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Secretary of Defense Esper Media Engagement En Route to Afghanistan

STAFF:  A little close call, but I (inaudible) Penn State today, so...


​STAFF:  All right, guys, so we're going to do Afghanistan first on the record, and then we'll move into other topics on the record and then we might talk a little bit off the record just a little bit, OK.

​STAFF:  So we will -- go ahead, sir, (inaudible) start off?

​SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Sure, so I'm -- (inaudible).

​STAFF:  (inaudible) anyone?


​SEC. ESPER:  OK, take two.  So first off is Afghanistan obviously.  I plan on meeting first with General Miller on the ground to get an update with regard to operations on the ground, the status of our troops, et cetera.  Then I'll be having meetings with President Ghani and other officials of the Afghan government, and then I'll be visiting with our troops and having a good discussion with them with regard to what they see, so I'm looking for-- to get a really good feel for what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan, and to talk what the way ahead may look like as well.

​STAFF: (inaudible)

​Q:  So could you give us a sense, what is your understanding of where the peace talks lie, and this withdraw of troops that we keep hearing about, but that seems to be sort of on hold.

​SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think the aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement.  That's the best way forward, and I'll leave it to State Department to comment on where things stand.

​And then with regard to a withdraw of forces, as we've always said, that it'll be conditions based, but we're confident that we can go down to 8,600 without affecting our C.T. operations, if you will.

​But all that -- again, we think a political agreement is always the best way forward with regard to next steps in Afghanistan.

​Q:  I have a follow-up. Do you expect to go down to 8,600 with our without a peace deal?

​SEC. ESPER:  I don't want to get ahead of the diplomats on that front.  I'm just saying I know what we can go down to, and feel confident, based on reports I've gotten from the commander on the ground.

​ Q:  And have you started releasing in any way, in any significant amount already, or no?

​SEC. ESPER:  No, we haven't.  We've held our positions, if you will, largely on the ground in Afghanistan.

​Q:  Can you give us an update on ISIS-K in Afghanistan?  We haven't heard a lot about efforts against them in a while.

​SEC. ESPER:  Well, they're aggressive of course, ISIS-K, and they're not just attacking coalition forces, but Taliban as well, and so it's another player on this battlefield that we have to deal with, so it obviously complicates the situation there.

​Q:  But any change in their numbers?

​SEC. ESPER:  Not that I've seen, if you will.

​Q:  On the 8,600, if you can effectively go down to 8,600, I think a lot of Americans want to know why not reduce it?  Why does it have to be, as it appears to be, contingent on the talks?

​SEC. ESPER:  Well, we want to make -- it's best to do these things as part and parcel of a broader political agreement.  So I think that also gives you greater confidence as you go down to 86, you can manage it in a much more efficient manner, a safer manner as you do the draw-down  So that would be the principal reason why.  

Q:  That is to manage the pace of that draw-down to 8,600?

​SEC. ESPER:  If you're planning a draw-down of troops, a withdrawal of forces, then you could do so -- in a context and a framework of a political agreement, you could so more safely, more efficiently.  You can manage a lot better with your coalition partners.  So it just gives you a broader context under which to do that.  

​Q:  And just to quick clarify, would those 8,600 only be focused on counter-terrorism or would they be doing training missions as well?  

​SEC. ESPER:  Yes, again, I don't want to get ahead of the political process because that could be in the mix as well.  But it will certainly have counter-terrorism forces.  

​Q:  As a follow-up, President Ghani's government has been concerned about not being involved in the peace talks and sort of the process given the events that have taken place in the Middle East, about abandonment of Kurds and sort of the situation in Syria.  How are you going to reassure the president that the U.S. won't leave and abandon them?

​SEC. ESPER:  Well, again, I don't want to get ahead of the State Department because they have the lead on this. But you know what the process was before, that there would be an agreement between the United States and the Taliban.  And in terms of the conditions base moving forward, a principal condition, an early condition would be also an agreement between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.  

​So it's just a different way of coming up with a broader political framework in order to meet your objectives.  

​Q:  Do you think that this has put things off for months or do you -- I guess, do you foresee a long delay before you actually get back to that point again where you think there might be some sort of temporary -- or some sort of a peace agreement?

​SEC. ESPER:  It's a good question, but my answer would be speculative.  And I would just say, I hope not.  You know, I hope we can move forward and come up with a political agreement that meets our ends, that meets the -- you know, the goals we want to achieve.  

​STAFF:  All right.  You guys want to move on?  


​Q:  I just want to turn back (inaudible)


​STAFF:  All right, guys, so (inaudible), so other topics you want to talk about?  


​SEC. ESPER:  So with regard to my trip, I think there are some broad objectives I hope to accomplish at each stop is to get a better assessment of what's happening on the ground, first of all.  Secondly, to speak to the leaders of the countries at the respective stops and to be with my commanders and get their feel.  

​And as appropriate, wherever I go, I want to make sure I reassure our partners that the United States is committed to their defense and then how can we work forward to make sure that we maintain the appropriate level of support as we work toward ensuring stability, promoting stability in the region.  

​And we're very excited about some of the meetings we have coming up, and looking forward to each of them.  

​Q:  Can you talk just a little bit about what's going on on the ground in Syria right now, and what the U.S. is looking at?  Are you seeing the intermittent fighting that we keep getting reports about from our people on the ground?  And do you think this cease-fire is holding?  And how is the withdrawal going?  

​SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think overall the cease-fire generally seems to be holding.  We see a stabilization of the lines, if you will, on the ground.  And we do get reports of intermittent fires, this and that.  It doesn't surprise me necessarily.  But that's what we're picking up. That's what we're seeing so far.  

​Q:  In terms of a withdrawal, how is that going?  Are we talking days or weeks?  I mean, what is sort of the broad time-line?  

​SEC. ESPER:  The U.S. withdrawal continues apace from northeast Syria.  Again, we're talking weeks not days.  We want to be very deliberate and very safe as we go about it.  And it's happening through a variety of means.  We're using either helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft or ground convoys.  And each of those gives you different capabilities and different means of security.  

​So, again, we're trying to be very deliberate as we go through this.  Job number one, though, remains protection of our forces.

​Q:  Just to clarify, the objective remains to remove all U.S. troops from Syria within weeks, is that correct?  

​SEC. ESPER:  All forces except for -- the president has approved the -- keeping some forces at At Tanf garrison in the south.  

Q:  And can you give us any more detail about what percentage of those troops will go to Iraq, what percentage will go to other parts of the Middle East, and how you see their mission in those respective areas?  That is, do you foresee a scenario where they are doing counter-ISIS missions from those areas or do you see them returning back to the United States?  

​SEC. ESPER:  The current game plan is for those forces to re-position into western Iraq to...

Q:  All of them?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, the ones coming out, right?  That original 1,000.  And then to -- two missions, one is to help defend Iraq, and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps.  And, again, that's the current game plan.  Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal.  But that's the game plan right now.  

Q:  Is there an agreement with the Iraqis on that?  

SEC. ESPER:  I've talked to the minister of defense from Iraq.  And I will be having conversations, I'm sure, going forward.  And we will nail down all the particulars.  

​Q:  Just to be precise, Anbar province is to what you refer when you say "western Iraq"?

SEC. ESPER:  I don't know where.  You would have to pull out a map.  And I probably couldn't give you that degree of specificity, so.  

Q:  So just to follow up on Nancy's question, how do you see the anti-ISIS fight moving forward once you're out of Syria?  And do you see any participation by allies?  

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, I had a discussion last week with my French counterpart.  And I had a conversation with the NATO secretary-general.  We both agreed on the importance of continuing the defeat ISIS campaign.  And we agreed to have a meeting on it this week in Brussels.  

And so I think that's important.  We plan on -- to continue that.  And, by the way, we're still in contact with the SDF on the ground as well.  And they are still, as best we can determine and as best they report, defending the prisons that are in their area of control.  

Q:  Could you speak to how the air mission would change once those thousand troops are (inaudible)?  Do you anticipate that the U.S. will maintain a presence over the air?  And up until this point there has been an emphasis on joint missions with ground forces, going forward should we have an expectation that we will see more unilateral missions in the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria?  

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah those are all good questions, those are questions we need to sort out with the allies, with the 80 members of the D-ISIS coalition, if you will.  And I can assure you, though, if U.S. troops are on the ground there will be air cover above them.   

Q:  And if there is not -- the reason I'm asking, though, is if they're gone, it seemed that there's the potential that the U.S. loses its sort of hold over that airspace and it's something that the Russians could take advantage of.  And so I'm just trying to get a sense if there's going to be any effort to maintain that air campaign.

SEC. ESPER:  You said "if they're gone," who is they?  

Q:  If the United States leaves, because its troops leave, the air.  

SEC. ESPER:  I'm sorry, if the United States leaves where though?  

Q:  I beg your pardon, if all 1,000 troops leave -- yes, leave Syria and go into western Iraq, up until this point part of the air mission was justified because there were ground forces, and so what I'm trying to understand is, once those forces have left, is the assumption that the air mission will continue in some way?  Will it be diminished or will it disappear altogether?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah -- no, those are good questions.  Like I said, all I can tell you right now is as we continue the counter-ISIS mission, if U.S. forces go into Syria to do a counter-ISIS mission, they will have air cover.  That's just -- that's how we do business.  

Q:  Do you then foresee a situation where Special Forces could be going into Syria from western Iraq for pinprick or specific strikes?  

SEC. ESPER:  I think those are all the options and ideas we have to weigh out over time. Those are all things we need to discuss with our allies, that I intend to discuss, that certainly will be discussed at the military level, is what does the next phase of counter-ISIS campaign look like.  And I know that's a top concern of mine, second only to protection of our forces coming out of Syria.  

But we've got work through those details.  And that's, again, a principal reason why I'll be meeting with our allies and partners this week.   

Q:  Have we seen any other incidents of Turkish or Turkish-backed fighters coming close to American troops or artillery fire close by?  

SEC. ESPER:  Nothing that has come up to my level.  

Q:  The foreign fighters, I guess, will be high on the agenda in all of your talks?  

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.  I think we -- we need to address the foreign fighters.  Like I said, as best we can tell right now, the SDF are still covering down on the prisons in the areas under their control.  And that's a good sign. That's a good thing right now.  

Q:  On the reports of the violations, can you be any more specific about where you're seeing those violations and whether that's Turkey, any evidence that's Turkey or are those Turkish-supported opposition forces?  

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I think those are the key questions.  And the media has reported -- has done good reporting on several of those incidents.  And it is hard to tell in today's, you know, age of information warfare, is, who are these people?  And could they be a false flag?  You just don't know.  

And so I think it's going to take some forensics eventually to figure out who is committing these war crimes or these atrocities.  And that should be a big part of any follow-up, if you will, investigations conducted.  

Q:  Do you believe that Turkey has control of the prisons that are sort of up in that so-called safe zone area?  Do you have confidence of that?  

SEC. ESPER:  They tell us they have control of the -- and they take responsibility for the control of prisons that are under control of Turkish ground forces.  I can't assess whether that's true or not without having people on the ground.  

STAFF:  All right, guys.  Stop there, and talk a little bit off the record.