money or humanitarian assistance or winter clothing or ammunition or food -- well, you name it, everyone that we are assisting knows precisely why they're -- we're there. And they are being told in no uncertain terms why we are there. And to the extent one or more of them were, for whatever reason, to make a decision that they wanted to harbor or assist a -- al Qaeda leadership or Taliban leadership, that would run directly counter to our interests and our objectives and our goals in that country, obviously, our relationship with them would change. (laughter)
Q: See you tomorrow, Mr. Secretary!
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