U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with troops during his visit to Irbil, Iraq, Dec. 17, 2015. Carter is on a weeklong trip to the Middle East to meet with military leaders, and to thank troops for their service and sacrifice, especially during the holiday season. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen
Erbil, Iraq–(ENEWSPF)–December 17, 2015.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: First of all, good evening everyone. Thank you for being here.
(inaudible) — this — purpose of my visit was to discuss with our own forces that are here working with the Kurdish Peshmerga, and also with the government of this region here, in particular President Barzani, the opportunities that we have together to accelerate the defeat of ISIL.
The Kurdish Peshmerga have been exactly what we have been looking for in this whole fight in Iraq and Syria, namely a capable and motivated force that we can enable. I had an opportunity, first and foremost, to meet with our forces here, and by the way, if anybody wonders whether there are boots on the ground in Iraq, there are 3,500 boots on the ground, including some wonderful people here.
And in addition to telling them how much their country appreciates them at holiday time. Of course, our business was to talk about how to enhance our effective — the effectiveness of the campaign here.
Let me start with the Kurdish side, if I could. I had a very productive meeting with President Barzani. I commended him on some — a couple of items of recent performance of the Peshmerga. One was the taking of Sinjar, which was important because it separated the Iraqi-Mosul side of the theater from the Syrian-Raqqah side. So that was an important objective and that couldn’t have been accomplished without them.
But also, and very timely here in Erbil, there was an attack by ISIL right here in the Kurdish region last night by ISIL — an intense attack which shows you that ISIL intends — it certainly showed the people who live here that ISIL intends to strike at them and can strike at them. And it also shows — showed how effective the Peshmerga were because they repelled the attack. And it showed you especially how effective they were as — when they were enabled, as they were, by our — our forces here that advised them, and in particular called in air.
I discussed with President Barzani the future of the campaign, particularly the role that his forces could play in the encirclement and recapture of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, an important objective where we need to help, and he affirmed we would get the help of the Kurdish Peshmerga.
One other thing is we do — we send a lot of equipment here. We do training here, all the things that we do. And the — all that is — everything we do here, of course, in Iraq is — recognizes that this is a sovereign country and that — that is one government in Bagdad, a decentralized government that gives substantial autonomy to regions like this, but a centralized government; a very, very effective partner — just the kind of partner we’re looking for.
That gets me to the second part of the visit, which was discussing with some of our people here in — who operate out of here into very dangerous areas. And I’m not going to be specific about where they go, but their mission was to identify and link up with local forces, in this case especially Syrian-Arab forces, that were willing to fight ISIL, but needed our help. And they were very encouraged to learn – able to find them — find some local forces of that kind. And that suggests that we’ll be able to find yet more. And that’s our approach.
And then we can through — through — it doesn’t take a whole lot of Americans of this sort. They’re so exquisitely skilled. They can bring, through them, the huge weight of the U.S. military might through a very small number of people, and enable a Syrian-Arab group like that to move south. And that’s, of course, what we want, is them to move south, build strength, with the objective of striking at Raqqah, which is, as you all know, is the nominal self-proclaimed capital of the ISIL caliphate.
So that was very encouraging to me, too. They did what was essentially an exploratory mission and they found what we had been hoping they would find, and I have every anticipation that by doing more, we’ll be able to find more opportunities like that. And that’s kind of my purpose for being here is to tell people and to explain my instructions from the president, which are to seek out opportunities to hasten the defeat of ISIL.
So with that, I’ll stop.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on the e-mail question, which I know you’re probably expecting, can you tell us a little bit about when you stopped using the personal e-mail? Why did you stop? Was it because the White House counsel came to you, which I think that has been suggested that they did? Or was it when the New York Times filed its FOIA?
And just because we’ve heard — we’ve traveled with you and heard so much about your concerns about cybersecurity, were you warned by your staff about this?
SEC. CARTER: That’s a good question. Well, a lot of people worry.
First of all, let me back up a little bit. This is a — a mistake I made with respect to e-mail; entirely my mistake; entirely on me. First of all, let me begin by saying, in fact as secretary of defense, I don’t use e-mail very much. I certainly don’t use it for classified information, and any work-related e-mail is preserved, as is required.
But what I was doing that I shouldn’t have been doing, until a few months ago, which meant I was doing it longer than I should have — should have been, obviously — is using my iPhone, which has my personal e-mail on it, to send messages to my office — administrative messages; not classified information. And all of this is preserved as a public record as it should be.
But that I shouldn’t have been doing. And I’ve stopped doing that, but that was a mistake. And to get to your question, I mean, particularly someone in my position and the sensitivities about the position should have known better. And there were plenty of people during the time that you’re taking office and so forth who explain to you what the rules are about e-mail. So this is — it’s not like I didn’t have the opportunity to understand what the right thing to do is. I didn’t do the right thing. This is entirely on me.
Q: Did you stop — (inaudible)?
SEC. CARTER: A few months ago. And basically, what that means is I was doing it for longer than I should have.
Q: (inaudible) — that you’re talking about, is it something that we knew about? Or is this something new, where they went into Syria and located — (inaudible)?
SEC. CARTER: Well, you know, I want to be careful because I want to not talk about details — because there unfortunately is something new about it. This is a mission that was somewhat to my concern, discussed in the press. And there’s nothing wrong with explaining what we’re doing, but there are limits in this regard.
And these were some of our folks who were working, first of all, with the Syrian Kurds. And I think we’ve explained that they, like Iraqi Kurds, have been quite effective at fighting ISIL. And they essentially introduced us to some Syrian Arabs whom we thought we might similarly help to fight ISIL and would be willing to fight ISIL. And this was a mission to explore that possibility and get to know these people.
They were what they were said to be, and that’s very heartening. And moreover, we have indications that there are more of them, which is what we want as we move further south to Raqqah. So that is a mission about which you may have heard previously. And I think the point is that bore the fruit we had hoped to.
STAFF: We have — (inaudible). (Inaudible)?
Q: Sir, you mentioned the attack the Kurds endured last night, the ISIS offensive. As you know, the KRG here has a long list of weapons they would like to obtain from the United States; more armored vehicles, night vision goggles, more substantial weapons, more ammunition, more anti-tank weapons.
Since your purpose here is to find way to accelerate the campaign, are you going to give them some of the weapons that they’ve been asking for? And what specifically are you going to give them?
SEC. CARTER: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely we have. And we have been arming the Peshmerga from the very early days. And moreover, Michael, it hasn’t just been us. There are I think 12 countries — but anyway, a large number, who also — who are part of the coalition — who also sent arms. And I only mention that because that adds to the weight.
And so we are doing that. I did discuss that with President Barzani. And you asked for specifics: the next major shipment from us is two brigades-worth of equipment to be used to arm the two brigades that they will contribute to the encirclement of Mosul. So it’s important to us, because it’s important to take Mosul. That’s an important objective, and precisely our equipment is going to make that possible. So that’s — (inaudible).
But there are lots of other things as well, and again, we’re not the only ones who provide that equipment. But they deserve it, because they’re effective on the ground and effective in fighting.
STAFF: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.
SEC. CARTER: Thanks, everybody.