On-The-Record Interview With USAID Administrator Mark Green And Commander Of US Central Command General Joseph Votel

Al-Raqqa Province, Syria

For Immediate Release

Monday, January 22, 2018


Question: Maybe we can just start with some of your questions of the day.  Yes, your impressions because I missed -- my audio wasn't working before.

Administrator Green: Well, first off, my impression is as we drove through Raqqa was really the incredible human spirit.  So, as you drive around, you see block after block that's been completely destroyed and devastated.  You see rubble everywhere.  You see twisted metal.  You see streets that are blocked, and yet you see signs of human spirit.  You see people with their food stamps.  You see people moving things.  You see people with small, open shops dusting off this stuff as they go in.  And, for me, it's a reminder of what you've all been talking about: that if we can play a role in helping to restore essential services, people can go home, people can go to work, and Raqqa can become what, I think, can be a great city.

So, in some ways, when you drive around, there's obviously all signs of gloom and terrible things that have happened, but I'm an optimist, and I look and see signs of hopefulness in individuals and families and kids playing and in people trying to restore some normalcy to their lives.

General Votel: The -- thanks -- I want to share the Administrator's impressions there, but I would also just tell you, you know, that as a military officer, I think, to me, it's a reminder that even though the fighting is done in Raqqa -- I mean, that area has been liberated -- that our coalition campaign is not over there.  And, really, what we're moving into and we're moving into what I, frankly, regard as the more challenging, the more difficult part of the campaign, and that is how we consolidate the gains and, as Administrator Green just said, how we get people back into their homes. 

And so, it is usually the follow-through that is the most difficult aspect of this.  Certainly, the fighting was very challenging and, you know, in that city there the Syrian Democratic Forces lost about 650 soldiers killed fighting there and, literally, thousands wounded as they went through there.  And you can see how the devastation that took place, but as difficult as the fighting is, as difficult, perhaps more difficult, will be the consolidation and getting people back to work and getting people back into their homes.  Because, ultimately, it's about taking care of people, but it's also about removing the conditions that lead to things like insurgency and lead to instability. 

So, you know, from a military standpoint, we're very keen to make sure that the follow-through in our operation is completely -- as effectively as the military operations.

Question: Where does the money and the manpower come from though, given the devastation?

General Votel: Well, I think you saw the manpower.  The manpower's on the streets.  The manpower's here in Raqqa.  What we need to do is we need to harness the international community to provide, to get the donations and get the other big resources in here.  I think the one thing we learned, you know, this afternoon while you all were traveling, I had an opportunity to meet with the Raqqa Civil Council and the thing that I learned out of that was that, you know, the raw manpower is here.  The people power is here to do this stuff, to do the labor, and the work.  They need some help.  They'll need donations.  They'll need equipment.  They'll need, you know, international organization, non-governmental organizations, and governmental organizations coming in and helping them.  But I think the manpower's, the manpower's here.

Administrator Green: If I can just expand on what the General just said.  Obviously, at USAID, we're proud of the relationship that we have with CENTCOM, and we're working closely in helping to restore essential services, but the key thing is telling the story and really is building those resources that are needed. 

Part of telling the story is reminding people of what these people went through.  When you walked through that soccer stadium, looked down below and you looked at some of those rooms that were used as torture chambers, it's a reminder of what people have been through.  And as we were at the IDP camp, and we met those two individuals, each had their own story about how they ended up at that camp.  They want to go home.  They made it very clear that they want to go home.  The young lady, the young mother that we heard from: she wants to go home, and she's just looking for a basic level of essential services.  She wants to go home, and so I think that's a story that we want to tell.

I've been to other camps in other parts of the world where people have lost hope, where people make it clear they're not going home.  These people want to go home.  So, there's an immediate job to be done.  And if we do that job, and if we can build the world's support for it, if we can build the resources that are necessary, we can solidify the extraordinary progress that we've seen from our men and women in uniform.

Question: General, can you give a sense: when you say, "consolidate the gains," practically speaking, do you have a sense of what that looks like?  That is, is it the restoration of services?  Is there a certain percentage of the city that needs to be rebuilt?  At what point do you think that there is enough back in the city section that the conditions that allowed a group like ISIS to move in are no longer there?

General Votel: That's a great question.  I think what should -- what has to happen, I think what has to happen is I think there has to be -- you know, I mentioned to you that I met this afternoon with the Raqqa Civil Council.  I think there has to be some kind of local governance structure that can receive NGOs, can receive, you know, international donations; others that come in to help and can guide that, guide work into the right areas, that can help set some priorities, and can get things -- that can be as a point of contact.  So, from a civil standpoint, in my -- as a military man, that's what I think.

You know, what we are -- as we talk about consolidating the gains here, I think what we really think of is stability.  And I do draw a distinction between stability and reconstruction.  What we all witnessed today when we drove through was massive, massive destruction that will require, you know, reconstruction on a scale that, you know, will take time and a lot of resources, and probably years to complete.  But what needs doing is we're really talking about stability.  So, what that means is we have to make sure there are things in place to address the remnants of war that have been left in there. 

In this particular case, it's explosives.  There's an extraordinary amount of explosives.  This is a characteristic that we've seen of ISIS, and we'd seen it in Raqqa.  We've seen it in Mosul.  We've seen it in [unintelligible].  We've seen it in virtually every place we've been where there has been this.  So, we've got to get in.  You've got to -- you've got to remove that aspect, and then I think -- and you've got to allow for people to, you know, be able to get back into their homes.  I think when we start doing, then you start getting -- you start to approach the conditions of stability.

Important in all of that is making sure that security, that people are protected.  They're protected from, you know, a resurgence of ISIS here.  They're protected from other threats that might take place.  So, getting internal security forces in place is very important.  So, you know, the structure is you kind of -- you know, as we were driving around today, you saw on the streets, you know, armed individuals that belong to the Raqqa internal security force, designed to provide security for the people, help set the conditions for stability, and then, ultimately, to prevent the return of ISIS into this particular area. 

So, you know, I think it's about security.  I think it's about removing the immediate hazards.  I think it's about supporting some semblance of local governance that allows people to begin again.  I don't know if it's the final form of governance.  I'm a soldier.  I'm not -- I don't -- that's not my area of expertise.  But there's got to be something that gets us started, and that's what I think is essential right now.

Question: Can you talk about --

Administrator Green: Let me just add this.  As the general said, people are looking for responsive institutions; something that connects them with their community, community leadership that responds to basic needs.  It doesn't have to be the final answer.  It doesn't have to be the long-term government.  That's obviously for them to decide.  But building some sense of connectivity to basic institutions so that they are invested in the community and the community is invested in them.

Question: I was going to ask you -- with that and your priorities when it comes to the speed of all this.  So, I'm with you.  I mean, the destruction was just endless throughout the city.  We saw a few orange, you know, bulldozers here and there.  Why not have a much more massive level, an American-led heavy lift of [unintelligible] that kind of equipment that can get it done, versus, you know, smaller level, you know, stabilization, reconstruction while waiting to get international community in here, knowing you've got to clear this with IEDs and everything else?

General Votel: Well, you know, I'm sure Administrator Green can --

Administrator Green: Couldn't have been done much faster.

General Votel: Let me give you, let me give you a reason.  Part of the reason why we have difficulty in this part of Syria, in Syria, as we do not have the support -- we don't have a central, centralized government that can orchestrate this or can give permission.  You know, it's my understanding that the United Nations and many of the organizations [unintelligible] will not come in here unless they do have the permission of the centralized government, and they have not had that.  There has been difficulty getting things across various borders.  So, the supplies that have come in, whether it's coming across from the north or east or west, getting stuff in here. 

So, the situation here, the broader political situation here in Syria is not contributing to a fast response here.  You know, certainly the United States is doing something, and I would point out to you that the people on the ground right now in northern Syria is the United States.  But there are others who should be doing some more here, and need to do more.  This is a problem.

Question: Such as?

General Votel: Such as everybody.  I mean, what -- remember what took place here.  ISIS: thousands and thousands of foreign fighters that came from well over 100 countries around the world, a lot of them in Europe, mass migration up there.  They felt the effects of this.  They should -- I think they should understand what's down here, and it's in their interests, I think, to invest in helping to address these situations.  

And, again, I say that as a soldier.  I don't know what's happening.  I presume all that's happening.  There's probably a lot that's happening behind the scenes that I don't see.  So, I don't want to -- I'm not trying to damn anybody here.  I'm just saying that this requires more than just the United States.  It requires a really a very broad international effort.

Question: How much concern did you hear today about what Turkey's doing nearby?

General Votel: Well, you know, we had an opportunity to talk with my folks and with our partners here about the situation in [unintelligible] and, as I mentioned to you the other day, this remains a significant concern, and, you know, the principal concern here is that this is going to draw our attention away from what is, as of yet, not yet a finished operation, a finished fight against ISIS.  We've still got work to do here, and so we're very, very concerned that this could draw the attention away from that. 

So, you know, there are -- I know there are a number of efforts outside of the military.  There are different diplomatic channels that are addressing this, and so I hope that we can get some resolution on that.  But, you know, this remains -- this remains a concern.

Question: Okay, can I follow up, though?  Did you hear from Kurdish fighters that if the Turks will pass a certain point they're going to move?  Did you hear them say our commanders have told Mahmoud that we haven't?  Did you hear anyone sort of say --

General Votel: No, I didn't hear anybody issue any kind of ultimatums.  Obviously, they're paying very close attention to the situation and, you know, what we advise and what we caution is restraint and patience on all sides here, to allow diplomacy to work here to try to resolve this.

Question: What was your message to the fighters themselves about, if there was any, about United States' commitment to them beyond this point?

General Votel: The United States and the coalition are here.  We've been here for a long time, right beside them in the fight against ISIS.  That's our common fight, and, you know, that is something we're committed to seeing through to completion.  And that includes the things we've talked about here: the stabilization and hopefully creating the conditions where, you know, a peace process under the auspices of the United Nations and Geneva can take place.  So, we remain, we remain very, very committed to them.

Speaker: We have time for one last question.

Question: I'll just ask something broadly then if I can.  I'm sure you're like us in that much more so we look at maps and photos and videos of the things that are happening in Iraq, and I'm curious what surprised you, seeing it different, seeing it on the ground.  Was there something that changed in your assessment?  Was there something that you took away or that you didn't understand even from that sort of extensive study from photos and videos and aerials of the situation there?

General Votel: I think the thing that I'm always, always impressed with, and I would just say awed with, is the complexity of the terrain, particularly in these urban areas.  Because I think I mentioned to some of you: I've had the opportunity, and I spent some time in Mosul, in West Mosul particularly, and now, having had the opportunity to see Raqqa a couple of times and see it up close today.  I mean, the complexity of the terrain and how challenging this is for military operations to take place in, you know, as you look at it through imagery, as you look at it through drones you can -- you have to be cautious because you can take a very antiseptic look at it.  That it's just buildings and you can look from here to here.  But it's buildings, it's complex and, as you saw today, how challenging that can be. 

And then on top of that there're people that are in there.  You know, one of the biggest challenges that we have faced in this fight in Mosul, in many of the other manned [unintelligible], virtually every fight that we've had here in Falluja, all of these, Ramadi, going all the way -- both countries here, has been the presence of the population in these areas.  And this has been a unique, a unique challenge I think for us, in terms of how we have had to conduct our operations, trying to keep them, keep them in the forefront to ensure we absolutely did everything we could to minimize civilian casualties, recognizing that it's an imperfect -- it's going to be imperfect, and there's going to be mistakes. 

It's war: ugliness.  I mean, you saw today firsthand the ugliness of this whole business right here.  There's nothing -- and if people think we can solve these problems by just shooting out of a drone or something like that, you just saw why you can't do it that way. 

In many cases, these are hard-core fighters, and they have to be rooted out, and that's essentially what you saw -- you saw the cost of what that looks like today.  And, you know, I could take you to West Mosul and show you [unintelligible].  You can see it in Kobani.  You can see it in any of these other places that we've been, the cost of what this is.  This is an ugly business, but it's necessary business if we're going to address this, and I think that one of the things that has been successful in this campaign is our -- is, has been our effort to try to root them out and clear these areas. 

You know, it's really been just a single digit number of months ago when you couldn't -- we couldn't even approach there.  Today, you had the opportunity to drive completely through that city, get out, walk around, and do all that without overburdening security on you, frankly.  There's security present there, but not overburdening security on you.

So, you know, this is hard, hard work, and I think you just see really the ugliness and brutality of what combat is, particularly against a [inaudible] like this.

Last updated: January 23, 2018

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