In Pentagon Briefing, Mattis, Dunford Defend U.S. Support of War in Yemen
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
ARLINGTON, Va. — In an extremely rare exchange with the news media, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford justified U.S. support for the bloody and controversial war in Yemen, denied that Afghan forces were failing despite 17 years of American backing and said there would be no more suspension of military exercises with South Korea during denuclearization talks with North Korea.
In an hour-long session with Pentagon reporters, the nation’s top defense leaders also discussed the remaining efforts to eliminate the last ISIS presence in Syria, the contentious relations with nominal NATO ally Turkey and rejected the proposal to turn the U.S. mission in Afghanistan over to a force of mercenaries.
Both men opened with praise for the late Sen. John S. McCain, R-Ariz., for his military service and strong advocacy for service men and women.
“Our nation has lost a great patriot and our military has lost one of its most ardent supporters,” Mattis said.
Many of the reporters’ questions dealt with the complex fighting in Yemen and the U.S. supply of weapons, intelligence and in-flight refueling for the forces led by Saudi Arabia, which have been accused by the U.N. of committing possible “war crimes” because of the high number of civilians killed.
Mattis said the Pentagon reviewed its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi extremists in Yemen and “determined it was the right thing to do, to support them in defense of their own countries and also to restore the rightful government.
“Our conduct there is to try to keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum … and to get it to the UN-brokered (peace) table as quickly as possible,” he said.
Mattis said the administration is “constantly reviewing what support we are giving” and recently sent an Army three-star general — Lt. Gen. Michael X. Garrett — to demand a detailed Saudi investigation of an airstrike that reportedly killed 44 civilians, mostly women and children.
“At no time have we felt rebuffed when we raise concerns. … And we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we are working for. We stay out of the war ourselves and focus on defeating ISIS and the al-Qaida” in Yemen, Mattis said.
Asked if there were plans to resume military exercises with South Korea because there has been no progress on the negotiations to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Mattis said, “we took the step to suspend several of the largest exercises as a good-faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit” between President Donald J. Trump and North Korea dictator Kim Jong-Un. “We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.”
Mattis could not say if the two major joint exercises that were canceled this spring would be held next year, but said smaller training drills are being conducted now.
“We’re making no changes in the exercise programs at this time,” he said.
Another line of questions dealt with the nearly 17-year-old war in Afghanistan and the evidence that despite U.S. training and advising — and sometimes direct combat support — the Taliban continues to control much of the nation and recently conducted an extensive attack on the city of Ghazni.
Mattis and Dunford both insisted that the Afghan forces were able to defend the country and there were signs that the Taliban is ready to enter peace talks.
Asked if there would have to be a permanent U.S. military force in Afghanistan, Dunford said America has “permanent interests” in the region but he would not predict a permanent military presence, noting the reduction from 100,000 U.S. troops two years ago to 14,000 now.
When asked about the proposal by former Blackwater owner Eric Prince to let private security forces take over the Afghanistan mission, Mattis said: “When Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatizing probably is not a good idea.”