Jul 21, 2021
Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin & Gen. Mark Milley Press Conference Transcript July 21
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley held a press conference on July 21, 2021. Read the transcript of the full news briefing here.
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Lloyd Austin: (00:00)
… theater of operations, which is of course the Indo-Pacific. And then I’ll add just a few words on Afghanistan, which is very much on all of our minds here. I’d like to start by saying, I’m looking forward to my second trip to the region as secretary of defense. This time we’re headed out to Southeast Asia, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to engage in person with leaders there. I’m especially looking forward to making keynote remarks in Singapore about how we’re strengthening one of our unmatched strategic assets in the region, which is our powerful network of allies and partners. I’ll follow that up with stops in Vietnam and Philippines, where I’ll meet with my counterparts and other leaders. And so, it’s going to be a busy trip.
Lloyd Austin: (00:55)
There’s no shortage of national security interests that we and our partners share in this dynamic region, and I’ll be carrying a few key messages and agenda items. The first is simply that the United States remains a reliable partner, a friend who shows up when it counts. We’ve long been there to maintain stability and let sovereign states in the region make their own choices, and today we’ve moved urgently to help our partners tackle COVID-19 and to build back even stronger afterward. I’ll also continue to make the case for a more fair, open, and inclusive regional order, and for our shared values to ensure that all countries get a fair shake.
Lloyd Austin: (01:52)
We don’t believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules, or worse yet, throw them over the transom. And in this regard, I’ll emphasize our commitment to freedom of the seas. I’ve also made clear where we stand on some unhelpful and unfounded claims by China in the South China Sea. And finally, I’ll be working closely with our partners about how we’re updating and modernizing our capabilities in their own capabilities to work together to tackle some changing forms of aggression and coercion that we’re all seeing. And I’ll be talking with our friends about how we’ll work hand in hand to pursue our new vision of integrated deterrence.
Lloyd Austin: (02:37)
Now, let me briefly talk about where we are on Afghanistan. I’m very proud of the professionalism that our forces have displayed. A drawdown continues in a safe and orderly manner, and we’re still on track to finish up by the end of August. The president has made a decision that we’re going to get it done and we’re going to it done right. We have four ongoing key tasks. We remain committed to protecting our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, and to providing funding to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and to advising Afghan security ministries, and to preventing the re-emergence of transnational terrorist organizations. And we’ve added a fifth urgent task, and that is working closely and urgently in support of the state department, as they relocate brave Afghans and their families who have provided such exceptional service during our long mission.
Lloyd Austin: (03:37)
These are friends of the United States who have done exemplary and courageous work, and we take our obligations to them into their families very seriously. You’ve seen that we’ll be hosting the first group of Afghans on Fort Lee in Virginia. We expect them to arrive soon and most likely will stay there only for a short while as they complete their parolee paperwork. We’re also working on several overseas locations to host other individuals, not as far along in the visa process as this first group. Some of these locations belong to us and some are in third countries. And when we can provide more details about which ones we’ll use, we certainly will.
Lloyd Austin: (04:21)
This is a priority for the administration. Not only do we in the Department of Defense have a responsibility to these brave men and women and their families, so too do we have a responsibility to support the state department as it carries out the president’s directive. And of course, even though our mission in Afghanistan is not over, I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to honor the American and allied troops who have served bravely over the last two decades of war and those who gave their lives there. We owe them and their families a debt that we can never repay. We know these are difficult times for them and we will never forget all that they gave for their country. And so now, for more context on where we are in Afghanistan, let me pass this over to the chairman.
Gen. Mark Milley: (05:16)
Thanks, Secretary. I appreciate that and appreciate your comments and your leadership every day. Good afternoon to everyone. I want to extend also thank you to all of you, because you’re a reminder that freedom of speech is alive and well, and freedom of the press is a principle in our constitution. Last week, I traveled to Norfolk to attend a ceremony, recognizing new operational capability of the first and only NATO headquarters on US soil at Joint Forces Command Norfolk, which is part of a vital network of strategic alliances and partnerships that enable us to project the US military strength throughout the world. And during those discussions that visit, we also talked about the changing character of war, the geo- strategic changes, and the challenges that we’re going to face sometime in the future.
Gen. Mark Milley: (06:04)
Also last week, Secretary and I were honored to welcome home General Scott Miller from Afghanistan. And I want to publicly thank him one more time for his incredible leadership as the longest serving commander in Afghanistan, twice wounded in combat over the years. Scott Miller is American hero of the first order. He is representative of the more than 800,000 service members who have served in Afghanistan across the last two decades, and we should always remember their faithful service.
Gen. Mark Milley: (06:38)
Joe Miller and his team, along with CenCom and many others in the joint force, have paved the path for a safe, orderly, and responsible transition. The sheer volume of movement involved in this operation has been extraordinary. 984 airlifts over the last less than three months have enabled us to reach almost 95% completion on the retrograde. To include equipment, we also moved 9,000 people, both civilian and military. Furthermore, all the military operating basis outside of Kabul have been fully transferred to the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the Afghan security forces.
Gen. Mark Milley: (07:18)
A small contingent are predominantly military personnel, but some civilians and contractors along with Department of State remained in Afghanistan to provide security and bolster our diplomatic presence in Kabul. The forces here are key to achieving the five ongoing tasks that the secretary laid out in his comments. A major component of sustaining a robust diplomatic presence in Kabul is to maintain a functioning and secure airport in Kabul. So we continue to dedicate our security resources to that, to secure the embassy, to secure the international zone, and to secure HK, the international airport in Kabul for our diplomats, our personnel, and our continued support to the government of Afghanistan.
Gen. Mark Milley: (08:03)
Our personnel and our continued support to the government of Afghanistan. The Afghan Security Forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country, and we will continue to support the Afghan Security Forces where necessary in accordance with the guidance from the President and the secretary of defense. The future Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people, and there are a range of possible outcomes in Afghanistan. And I want to emphasize repeatedly, and I said this before, a negative outcome, a Taliban automatic military takeover, is not a foregone conclusion. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments as necessary. Additionally, we’re always going to maintain the capability of self-defense. We possess the military means and have several options at our disposal to fully protect our force in Afghanistan and throughout the region. In CentCom, if needed, the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group is on station.
Gen. Mark Milley: (09:03)
A package of long range bombers, additional fighter bombers, and troop formations our posture to quickly respond if necessary and directed. Further, we will always protect our nation. We maintain an agile, over the horizon, counter-terrorism capability that has set up an effective now to detect and address any terrorism threat to the United States. In addition to our mission in Afghanistan, we continue to defend this country from all kinds of other threats. We’re monitoring Russia, North Korea, Iran. We watch China closely while maintaining strategic deterrence to safeguard great power of peace.
Gen. Mark Milley: (09:41)
The Department of Defense insures no terrorists were able to launch attacks from Iraq, or Syria, or Africa. We keep a watchful eye on Haiti and Cuba, and we do all these things while we serve here at home as well. And I want to recognize the great efforts of our reserve component, our National Guard, and our active duty soldiers that are fighting wildfires in California, the Pacific Northwest. And as of Tuesday morning, California and Nevada National Guard C130 units are operating near Sacramento, California, and have flown 205 sorties and provided 4.5 million pounds of fire retardant, and we will continue to provide support as required. Our joint force is incredible because of the skill determination of our men and women and their leaders, and there is no task that they cannot accomplish. Thanks for the opportunity. I look forward to your questions.
Thank you, sir. Bob?
Thank you, Tom. I have a question for each of you. Secretary Austin, both of you and General Milley have mentioned a number of times that the United States intends to continue supporting Afghan forces through financial assistance and remote logistical assistance, but given the tenuous state of security there, the Taliban offensive, I’m wondering whether in your view, the US should do more beyond August 31st to prevent a collapse of the government. And if I could pose a question to General Milley, also. General Millie you’re portrayed in books published this summer as having sounded the alarm privately about the possibility of President Trump manufacturing a crisis involving the military, either domestically or overseas in order to stay in office after January 20th. I’m wondering, would you now set the historical record straight, and were are you concerned about the possibility of a coup, and on what basis was that concern?
Lloyd Austin: (11:36)
So in the first piece, Bob, thanks for your question there. We are doing a lot to support the Afghan military and the Afghan leadership as we speak. We talked a lot about the fact that we’re going to stand up nodes to continue to provide security assistance. We’ve stood up a node in cutter that’s operational now. We have begun the provision of the aircraft that we mentioned to you earlier, that we’re going to provide. On Friday three, newly refurbished, landed in Kabul, and they’ll continue to see a steady drum beat of that kind of support going forward. We’ve talked about setting up a node to be able to conduct over the horizon strikes. That node is in place [inaudible 00:12:45]. After August, our focus, as we’ve said, is on those elements that present a threat to the United States of America, so it will be a counter terrorism focus there. And that’s currently where we stand. We have not changed that. But make no mistake that we remain committed to helping the Afghan Security Forces and the Afghan government going forward. And we are doing what we said we’re going to do in terms of putting the pieces in place to ensure that we can provide that support.
Gen. Mark Milley: (13:21)
Bob, thanks for the question. Look at, I know there’s a lot of interest out there and all of these books that are out there quoting me and lots of others, et cetera. Well, I’m not going to comment on what’s in any of those books. Let me just say this though. I always personally provided the best military professional advice to President Trump previously, to President Biden, or any other prison. I always provide that best military advice to the Secretary of Defense, whomever is the Secretary of Defense, and I do that for the National Security Council as well.
Gen. Mark Milley: (13:48)
And I will speak also for this one time on behalf of the joint chiefs. The same applies to them. We always adhered to providing best professional military advice bar none. It was candid, honest in every single occasion. We did that all the time, every time. The other thing that I think is important to note here is that I, the other members of the joint chiefs, and all of us in uniform, we take an oath. An oath to a document, an oath to the Constitution of the United States, and not one time did we violate that. The entire time from time of commissioning to today.
Gen. Mark Milley: (14:23)
I can say with certainty that every one of us maintained our oath of allegiance to that document, the Constitution, and everything that’s contained within it. And we also maintain the tradition of civilian control of the military. We did that without fail, and we also maintained the tradition of an apolitical military. We did that then, we do that now, and we will do that forever all the time, Bob.
Lloyd Austin: (14:45)
I’d just like to add a comment to that, Bob. I’ve known the chairman for a long time. We fought together. We served a couple of times in the same unit, so I’m not guessing at his character. He doesn’t have a political bone in his body, and I clearly have tremendous faith and confidence in the chairman. What I want to make sure we do is maintain our focus on the threats ahead, maintain our focus on our pacing challenge with China in all the things that we’re trying to do to make sure that this force is ready to meet the challenges of the future.
Secretary Austin on Afghanistan, are you concerned that as the Taliban gained ground, that Al Qaeda will be able to move back in and be able to strengthen enough to attack the West. And if so, can you give us a sense of how long the estimates are before they will be able to have that capability? And General Milley, I know you don’t want to talk about the book, but you have not denied any of the recent reporting that’s been out there about you, including the comments, including some of the actions. And the American public and members of the military, because of your silence on it and denying-
… military because of your silence on it and denying it have no reason to believe the vignettes are anything but accurate. So looking back now, I know you said that you didn’t violate. You maintain apolitical, but looking back now, were you too political at the time? And are you concerned about the message that that sends to the rank and file?
Lloyd Austin: (16:24)
Yeah. Courtney, on your first piece and whether or not we’re concerned about Al-Qaeda coming back, that’s something that we’re watching very closely currently, and we will continue to keep an eye on. Again, our main major focus going forward is to make sure that violence, terrorism can not be exported from Afghanistan to our homeland. And so we’ll maintain the capability to be able to not only observe that, but also address that if it does emerge. The Taliban early on committed to not providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda. We expect for them to meet that commitment. If they want legitimacy going forward, and I think that’s something that they’ll have to consider, that’s one way to earn it.
Lloyd Austin: (17:16)
And so, we’ll see what happens, but most importantly, we will maintain the over the horizon capabilities to be able to address this threat or any threat if it emerges. You heard me say a while back that my rough estimate was that it would take two years for them to develop that kind of capability and that it was a medium risk. I’ve not changed my assessment there, but again, a number of things that could happen. They could speed that up a bit or slow with that.
Gen. Mark Milley: (17:50)
So Courtney, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not going to comment [inaudible 00:17:54] but I want you to know and I want everyone to know. I want America to know that the United States military is an apolitical institution. We were then, we are now, and our oath is to the constitution. Not to any individual at all. And the military did not, and will not, and should not ever get involved in domestic politics. We don’t arbitrate elections. That’s the job of the judiciary and the legislature and the American people. It is not the job of the US military. We stayed out of politics. We’re an apolitical institution.
Are you concerned that some of these comments that are attributed to you are pulling you more into politics than you necessarily your office should be?
Lloyd Austin: (18:31)
Let me just make a comment here. It’s really important to me that this department remain apolitical. And so we’re going to do everything within our power to make sure that our troops, our leadership, both civilian and military remain focused on the task at hand and understand that they are not a part of the political apparatus there. So we will remain apolitical.
Mr. Secretary General, closer to home, you’ve got a yawning gap in leadership among the weapons buying bureaucracy here. You don’t have an under secretary for acquisition and sustainment. You’re seven months into the administration. Michael Brown pulled out last week. Your people [inaudible 00:19:21] acting is leaving. How concerned are you? I mean, the Pacific’s important. Your trip’s important. Like the business of the department, a lot of money being spent here. How concerned are you? And have you suggested to the White House a new candidate?
And for the General Millie, a [inaudible 00:19:39] book question, you talked about the Afghans having the capability to defend themselves. 300,000, we spent $74 billion on them. They’re facing about 75,000 Taliban, the president said this. In layman’s language for the American people, given the numeric superiority of the Afghans, why does it appear that the Taliban is winning?
Lloyd Austin: (20:03)
Tony, on your first question regarding the numbers of people that we’ve had confirmed thus far, certainly we’d like to see more. This is something that the deputy secretary and all of my leadership remained focused on each and every day. And we continue to work with the White House to make sure that we have quality and qualified applicants to fill these seats. We have six that have been confirmed so far and 10 that are waiting for a vote and five more that are in committee. So the process continues to work. And I think that you’ll see that when the confirmations do occur, that there’ll be experienced quality people that will add a lot of value. And of course, I’m concerned about the ANs position that you mentioned, and absolutely we’ll make another nomination, provide another name to consider for the White House to consider. But that’s an ongoing process. And again, when we do get that person, it will be the best person available. And again, I consider that job to be very, very important, but we’ll continue to work with the White House on the issues.
Gen. Mark Milley: (21:23)
And Tony, what I would tell you is a couple of things. One is you know as well as anybody else does that warfare is not just about numbers. So yes, you cited some correct numbers there. And the Afghan security forces writ large, the NDS, the police, the army, et cetera, they’re well-equipped. There’ve been well-trained over the years, the past 20 years at great expense to the United States and other international allies. But there’s other factors that determine outcomes. The two most important combat multipliers actually is will and leadership, and this going to be a test now of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces, and the government of Afghanistan. Right now, you talked about the narrative that the Taliban are winning. There clearly is a narrative out there that Taliban are winning. In fact, they are propagating an inevitable victory on their behalf.
Gen. Mark Milley: (22:14)
They’re dominating a lot of airwaves on that sort of thing. I would tell you that as of today, more or less, I guess it’s about 212, 213. It’s in that range, 200s, of the district centers are in Taliban control. It’s about half of the 419 that are out there. You’ve got 34 provincial capitals in Afghanistan. None of them have been seized as of today by the Taliban. Although, the Taliban is putting pressure on the outskirts of probably about half of them, 17 of them, in fact. And what they’re trying to do is isolate the major population centers. They’re trying to do the same thing to Kabul. And roughly speaking in order of magnitude, a significant amount of territory has been seized over the course of 6, 8, 10 months sort of thing by the Taliban. So strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.
Gen. Mark Milley: (23:05)
The Afghan security forces are consolidating their forces. So part of this is they’re giving up district centers in order to consolidate their forces, because they’re taking an approach to protect the population. And most of the population lives in the provincial capitals in the capital city of Kabul. So they are right now, as we speak, adjusting forces to consolidate into the provincial capitals in Kabul. And that’s why I say it remains to be seen over the rest of the summer. Right now, the violence is relatively low because of Ed. But after Ed, we’re going to find out. We’re going to find out the levels of violence, whether it’s going to go up, stay the same. There’s a possibility of a negotiated outcome. That’s still out there. There’s a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover or a possibility of any number of other scenarios, breakdowns, warlordism, all kinds of other scenarios are out there. We’re monitoring very closely. I don’t think the end game is yet written.
Speaker 1: (23:52)
Well, we have time for a couple more. Barb?
I wanted to ask both of you a question somewhat for both of you following up on your recent House testimony. Mr. Secretary, for you first-
… from your recent house testimony. Mr. Secretary, for you first, could you explain in more detail your views on when you think and under what circumstances critical race theory should be an appropriate part of the military education? I know you were asked about it in that hearing and you addressed it briefly, but I’d like to better understand your views on that.
And for you General Milley, in that hearing, you said to Congress that you wanted in your words, ” To understand white rage and what it is that caused thousands of people to assault the Capitol and try to overturn the Constitution of the US, what caused that. I want to find that out.” Can you offer a more detailed explanation? What led you to the conclusion of white rage? And since you’ve talked about it publicly before Congress, in your view, what is white rage, and why and when should the US military be concerned about that? Thank you.
Lloyd Austin: (25:06)
Barb, you’ve heard me say that the critical race theory is not something that this department teaches, professes, embraces. You’ve also heard a couple of people at academic institutions say that they have required this to be reading for their students in specific courses. But because that’s the case, does not mean that this department embraces this theory. And I stand by what I said earlier, and Barb, I don’t want us to get distracted with the critical race conversation.
Lloyd Austin: (25:47)
This department will be diverse, it will be inclusive, and we’re going to look like the country that we support and defend. And our leadership will look like what’s in the ranks of our military. And so I’m committed to that, this department is committed to that, the chairman is committed to that, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on. And so, we’re not going to spend too much time debating the merits of this theory or any other theory. We’re going to stay focused on making sure that we create the right force to defend this country and promote our values. And I know that’s important to you and all of you in this room as well, Barb. But I thank you for that question.
Gen. Mark Milley: (26:34)
So Barb, in a minute or two left, first of all, I’m not going to address specifically white rage, or black rage, or Asian rage, or Irish rage, or English rage, or German rage, or any other rage, right? The events of the 6th of January happened. Those are all going to get sorted out. Historians will sort it out, commissions will sort it out, and so on. But I do think it’s important that we, as a professional in the military, not only understand foreign countries and foreign cultures and foreign societies. That’s important that we do that, but we also need to understand our own society and understand the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and the society they’re coming from. And I think that’s important for the leadership to study. Thank you.
With due respect, sir, you said the words white rage.
Gen. Mark Milley: (27:12)
Yeah. I said I’m not going to discuss it right now. I think it’s a very complicated topic and we don’t have the time to go into the nuance of it right this minute. I can do that later. I’ll be happy to do that later, but right now, it’s not a good time to do that. It’s too complicated.
Speaker 3: (27:25)
We’ve only got time for one more, guys, and I want to get over here. Ryo, go ahead.
Ryo Nakamura: (27:30)
Thank you for taking my question. My name is Ryo Nakamura with Japan’s Nikkei Asia. Yeah. I got a question to both of you. To Secretary Austin, on your trip to Southeast Asia, China continues to militarize the South China Sea, despite the US Freedom of Navigation Operations, military exercises and security cooperation with allies and partners in the region. What will you do differently to change the trajectory of China’s behavior in the South China Sea? To a General Milley, on Taiwan, you mentioned in the House Armed Service Committee last month, China intended to develop the capabilities to seize Taiwan by 2027. Do you feel a sense of urgency that the US and allies in the region, such as Japan, should develop operations [inaudible 00:28:33] and conduct a joint military exercises for contingency in the Taiwan Strait? Thank you.
Lloyd Austin: (28:41)
The importance of freedom of navigation of the seas and the skies, this is really important, not only to the United States of America, but to all of our allies and partners in the region and around the world. And so what we have done, and what we will continue to do is to work with our allies and partners to make sure that we can navigate the skies and the seas, to the degree that we should have the right to… In accordance with international law. And so our emphasis will remain on that. And our emphasis will also remain on making sure that we keep those alliances strong and that our allies and partners know that they can count on us going forward. And that’s the message that I’ll take to the theater.
Gen. Mark Milley: (29:34)
And I think to answer your question on Taiwan, the geo-strategic nature of the globe has been changing for quite some time and we’re in the middle of that change as well. And as we go forward, China is the pacing threat for us in uniform, the United States, and it’s been directed now by the secretary defense, the president, and the previous as well. So we are gearing our capabilities, our programs, our training, our knowledge, our skills, directors, et cetera, militarily with China in mind. There’s no question about it. And we will work very closely with Japan, with other countries, South Korea, Philippines, Australia, and other allies and partners in the region to ensure that we have the proper capability to deal with it, whatever comes to us in the future.
Speaker 3: (30:22)
Thanks everybody. I’m afraid we have to go now. I appreciate it. Thanks very much. [crosstalk 00:30:26] Sorry, we got to go. Sorry. Sorry about that.