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John Stufflebeem Holds Press Conference

Aired November 16, 2001 - 13:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Kate, I'm interrupting you to go to the Pentagon. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem is briefing.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

REAR ADM. JOHN STUFFLEBEEM, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: ... to say that the Taliban have now lost control of over two-thirds of Afghanistan.

The northern opposition groups continue to make gains south of Kabul and around Herat. Anti-Taliban opposition groups are consolidating their gains from last week, reducing the number of Taliban pockets of resistance, and especially so around Kunduz. Anti- Taliban opposition groups in southern Afghanistan continue to attack Taliban forces and are approaching Ghazni and Jalalabad.

We continue our efforts to locate and bring Taliban and al Qaeda leaders to justice, and we'll continue our efforts to degrade their support networks in the country.

The focus of coalition operations efforts yesterday included targets consisting of the terrorist and Taliban caves and tunnel complexes, remaining Taliban military forces where we can find and positively identify them. Our efforts involved strikes in five planned target areas, as well as numerous strikes against targets in several engagement zones.

The CINC used about 75 strike aircraft yesterday, of which about 55 were carrier-based tactical jets, approximately 10 were land-based tactical jets, and about the same number of long-range bombers. We dropped leaflets in several locations around Kabul and continued our Commander Solo broadcast missions.

There were three C-17 missions yesterday, one which delivered more than 17,000 humanitarian daily rations, and that brings our total up over 1.54 million. And the other two air-dropped containers of blankets and wheat.

Today, I have just one video for you, and this is from Wednesday. It shows a direct hit on an isolated Taliban command bunker near the town of Talaqan. This clip highlights the effects we are having in continuing cooperation between the opposition forces in the north and our ground force controllers.

QUESTION: When was that? STUFFLEBEEM: That was on Wednesday.

QUESTION: Is that a leadership target?

STUFFLEBEEM: Taliban command bunker -- we call it a military target, and not so much a leadership one.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

QUESTION: Admiral, perhaps you could fill us in a little bit on reports of the death of Muhammad Atef. The secretary said earlier that the reports seemed pretty good that you all have. Is this something that you just snatched out of the air on report, picked up intelligence? Or is this -- what kind of report is this? And was this a targeted strike or just a thing of opportunity?

STUFFLEBEEM: There's not much I can add to what the secretary said. It appears that it was in conjunction with a planned strike. The reports that we pick up are all-source intelligence, and appear authoritative. But as the secretary said, there is no confirmation of this.

QUESTION: Do you know what day?

STUFFLEBEEM: The first that I have seen of the reports were from this morning.

QUESTION: What day he might have been killed?

STUFFLEBEEM: The reports are indicating that this may have happened a couple of days ago.

QUESTION: Continue on. You were making a statement about it. Continue on. Elaborate on the entire episode.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: How this came about and what -- how it came about, and what's happened, and what you think about it. And what's the reaction? What does this mean?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I really don't have much more that I can tell you. In the series of the targets that were fragged over the course of the missions and over the course of the air-tasking orders, the planned targets, one of the command and control targets that was known to be Taliban and al Qaeda was struck by coalition forces.

It appears that in intelligence reports picking up discussions after one of these attacks -- this is where this report generated from that it appeared that Mohammed Atef was killed. If true -- in other words, we haven't been able to confirm this. We're just hearing this. So if true, that, of course, is important to us, to be able to get at al Qaeda.

And I would just remind us once again that that's our primary missions, that's our primary focus, is getting at al Qaeda. So getting at principle leadership of al Qaeda is a positive thing.

QUESTION: And how significant is this to the terrorist network? Would this be a devastating blow to the network? Elaborate on that. Since he's the number two...

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, that's hard for me to give you anything authoritative, not being inside the organization. I think some fair assumptions to be made, though, is that, if true, if, in fact, Atef has been killed, that will have an impact on their future operations. That's good for us. It probably has no impact on operations that have already been planned and, as you might term, are in the can just awaiting for some triggering device to be released, that he may have been responsible for planning.

So it's hard for me to be outside describing what that effect is on the inside.

But remember, the president's mission and the military's objective is to find al Qaeda worldwide and dismantle it. And so any operative that we find, especially those in what are known to be key leadership positions, we view as important.

QUESTION: Is it a morale boost to the U.S., though, to have gotten this top guy?

STUFFLEBEEM: I don't know that the morale was ever low, therefore that it needs to come up. I think that it is part of the campaign objectives and therefore the way we view it, that in uniform is, this is our mission; we've been tasked to do this, so we see that we're making positive steps in accomplishing that.

QUESTION: Admiral, by conversation, do you mean al Qaeda conversation?

STUFFLEBEEM: Let me get around.

QUESTION: Thank you, Admiral. In the past hours, there are reports that Mullah Omar is willing to leave Kandahar and turn over the cities to some Pashtun travel leaders there. Your reaction?

STUFFLEBEEM: My personal reaction is is that any part of the country that the Taliban leadership relinquishes control over is good. The reports that -- or singular report that I've seen, indicating that Mullah Omar may be relinquishing control of Kandahar, I don't put much stock in at this point. I don't believe it.

I think that our forces who are there are still operating under an assumption that it's a hostile environment. And I think that the opposition groups are probably operating in the same way. They're going to need to be some quite a bit of dialogue amongst these groups for them to be convinced, and others to be convinced that that will be the case.

QUESTION: Admiral, given the fact that two-thirds of Afghanistan, in your estimation, are now under the control of opposition forces, is the Taliban leadership, Mullah Omar specifically, as important a target for the U.S. military operation as Mr. bin Laden and his top people?

STUFFLEBEEM: First, let me go back to just reconfirm the way I would characterize it, is that I feel or we feel that the Taliban do not have control of over two-thirds of the country. I don't necessarily equate that that opposition groups, in fact, have that. There may be places that pockets of resistance where we're not sure who has control. So small point.

In terms of how important is Mullah Omar, he certainly is not as important as al Qaeda, but because he supports the terrorists, he is therefore associated with them. So in that frame, it's very difficult to distinguish necessarily one from another.

But it's a fact that Mullah Omar has not perpetrated attacks as al Qaeda have. And therefore, our primary focus is on finding and eradicating al Qaeda. For as long as Mullah Omar would support al Qaeda or any portion of it, then he is associated with it and, therefore, is a target for us.

QUESTION: Let me just follow-up. But if indeed he is no longer in a position to provide the kind of, let's say, state sponsorship, even though we didn't recognize the Taliban as a state -- but to provide state sponsorship, financial assistance, safe haven, passports, et cetera, et cetera, if he's no longer in the position to provide that for al Qaeda, is he someone we could, basically, leave alone and forget?

STUFFLEBEEM: You know, that's making a supposition. And that's supposing that he would put his hands up and walk away from the position that he has staked out. In all the indications we have so far is that, he is determined to hold on to whatever power he may have, that he is supporting al Qaeda, he has made direct threats against America.

So I think that it's very clear in where he's at. And so I think to suppose that there will be some change, I don't see that we can go there. I think we have to assume that he is who he is and therefore he is not with us.

QUESTION: Admiral, it's been said of Mohammed Atef that he was in charge of bin Laden's personal security. Based on what you've heard, I take it you're assuming that he was not at bin Laden's side at the time he was killed or bin Laden was not at his side at the time he was killed. And if so, what does that indicate about -- if, in fact, they were separated, what does that indicate about what bin Laden must be doing right now?

STUFFLEBEEM: On the assumption that this is true -- or maybe a better way to put it is, once we can confirm that this is true, Osama bin Laden no longer has a principal assistant that he has been counting on for developing military or terrorist operations. If he has, in fact, been responsible for the personal security of Osama bin Laden, then that describes to me an environment where that individual is now going to feel much less secure about where he is, what may happen to him next. And then looking at it from my perspective, I see that as one notch closer of this noose tightening. QUESTION: And if, in fact, Atef was killed, are you assuming that bin Laden was not near him at that the time, and what would that mean?

STUFFLEBEEM: I'll make no assumption on that, because I think all assumptions could be equally true. The reports that we've not yet been to confirm is that Atef has been killed, but there have been no reports about others, like Osama bin Laden, having been with him. So I don't know how to take that.

QUESTION: Sir, could you explain what you said at the beginning when you said, I think it was that the Northern Alliance is approaching Ghazni and Jalalabad? It's my understanding that those cities are no longer under Taliban control, so who's in charge there and why would the Northern Alliance be heading in that direction? And if it's a local tribe, do you anticipate armed conflict between the two?

STUFFLEBEEM: The disingenuous answer is yes.

To parse that out, it's not clear that Jalalabad has, in fact, fallen to opposition forces. There are conflicting reports about exactly what the status is in the town. I have seen reports about Taliban or those reported to be Taliban going across the Pakistan border from that area. I have seen other reports where opposition forces and Taliban forces are having discussions of defections, and I have seen yet other reports that they are engaged in sporadic firing.

So I think from that, it's not clear that Jalalabad has fallen to opposition forces.

QUESTION: What about Ghazni? That's where the detainees were freed from, presumably by the...

STUFFLEBEEM: The impression that I have is that's the same environment.

QUESTION: Admiral, in recent days we've been hearing a little bit more about the direct combat that U.S. special forces have been involved in on the ground. Can you give us any, just, brief description of the type of engagements they've been involved in in terms of ground combat -- whether they exchanged fire with Taliban or the al Qaeda forces; if anyone's been killed in those exchanges? Can you give us any idea of what U.S. forces are doing on the ground?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I can certainly reaffirm what the secretary and General Franks have described in terms of their mission.

I have not seen any reports that would describe what you may be describing as a firefight, per se. The forces in the south are doing strategic reconnaissance. They are ready to engage in direct actions if and when they positively identify enemy or have to defend themselves. I have not seen any reports that they, in fact, have done that. They are providing positive control of aircraft in engagement zones and they are initiating contact with opposition tribes.

So I just don't have anything for you to describe that it's more than that right now.

So I've not seen any reports that would describe that there's been an active firefight and people have been killed and...

QUESTION: But just to clarify, Secretary Rumsfeld, this morning, in traveling to Chicago, told reporters that U.S. troops were killing Taliban and al Qaeda forces when they refused to surrender. Was he speaking just about what their mission was or is he talking about specific instances there, do you know?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, of course, I wasn't with him, as you know, so I don't exactly know what he said. But I infer that that's what their mission is. I have not yet seen any reports to say that that's what they, in fact, have done.

QUESTION: Admiral, your answer suggests that the enemy is scattered enough now that these forces are having difficulty locating them. Is that true? I mean, they're on the ground. They're looking for these folks. And we're not getting any reports of engagements. Is the Taliban so widely disbursed now that it's difficult to find them?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, Taliban certainly have been in withdrawal and, in some cases, possibly actual retreat, and we also know for a fact that they are also crossing over or defecting to the other side in some areas.

So the influence that we have seen or that we knew of -- and I think the best evidence of that is in the cities, where citizens open the doors and just literally found that they had just been abandoned and there were no more Taliban forces there.

We know that they are trying to collect themselves together in the southwest part of the country. We don't know what it is they would intend to do. We do have forces looking for that and for them. And we do have aircraft that are available in engagement zones that once they are positively IDed they'll be struck.

So that's a fairly accurate picture to say that there are not clear lines of Taliban that we know and are ready to confront.

We are actively searching for them, as are opposition groups.

QUESTION: What about around Kunduz and Kandahar, what's the status there?

STUFFLEBEEM: Not much change. As I last checked into it, Kunduz is at a standoff, and there are a number of reports that indicate there are dedicated or -- what's the right word here? -- there are forces determined to fight and they're dug in. Opposition groups are attempting to get them out by trying to talk with them, to have discussions for defectors and et cetera, but there also is fighting.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) al Qaeda or Taliban or both?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I'll make an assumption that it is probably non-Afghans, therefore probably Taliban. They could be Pakistan but are sympathetic to al Qaeda, but not necessarily formal members. And we're sure, or we believe that there are probably some hardcore Taliban who are mixed in there as well.

In Kandahar, there are conflicting reports. I've seen that the center of city is very quiet. I've seen on the outskirts of the city there is sporadic fighting. Some conflict is exactly what the status is there.

QUESTION: Admiral, excuse me, let me ask you to clarify something, because you said non-Afghan, so you assume they're Taliban. Did you mean to say al Qaeda?

STUFFLEBEEM: Well, there are forces or people who would enter Afghanistan to support al Qaeda or Taliban who may not necessarily have been al Qaeda-associated previously. Radical Pakistanis are an example. We know of individuals from other countries who have wanted to join Jihad, for instance, and try to travel there. So to make an assumption that they're all the Arab fighters known as al Qaeda, I'm being a little bit wider than that.

QUESTION: Air fields: Can you give us a status report? A U.S. official this morning said there are roughly 40 American, maybe 100, 120 British at Bagram. Apparently it is the responsibility of the French to open up Mazar-e Sharif. Where do we stand in Tajikistan now that Tommy Franks has briefed the president? Is there a go on that?

Can you, sort of, bring us up to date on all three of these airfields?

STUFFLEBEEM: Yes, sure. Tajikistan, I don't have any updated information for you on that. I have not heard recently the status of what our intentions are for an airfield there.

Mazar-e Sharif is an airport that is hoped to be open and available for coalition use. As you have described, the French intend to go in there and help facilitate that in terms of runway repair, airport services, if you will, and security.

The area up there, there are still pockets of resistance, so there is still an effort by opposition forces to find and isolate or eradicate those. So I know that -- I have seen one report from a nongovernmental organization that they are trying to secure the area a little bit better.

In Baghram, American and British aircraft have, in fact, utilized the airport or the runway, more precisely. To say that it is an active air base would be too descriptive of a term, but we have utilized it and we will continue to do so as necessary.

QUESTION: And the question of the activity of the U.S. special forces on the ground -- the secretary referred to what appeared to be some sort of engagements with enemy forces of some type, and you are suggesting that you have not seen anything that would describe that. Now, whether it would be planned engagements or situations in which Americans had to defend themselves from an ambush or something, have there been direct contacts of that kind, relatively few or increasing in recent days? Can you give some characterization of that?

STUFFLEBEEM: I honestly don't know. Forces were covertly inserted into southern Afghanistan for reconnaissance and direct actions. As they go about their business -- and I'll speak now generically about to make a covert insertion and to do reconnaissance, to be able to maintain that capability, you are not going to spend a lot of time exposing yourself intentionally. So if you find yourself being engaged or happen upon forces whom you know to be unfriendly, you're authorized to engage an enemy force. I just have not seen reports that would describe a level of activity.

And I don't want to sound like I'm trying to backtrack away from what the secretary said. He's been accurate.

What I'm trying to display is that there's not a sense that there is a group of forces that are roaming the country and looking to engage in fights. They are deliberately developing intelligence through reconnaissance. They are deliberately looking for al Qaeda because that's their mission, as it is for the rest of our fighting soldiers there. I just have not seen reports that get to the specificity of firefights going on, and therefore I'm just not taking you down there to draw that distinction.

QUESTION: Well, sir, I wonder if I could just provide you the exact wording from the secretary, and see if it doesn't sound like you're backing off. He said, "They are killing Taliban that won't surrender and al Qaeda that are trying to move from one place to another" -- "are killing." So it sounds like you're saying that that hasn't happened.

STUFFLEBEEM: No, what I'm saying is that I have not seen reports that would indicate that our forces have engaged, met with people who either initiated or caused a firefight to occur.

QUESTION: How would they be killing them?

STUFFLEBEEM: I see where you're drawing me in to.

(LAUGHTER)

STUFFLEBEEM: And believe me, I'm not trying to split hairs so fine other than just to describe for you. I just have not seen reports that have come back out of these groups and said, "This is what we have done." And the secretary has better access to a lot more information than I do, so I wouldn't dispute at all what he has said nor characterize it any differently.

QUESTION: Admiral, what do you define what direct actions are? Does that include, for example, snipping, things like that? What does that mean?

STUFFLEBEEM: I'll give you one generic description and you can assume that there are some others.

Direction action would be positively identifying an enemy or a target and then dispatching it. QUESTION: You said you monitored conversations following this attack, the death of this al Qaeda leader. Were these panicky al Qaeda conversations that said this -- in other words, was this just something you grabbed out of the air, or is this a report from the Northern Alliance that this guy has been killed? What were these conversations you're talking about? Are they al Qaeda conversations?

STUFFLEBEEM: You're getting into an area of intelligence gathering and, of course, we don't do that -- discuss those.

What I will say is, the world is a big place. And you know that al Qaeda is in a lot of countries. We have all sources around the world who monitor communications, who have other sources, and from that we pull reports. And because something has happened in one local it may not have, in fact, originated report from the same location.

QUESTION: So you're not saying these conversations were necessarily in Afghanistan?

STUFFLEBEEM: I'm neither confirming nor denying where we got it from.

QUESTION: A couple of weeks ago there was a great buzz when JSTARs and Global Hawk and Predator were confirmed to be over in Afghanistan. To what extent are they helping in this tightening of the noose, locating al Qaeda targets, working with special forces on the ground, some kind of a system now using drums, airplanes that work with special forces? Can you give a little bit of flavor there how it's operating, how it's working?

STUFFLEBEEM: I won't discuss the UAV Global Hawk, other than as we've discussed it before from this podium. It is a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned vehicle with sensors and it provides good long stare time, dwell time overlooking the potential targets.

JSTARs, you know is a system that can see vehicles moving. There then is a coordination between identifying those targets and if in an area known to be under Taliban control or moving away from where Taliban control was, there then can be a coordination with aircraft in engagement zones to identify those as targets and then they can be struck.

This is an environment where almost nobody but Taliban or al Qaeda have vehicles to move around in. And I'm not talking about opposition groups, I'm talking about those who have been in power and are moving, retreating or whatever they may be doing.

So to see those vehicles from JSTAR and then having the ability to attack them is the coordination that's going on there.

QUESTION: What about on the ground on networking that information to the commandos on the ground so they could also spot -- confirm an attack?

STUFFLEBEEM: The communication -- and the way to think about this as a term of art is joint campaign. It's not an air component and a ground component separately, these are jointly worked together. And so those forces in the air and those on the ground are coordinated to do this kind of warfare, including JSTARs and engagement zones.

I hope you all have a nice weekend.

WOODRUFF: Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem briefing reporters at the Pentagon. And I saw three headlines, if you will, out of this briefing. No. 1 on reports that Mohammed Atef, who was a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, that he has been killed. The admiral said that this information -- that they do have this information; it's not confirmed; it does appear authoritative.

And he said that it came to them in an intelligence exchange after an air attack. He wouldn't say who was communicating with whom, but it's clear that this was discussed or communicated in some way, and it was picked up by the U.S. He said if it's true that Atef is dead, he said this would have a significant impact on the future ability of Osama bin Laden and his network to carry out operations. But he said it wouldn't affect the things that they already have, in his words, "in the can." If it's already in the can and underway, his death wouldn't affect it.

Two other things on the comment. The report coming in just a short time ago that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader telling his troops to leave Kandahar. We heard Stufflebeem say, I don't put much stock in that report, I don't believe it. He said this is still a hostile environment in Kandahar. He said, I believe there still has to be quite a bit of dialogue between opposition forces and the people on the ground inside Kandahar before the opposition will be convinced of it.

And finally and just quickly, reports from Secretary Rumsfeld this morning on his way to Chicago, saying that U.S. forces are killing Taliban. When Stufflebeem was asked about that, he said I infer that he was referring to their mission. He said I, myself, have not seen any specific reports that U.S. forces have been killing Taliban on the ground.

So that is a portion, at least, of what came out of today's Pentagon briefing.

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