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Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper and Minister of Defense Lorenzo Guerini of Italy Joint Press Briefing

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Well, good morning, everyone.

Minister Guerini, it's a pleasure to meet you again, as we honor and deepen the longstanding defense partnership between the United States and Italy.

As a steadfast NATO ally, Italy hosts roughly 34,000 United States service members, civilians and dependents across five major bases.  I know that personally because I lived and served in Italy many years ago, and we've had quite a few discussions about that during the times the minister and I have had the chance to meet.

In doing so, Italy plays a vital role in our force projection into Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.  We are grateful for Italy's leadership and contributions to coalition operations around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Through the Defeat ISIS coalition, we continue to work together to ensure a stable and sovereign Iraq and the lasting defeat of ISIS.  Elsewhere in the region, our two nations recognize the importance of restoring stability with Iran as we encourage them to behave like a normal country.  And we will continue to discuss the requirements of core missions in Afghanistan while we review the United States force posture in that country.

I'd like to thank the minister for bolstering Italy's role as a critical industrial defense partner to the United States, and for his strong advocacy of the F-35 program.  As a level two partner in the program, your country has made important investments in research and development for the aircraft.

Ahead of next month's NATO defense ministerial, I encourage our allies and partners, including Italy, to increase their contributions to alliance readiness.  Burden-sharing and meeting the 2% of GDP spending target will be crucial for a stronger NATO, prepared for the threats of tomorrow.

Minister Guerini, I look forward to continuing our discussions next month at NATO about the way forward for our collective security.  I am confident that our strong defense relationship will continue to grow as we advance our priorities on the basis of our shared values and interests.

Thank you.  Grazie.

ITALIAN MINISTER OF DEFENSE LORENZO GUERINI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  Thank you, Secretary Esper.  Thank you for hosting me here in Washington.

With Secretary Esper, we had a frank and constructive meeting about a wide span of issues.  These reflect our sound relation between our countries.  The level of industrial and military cooperation is characterized by great pragmatism, as confirmed by the results of the strategic dialogue meeting.

Italy and the United States are deployed together in many areas of interest, and we have a strong convergence of interests about the development of our military capabilities.

In the course of our meeting today, we have touched different issues and shared analysis about Iraq, the situation in Libya, Afghanistan and the southern flank of the alliance.

I cannot but take this opportunity to thank Secretary Esper and the United States for the support they've always offered, to pay more attention to the Mediterranean and the challenges coming from the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel.

To Secretary Esper, I reaffirmed the Italian commitment to international missions.  We both believe that especially in this moment of crisis, maintaining momentum is key to preserve the results achieved so far in the fight against terrorism, in the training of the local security forces and in regional stabilization.

About Libya, I strongly reaffirmed that we need to implement concrete actions as a result of the Berlin conference.  Italy is in the forefront and ready to take its stance.  U.S. support is definitely key to success.

Italy looks forward to strengthening its capacity incrementally and sustainably, also within the framework of the consolidation of European defense capabilities and in order to balance the efforts within the trans-Atlantic relation that are for us a main tenet, a main pillar.

The challenges we have had are definitely demanding, and only with mutual support we can tackle them effectively.

Thank you very much, Secretary Esper.  And thank you for your attention.

STAFF:  Luis Martinez, ABC News.

Q:  Hi, Luis Martinez with ABC News.

Mr. Secretary, a question for you and a question for the minister.  There was a possible change in landmines.  What are your views and what are the benefits of the use of landmines militarily outside of the Korean Peninsula?

And to you, Mr. Minister, with the possibility that the United States may bring down the level of forces inside Afghanistan, how will that impact the mission that you have currently with your forces in western Afghanistan?

SEC. ESPER:  I'll just comment briefly, because I don't want to get ahead of any public release that is pending.

I would just say this much:  Landmines are one of very many other important tools that our commanders need to have available to them on the battlefield, to shape the battlefield and to protect our forces.

At the end of the day, we want to make sure that we have all the tools in our toolkit that are legally available and effective to ensure our success and to ensure the protection of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

MIN. GUERINI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  Well, about Afghanistan, we have discussed the issue with Secretary Esper.  Italy has a significant contingent deployed there, especially in the western part, in Herat.

We have also discussed the possibility of a reconfiguration of the mission in Afghanistan.  And this is part of the debate we will have during the next ministerial meeting in mid-February in Brussels.

The work we have done together has created important results; and this will be, of course, affected by the dialogue between the alliance and the Taliban and the completion of the electoral process.

We remain committed to our deployments.  And with Secretary Esper, we agreed that every evaluation should be done together, especially with respect to reconfiguration of the mission.  And this is the same principles we applied to our commitment in Afghanistan.

We have deployed together at the beginning, and we still continue to do it together until the end of our activities.

Q:  (inaudible), RAI Television.

Secretary Esper, are you satisfied with the degree of cooperation from Italy?  Are there any areas where you would like to see more?

(THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  Minister Guerini, Libya in particular, (inaudible) regular and mercenary troops have been deployed to -- to Libya.  What does it change in military terms?  What do you mean by support by (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, Italy has always been a -- a great ally and partner since, again I said my -- my days of service in the country.  And, you know, whether it's burden sharing in -- in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Africa, Italy leads with a very robust presence of its -- of its forces.

We also have a great deal of industrial cooperation that really enables our partnership and it builds interoperability.  And, of course, there are fantastic relationships between our peoples going back many, many, many years.

And so I think we have shared values and shared interests.

Is there room for improvement?  There always is room for improvement, whether it is burden sharing that I've discussed with regard to hitting that 2% threshold for GDP, and it could be the provision of more assets in -- in -- in other parts of the -- of -- of the globe where we're engaged.

But Italy's been a -- a great partner.  I -- I -- I wish more -- more allies and partners played the expansive role that Italy did as a member of NATO.

MIN. GUERINI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  We have discussed Libya at length during our meeting.  We have shared our concerns about the situation in Libya, and also with respect to the recent developments.  We are particularly concerned for the presence of external actors, which have increased the level of conflict in Libya and make it difficult to implement the results of the Berlin conference.

However, those results are very important for us, as they represent the search for a political solution in Libya.  There is no military solution alone.  We want to bring forth a political solution to tackle the peace process together.

However, every political solution in this phase must be supported by military activities that take place with (inaudible), to preserve –- to create the conditions for political solutions to be implemented.  These are embargoes and a possibility to maintain a cease-fire.  In this respect, the U.S. commitment is very important, and to the United States we request to exert all their power to bring all the stakeholders around the table.

On (inaudible), I was reassured by Secretary Esper.  That I thank.

STAFF:  Jeff Schogol, Task & Force.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, Gen. Mattis once said he famously hates mine fields.  Given the potential for landmines to injure not just friendly forces, but also civilians, is it immoral to use them?

And, Mr. Minister, is Khalifa Haftar a possible Russian proxy?

Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the -- the landmine policy that we will be rolling out was developed during Secretary Mattis' tenure.

Again, I think landmines are -- are an important tool that our forces need to have available to them in -- in order to ensure mission success and in order to reduce risk to forces.

That said, in everything we do, we also want to make sure that -- that these instruments -- in this case, landmines -- also take into account both the safety of employment and the safety to civilians and others after a conflict.

And I think today, when you hear from our experts about the details of the policy and what we are pursuing, I -- I think you'll be confident we've taken great care and consideration with regard to, again, the -- their employment and how they may act as remnants of war, as it’s often discussed.

MIN. GUERINI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  (inaudible) contributed to increased tensions in Libya.  And I can just repeat what I have just said:  We have to find a political solution together that goes through common responsibility by all stakeholders.  The United States can (inaudible) all the possible efforts to make their political weight felt by these (inaudible) stakeholders.

We have to work on the Berlin -- on the results of the Berlin conference and implement what has been decided there.

Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  Minister Guerini, have you talked about Iraq and the -- the troops deployed there?  Is the Trump administration asking for a stronger involvement of Italy in -- in that area, or in other scenarios of crisis?

And, Secretary Esper, have you reaffirmed the concerns of your administration for the implementation of the 5G plan in Italy, also on the basis of the decisions taken by London, which have not been preceded in Washington?

MIN. GUERINI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  As far as Iraq is concerned, we had an exchange of view, a very positive one.  And after what happened at the beginning of the year in Iraq, we had a telephone conversation with Secretary Esper.  And on the basis of that, Italy has decided to remain in Iraq.  We have maintained our contingent.

I had an opportunity to visit Iraq last week to meet our soldiers and to speak with our allies and the Iraqi authorities.  We have reached important results in Iraq over the last years, especially in terms of the fight against Daesh and the construction of capabilities with the -- the local security forces and Peshmerga forces.

We don't have to spoil those results.  And the presence of Italy and of the allies in Iraq, I think, is the starting point to -- to avoid taking steps back.

SEC. ESPER:  Regarding your question on 5G, the United States remains very concerned about Chinese technology in our networks, specifically Huawei.  The concern I've expressed to our allies on multiple occasions, particularly during my visits to NATO defense ministerials in -- in Brussels, was that if -- Chinese technology risks compromising our networks, which could have a -- which could compromise our ability to share information, to share intelligence, to share planning, and it could compromise the security and efficacy of our alliance.

So we continue to urge our allies and partners to take this all into consideration as they -- as they consider 5G.

Thank you.

Mr. Minister, thank you very much.  Grazie.

MIN. GUERINI:  Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Pleasure to see you.


STAFF:  Thank you all.