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Admiral John Stufflebeem Press Conference

Aired November 14, 2001 - 14:01   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: I'm told that at the Pentagon, General -- Admiral John Stufflebeem has stepped to the lectern. And we want to hear what he says.


ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: ... and continued with the Taliban who are pulling back.

The Northern Alliance has continued to make gains south of Kabul, as well as Herat, and are at the outskirts of Jalalabad, but this is just a snapshot and the situation remains fluid.

Anti-Taliban opposition groups in southern Afghanistan are rebelling against Taliban control, especially near Kandahar. Again, though, this situation is very dynamic.

The focus of operational efforts yesterday included targets involving terrorists and Taliban cave and tunnel complexes. Our efforts involve strikes in three planned target areas, as well as numerous strikes against targets in several engagement zones.

We used about 80 strike aircraft yesterday. That included about 60 carrier-based tactical aircraft, approximately 10 land-based tactical jets, and about the same number of long-range bombers.

We dropped leaflets in six locations throughout Afghanistan and continued our commander solo broadcast missions. Three C-17s delivered more than 39,000 humanitarian daily rations yesterday, which brought the total number of HDRs to nearly 1.5 million.

Today I've got four videos for you, and these were taken over the last three days.

The first is one of a strike on a Taliban tank platoon in a field near Bagram. As you can see, we destroyed one of the four vehicles in this particular hit.

The second video shows a strike on a Taliban facility located southwest of Kabul. Taliban forces had taken up positions in and around the building, and the F-14 had a direct hit.

The third video is of multiple hits on a group of armored vehicles belonging to the Taliban garrisoned at Ghazni, which is north of Kandahar. And again, that looks like an F-14.

The fourth video shows a direct hit on a truck near the recently captured city of Herat. By the large secondary explosion, this truck was likely carrying fuel or ammunition for Taliban military forces.

While progress continues to be encouraging, more remains to be done. Our overall military objective is to eliminate global terrorism, including the Al Qaeda organization, so we still have a lot of work to do.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

QUESTION: Admiral, two quick questions. What about reports that the Pashtun opposition have taken the airport, actually taken the airport at Kandahar? And what are these U.S. special operations troops doing in the south? The secretary said this morning they were interdicting. What does that mean? Are they simply pointing out targets? Are they actually attacking tanks? Are they attacking trucks? Are they shooting at people? What are they doing?

STUFFLEBEEM: To the first part of your question, there are a lot of reports of various characterizations of what the opposition forces in the south either are or have accomplished. It's not clear to us that they have in fact taken the airport at Kandahar. They are, it would appear, engaged in a number of areas around Kandahar, but it's just not clear yet as to exactly what they have accomplished.

QUESTION: Is there heavy fighting at the airport or is that...

STUFFLEBEEM: I don't know if there is right now. There has been fighting around the airport. I couldn't characterize it as heavy or light, I don't know that.

To your second question, about the special forces operating in the south, there really isn't anything that I can add to the secretary's remarks. As has been said from the podium more than once, there are things that will remain invisible, and for the time being I wouldn't want to go beyond what the secretary has characterized.

QUESTION: But he did say earlier that the forces in the south were apparently not interacting with the opposition, they were down there doing their own things. Are they now interacting with the Pashtun opposition to provide them help, aid, food, weapons?

STUFFLEBEEM: I understand your question. There's just nothing more I can add to that right now.

QUESTION: Admiral, do you have anymore information about who these Pashtun in Kandahar and around Jalalabad are?

QUESTION: I mean, is Hamid Karzai, is that his group near Kandahar who are doing the fighting?

STUFFLEBEEM: The most accurate answer is is that it is not clear as to exactly which southern Pashtun tribe is engaged around Kandahar at the moment. There are something on the order of 23 or more tribes which -- and don't pin me down on that number; that just happens to be a number that I saw in one report -- there are a number of Pashtun tribes in the south who would appear now to be opposing Taliban.

Whether or not they are working in concert, we don't know. Whether or not they are being organized to work together, we don't know. All we know is that there are multiple groups now in opposition to the Taliban, and that is just the most accurate information I have.

QUESTION: So I take it our special forces are not working with them?

STUFFLEBEEM: We do not have the same relationship operating in the south as we have had in the north. That is fair.

QUESTION: Do you know if anyone else in the government is trying to contact these tribes at all? Or are you just watching them operate and then later you will decide to do something else?

STUFFLEBEEM: I will only comment on what we, the U.S.'s military, are doing from my position as representative of the Joint Staff. Other government agencies may be involved, but I would defer you to them as to characterize what they may or may not be doing.

QUESTION: So this would really be the first time that southern opposition forces have actively engaged in armed revolt, correct? Just in the last couple of days?

STUFFLEBEEM: I think that that is accurate. There certainly have been indications from the outset that there are southern tribes who are opposed to the Taliban. To know that they in fact were active in that opposition I think has become apparent here recently, but I don't know of any reports that would talk about how active they had been previously to the last 48 hours.

QUESTION: Admiral, what is your information about where the Taliban are fleeing to, and in what numbers? Are any of them apparently leaving the country? And what appears to be their end- state?

STUFFLEBEEM: A lot of conflicting reports get to that answer. It would appear to us that they are abandoning the cities that they previously had control over. It is not clear exactly why they may be doing that. It may be that they are regrouping. It may be that they are abandoning and retreating. That part of it is just not clear as to necessarily why they have done what they have done.

We have seen reports that they have left in directions west, and in some cases possibly trying to cross the border into Pakistan. The numbers, we just don't have a feel for at all.

QUESTION: By west, do you mean west of Kandahar?

STUFFLEBEEM: West of Kandahar.

QUESTION: Which would be open territory as a opposed to mountains, is that right? STUFFLEBEEM: Areas that belong to the southern Pashtun tribes. And as you get further west of Kandahar, especially to the southwest, they tend to be less densely populated. As a geography, it also tends to be an area that many of the Pashtuns call home. So it may be that there are those who are trying to return to their tribes, but we don't know that.

QUESTION: Are U.S. forces pursuing them there in southwest?

STUFFLEBEEM: Where we can positively identify Taliban as such, we are pursuing them. It's difficult though. It's difficult in the southern part of Afghanistan, west of Kandahar, to be able to positively identify what may be southern Pashtun tribes versus Taliban troops that may be on the move. It's just more difficult there. So pursuing them in the classic military sense may be too strong of a way to describe it.

QUESTION: The Taliban today, through one of their spokesman, said that this is simply a strategic retreat. Can you comment on is this a strategic retreat or is this a total collapse?

STUFFLEBEEM: We don't know. I think that we would certainly hope that it's a collapse. But it's not prudent to accept that on face value. Because it is a confusing time, it's very dynamic. Many reports of various characterizations are coming in. It's hard to understand exactly what their motivation is.

The prudent answer to that is that we're going to wait and see what it is that they would intend to do before we try to make a characterization of what sense it is. It would just be a guess.

QUESTION: What is the base of support left even in the southern part of Afghanistan at this point? It seems as though the tribal support that should be there is not there in larger and larger numbers. What is your assessment of how you can function without support of the tribes in the south?

STUFFLEBEEM: I think it will be hard to give you an accurate assessment. A very gross assessment is that Taliban are, for the most part, Pashtun, and they come from this part of the country. In the previous conflicts against the Soviets, many of the Pashtun fought from and lived in the caves in the south. So it could be that there is a place that they can retreat to consider regrouping. I think that it is a possibility that they're going back to where they came from, but we don't know.

QUESTION: But what evidence is there from a military standpoint that they have the ability to either regroup or launch any kind of counteroffensive, given the pounding that they've taken for the past two months?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, that's a good question and one that gets into the art of war in this part of the country. When you go back and take a look at the history of how they have fought tactically, it's been predominantly a guerrilla-style war done from hidden positions. So utilizing caves that they may be familiar with, especially if they're from a tribe that came from this part of the world, it may be where you feel that you may have a place to go to that provides you some sanctuary from which you can fight. How effective that may be is yet to be determined.

You pose an interesting point, though, because we have to acknowledge and recognize that, for maybe as quickly as we have seen things develop in the last couple of days, the last 48 hours specifically, to believe that we have a collapse and therefore now are watching a dismantlement of Taliban to the point where they are ineffective, that could be a dangerous assumption.

We still believe that we have a hard job in front of us, and it may still take some time. We have not lost focus on the fact that we're going to go after and root out Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has been, we know, recently hiding in caves and tunnels. We know that Taliban, as a matter of history, have used this environment to fight from. So we have to consider that that may be what might be one of their objectives, is to get us into that environment.

QUESTION: Admiral, can you give us a sense of the number of Taliban defectors? And also, the secretary mentioned earlier today there was some rift, some tension between the Taliban, as well as Al Qaeda. Is there any evidence of that?

STUFFLEBEEM: Yes. There are reports, again in this larger array of differing reports that we're getting, that there are defections. Opposition groups in the north are working to encourage defections. Our leaflet program encourages defections. We don't have a good estimate of the numbers of those who have decided to defect or retreat, or maybe even stay and fight in a pocket of resistance. But we do know that it's happening.

And I'm sorry, what was the other part of your question?

QUESTION: And also, the secretary mentioned there was some tension between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. What evidence is there of that?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, we have seen reports, as they try to communicate one to another and in some cases Taliban amongst themselves, that not every -- what's the right word here? -- every objective that they wish to accomplish is going to be supported. And therefore, that indicates to us that there is a tension between them.

QUESTION: Could you update us a little bit on the humanitarian side of this operation, specifically, what is it that the United States is attempting to do to get more humanitarian aid into the country? And to what degree have U.S. allies agreed to participate in that effort? Specifically, for instance, will U.S. forces repair any of the airfields or will allies bring in (OFF-MIKE) shipments that sort of thing?

STUFFLEBEEM: I can't give you a complete answer on that, largely because I don't know.

As far as the military objective is to set conditions, and the secretary articulated the priorities that General Franks has, and certainly within that list is to set conditions for humanitarian assistance. A number of nations have volunteered to support that effort. And I think that that coordination and what elements will be brought in are being worked right now. So I don't know, the state of play, what that is.

QUESTION: But you could tell us then whether the United States still has a need and a desire to use air bases in Tajikistan for the basing of combat aircraft, or have events overtaken that plan?

STUFFLEBEEM: The answer to that kind of comes back to another question in the front row here. We don't assume that the job is nearly over with.

General Franks is continuing the campaign on the time line that he started with, and is looking for conditions to be set before moving on to another part or to an adjustment of the campaign strategy.

So it is too early -- we don't have enough factual information to assume that this war in Afghanistan is about to end. It may change in the characterization of how it has been fought to this point, but we still have the job of finding and getting Al Qaeda. We still have the job now of finding and getting at Taliban leadership specifically. And so we have still got to prepare for setting the conditions to allow us to do that. And that would include having utilization of air bases that may be both inside and across the border.

QUESTION: You questioned the possibility of a guerrilla war. Is the U.S. prepared to fight a guerrilla war? Can the U.S. fight one successfully with proxy fighters effectively -- Northern Alliance -- or does that presume the need for more U.S. ground forces?

STUFFLEBEEM: The first presumption to make is that the U.S. is prepared, if necessary, to conduct a guerrilla war or counter- guerrilla war. You should also presume that Northern Alliance opposition groups, or for that matter all opposition groups, are familiar with this kind of guerrilla warfare, especially since it happens in a country that they are experienced in.

To say that the U.S. would rely on any kind of proxy forces, would not be accurate. The U.S. objectives, and those of the opposition groups may not be the same. Certainly they will cross, and have crossed in the instance of defeating Taliban and control of the country. But it may force a shift in the way the strategy is carried out. And we will not be deterred from doing whatever we have to do, and using whatever capability that we have to prosecute that.

QUESTION: Admiral, the Afghan airline, Ariana, is said to have its planes at Herat airport, which was hit. Do you know whether they were there, and if so, do you know what has happened to those -- they think they were Boeing 727s?

STUFFLEBEEM: I don't know any specifics about airliners, and even more specific, airliners at Herat. I will go back to find out if there's any information on that. However, I would say that as part of the campaign objectives, General Franks intended to reduce the capability of the Taliban to move within the country, and part of that is transport aircraft. So I think that they would be considered legitimate targets if they were under the control of the Taliban.

But I'll go back and look to see if there's any specifics on the airliner itself.

QUESTION: Admiral, you had said at the start of this that the humanitarian's about 39,000, which is about the same as it's been all along. With the gains that have been made, why isn't the U.S. and the other nations seizing this as a golden moment to start a massive airlift to get food in to the starving people there?

STUFFLEBEEM: Airlift for humanitarian assistance would be effective if there were no other means to be able to get it in. With the potential now to open the land bridge, the volume of humanitarian assistance can be increased on an order of magnitude. The control to ensure that it gets to the places and to the right people would be much more precise than a massive airlift.

I don't believe that any element of humanitarian assistance is being discounted, and I think that if a land bridge is not established to the satisfaction of servicing all parts of the country that need the help, I think that that will be considered as well.

There certainly have been nations that have offered assistance via the air, and I think that USAID and the U.N. and other organizations beyond what it is that we're controlling in the military will consider all of that.

QUESTION: But why isn't it started now? I mean, given the gains that have been made, why hasn't there been more that's started going in now?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, the conditions to be able to get to those areas have been difficult. Initially, as you know, I mean just barely a month ago the conditions of approaching Afghanistan would be hazardous for most aircraft, or at least perceived to be such.

Since that time, there is now just a fact of distance involved for where some countries may be able to fly from.

And we have been working with potential allies and coalition new partners, if you will, to give us closer access to Afghanistan to do that. We have not been able to make that a reality prior to now. So as we work to get that, getting back to the question about air bases closer to Afghanistan, that might facilitate that. Not every country who would like to participate necessarily has a logistical means of getting there.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) from New York, Secretary Rumsfeld touched briefly on interdiction efforts by our troops on the ground in the south -- stopping vehicles, looking for Taliban troops and Al Qaeda fighters. Can you expand on those efforts and say how that's working, with what force strength, maybe?

STUFFLEBEEM: I cannot expand beyond what the secretary has allowed. This is an area of current operations in a hot and hostile part of the country. So the smartest thing for me to do is just to let the secretary answer that question and not go beyond.

QUESTION: What can you say about troops being put on standby, as many as 10,000 to go into Afghanistan -- U.S. troops?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I haven't heard 10,000 used before, so that's, sort of, a new element to me. The commander in chief, General Franks, has an array of forces available to him in the theater. He has some that he is currently utilizing and those whom are postured to be ready to go. How and when he gets them introduced into the country, and for what missions they have, are going to be discussions for future operations or maybe current ongoing operations. And we just don't talk about this.

I've got to run. I wish you all a very good afternoon.

WOODRUFF: We are hearing Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem answer reporters' questions at the Pentagon. I think there are several important points we want to touch on and recap before we go to a break.

He started out by saying that the situation remains very fluid, despite the advances that have been reported on the ground. He said, there are anti-Taliban forces moving, but he said the Taliban continues to rebel, particularly in the area around Kandahar. The situation there, he said, is very dynamic.

Overall, he said while progress is encouraging, much more remains to be done. He reminded us the goal is to eliminate global terrorism and to, in particular, eliminate the al Qaeda network.

Reporters asked him if Pashtun opposition indeed have taken over the Kandahar Airport, which CNN has been reporting. He said there are a lot of reports out there about what is going on. He said it is not clear to us that they have taken the airport. He said -- he said the reports that are coming in are mixed. And he said we know there has been fighting, but we can't confirm a takeover.

Asked who the Pashtun are, who are moving against Jalalabad and who are fighting in Kandahar against the Taliban, he said it is not clear which Pashtun tribes are active right now. There are 23 or more of them. We don't know to what extent they are working together in concert or what we don't know. There were several we don't knows today.

Asked where the Taliban is going in leaving Kabul and any of these other cities they are being pushed out of, he said there's a lot of conflicting reports. They are abandoning cities. He said, "We have seen reports they are leaving in directions west of the desert in the mountainous areas." They may be going back to their home area, the tribal areas they came from. He said, "We have also seen reports that they have moved across the border into Pakistan." He also made the point when he was asked: Is the United States pursuing the Taliban? He said, frankly, when it comes to the area south and southwest of Kandahar, it's very difficult, he said, for us to determine the difference between the Pashtun tribes on the one hand and the Taliban troops on the other. So, he said to pursue may be too strong a term.

And just to reiterate, Admiral Stufflebeem saying our goal is still out there. We are trying to eliminate global terrorism, to eliminate the al Qaeda and that we have not done. And we are at a point where we can say that there has been some success, but still very much work left to be done.

So that, in essence, some of the high points from today's briefing at the Pentagon.




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