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Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper press availability at NATO Defense Ministerial


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER: (Inaudible) … I’ve had good bilateral discussions as well with my fellow defense ministers, so all in all, a good start to this Defense Ministerial.

Q: Can I ask you a question? So one of the topics you’ve either already discussed or are going to discuss further will be Afghanistan; of course there are reports that I follow in Washington, that there’s a -- however you want to describe it, a tentative deal. I’m wondering what you can tell us about your timetable for beginning a troop reduction, whether that begins as soon as a reduction in violence period begins, or is it contingent on there being inter-Afghan negotiations?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I will just say this much right now, there is a reduction in violence proposal on the table. I’m here consulting with allies about it, and I have nothing further to announce at this time.

Q: You can’t discuss in any way the prospects of a timetable…?

SEC. ESPER: I’m not going to get ahead of our consultations nor our diplomatic efforts. 

Q: Can I ask a clarification, too? When the talk is about potentially withdrawing forces if conditions are met, and what not, it’s not withdrawing all U.S. forces, it would be withdrawing to the 8,600 number, is that correct? 

SEC. ESPER: We’ve said consistently, based on the recommendations of the commanders in the field, that we are comfortable going down to an 8,600 number because we’re confident we can then accomplish our tasks at that number. 

Q: And on Iraq, did you get any commitments today, and did you also discuss troops in Africa as well to help the (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER: We are discussing Iraq right now, that’s the subject that’s on the floor right now that the defense ministers are discussing, and the process and the way forward generally. The Secretary General has been very good, he’s demonstrated superb leadership on this matter in terms of bringing allies along, and I think it’s just a matter of having military discussions about the technical aspects of it, and then working with the Iraqis on the way forward. 

Q: Switching the focus to Europe, has the Polish government agreed to house rotating troops from the V Corps? And has that been discussed? 

SEC. ESPER: Well, I saw that report in the paper; that’s a matter to be discussed over time. The final location has not been determined. It will take some time and that will be a matter of discussions about what we would do. I should say it’s -- it’s -- to clarify, we were not looking at basing anything permanently overseas. The basing, if the Corps is established, it would be established in the United States, and we would send forward what’s called the tactical control headquarters, to Poland or any other country, depending on what makes most sense. So that’s something that we work out over time, based on our operational plans, based on the commitments of our allies, what the future disposition of that will be. 

Q: Mr. Secretary, I’d like to ask you a question that came out of Washington since we have travelled. You had said before you left that if -- you would ensure there would be no retaliation against Colonel Vindman. And since that time the president has called for or suggested that the military conduct some sort of disciplinary review. I’d like to ask if you support that disciplinary review and can you still assure Colonel Vindman and his brother that they will not be (inaudible) retaliation.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I have not seen that news. I’m not going to add anything more to what I’ve already said. I would just refer your questions at this point to the United States Army. 

Q: But the Pentagon would not retaliate? 

SEC. ESPER: I’ve already spoken on this matter. Like I said, I refer these personnel matters to the United States Army at this point in time.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there was an incident today between the Syrian regime forces and U.S. personnel. It was an exchange of fire. There have been reports that the Russians have kind of been treading into U.S. SDF territory in Syria, increasingly being more kind of provocative entering those areas. Are you worried about these clashes? Is there an increased risk between some kind of clash between the U.S. and Syrian regime?

SEC. ESPER: Well I have got – had an initial report that there was an altercation in Syria, and that’s all the further I have on it right now. I wouldn’t say that there’s escalating, if you will, or you used the plural clashes, if you will. But we have, with regard to the Russians, we have deconfliction measures that have been in place for some time now, for years. We talk to them constantly on the ground. Chairman Milley speaks to his counterpart; I speak to my counterpart; these are things we work through on a day-to-day basis. But as far as I know, today’s incident did not involve the Russians. 

Q: Concerning Idlib, you’ve spoken to your European counterparts. Have they mentioned concerns about the conflict and what’s happening and …


SEC. ESPER: Actually -- actually, Idlib did not come up today with my conversations —my bilaterals — with my counterparts. 

Q: Did you meet your Turkish counterpart?

SEC. ESPER: I did not; we just had a chance to – he was in a bigger meeting, but we just had a quick, you know, greeting if you will, in the hallway. But we have not had a bilateral.

Q: Have you raised China as a security threat that you’ve talked about many times publically? Have you raised that with the allies?

SEC. ESPER: That will be on the agenda tonight, over our dinner conversation. It’ll be, I’ve raised, every time I’ve been here, about the great power competition we’re in with China and Russia, but China in particular. And we’ll talk about Huawei and things like that.

Q: Beyond Huawei, can you describe briefly what you’re, the thrust of your concern about why NATO countries ought to be concerned about China? 

SEC. ESPER: Well I think principally right now it’s a, it is the great power competition, the challenge they present over that duration, and the fact that, you know, we see cyber theft, we see espionage, we see the theft of our intellectual property, we see China getting into our networks. All these things that we need to address now. I’ve been very clear with our allies that if Chinese technology gets into their networks it could well compromise our ability to share intelligence, to share operational issues, and it could undermine the alliance. So we’re all very conscious of that.

Q: Militarily, is there an issue?

SEC. ESPER: That’s what I’m speaking about. It’s our ability to share intelligence at the mil-to-mil level or to interoperate -- interoperate at the military level.

Q: OK.

Q: Mr. Secretary, on the reduction in violence, would that have to apply to both U.S. international forces and Afghan Forces? 

SEC. ESPER: It would apply to all forces. 

Q: And back to Iraq, since that was the topic for today. Do you feel confident that NATO members are going to increase their presence, like Secretary Stoltenberg would like?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I think so, it takes time. I mean, NATO is a very deliberative body. When you have 29 - 30 members it takes time. In many cases these countries have to go back to their parliaments. But keep in mind, NATO already has a presence in Iraq. So we have that and we have a strong foundation to build on. I think the first thing is to make sure we maximize that capacity under the current mandate, and then secondly, look at expanding the mandate so they can pick up more of the train, advise and assist mission. As I said to you all previously, as NATO grows its capacity and its mission space, that would allow the United States room to reduce forces to offset that. Okay?

STAFF: Thanks, guys.

SEC. ESPER: Thanks everybody.