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John Stufflebeem Press Conference

Aired November 5, 2001 - 13:31   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to cut away from the daily Ari Fleischer briefing to go to the Pentagon -- Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem briefing.


REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: ... yesterday, as they had done throughout the weekend, coalition efforts focused on supporting opposition group forces and preparing the battlefield for future offensive actions by those forces; continued to degrade and destroy Al Qaeda and Taliban command and control, particularly caves and tunnels; struck Taliban and foreign forces where we found them; and continued humanitarian relief campaign in support of the Afghan people.

Yesterday, we struck in five planned target areas that included active and suspected terrorist and Taliban cave and tunnel complexes, Taliban military forces, and in particularly those engaged with or arrayed against the opposition forces, and other emergent Taliban targets.

We used about 75 strike aircraft, which included about 60 from sea-based platforms, about seven to 10 long-range bombers, and the remainder were land-based tactical jets.

We also flew Commander Solo broadcast missions and conducted humanitarian ration airdrops from two C-17s, who delivered more than 34,000 humanitarian daily rations. And that brings our total now to over 1,170,000.

Imagery today includes some overheads of a Kabul airfield and military aircraft. This airfield is one of nine that we have struck to date in the campaign. This supported fighter aircraft, helicopters and transports, and also served as a military aircraft maintenance facility.

These images, which come from Wednesday, focus on two maintenance hangars at the facility, seen here in a pre- and post- strike environment. The maintenance hangars, as you will see, have been destroyed.

We continue to strike at Taliban infrastructure wherever possible to wither away the Taliban's ability to regenerate, reequip and resupply forces in the field as the demanding winter season approaches.

We have three video weapon system videos from the weekend that highlight coalition efforts to degrade Taliban forces facing the Northern Alliance. The first is an abbreviated clip from Saturday that shows a strike on the Taliban's 5th Corps. It's an armored vehicle in position southwest of Mazar-e-Sharif. As you can see, the vehicle was destroyed.

The second clip shows a strike on Friday against Taliban troops in a trench line north of Kabul. This Taliban troop position was set facing a Northern Alliance opposition group.

The last video shows a B-52 strike. This was on Friday. Again, against Taliban positions north of Kabul. This was filmed from an accompanying coalition fighter. You can see the bomber and a bomb load being dropped from the fighter's position and then the fighter camera switching to the ground for both in a closeup and distant view of the strike.

And with that I'll take your questions.

QUESTION: Admiral, the three bases that you're looking at in Tajikistan, what kind of shape, generally, are those bases in? And given the fact that a large percentage of the strike aircraft that you're using are Navy carrier-based jets that need a lot of refueling, wouldn't these bases at Tajikistan give you a good, good base for a land-based aircraft for short strikes in northern Afghanistan?

STUFFLEBEEM: I'll try to walk backwards through your questions. Certainly, airfields closer to Afghanistan would give us an advantage in being able to generate sorties. That's, I think, an emphatic yes.

In terms of the airfields in Tajikistan, as the secretary has already discussed, there is an assessment team in-country to do just that and until they reported out, I just don't have any idea of what the condition of those airfields are to be able to use.

I think that when the secretary gets back, he'll have more to report on things just like that.

QUESTION: But does the Pentagon hope to use those for ground- based strike aircraft and/or helicopters?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, we would hope to have a capability to get access to Afghanistan from the north and the south, yes.

QUESTION: Admiral, could you go beyond Tajikistan and walk us through the other prospects: Pakistan some additional bases, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and inside Afghanistan? What's the effort there?

STUFFLEBEEM: To be honest, it's outside of my scope. I know the secretary, who has visited there, will have more information about specifically what either is being looked at or what could be available. I just don't have any information on that, so I just plain don't know. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) teams, though, going to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan looking at air fields there as well -- military survey teams?

STUFFLEBEEM: There are assessment teams that are going out to all of the countries that have offered assistance. I just don't have those at my fingertips. I just don't know. I'm really concentrating, of course, my area of responsibility, of course, in operations, and then that gets into a future arena where, of course, our politicians are helping set that up.

QUESTION: Just so we understand, your focus here is to get land- based tactical air closer to the battlefield? Is that the focus on the surveying?

STUFFLEBEEM: Closer access to Afghanistan. And I'll speak generically -- closer access to Afghanistan is good for a lot of reasons: relief from requirements for a lot of tanking, shorter times for response, faster abilities to turn aircraft around to do resupply missions, et cetera. So there's a whole host of reasons why having airfields closer to Afghanistan is good.

QUESTION: Admiral, you spoke a moment ago about preparing the battlefield for future operations. How far in the future? My question really is how imminent are these future operations which, by definition, would be ground operations?

STUFFLEBEEM: The reference I made was specifically about enabling the Northern Alliance operations. I'm hearing reports that they -- I think a better way to characterize the answer is that I'm not sure when the Northern Alliance would intend for an offensive in one place or another. I have heard reports that they may be ready to move, but until they do, I think that it's still a bit suppositional on our part.

QUESTION: Are these battlefields now prepared for their movement? Has the job been done?"

STUFFLEBEEM: I don't know -- honestly don't know. The opposition field commanders will have to determine, and I'm sure are determining, when they feel ready to move. We are helping to set those conditions by prepping this battlefield, taking down Taliban resistance. I just don't know how and when they'll feel ready to go.

QUESTION: Can I do a follow-up on that please, Admiral? Although you and others on that podium have been saying this is a different kind of war, and we should not equate it with previous wars, it does seem that this heavy bombing of the Taliban forces north of Kabul is a classic softening-up in prelude to an offensive. And yet, the Taliban as we're told outnumbers the Northern Alliance about three to one.

QUESTION: Will -- and I guess this is the same kind of thing you said you didn't know -- but will the air campaign by itself allow the Northern Alliance to have any kind of a successful offensive, or will the United States, even though nobody admits it here, have to put in large quantities of ground troops to assist them? STUFFLEBEEM: Air strikes on Taliban positions will help Northern Alliance. To what degree I think is really more a call for the Northern Alliance to make an assessment of, more so than for us. It would be incorrect for us to assume that, after so many missions of prepping that particular battlefield, that we would say, "It's ready for you to go; you should be going now." They've got to make that determination for themselves on the ground, and we are sure that they will. And once they're comfortable, we will attempt to help them again in any way that we can.

Now, to get into the aspect of support from on the ground, that gets into an area of future operations that we just don't want to go to.

QUESTION: Admiral, but having said all of that, after almost a week of very heavy bombing along the front lines, what's the Pentagon's assessment of the damage you've caused to the Taliban military up there? How much of it have you taken down? And what is your assessment of these reports that we keep hearing about hundreds, if not thousands, of people crossing into Afghanistan to join the fight with the Taliban?

STUFFLEBEEM: Reports I've seen about forces crossing to reinforce the Taliban haven't been as prolific as what you have just stated -- hundreds of thousands or maybe hundreds...

QUESTION: Hundreds, if not thousands.

STUFFLEBEEM: If not thousands? I think that's a very hard number to quantify, much of it coming from pro-Taliban forces. I don't think that we just have the kind of indicators that tell us that there is that much reinforcement that's coming across to help the Taliban. So I would say that our assessment is we're suspicious of those numbers.

Now, the first part of your question?

QUESTION: After a week or so of pounding the front lines, what do you think you've accomplished in reality here?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, again, because this is enemy territory, it's very difficult to get reliable information out.

The Taliban broadcast or boast from time to time of Americans that they may have killed, which we know to be false. And they're not broadcasting a number of their own forces that are lost, which we believe are substantial. And one of the best indicators of that, to me, is not only what I see in reports, but what I see in the press as well.

It's been a matter of days in some areas where the Taliban have responded to opposition with fire. My guess is that that would be because they're either hunkered down and aren't coming out, or they're not able to fire. So I think that that's a very positive sign.

QUESTION: Do you have any better fix on what is meant by substantial losses on the part of the Taliban?

STUFFLEBEEM: I can't quantify in terms of numbers. I can quantify it best by saying that if the northern opposition is feeling emboldened or ready to make moves, then that means that it has had the intended affect.

QUESTION: I have a couple of questions about cave -- the cave issues. You've come out over the last few days and talked specifically in targeting caves and tunnels. Why the attacks on the caves? Do you have pretty good intelligence that many Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are actually hunkered down in these various complexes around the country and there are the targets?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, it's more than just specific intelligence, it's also a history of the region. The nation is famous, I suppose, for the numbers of caves that have been carved out over the centuries. They have a history of fighting in there. Our allies in this, to a degree, the Russians have also explained the kind of warfare that they faced and that we're understandings. And there is, in fact, some intelligence that they are using the caves or have used the caves.

So, yes, we do believe that they do use them. We use all sorts of intelligence to try to refine where they are at, either as individuals who may be there or as storage facilities. And when we feel comfortable that we have a known facility or we suspect that it has been used, then we strike it.

QUESTION: You've expended a lot of ordnance on these caves, both bunker busters and 2,000-pounders. Is it the Pentagon's view right now that you can do the job from the air, or necessarily where you need to send in special ops teams to do selective raids into the cave complexes themselves?

STUFFLEBEEM: I'll reinforce what the chairman has said more than once: We're going to use all of our capability to win this. There are very few of us who believe that this will be won solely through air power. So all elements of our coalition forces will, at some time, likely be brought to bear.

QUESTION: Against caves and tunnels.

STUFFLEBEEM: Wherever we need to root out Al Qaeda and to take down the Taliban.

QUESTION: General Myers and the secretary have talked about two missions for U.S. special forces in Afghanistan right now: the first being assistance for targeting and the other being coordinating resupply. I'm talking about special forces already on the ground there.

Is there anything you could say about a possible third mission, and that would be providing security for individual commanders who may be starting -- in an endangered position or may be starting an insurgency of some kind? I'm thinking, for example, Harmi Karzi (ph). Is that -- providing security for somebody like that, is that a possible third mission for U.S. special forces on the ground right now?

STUFFLEBEEM: That's a difficult question to answer from the perspective of you're asking, do we have a capability to provide security? Of course we do. Would that be an intended mission that we'll do? I wouldn't want to hazard a guess or make a supposition of that. There just won't be any part of our capabilities that won't be considered. How or when it might be utilized will be driven by many factors. And so right now, it would be really just a guess and so I'll just say at a future operation...

QUESTION: Well, was there such an effort in support of Karzi (ph) over the last few days when he got endangered?

STUFFLEBEEM: I have to characterize it this way: What you see happening in the north and the support that's being provided to the Northern Alliance -- northern opposition groups -- is something that has been well established, well defined, for a number of years.

It's not quite so in the south, as we understand it. There are individuals whom would try to put together what we -- at least I have heard in one occasion called a southern alliance, and we have an interest of supporting all opposition groups or the individuals who could lead that.

But because of the differences of north and south Afghanistan; the difference in access, the difference in a number of other factors at the moment, I think that's best left invisible for the time being.

QUESTION: And so you can't confirm that the U.S. special operations went in and rescued Karzi (ph).

STUFFLEBEEM: I cannot confirm that.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that parts of the border region of Pakistan constitute sanctuaries for the enemy that will have to be dealt with militarily at some point either by U.S. forces or by Pakistani forces?

QUESTION: And I have a follow-up.

STUFFLEBEEM: Let me ask you to ask the question another way. I'm not...

QUESTION: Are border regions in Pakistan, of the kind that Barbara was talking about, with people crossing over in hundreds or thousands, are they, in effect, enemy sanctuaries that will have to be dealt with militarily at some point in this campaign?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I don't know. When you look at the region there, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, certainly in the central part of the country, is really a line that was drawn on a map by the British some years ago. From the people who live in this region, it's not nearly quite so plain, and on some maps part of that area is just considered a no-man's land. So to describe a definitive border and who may be straddling or living across that border, to say that that might constitute an area of future military action, it's just too hard for me to be able to say.

I think that at some point it is possible that the Pakistan government may, in fact, have to deal with the unrest in the regions of the country of which the border may be one.

QUESTION: And a follow-up on what you were talking about earlier about what you gain from closer geographical access with air bases, has the absence of that led to large numbers of missed opportunities, in other words, lack of quick response time or turnaround time? Have you found that a lot of targets that you've wanted to hit you could not hit frequently because of the difficulties of the logistics, of the distances?

STUFFLEBEEM: Right. No. Simply put, the answer is no. It's just that it requires more support to be able to accomplish the same thing.

QUESTION: Admiral Stufflebeem, are we dropping leaflets with a picture or sketch of Mullah Omar's car in country?

STUFFLEBEEM: I don't know. I'll take that question and find out and get you an answer. I've seen leaflets. I think that you have been offered some of the leaflets we have dropped, but I can't say I've ever seen that one. So I'll just have to find out for you.

QUESTION: Admiral, over the weekend representatives from the Northern Alliance asked more support from the United States -- ammunition, as well as weapons and a stronger offensive against the Taliban front lines.

QUESTION: At what point do U.S. officials determine we've given enough support, the time is right, and if the Northern Alliance says, "We're not yet ready," at what point do we decide that we're going to go ahead either with special forces or ground troops? Is there a threshold? And I have a follow-up.

STUFFLEBEEM: There's not a threshold that would say, "Continue or stop." There's not a threshold, that I'm aware of, that would say, "Withdraw our support." I think that question, at some point, will be in General Franks' mind and maybe the National Command Authority's, but we're certainly not there yet.

We're pleased with the responses that they have offered, I guess, or have been able to take advantage of with the support we have provided. We would intend to support them to meet their objectives, as long as we stay on our campaign objectives and meet ours. That is foremost. We are going to eradicate Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, and we're going to take away the Taliban's ability to support terrorists. And there isn't anything that's going to deter us from that mission.

So what we're doing now with the Northern Alliance is mutually supportive. If there ever comes a time where that may not be the case, it'll have to be decided by the senior war-fighters.

QUESTION: And the follow-up: The secretary has said that this is a new type of war that requires patience and that it would take years as opposed to months to accomplish. It seems as if the message to the allies, in his trip, is that it will take months not years to accomplish. Does this reflect any, kind of, change in the way that we measure the progress, the timetable of this war, or is he simply referring specifically to air strikes and bombs and raids of that nature inside of Afghanistan?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I think that's a fair question. But I'd ask you to ask the secretary that tomorrow. I don't know exactly what he said or the context of what it was in. So therefore, I don't know in terms of a change of the time frame.

QUESTION: Admiral, you talked about the United States soliciting advice from the Russians about their experience in fighting in Afghanistan, in reference to the cave complexes.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the degree to which we are -- the United States is speaking to veterans of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan about their experience, what kinds of information the United States is obtaining or is interested in obtaining, and how high up the former Soviet chain of command are you talking to?

STUFFLEBEEM: The most honest answer is I don't really know. There have been books written about the environment. There are former Soviet officials or maybe former Soviet army personnel who have just come forward. We have maintained high-level contacts with Russia, as you know, for quite a long time, and we this unfortunate war has been thrust upon us, the Russians have been very helpful to us. We have not been shy in asking for information, but at what level and to what degree, I just honestly don't know.

QUESTION: Can I get a follow-up? To your knowledge, are there former Soviet military officers in Afghanistan now working with U.S. special forces, and are there current Russian special forces in Afghanistan working with American special forces?

STUFFLEBEEM: I've not seen any reports that would tell me that either former or current Russians, in fact, are in Afghanistan or are working with the alliance.

QUESTION: Admiral, you can count on the ground the number of tanks, the number of planes, the number of airstrips, command-and- control bunkers that you hit in the war against the Taliban. But is there any evidence that this air war is having any effect at all on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? And if so, how can you determine that?

STUFFLEBEEM: Probably only anecdotally. Al Qaeda is an elusive organization. Their leadership are shadowy. They don't want to be found. They want to survive. They want to use other humans as their shields. Our sense is that they're very satisfied that the Taliban are doing their fighting for them right now.

We have not seen active evidence that Al Qaeda is active in Afghanistan. We have taken away their ability to use their training camps. We have taken away their known infrastructure. We are striking at the caves that we have learned that they utilize or have utilized. So we believe that we are chipping away at Al Qaeda. And we know that there are reports that would indicate forces who either are fighting along side or with the Taliban have been attrited. And at what level of leadership, we don't know.

But I think it's fair to say that we know that they are not free to operate in Afghanistan at this point, because we are keeping up the pressure throughout the country. That is one of the most significant reasons why the secretary and the chairman have articulated that we would not stand down during the month of Ramadan and give Al Qaeda the opportunity to regroup and to continue training.

One last question.

QUESTION: Admiral, I'm sorry I have three questions.


STUFFLEBEEM: If you take them one at a time.

QUESTION: One at a time. First of all, over the weekend there was a U.S. military personnel rescue from Afghanistan. Can you tell us anything about that operation, how it was conducted, anything at all about what happened in...

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I can tell you that it was an American special forces member who was working with the Northern Alliance opposition group. He became ill, needed to be extracted to receive medical attention.

I'm not aware of his medical problems. And it could have been related to a number of things: altitude sickness, et cetera.

A U.S. military special forces helicopter with an escort dispatched to retrieve him, one of those helicopters had a hard landing in the mountainous areas due to icing conditions brought on probably by freezing rain. That aircraft was subsequently destroyed by U.S. forces to prevent it from falling in the hands of being used against us later.

That crew of that helicopter was rescued by another helicopter that was along and a subsequent separate U.S. special forces mission helicopter went in to retrieve the ailing member that they originally were going to get and brought him out safely.

QUESTION: The second question: The Seymour Hersh article in The New Yorker which portrayed the October 20 raid as a disaster and portrayed the Delta Force commandos as having to beat a hasty retreat and almost getting killed, can you comment at all on what your version of events or how the squares with the version of events that you're aware of?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, the version that I'm aware of are from the reports of those forces that were involved, and we don't have, nor have I seen, any reports of heavy fighting. The reports characterize light resistance and a planned extraction, as opposed to a hasty retreat. So reports I have seen just don't support that article's supposition.

QUESTION: And my last question: The video you showed us today of the B-52 strikes in which we saw the bombs along a trench line, was that to illustrate that today's carpet bombing is not as indiscriminate as that in the past? Is that the point you were trying to make with that video? Or did you have an intention?

STUFFLEBEEM: No, I think that this was just a different perspective. We haven't had a fighter aircraft film a B-52 from that perspective before. In fact, I don't think we've had B-52 strike recorded from another aircraft yet; it had all been from the coverage that we see from on the ground. And that being the case. it offered a different visual perspective, and that was the only point of being able to show it to you.

Thank you. See you tomorrow.

WOODRUFF: Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem answering reporters' questions at the Pentagon.

And just quickly to recap, when asked what -- how the Pentagon knows they are making progress against Taliban troops -- a raid along that frontline in the northern part of the country against the Northern Alliance.

We heard Admiral Stufflebeem say that the Taliban, we believe that there have been a substantial number of lost Taliban troops. He said it has been, in his words, "a number of days since the Taliban responded with fire to airstrikes." And he said we believe this is because they are, no doubt, hunkered down.

And just a moment ago, when he was asked what evidence the U.S. has that there has been any progress made or any effect on the -- Osama bin Laden or his immediate officers around him or al Qaeda, we heard him say, "This is an elusive organization." He said they want -- all they want to do is survive. They are happy to let the Taliban do the work for them.

He said, "We have not seen any evidence that the al Qaeda is active. We have taken away their ability to use their training camps. We have taken away their infrastructure and we believe we are chipping away at al Qaeda. We know they are not free to move, to operate in Afghanistan because we are keeping up the pressure."

And that, pretty much, caps up some of the highlights at today's briefing at the Pentagon.

Again, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem with the daily session with reporters.




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