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Pentagon Press Briefing

Aired March 8, 2002 - 13:01   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: An update to the Pentagon now, where the briefing is just now getting under way.


VICTORIA CLARKE, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (PUBLIC AFFAIRS): ... are putting up a fierce fight, as we expected, as we predicted all along. The U.S. military and the coalition forces and the Afghan forces working with are clearly up to the job.

I want to take a minute to acknowledge a couple of things, as we always try to do, acknowledge the incredible job that the men and the women in the U.S. military are doing for us, putting their lives at risk every single day for us and for this country.

And I want to read you something that I got last night. I was coming in from Los Angeles, and as the plane was coming in I was handed a piece of appear from the pilot. And it says, "Nice to have you on board. I work at headquarters for the Air Force as the crisis action team duty officer. Just finished duty yesterday as a reservist. I'm working about 15 to 18 days per months for the military, which is keeping me pretty busy, a small price to pay to help keep our way of life secure." And this is from, as he signed it, Captain Rich Letman (ph) from United Airlines or Lieutenant Colonel Rich Letman (ph) from the United States Air Force Reserve. And it just reminded me about the incredible job that the Guard and Reserve are doing as well.

We are now up to 79,000 Guard and Reserve that have been activated, providing a variety of incredibly important services in support of Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle, and they are serving in Afghanistan, they are serving in Guantanamo Bay, they are working here at home. And we really appreciate what they do, we appreciate the support they get from their employers and their families, and we just wanted to thank them.

And with that, I will turn it over to you, sir.


Operation Anaconda continues. The United States, Afghan forces and our coalition partners are continuing to engage Al Qaeda forces. In the last 24 hours, we've flown nearly 200 sorties over Afghanistan and dropped approximately 75 bombs. We're supporting our troops on the ground with close air support from bombers, tactical aircraft, AC- 130 gunships, as well as attack helos.

We believe there are still a couple hundred Al Qaeda fighters remaining in the area, and we believe we've killed several hundred Al Qaeda and former Taliban troops since the beginning of this operation last Friday.

The number of U.S. killed in action remains at eight. The number of wounded is slightly increased to approximately 50, with nearly 30 of them having already returned to duty.

The number of detainees has increased slightly. We now have 225 detainees in Afghanistan. Several have been recently turned over to U.S. control from Pakistan, as well as Afghan authorities. And we still have the 300 in Guantanamo Bay.

Today we have four videos of strikes in support of Operation Anaconda. The first two are near the area known as Babokel (ph). The first video's from Tuesday, March the 5th, of an F-16 strike and dug- in Al Qaeda fighting positions.

The second video is also from Tuesday, of an F-15 strike on a cave entrance just south of Babokel (ph). The cave entrance was confirmed as destroyed.

The third and fourth videos are from yesterday, 7 March. They are from a flight of F-15s dropping numerous bombs in Al Qaeda fighting positions.

This video shows a strike on enemy forces dug in on the side of a hill.

The final video shows bombs hitting Al Qaeda positions in a valley.

And with that, we'll take your questions.

QUESTION: General, you said that you're using AC-130s and the secretary said, in television interviews this morning, that the terrible weather, as he put it, is not allowing you to use the AC-130s right now, because they're hindered by the weather from using it -- perhaps attack helicopters also. And the secretary also seemed to back away somewhat from a prediction yesterday that the fighting could end -- he didn't say it would, but he said it could end by this weekend. Now, he says, six, eight, 10 days. How can he predict that with any accuracy? Do you plan a concerted effort or do you expect the Al Qaeda just to collapse by then?

ROSA: You want me to talk about the weather and you can talk about the timing?


ROSA: The weather, as you know, has been up and down. When we first started, blue skies, rather cold, but not the chilling that we've had over the last couple of days.

I've just talked to the folks down in CENTCOM and the weather has come back up. When the weather comes down we've got a multiple environment where we can have either fighters, attack air, bombers if the weather's good. Obviously, the gunships you talk about, the AC- 130's been around a long time.

When the weather comes down, it's more difficult to use them when you go to attack helicopters. But we have been using AC- 130s quite regularly when the weather comes up.

QUESTION: But now it's down I take it. But it is hindering the use of it.

ROSA: It come back up in the last few hours. And it's obviously night time over there. And I will remind you that the weather -- although it does hamper us when we fight, we got several different types of weapons that weather really doesn't impact -- our satellite- guided weapons.

CLARKE: And what he said yesterday was the truth, which is we're not sure. We don't think it will take weeks or month, but we're not sure how long it takes. What we do know is we're going to lean in, and we're going to lean in very aggressively and get the job done however long it takes.

QUESTION: General Rosa you talked about hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters being killed. Normally you don't give casualty figures for the other side. Why are you doing that and why are you confident about those numbers?

ROSA: Well, we have seen varying numbers. And I'm not sure where some of the reports I've heard in the open press come from. Central Command's position, General Frank's position is we've killed hundreds.

How do we confirm that? In an environment like this it is difficult. When you go to an anthill, you don't know how many ants are in there until you disturb the anthill. It's just like these cave complexes. We don't know how many people are in there. And when we collapse these caves, we may never know how many people are in there. But we do know that we've had success. We do know that we've killed several hundred.

QUESTION: Can I get a follow-up on that? You do say there are a couple hundred Al Qaeda fighters still in there. Where do you come up with that number?

ROSA: Because we see them move. We see them move. We observe them.

But I think what the most important part about this discussion is we don't get into body counts. Body counts don't win this operational objective. They don't win the Battle of Anaconda.

CLARKE: We always try to say this, but it bears repeating -- numbers estimates are just that. Afghanistan is a very complex place. This is a very messy business. It is hard to have hard and fast numbers on anything. We may never know the exact numbers. We probably won't.

I think one of things that is important to point out is that we have said all along there would be these pockets of resistance -- some would be larger than others. It is likely there will be other pockets of resistance, and we will have to go after them as well.

But I just think we need to wave everybody off thinking or expecting or hoping we are going to have hard and fast numbers, because we may not.

QUESTION: General, surely, militarily there was an estimate of some sort of force inside before making an action into that area, as far as what they would be facing. Do you think, as the general on the ground had said, that the U.S. severely underestimated the number of Al Qaeda fighters?

ROSA: I haven't heard a report from the general on the ground that said that. But I will tell you that, having gone to both staff college and war college, very proudly, with the United States Army, when we do commander's estimates, before we ever start a battle, when we do our planning (inaudible), we predict -- try to predict, try to estimate the enemy's most likely action. And we also predict the enemy's most dangerous action.

And I can tell you that we plan against a wide range of what we think the enemy will do in the worst case. And I can tell you, knowing Buster Hagenbeck like I know him, he and his team planned that wide range.

QUESTION: The secretary said that the latest situation report said that there was very little ground fire coming from the Al Qaeda. Is that because of the weather or is that an indication that -- you know, of the severity of their losses; that they're no longer able to put up much resistance?

ROSA: I would say it's all of the above. Over the last 36 hours, we've seen sporadic firings, sporadic fighting. We continue to clear, surveil in our reconnaissance, clear mines. But the fighting that we saw on the first day has not been as intense, but it's still a very, very dangerous place. And I suspect that as we collapse caves, as we force them out of their fighting positions, it's very difficult for them to get reorganized and that's probably the number of the factors that you said, well, we're not seeing as much fighting.

QUESTION: So you are seeing a significant weakening in the resistance here?

ROSA: We're seeing them move. We know that as we clear and as we bomb, and as our attack helicopters take out positions, we're seeing them move.

QUESTION: Could you explain, please, because -- to me, anyway, it's not clear. What is the ultimate objective here, number one? And number two, since this is such a difficult terrain and it's impossible to tell exactly who is where and how many at any given time, how will you know when you've achieved a victory, when that operation is over and whether it's three days, five days or seven days?

CLARKE: I'll do it in a broader sense. In a broader sense we're trying to do what we said all along was one of our objectives, and that is to wipe out the Al Qaeda and the remaining Taliban. And as pockets of resistance came up and as some of them would regroup, we would go after them with the intent of killing or capturing them. That's what we're trying to do.

And through surveillance and through observation and through the people on the ground, I think we will know when that area is relatively done with.

But as we've seen before, there is an ability by these people and a resilience; they can regroup and they do pop up again.

So given all the people that we will have there, given all the observations, I think we will have a pretty good sense when it is over. But to repeat myself: The war in Afghanistan is not over. Expect other pockets of resistance to come up.

ROSA: And the way I think we go about that is, an area that's 60 square miles is a difficult area to clear. I mean, it's a challenge. It's a lot of space. Not all of that space, as you know, is inhabited by small pockets. But it's a very systematic, integrated plan that sweeps through that area.

When do we know there's victory? When there's none left and there's not any resistance.

QUESTION: General, I wanted to get your comments on the overall intelligence picture in this area. Besides the dispute over the numbers, apparently some of the soldiers on the ground were told that the Al Qaeda did not have mortars. As a result, some commanders did not bring their mortars in.

And again, if you could just give me your sense, is the intelligence here sketchy, are you pretty confident of it? And it is sketchy, why is that? Is it because of not enough decent information coming from the Afghan allies, do you not have enough technical means up in that area, such as Predator and so forth?

ROSA: I had not heard the reports that our troops were told that the enemy didn't have mortars. That would be very uncharacteristic, because currently every place that we've uncovered their caches we've found mortars, RPGs, the types of weapons that they've been using against us. So that one would surprise me.

I've heard people say underestimation, miscalculation. I will tell you that the only miscalculation that I know of is the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They miscalculated. I don't think they ever realized the tenacity with which we would pursue in Anaconda.

QUESTION: As you move through these areas, General, are you learning anything about where these forces came from? Were these people who moved to this area after the earlier battles? Did they infiltrate across the border from Pakistan and organize? And if so, are you doing anything more to better seal that border?

ROSA: We're not sure where they all came from -- and again, in a big diverse country.

But I can you that there's Al Qaeda, Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighting in Anaconda. Where they came from and how they got there -- we've been tracking them I'm sure specifically with information that I can't share with you. We knew the routes. We knew where they were coming from. And this is very, very rugged terrain. This is in one of the most difficult parts of Afghanistan. It would only make sense that they would come to an area like this.

QUESTION: Well, are you satisfied now that the border's sufficiently closed that they couldn't get more reinforcements in there and keep the battle going on?

ROSA: Have you ever been to that area?

QUESTION: No, sir, I haven't. I understand it's real tough.

ROSA: I know many of you have in this room. It is unbelievably tough -- it's not there's like a fence that says, "There's the border." To say, "Can you seal the border?" I think is -- I don't think we would ever say that. Are troops patrolling predicated escape and evasion routes? You betcha.

QUESTION: Two questions. Have any limitations been put on the field commanders as to which weapons they're allowed to have and use? I'm thinking in the absence that -- questions have been raised about the absence of artillery in this particular thing.

And secondly have any of our forces run into deployed land mines up in the area in which the operation is taking place?

ROSA: OK. To the first part -- but let's do the second part: land mines. We know there are land mines all over that country. Reports -- common knowledge it's probably, if not the most heavily mined country in the world, one of the most. I'm sure there are land mines up there. I have seen no reports to say our troops have run into land mines.

Limited weapons: General Hagenbeck will get what he wants. I've heard several people say, "Why didn't you take artillery in there? Why didn't you use tanks?"

I'm not an armor officer, but those armor officers that I've spoken to -- that's a very, very difficult terrain. The slopes -- that's not just good tank country.

Artillery -- there is artillery in-theater. There is artillery in-theater. But I will tell you that, as General Franks said the other day, we've got indirect fire from the air. We've got our borders. So I think to say that the ground commanders have been limited I think would be incorrect.

QUESTION: Has the artillery been used in this specific engagement?

ROSA: I don't know that it's been used.

QUESTION: General Rosa, what do you see is the significance of this battle? Is this just one of various engagements with pockets of resistance that we're likely to see, or is this the climactic battle of Afghanistan, as it's also been characterized?

You know, the exiled king said it's not worth the effort. I assume you disagree with that, you think it is worth the effort. What's the significance of this battle?

ROSA: Well, first of all, I'm not in a position to agree or disagree with the king. He certainly has his own opinion.

The significance of this battle -- I think the biggest thing we can get out of this battle is that the Americans are serious, they're committed, they're willing to do what it takes to rid this country of Taliban and Al Qaeda.

QUESTION: But what about the more tactical sense?

ROSA: I think that there are possibly more pockets. I think we would be naive to believe that this is the last pocket in all of Afghanistan. It's a vast, vast country. Are all pockets going to be this difficult? We have no way of predicting.

QUESTION: There are reports from the area that a force of some 1,000 Afghans has been moving south from Kabul, part of it has arrived in Gardez. Are those just, sort of, pilers-on, or is that part of a plan, or what are those -- who are those people?

ROSA: I've heard those same reports. Those are Afghanis, if the reports that you're talking about and I'm talking about are the same. I've also heard reports they have armored vehicles with them. When I talked to CENTCOM an hour ago they didn't mention anything about that.

QUESTION: Slightly changing the topic, as you know, this Monday is going to be the six-month anniversary, and I was wondering if you would have any thoughts from your perspective and from the military's perspective on this six-month anniversary.

CLARKE: I'd say a couple of things. One, your heart just breaks for the families of the people who were died and injured. It's just an extraordinary toll. You think of the thousands who were killed, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people whose lives have been changed forever as a result of what happened.

And I'd say, two, I agree with what General Rosa said. I think the Al Qaeda and others really, really miscalculated what they thought they were doing when they came after the United States in this fashion. They thought we would back off; we have not. They thought we would be afraid; we are not. We are forward leaning, we are aggressive in this effort, and we are absolutely committed to defending ourselves.

And I'd say, three, and the secretary has talked about this some, something we were struck when we were going around Central Asia a few times and the Middle East last fall after September 11, and clearly this event had a huge impact on us and this country, it was interesting and encouraging to hear what a huge impact it had around the world. And there were people who said to us, that as bad as it is, what happened on September 11 maybe the world has now woken up to this very real and growing danger and threat of terrorism. And so, perhaps, as tragic as it is that those people lost their lives on September 11, perhaps, more people's lives will be saved as a result of.

ROSA: I think the thing that hits me the most, besides the fact, as Torie said, we lost some fantastic people and our condolences are still with their families, I had just gotten to the Pentagon, just came to work here from commanding a wing down south. And I was amazed to see that we had the plans and the plans were followed. There was not chaos, not panic. As the building filled, several folks stayed in the building, in the National Military Command Center. We carried out the plans. I got to see and witness and help the senior leadership make decisions, and it was amazing how it came together.

The second this is that we never missed a beat. We kept things running. We kept our command and control. We issued orders to our combatant commanders around the world, and that it all came together.

And the last thing I will share with you, probably the same thing that all of you have seen from the last day of the still photos of the airplane actually hitting the building, I'm just absolutely amazed that more of us didn't take loses.

QUESTION: I'd like to go back to your comment about the thousand troops that we're hearing about being from Kabul. Are you telling us Central Command didn't know that, didn't request that, doesn't -- just elaborate on your answer on that. That's pretty widely reported at this point.

ROSA: CENTCOM -- Central Command and the Afghanis are joined at the hip. What I meant by that comment is, the folks that I had talked to had not seen them down in the battle area, so they may well be on their way. For me to characterize exactly where they are, I can't do that.

QUESTION: Was that a force that the United States requested, sought additional Afghan support?

ROSA: I don't know.

CLARKE: We've been working with the Afghan forces all along. We've been an integral part of this whole effort, so it's not a surprise that they're involved.

QUESTION: General Rosa, Secretary Rumsfeld and others have talked about the altitude problems not only for equipment but our soldiers in the field -- you know, the altitude ranging from 8,000 to 11,000 feet there. Was there anything that you and the military could have done to acclimatize these people to avoid these altitude problems before they were dropped on the ground there into this mission, to get them better prepared to deal with that problem?

ROSA: Altitude is a challenge. We've removed, I think, it's two or three individuals for altitude sickness: folks that were up at the higher altitudes. As I said the other day from this podium, the 10th Mountain Division trains in that environment all the time. The Air Force para-rescuemen, I know personally, from having commanded folks in that wing, do winter mountain training on a regular basis.

Could we have done things better? I think we'll have to look at the after-action report and see after we piece it together. We were always looking for ways to become more efficient, ways to improve, but I'll tell you the folks up there are doing a fantastic job.

QUESTION: You do have training for that, but then to go from much lower altitudes to run right into that is a problem, isn't it?

ROSA: I think it's important you have to remember this force that's doing the fighting has been in the country for some time. Kabul, for example, is about the height of Denver, about 6,000 feet. So they've been acclimated over time. The entire area of that country where we've been operating is pretty high elevation, so it's not like they came from sea level into 10,000 feet.

QUESTION: Just a clarification: It sounds like what you said earlier about the body counts was a little contradictory. On the one hand, you're saying you don't worry about the body count, then you're saying the plan is to wipe all of them out. So I guess I'm just a little confused.

CLARKE: Well, I don't...

QUESTION: Don't dead bodies...

ROSA: How can that confuse you?

CLARKE: I don't think there is...

QUESTION: ... wipe them out...

CLARKE: I don't think there's a contradiction at all. What I was trying to say, which I obviously didn't say very clearly, is it is hard to get hard and fast information of any kind in Afghanistan just given the nature of the place the context -- the context of the fighting, the context of what happens. Sometimes, we destroy cave and tunnel complexes; you may never know how many people were in there. Given the context that it is the tradition in the country to bury people very quickly, we may never know how many people were buried.

But our objective is absolutely very, very clear. It is to kill or capture these people so they don't try to do more harm to us.

I don't think there's any contradiction at all. QUESTION: Do you still see evidence of a command structure in place with the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces or has that been disrupted, do you believe?

ROSA: A command?

QUESTION: That they're taking some sort of commands from some sort of leaders there.

ROSA: Right. We do. The effectiveness I really can't comment on, but they are communicating, there's evidence of that. The reason I hesitated, because I'm not sure if you meant a command structure from the top all the way down.

But these troops are very good. They have been fighting all their lives. They know how to fight in that terrain, and they know how to communicate.

QUESTION: I was wondering, General, if you could say whether there is an expectation, as the weather gets warmer and the spring sets in over there, whether you expect the level of resistance to rise.

ROSA: I don't think so. I don't think it's based on the weather, I really don't. It becomes easier to move in that country in the spring and summertime, but as the resistance, this is perfect time for them because it's very difficult on our troops in that rugged terrain, in the cold and in the snow. I think it would be easier for us as it warms up.

QUESTION: It was announced from the platform this week that U.S. forces have begun searching caves and I believe had found some driver's licenses and other information. Could you tell us if anything more has been found, what intelligence that might provide you with, and is there any indication yet whether senior Al Qaeda might be there from information you've found?

ROSA: I don't have any new information. We found, as I said the other day, several different types of ammunition, driver's license -- foreign driver's license, foreign passports. But I haven't seen any new information. And as we sift through that, I think we will find just who's there and who's not.

QUESTION: Could you just give us a little bit more on the injured, when it happened and how seriously injured they are? Since the last time we heard there was, like, somewhere over 40, and now it's around 50. So could you explain to us the circumstances and their general condition?

ROSA: I'm sorry, I don't know.

CLARKE: I don't know exactly when it happened either, but we can check it out.

Thank you. HEMMER: Just about 28 minutes on the Pentagon briefing today, and a lot of information that has been digested throughout the week continues to be circulating there at the Pentagon.

We also know a couple of hundred fighters are left, according to the numbers the Pentagon has right now. They believe they have killed hundreds of al Qaeda fighters, but they do not know for sure. You may have heard Torrie Clarke say, there at the end, it is hard to get information out of Afghanistan, including the area where Operation Anaconda is taking place, altitudes better than 8,000 feet.

The fighting is said to be not as intense as it was in the first few days. However, according to the brigadier general, Rosa, you heard, at the end there, say this group is very good in terms of fighting. They have been fighting all their lives, in his words, and the enemy for the United States is comprised of al Qaeda members, Taliban members, and certainly members from the Uzbekistan Islamic movement, they've been able to identify there in eastern Afghanistan.

A couple of clips of videotape shown also. The Pentagon will get to those now. Four different ones. The first one took place on Tuesday. An F-16 dropped a bomb there, at some point during that operation. The second one from an F-15 apparently targeting a cave site on Tuesday as well. And then more F-15 strikes. This is al Qaeda position, apparently on a hillside. And then there was also another clip shown from the Pentagon today hitting in a valley as well. So that was the videotape that was shared with reporters today at the Pentagon.




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