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Presenter: Victoria Clarke, ASD PA Friday, Nov. 9, 2001 - 12:34 p.m. EST
(Also participating: Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, Joint Staff. Slides and videos shown in this briefing are on the Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Nov2001/g011109-D-6570C.aspl )
Clarke: Good afternoon. I will turn this over to Admiral Stufflebeem in a minute.
I just wanted to say one thing. Today you have been reading and seeing reports about Mazar-e Sharif, an important city in Afghanistan. At the point where it is taken, it could facilitate a land bridge to Uzbekistan, which could aid movement of humanitarian and other supplies. The situation on the ground is fluid. Until things settle and we see where forces are after a day or two, our inclination is to withhold comment. What we have seen is encouraging.
And with that, Admiral?
Q: If I -- excuse me, Torie. By what you have seen -- you say, "Until things settle." Have you seen in fact that some forces, at least some opposition forces, are in the city? Whether or not they've taken it remains to be seen, but have you at least seen whether or not some forces have entered the city?
Clarke: Charlie, I'm not going to add much to what I said. We get -- as we said before, we get bits and pieces and information. It's a fluid situation, and we just couldn't give you an accurate picture right now. What we have seen is encouraging. We're not going to say more than that.
Stufflebeem: Thank you.
Good afternoon. Yesterday coalition efforts focused on supporting the opposition group forces and preparing the battlefield for future offensive actions by these forces, and continuing to degrade and destroy al Qaeda/Taliban command and control facilities, and particularly caves and tunnels, striking Taliban and foreign forces where we find them, and contributing to the humanitarian relief campaign in support of the Afghan people.
Yesterday we struck in nine (sic)  planned target areas that included active and suspected terrorist and Taliban cave and tunnel complexes; Taliban military forces, in particular those engaged with or arrayed against the opposition forces; other emerging Taliban military targets.
While the planned target areas are grouped -- were grouped around Kandahar and Jalalabad, more than half of the combat sorties were directed at the engagement zones near Mazar-e Sharif and north of Kabul.
The CINC used about 78 strike aircraft. About 60 of those were tactical from sea-based platforms; about seven to 10, long-range bombers; and the remainder were land-based tactical jets.
We again flew the Commando Solo broadcast mission aircraft and conducted humanitarian ration airdrops through two C-17s that delivered more than 34,000. And that now brings our total up to over 1,344,000.
The video today includes examples of our continuing efforts to destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda facilities and weaponry near Herat in eastern Afghanistan -- western Afghanistan. The first video shows two direct hits on a Taliban or al Qaeda cave and tunnel complex, which they've used to hide and protect personnel, weapons, ammunition, and equipment.
The second video is of a direct hit on a Taliban mobile anti- aircraft artillery piece, known as a ZSU. This vehicle was likely in an air-defense and group-support role to the Taliban facing the Northern Alliance, and it was north of Kabul.
And with that, we'll take your questions.
Q: Are you all in touch with the Northern Alliance, and have they told you that, in fact, they are in Mazar-e Sharif? They've told reporters in the region via cell phone -- the commander of the rebels told reporters that they are in. Do they claim to you all that they are in Mazar-e Sharif?
Clarke: To whom do you direct it?
Q: To the Pentagon, to the United States, to the U.S. military. (Laughter.)
Stufflebeem: Well, we're seeing the same reports that you are that there are elements who are describing what it is they may be doing. But I think that the way Ms. Clarke posed it was the most accurate, and there's a lot of dust in the air right now. There are skirmishes happening across these various fronts, if you want to call them as such, and with that dust in the air, it's very hard to tell exactly what's going on, except maybe in some very discreet areas, where somebody has got that local report.
Q: But is there a reluctance to confirm these reports because the Northern Alliance may not be able to hold whatever positions they now have? Is that the reluctance?
Stufflebeem: I think that -- no, there -- it's not so much a reluctance as much as just, "Where are we right now?" And as we look at the battle or battles, as they're occurring right now, they're obviously in progress. And it's hard to tell what is the likely outcome, based on the battle as you see it for the moment. So to describe and to display or portray an eventuality or an outcome is just too uncertain, as you see all of this going on at the time.
Q: And if I could follow up, there were also reports that Northern Alliance are amassing just north of Kabul. Do you see those similar reports? I mean, we've already had confirmation that there are fierce battles going on at Mazar-e Sharif. Are the same kind of battles going on in the ground around Kabul? Do we know that?
Stufflebeem: I have not seen any reports that would indicate that the same intensity of fighting is occurring just north of Kabul as what we're seeing up in the North.
Q: Admiral Stufflebeem, could you --
Q: Admiral, may I ask you, since there is coordination on the ground with the Special Forces teams, and since, for the past two weeks or so, the U.S. and coalition members have been heavily softening up the Taliban troops, did you know or did you advise -- the "you" being the United States -- did you advise the Northern Alliance that the time was ripe for an offensive?
And is this the start of a major offensive, or do you view this as just another skirmish in a back-and-forth war?
Stufflebeem: Well, we don't have the fidelity of the exact reports that are occurring from within the opposition groups, so I honestly don't know what is being discussed between liaison forces that are with opposition forces. We do know that the opposition has their strategy, they have their objectives. We know that they would intend to take Mazar-e Sharif; they would intend to take Kabul. In fact, I think there are other cities that they have priorities to do, as well.
We are not there in a position to advise them when to go. We're not there to advise them how they should undertake their particular tactics. We're there responding to their requests. We're there providing targeting for our aircraft, for a matter of precision. And if, as was mentioned from this podium once before, if they may be asked any tactical questions, I think that they're free to respond. But there isn't --
Q: A follow-up -- a follow-up, if I may. I understand that. But do you view this -- does the Pentagon, does General Franks view this as the start of a major offensive in the war?
Clarke: What are you referencing when you say, "this"?
Q: What we're getting -- the reports on, Mazar-e Sharif, but you don't want to comment on. But we do see -- and the admiral has confirmed -- that there is movement on the ground. Does this movement constitute the beginning of a major offensive against the Taliban?
Clarke: I'd just -- I'd repeat two points. One, what we have today is a very fluid situation, and we're getting bits and pieces of information. So what we're going to say is what we have seen is encouraging. In terms of what goes forward, we just tend not to comment on things that might happen from here.
Q: You used the word "encouraging." And my question is, what does the Pentagon see -- not the news reports, but what does the Pentagon see that causes you to say that this is encouraging?
Clarke: The bits and pieces of information that we have seen.
Q: Bits of information of what?
Clarke: Of the activity.
Q: Of gains? Of --
Clarke: The activity near Mazar-e Sharif, what we have seen is encouraging. And beyond that, we're not going to characterize it, we're not going to reveal every detail of the pieces of information we have.
Q: Maybe we can try it from another way. Has --
Q: Admiral, can you a little bit talk about the resistance at all of the Taliban, or what troops remain there?
Are the troops dispersing? Is there anything you can tell us about the resistance from the Taliban?
Stufflebeem: It's a mosaic of different kinds of reports. We've seen reports where Taliban may have retreated from an area for their own reasons. We have seen reports where they are putting up stiff resistance and intending to hold ground. So I think it's fair to say we see reports of all kinds of reporting. I don't mean for that -- that's accurate. It's just where are you, where are you seeing something from, what day are we speaking of. And in that regard, it's very confusing as to exactly what they're doing.
Q: But in terms of Mazar-e Sharif, you've seen Taliban troops retreating from areas of Mazar-e Sharif.
Stufflebeem: We have, but that's to say -- you know, that's not necessarily to say that we see why they're doing that. For instance -- and I'll just put it in terms of just battlefield tactics generically. If a force maintains a position on a ridge and wants to concentrate its firepower, it may withdraw to a ridge behind that to amass that firepower rather than move it up, for whatever reasons they may have. And so to say that we understand and can explain, which I think is really the underlying assumption Ms. Clarke is making -- we see evidence and reporting of various kinds that are going on, and it's confusing. There obviously are a number of groups who are engaged around the area, more than one, and therefore, you can't make sense, exactly, of what's happening yet.
Q: But Admiral, how should we treat the reports on, for example, the leader of the Northern Alliance when he claims, by satellite interview, that he is in Mazar-e Sharif, that his troops have captured the city and that 200 Taliban soldiers have been killed? How should Western media view those reports, and how does the Pentagon view those reports? Should they not be believed? Should we trust them?
Stufflebeem: Well, I think that's a positive sign. That report, to hear that from that commander, would be a positive indication that we also have seen as well.
Clarke: But I'd also -- I'd just add on, you have to interpret that however you see fit. What we are going to do is let the dust settle for a couple of days here so we can have a more accurate picture of what's going on.
Q: Would the taking of Mazar-e Sharif be -- you said a positive sign. Would it be fair to call it the first big success in this campaign, the first sizable success, the first -- what? How would you characterize? You've said it's an important city.
Would the taking of it be -- what?
Stufflebeem: Stand back and look at the map of Afghanistan for a moment from a high perspective. The Taliban control all of the cities within the country. There is an active campaign for some of those cities, and right now, Mazar-e Sharif is the one where the opposition forces are closest, I think, from what I'm gathering. So for the Taliban to lose any city is positive. How -- you know, when that could occur or in what way that that is done doesn't yet give us an indication of how is it really going in the broad campaign.
The CINC, General Franks, was very specific in the significance of Mazar-e Sharif, and, therefore, we are trying to support those efforts with our air strikes. Our liaison teams are supporting the requests of the commanders on the ground. And that may, in fact, help them achieve those objectives. But as you stand back and look at it, you know, from that high altitude and where the Taliban control certainly has been and where it may be challenged, it may be that that's the first place that we see the opposition get an upper hand -- how long they could hold it --
Clarke: And if you go back to what we've said all along about our objectives, one of them is to create the conditions so we can provide sustained humanitarian relief. As I said at the top, this could facilitate that.
Q: Torie, a follow-up to that --
Q: I just don't understand what you mean by "how it is done."
Q: A follow-up to that. If you open up the supply lines for humanitarian relief, on the other part of that, if Bagram Air Base is taken over and utilized, how could that aid in the campaign, having an air base in-country at your use?
Stufflebeem: It's a really self-evident answer. Having access to an airfield inside the country allows for new freedom of movement that you would otherwise not have by having that kind of access in the country. Bagram Airfield in and of itself -- it may be getting to specific to attach a specific -- you know, to put so much significance on from a perspective of coalition-force utilization.
To have an airfield also means that we need the approaches to the airfield secured so that aircraft won't be vulnerable to land in or take off from the airfield. So just having the physical airfield in and of itself may not be enough that the coalition would or could take advantage of it in that location.
Q: Admiral, if these reports of Taliban troops retreating are true, are U.S. air strikes hitting the troops as they're retreating? And how -- you talked about the engagement zones up there in Mazar-e Sharif. Are they actually hitting these troops as they're pulling out of that area?
Stufflebeem: Well, the coalition forces are hitting the troops wherever they can find them -- wherever they can be positively identified as Taliban or al Qaeda forces. And that's the most significant part, I think, right now of the precision of our strikes. So put yourself in a position of a liaison on the ground. If you know that to be Taliban forces with whatever they're doing -- advancing, staying put or retreating -- and you have an aircraft available to you to positively identify that target, you'll strike that.
Q: If I could follow up --
Q: Could I get you to elaborate a little bit on this idea of a land bridge? Could you say what, with more specificity, what could you do if Mazar-e Sharif were in opposition hands, as far as providing humanitarian assistance, what additional capability would you have? What are you preparing to do, in a little more detail?
Stufflebeem: Well, I won't get into what it is that we would be preparing to do. But what I would say that the significance of that area as a land bridge is to look at the needs of humanitarian assistance in the northern part of the country that are not or could not be serviced as completely by air as they can be by land. Just the amount of humanitarian aid that can be brought into the country and controlled in its distribution is going to be much more efficient and much more successful if done over land. This is the closest point that we see access to starting that.
Q: Admiral, are you prepared to do something along the lines of what you did in Albania or Kosovo or Macedonia for Kosovo refugees, or maybe in Rwanda for refugees there? A really large-scale operation?
Clarke: Tom, I don't think we can give you any details now, but we are looking hard at ways to provide meaningful, and sustained, and large amounts of humanitarian aid. Admiral Stufflebeem pointed out over one million, 400-and-some thousand rations, which is important. And for those people who are getting those rations, it's very helpful. But we're talking about millions of people who are starving because of what the Taliban has been doing.
Q: Can I follow up on that? Can I -- Admiral -- how far is it from Uzbekistan --
Q: Admiral, may I also follow up a little bit on that --
Stufflebeem: Go ahead.
Q: -- on the strategic value of taking Mazar-e Sharif? And not only again elaborating on the value for humanitarian supplies, but also, just in general, would it be a psychological boost? Would it be a strategic boost also in terms of getting resupply? Could you just elaborate on why it would of value to have the city?
Stufflebeem: From a military perspective, taking control away from the Taliban is important. And why is it important? Because they no longer have control. And therefore, the citizens in that area are not underneath that oppressive regime. Humanitarian assistance can be made available. Less control of the country is now happening from that group. Less support available to al Qaeda fighters would be available. So strategically, humanitarian, militarily -- it's important for those reasons.
Q: And a psychological boost for not only just the opposition, but for the U.S. campaign?
Stufflebeem: I think that's kind of going a little bit too far to say that it's a psychological boost for the coalition or for the campaign as much as it would likely be a psychological loss, from that perspective, to the Taliban.
Q: Follow up on that --
Q: Admiral, you've had military teams --
Q: Excuse me. Follow-up on that -- he pointed at me.
How far is it from Uzbekistan to Mazar-e Sharif? And if you have a land bridge, how do you secure that? You talked about the fact that an airfield would have to be situated. Wouldn't U.S. troops be needed to do that?
Stufflebeem: Well, you're asking a question that actually could get us into what may become part of the campaign, if and when the land bridge is, in fact, established. So why don't we get there and then talk about it?
Certainly, to have a land bridge established from one country to another requires security. It would be more than U.S. forces in the consideration of doing that.
Q: Admiral, you've had military assessment teams on the ground in Tajikistan for almost a week now. What are they reporting back about how those three airfields look?
Stufflebeem: As of yesterday, which is the last time that I had a status of those assessment teams, they were not yet out of the country, though reports have -- had at yet not been forwarded to General Franks for his, you know, his comment on that. So "We don't know yet" is just the most honest answer I have.
Q: Have you heard anything from the Special Forces teams that are on the ground in Afghanistan that would confirm what rebel leaders are saying?
Stufflebeem: No specific reports from our ground forces that would say, "This is what they're doing" or "This confirms this." And you have to remember -- put yourself on the ground where these forces may be.
Though you have a 360-degree field of view, there's a limited horizon on what you see. And predominantly what they would likely see is a battle that's occurring in front of them. It's very difficult from their vantage point to make a comment that would give us any more than what we're seeing already.
Does that help you?
Q: Yes, that is helpful.
And the follow-up, totally unrelated, is, does the U.S. have any plans, if Mazar-e Sharif is taken, to advise or to help win the hearts and minds of the people in the towns, with bringing in humanitarian aid or anything like that, so that the 15,000 troops of the Northern Alliance don't have to just hang out in one town to secure it but can move on? Do we have a follow-on plan, not necessarily with U.S. troops, but just a plan?
Clarke: I don't know the details of any plans, Pam, but as I said before, one of the things we want to do, and this is throughout Afghanistan where it's needed, is to provide meaningful humanitarian assistance.
Q: Do you have any insight into what the situation is with the civilians inside of Mazar-e Sharif? Are they fleeing the city? Has the city been abandoned by civilians? Are they trapped inside?
Stufflebeem: I don't know. I've not seen any reports about the civilians of the city, and I just don't know what they're doing. I'll go see what I can find out.
Q: Admiral, excuse me. Could you give us an update on the ordnance so far used in the war? I think the last report we got was 3,000, but it's increased sharply since then. Can you give us a minimum number of bombs used so far?
Stufflebeem: I think that in terms of air-to-ground ordnance, we are now either approaching or may have just surpassed 8,000 bombs dropped.
Q: Is that missiles, or just bombs?
Stufflebeem: I would characterize them as air-to-ground ordnance.
Q: Admiral, if you can just clarify, as the front lines appear to be changing, can you just explain, does it provide new opportunities or new hindrances, when the situation is cloudy and dusty, and the Taliban may be on the move or they may be in defensive positions? I mean, just give us a sense as to how much more confusion does it add when you hear these reports that the city may have fallen, the Taliban may be on the move?
Stufflebeem: That's a difficult question to answer, because until you actually see it, you don't really know what you have. You certainly can introduce new problems if ground is taken and you have now to defend that ground, to hold it. If you have taken ground and can use that as a position to move from, that's obviously a much different tactical aspect.
So we just don't have enough information to know what we know yet. And that's really just trying to be precise. You know, as I say, when a lot of dust is in the air -- that's literally as well as figuratively.
Q: How are you going to penetrate the dust? How will you -- I know that you're going to talk about the inhibitions on talking about intelligence, but in as specific a sense as possible, how will you confirm what's going on?
Stufflebeem: Technically speaking, from a ground perspective, when ground is taken from the Taliban, for instance, and then is held and not counterattacked, there is a piece of real estate that the opposition forces would then own as their own, if you will, and from that they'll be able to move forward. So I think that you have to have enough perspective away from it to see that not only has ground been taken, but it is held and provides that opportunity to again move to what your next objective is.
We don't know enough yet to know what's been taken, will it be held, and then therefore will there be more movement from that. So I think we just need some perspective to see how that will play out.
Q: Sir, will this perspective come from the air -- satellites, et cetera? Will it come from your representatives or United States representatives actually physically being there? How will you --
Stufflebeem: Oh, I see what you're -- yeah. You're asking, when will we know what we know?
Stufflebeem: Well, the opposition forces I think will go further than just making the statements of what they have done or what they are doing and declare what they have. And I think that we will then have an opportunity to see and/or agree or not agree as to whether or not that's really the case. Is that fair?
Q: Yeah. But the follow up would be, how will you see that?
Stufflebeem: We have forces on the ground in the north, and they'll be able to confirm what it is that we're seeing and hearing.
Q: Given the -- and I know you hesitate to use the word reluctance, but I'll use it for you. Given the reluctance to confirm these Northern Alliance reports -- is that because the U.S. believes that the Taliban is still in a position -- despite all the bombing that has occurred on the front lines, is still in the position to launch an effective counteroffensive?
Stufflebeem: As a --
Clarke: Let me just say one thing. There is a desire here to be as accurate as possible. And as we've said repeatedly, this is such a fluid situation and there are so many different bits and pieces of information that to put hard edges on something or to characterize something in a hard and fast fashion is just not the appropriate thing to do at this time. So that's how I would characterize why we are being so careful. We're telling you what we can based on the information we have at this time.
After some days -- after some time has passed, hopefully we can present a clearer picture.
Q: But what is the larger picture on the ground in terms of how effective the air strikes have been against the front lines? And have they not been so effective that the Taliban cannot launch a counteroffensive? Are they still in a position to launch an effective counteroffensive, I guess is my question.
Stufflebeem: It's a good question. And the most truthful answer is, we don't know. Because it's so difficult to get accurate reporting out from behind their lines to know if they will have a capability or do have a capability to counter attack, I don't think that the Northern Alliance would know or assume that until it actually happened. The lack of it happening -- or the absence of it happening may also not be the indicator that they can't do it, but maybe have chosen not to do it, for reasons that we don't know. So it's -- that's the kind of confusion that we're dealing with.
Q: Are you seeing anything -- are you seeing them trying to mobilize reinforcements? If it's dusty over Mazar-e Sharif, you can't see that, you can look elsewhere in the country. Are they massing? Are they moving? Are they trying to resupply? -- from the areas that you can look at right now.
Stufflebeem: We are seeing reports that they wish to resupply; they are trying to resupply. To say that they are massing to resupply would be too big of an adjective to describe how -- you know, the sense of what we have right now. We have described before that we know we're having a positive effect. We have reports of the successes of our air strikes on those forces against the opposition. To what degree it is, it's just not known. And part of this war is in attacks to determine if there is a counterattack, and then a good commander on the ground will try to determine why, as well as the fact that it may not have happened.
Q: Admiral, is Mazar-e Sharif the only place where there's fighting on the ground -- I mean force-on-force fighting? Or are there other places where there's fighting going on as we -- not as we speak, but in the past couple of days?
Stufflebeem: It would be correct to say that there is fighting going on throughout most of the country. There are opposition forces in the western part of the country, in the northeastern part of the country, north of Kabul. And certainly we see a lot of activity happening right now in the immediate vicinity of Mazar-e Sharif. We also know that there is opposition in the south.
So I think it would be fair to characterize the entirety of Afghanistan as an active war zone. And I think from day to day, or maybe even from some hours to the next, it may be hotter in one place than the next. There also is an aspect of how much visibility do we have in a particular part of the country at a particular time.
Q: Is any place as hot as Mazar-e Sharif now?
Stufflebeem: Not that I'm aware of.
Q: (Off mike.)
Clarke: Let's do two more, back to back.
Q: Torie, may I ask the admiral one question? We know the kind of aircraft being used from the carriers, we know the bomber is being used, we know of the land-based strike aircraft. But specifically, are they using A-10s and Apaches now that they're going after the troops in the Taliban?
Stufflebeem: I think I'll defer that question for another time, and for this reason: to divulge aircraft that have capability for in-close air support, as opposed to high-altitude strikes, is an entirely different characterization in terms of combat, especially tactically speaking. And the air crews who would be flying those type of aircraft would be more at risk being closer to the ground in employing their weapon systems than high-altitude bombers, for instance. So I think, for the time being, I would prefer just not to answer that question.
Q: Admiral? Admiral, apparently there is not just one offensive on Mazar-e Sharif, but two, if not three, from different directions. Are U.S. forces positioned among all those groups? I think there are some with General Dostum in the South. There's also an offensive from the North. Or is part of the visibility problem that you referred to the fact that U.S. operatives are with some of these and not with other groups?
Stufflebeem: The most accurate answer to that question is: we do not have advisors with every element of opposition forces. And therefore, we do not have co-visibility on all of the areas where fighting may be occurring.
Q: Including around Mazar-e Sharif?
Stufflebeem: Yes, sir.
Clarke: Last question.
Q: Admiral, you're a naval aviator, and I just wanted to take one more whack at this question. From the point of view of the air campaign, when you have a situation of the activity in Mazar-e Sharif -- it's fluid, it's moving -- does that provide opportunities to the air campaign, or is it an inhibiting factor that you sort of have to wait till it sorts out before you can be effective again?
Stufflebeem: The degree of effectiveness is a matter of precision, precision from a naval aviator's perspective. And that precision is based upon positively identifying the targets to attack. Even in the confusion of a lot of dust in the air, if a pilot positively identifies the target, he'll attack it. A consideration that might come into play is, if the fighting is in such close quarters that that might be hazardous to forces that you're supporting, in which case you would depend very closely upon what a ground controller can bring to bear in your accuracy and in your precision.
So there's an element of trust in the mechanics of that coordination that goes on.
But the best part of your question -- or the better part of your question really is getting at, do we -- how do we positively identify the targets? Once that's done, then we're cleared to attack.
Q: Could I clear the air -- just one last question? I'm not clear, actually. Are you using "dust settles" as a euphemism, or is Mazar-e Sharif in fact enshrouded now in a dust storm of some kind? And we know --
Clarke: I use it as a euphemism.
Q: Okay, I'm confused.
Stufflebeem: Well, I'm sorry to make you there --
Q: No, that's --
Stufflebeem: I use both senses of the word and --
Q: Well, but which one is more accurate in this case?
Stufflebeem: Yeah. Well, I think that Ms. Clarke's use of the term is much more descriptive, from a higher perspective.
Stufflebeem: I would also just say that I'm adding to it a perspective of somebody standing on the ground with a pair of binoculars around his neck, trying to see through what is occurring as forces are battling. And sometimes you just can't see through the dust as the artillery goes off around you.
Q: I got you.
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