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Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem Holds Pentagon Briefing

Aired October 30, 2001 - 14:08   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go now back to the Pentagon, where now reporters being briefed by Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem.


REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM, DEFENSE DEPT. SPOKESMAN: So the best way to summarize that answer for you is that it is extremely complicated, there are many forces involved, there are many different commanders involved, and there may be more than one objective that I'm not sure about in terms of are they all after the same thing.

The one thing that's for sure is that it's heated. We are very happy now with -- well, not happy now -- we are pleased with the coordination that we're being able to provide that we weren't able to do before that the secretary alluded to.

QUESTION: Does Mazar-e-Sharif seem to be any closer to falling now than it was when the campaign started, when the air campaign started? Do you have any evidence (inaudible)?

STUFFLEBEEM: Evidence would be a wrong word to describe Mazar-e- Sharif. I think that the outcome is uncertain.

And I think that the time for when that will occur is uncertain.

If you look at it from the perspective of the ground forces, if you look at it from a higher perspective of the objective, I think that it's certain that we will defeat the Taliban. We will do it in consonance with the Northern Alliance and other opposition forces. So it is a matter of when more than it is a matter of if. But it's just not clear right now to be able to say that we have a time line as to when that will occur.

QUESTION: Given all of that, can you explain why the Pentagon, Secretary Rumsfeld, who has been so reticent along with all of you to give us information, has now chosen to very publicly state that there are a small group of Americans in the north, in potentially contested territory doing this very sensitive work. How are they being protected? Are you not concerned that you've now just made them potentially quite vulnerable, if it's such a small group of Americans?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, you've asked a question within a question. One being, to ask for me to explain the secretary's remarks. (LAUGHTER)

And I can't speak better than how the secretary does.

QUESTION: Well, let me try this...

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, let me answer this way. We are always concerned for the safety of American forces anywhere in the world, in a combat zone or in a combat environment. And we are taking an element of risk in putting combat forces on the ground, but it's a measured risk. It's a risk that is part of a plan.

Now, I think more of the larger question of what you're asking is to try to get the secretary and those of us up here at the podium to talk more about what that strategy might be or what that campaign might be. And those are things that we just cannot divulge.

We're very confident in what our plan is going to accomplish and what objectives there are. It is extremely difficult to put it on a timetable, especially a timetable that others might like to have.

But in any conflict, to ensure an outcome, you have to take risk. And certainly, our forces on the ground, in whatever number that they are, or might be, is going to be a concern to commanders who are responsible for them.

But the American public can rest assured that we're not doing thing blindly. We're not doing things haphazardly. We're not outrunning our headlights and doing things in a willy-nilly fashion. It's done very considered.

QUESTION: So having said that, I guess, my question is, has something changed in the last day or so, or recent period of time in this piece of territory that now allows you guys to stand up here and publicly acknowledge this existence when you have been so reticent about any public disclosure of information regarding U.S. troops in the region.

Why can you now talk about this?

STUFFLEBEEM: Again, you're asking me to qualify an answer the secretary has given you. And I think that the best way to respond is that, when he's comfortable to provide information to you, to the American public, as to what it is that we have done, then the rest of us certainly do feel comfortable to be able to reinforce that.

To go any step beyond that, to talk about what has changed, what's different, what phase are we in, is really getting into, you know, coming from behind to try to lead into something in front of, and we're just not going to go there.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about a comment that you made, a remark that you made. Your probably, the most famous quote now from these briefings, has been the one about...

STUFFLEBEEM: That's not very comforting. (LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: ... about the surprise you expressed about the Taliban doggedly holding onto power; I'm just paraphrasing here. Do you think people read too much into that or you think that that was -- it seemed to fuel the perception that the Pentagon was surprised at how hard this was turning out to be. I'd like to give you an opportunity to extend and amplify your remarks.

STUFFLEBEEM: And I appreciate that.


Well, I hadn't thought through my answer very carefully when I was asked at the time. And I think that what I found surprising was that -- I know what the inevitable outcome is going to be, I know that we're going to defeat Al Qaeda, I know that the Taliban is going to be defeated, unless they're willing to give up Al Qaeda and to renounce the support of terrorism -- what caught me by surprise was that they didn't see that inevitability.

And the more that I look into it, especially from the secretary's point of view, and study it from a Taliban perspective, they don't see the world the same way we do. And therefore, I made an American judgment about a Taliban decision. They are going to have to come to this decision, and there's no doubt they will. When and if, is up to them. I was expressing, at the time that I was surprised that they just didn't see the same inevitability that I believe will be fact.

QUESTION: Admiral, you said a moment ago that the U.S. is now pleased with the coordination on the ground with the Northern Alliance. Does that mean the U.S. troops that are now on the ground there working with the Northern Alliance, as the secretary has so stated, does that mean that those U.S. troops are taking charge of that battle and, in fact, directing the battle on the ground there?

STUFFLEBEEM: No. Opposition forces are waging their campaign, as the secretary said, and have been for quite a long time. They have their objectives. It is not our intention that we would necessarily force our tactical objectives on them.

We wish to support that. And I don't mean to have overplayed that adjective to say I was pleased, whereby previously we were displeased. That's not the case. I think I probably misused that word or should have picked a better word to describe that we now have been able to take advantage of the conditions that we set that allowed us to have this position where we can be advisers to them. They have asked for this. They have asked for support. They have asked for help. They have asked for liaison for the air strikes. And we are now into a position where we've been able to provide that.

And I think that's really sort of characterizing how I can say that we're now pleased about that. We weren't previously in a position that we could have somebody necessarily with one or more of those opposition groups to provide the assistance they requested. As time has gone on in this very short campaign, we were able to achieve those objectives, set those conditions, and now that coordination is occurring.

QUESTION: Admiral, could you tell us how long they've been in? I know you can't tell us exactly what day they got there, but has it been days or weeks? And when did you start seeing that change -- the greater control or the greater communication with the Northern Alliance?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, it's been a matter of days. It has not been a matter of weeks. We're only into, I think, a fourth week of this, so a matter of days sort of covers both.

But I think the first time that we acknowledged that this coordination and this liaison was in fact occurring was yesterday. And to be honest with you, I don't know how many more days before that it took us.

And you recall, getting into this part of the country is extremely difficult. When you see reports, and in some cases video coming out of this part of the world, the traditional way of travel is principally by four-legged animal. So getting in, making sure that you are with the right group, which is important, is somewhat problematic, and you don't necessarily want to just show up and announce yourself too loudly.

QUESTION: Admiral, can you talk at all about whether there has been any better coordination with the tribes in the south, and any of the rebel factions in the southern part of Afghanistan? And if not, talk a little bit about why it's so hard to set those conditions you talked about to coordinate with these groups. Why is it so much harder in the south than in the north?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I think, just very simply put, the south is more problematic than the north, but for a very simple reason. The Northern Alliance, who is openly opposed to the Taliban, has asked for assistance. It may be fair to characterize that we have not heard necessarily the same characterization from Pashtun tribes in the south.

We're certain that there are those tribes in the south that are not loyal to the Taliban. In fact, I would hazard a strong personal guess that there are some who outwardly oppose the Taliban. But it's problematic, for that reason, that we have not been invited, we've not been asked for, we've not been requested as we have in the north.

And the other is a matter of access. Southern Afghanistan is an extremely remote area. It's far from anything. And therefore, it can be problematic to easily get in and sustain in southern Afghanistan as compared to the north, for the time being.

We demonstrated in the raid that occurred that we do have access, and we can pick the location and the time of when we will strike. And we can do that just about anywhere in the country.

To make a leap of faith, or a leap in judgment, to assume one thing from the north as it implies in the south, is not fair. It's just quite a different tactical area. It's quite a different geographic area. And there's quite a bit of difference in terms of organized opposition.

QUESTION: Since today is the day for openness here at the podium, I thought I'd ask you, for the past week or so, we've heard that the daily strikes have been conducted by four to six land-based aircraft. You described the others as bombers and carrier-based. Can you say whether there are land-based aircraft supporting the Northern Alliance from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan?

STUFFLEBEEM: I cannot say that.

QUESTION: Admiral, you were talking about the actual special ops raids. Number one, can you give us an assessment of what the intelligence take was without getting into details? Was it useful, and how so? And how many people do you estimate American forces had to kill in order to get into that headquarters to try and bring out pieces of information?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, you know it's a matter of our policy not to discuss intel operations.

QUESTION: But it's a day of openness.


STUFFLEBEEM: When have I never not been open with you? The raid was a success, and it was a success on many levels.

We can't convince ourselves -- or maybe a better way to put it is, I couldn't tell you that the benefit of doing the raid is what was taken out. That may be part of it. And what we gleaned from that is helpful. It's helpful by what we learned and what -- in the absence of what we learned is intelligence, as well.

It's also important to be able to see a battlefield from on the battlefield. An Army expression is, is you have to walk the terrain to understand it. And that's of tremendous value in its own intelligence, as well as the ability of our forces to have the confidence to get on the ground to conduct operations and to engage an enemy.

As I've seen the reports, it was light resistance. I gauge light resistance to be few. I will tell you that, as a military institution, we don't keep body counts. At least, we're not keeping body counts. Maybe in past wars it was done. But we're not doing that. We didn't do that. The commander on the ground characterized it in his after action reports that it was light resistance, and so assume that that's just a few number of enemy that were engaged.

QUESTION: On the limited number of ground troops there right now, they're providing classic forward air control type of activities, it sounds like. Is it fair to say they're giving a degree of precision now to attacks against the Taliban that were, heretofore, or even a week ago we couldn't do, in terms of assisting the Northern Alliance?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, there's a two-part answer to your question. Any time that you have air control from the ground available, it will invariably be more accurate than what you can discern for yourself from the air. So that's an inherent fact. And we also will have a better appreciation of what is occurring on the ground than what we can discern from the air. I'll give you a cockpit perspective of that as an example.

From the air, it's virtually impossible for me to tell one artillery piece that's firing on another and verify whom is who. But from on the ground, it's very easy to tell, especially if you're taking the incoming and knowing where it's coming and able to pinpoint where that strike ought to be put at. So that precision is resident in that capability of having those liaison officers on the ground, yes.

How much did it change from what we previously had seen? I think that you've seen that for yourself in reports that we bring to you, is that we're now devoting more effort to that part of the campaign; i.e., those Taliban forces on the ground.

QUESTION: Are you providing night assistance to flyers as well as daytime or is it mixed?

STUFFLEBEEM: Our capability is day and night.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) helping bomb caves? Are they helping pinpoint entrances and special locations in the caves and mountainsides?

STUFFLEBEEM: I don't have any specifics on, you know, how they're conducting their liaison business. And therefore, I just don't know if they're actually pointing out caves.

QUESTION: Can you characterize what the Pentagon knows about the Taliban or the Al Qaeda having explosives with radioactive materials, these dirty bombs, and the level of concern about that?

STUFFLEBEEM: That who has these?

QUESTION: The Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

STUFFLEBEEM: Can I comment on -- I don't know the specifics, as an answer to your question. We do know that Al Qaeda, and we know specifically that Osama bin Laden has maintained an interest in weapons of mass destruction. We know that he has an interest in obtaining all kinds. We would assume and include nuclear weapons or radiological material in that.

I have not seen -- have never seen any reports that the Taliban have or have ever had any radiological or fissile material. I wouldn't discount it out, but I've just not seen anything that gives me a concern or an evidence that it's there and, therefore, would be spread. QUESTION: If I could follow-up. Does the military know or involved in anything about any of those making it out of Afghanistan? Any of those bombs.

STUFFLEBEEM: I have not seen any reports about those kinds of either radiological dispersal-type devices nor anything about them getting out of the country, if in fact they had them.

QUESTION: Admiral, last week there were some news reports from Afghanistan which showed the U.S. strikes on some friendly, some anti- Taliban forces. Is one of the reasons that we have people on the ground now to try to prevent those kinds of friendly-fire accident?

STUFFLEBEEM: It's a benefit to having liaison officers there. Again, I would just remind you that the reason our liaison officers are there with opposition forces is because they requested it. And that's why they're there.

And there are a lot of benefits of being there. One of those, of course, is to help direct the strikes with more precision so that there's less chance.

But we have to acknowledge, and it's a reality of warfare, that not every bomb -- I'll put it in my parlance as a pilot. I can do everything perfectly right, and have all of my weapon systems working perfectly, and still not achieve a perfect result. There are just so many variables and factors that you can't account for every single weapon going exactly where you want it to go. We call it a Monte Carlo effect, and that's just going to happen from time to time.

QUESTION: Admiral, most of the strikes continue to come off of the aircraft carriers at this point. Can you characterize at all how useful access to the bases in the neighboring countries has been to the operation?

STUFFLEBEEM: Reports I've seen is that they're extremely useful to us. We're very grateful to all of our allies. We're very grateful to all of our friends who are on the right side of this issue of fighting the war on terrorism.

This is but one place -- this is the first place. There will be others. In fact, we shouldn't assume that they're aren't others ongoing as we speak now. And we're always going to be grateful and looking for coalition and allies to be able to help support the world's effort to rid this of this menace. And so therefore the best -- there's just no doubt about it -- we're very happy, we're thankful, and they are valuable.

QUESTION: Would you take a cut at this issue of whether the effort so far has been effective or not? I mean, even the president of Pakistan has suggested that the U.S. military campaign has been ineffective, that the Taliban is being strengthened. Would you just sort of go through the reasons that you think that's wrong?

Well, that's a very broad question. You're asking me to try to see that question or an answer to that question through a number of set of eyes. And quite honestly, the only set of eyes that I can use are my military ones.

I see the campaign going well. I see us achieving the objectives that we wish to achieve.

All of us would wish that there was a silver bullet that we could fire and get this over with and move on to what we might have to do next, wherever it might be. That's not going to happen.

So we are resolute in staying with this until it's done. We know we're making progress. We're satisfied that we're doing the right thing.

Can you define some of the things that have physically been accomplished?

STUFFLEBEEM: If I go back and review in just very general terms from the day we started to where we are now, we can see that we measurably have removed military equipment from the Taliban's arsenal. We have access into the country that we didn't assume on the first few nights that we flew over the country when we knew they still had air defense capability. That's progress.

We know from reports that the Taliban is having problems reinforcing one another in various parts of the country. That's progress.

We know that the Northern Alliance has requested assistance and we've been able to provide that. That's progress.

There are many different ways to measure this, and there are pundits and there are retirees who can offer their opinions about how they might see it, which isn't necessarily how General Franks has articulated it to our national command authorities.

I think the one last thing that I would say is a little bit to the notion of support for what it is that we're doing. Again, from the military perspective, we are eternally, eternally grateful to the American people for the support, the steadfast support that we have in conducting military operations. And for those of us in uniform, that steels us in our resolve. We know we're doing the right thing. We're doing it in the best way that we know how. We're adapting as we go alone. We're confident that we're making progress. And we are going to win.

And we do that because of that bolt of steel that we have from the American public who has their reliance on us to get our job done and the pride that we have in being able to do that.


STUFFLEBEEM: Good afternoon.

WOODRUFF: Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, who's been facing reporters regularly at the Pentagon, answering what's become a steady drumbeat of questions from reporters, reflecting questions being raised out in the public arena, in the press and elsewhere, about whether this military campaign is having results.

We are hearing the admiral say, yes, we've reduced their air defenses. Yes, we've cut down on their equipment -- talking about the Taliban. We have made it harder for them to reinforce one another. And we're determined to go forward.

These questions keep popping up repeatedly during these briefings. But the news, I think, out of the Pentagon today came when -- a little while ago, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- when he was meeting with the defense secretary of Great Britain, Geoff Hoon, told reporters that the United States does now have a modest number of ground troops in-country in Afghanistan. He went on to say it's in the northern part of Afghanistan.

I want to bring in our correspondent Bob Franken right now.

Bob, it was interesting, I think, that Secretary Rumsfeld chose today to confirm this.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting to me, too, Judy, that this was the day where there were so many questions about the conduct of the war, so many questions about relying on an aerial campaign -- a poll that came out today that showed a bit of a slippage in the number of people who have confidence in the war effort as conducted mainly by the United States.

So this was the day that he said, as you pointed out, that there is a -- quote -- "modest number of ground troops in Afghanistan." Let's hear his explanation.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We do have some military people on the ground. They're in the north. And we've had others on the ground who've come in and out on the south. But the ones that are there are doing exactly what I said. They are military, uniform military personnel who are assisting with resupply, assisting with communications liaison, assisting with targeting, and providing the kind of very specific information which is helpful to the air effort.


FRANKEN: And, as Admiral Stufflebeem pointed out in his briefing, they were there at the request, according to the Pentagon, of the Northern Alliance, which is the nominal U.S. ally on the ground there in Afghanistan.

As you pointed out also, there was a lot of discussion about the faltering support almost for the efforts, certainly in the media -- and, as I mentioned a moment ago, that poll raising questions about whether the people of the United States would continue to back this effort.

Secretary Rumsfeld: "There's no doubt in my mind that, when we finish this campaign, we will still have good support." And I thought it was remarkable what we heard at the very end of the briefing that was just completed by Admiral Stufflebeem, where he almost made plea to the American people to stick with the military here, saying that this is the steel in our resolve. We are referring to what the people in uniform need from the American people: They need the support. Please stick with them.

So there's really a consciousness here that -- that things are beginning to slip a little bit, and a big effort now to try and turn that around -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Bob, I don't want to read something into this that isn't there. I don't attend these briefings. I'm not there in person, but I did see in the admiral's face -- and, of course, we've been watching him day after day for several weeks now -- a bit of frustration coming through in his expression, where, you know, the reporter said even the president of Pakistan says this campaign is not effective.

FRANKEN: Well, frustration, and I think there's concern here. I think that whether they like to admit it or not, there is a concern that there is not quite this intense support that there was for things, or at least not this intense belief. Obviously, everybody in the United States would like to see a successful conclusion of the military effort in this war against terrorism, but there is no discernible result.

Now, there's a real dilemma for the people here. They've said that a lot of this will be invisible, that a lot of the victories will never be known. But the fact of the matter is that they can't say: Yes, we're doing well, and here's the proof of it.

WOODRUFF: No, you're right. They've said from the very beginning. We can't say they didn't warn us. They have said from the start it was going to be a long campaign; it was going to be tough and it could go on for years.

All right, Bob Franken at the Pentagon.




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