Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Press Conference at NATO Defense Ministerial

Feb. 13, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

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

I want to first thank Secretary General Stoltenberg and his team for putting this ministerial together these past couple days.  Over that time we've had a number of important discussions on a wide range of issues concerning our shared security.

First, I want to update you on recent developments regarding Afghanistan.

The United States and the Taliban have negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence.  I'm here today consulting with allies about this proposal, and we've had a series of productive bilateral and collective meetings about the path forward.

We've said all along that the best, if not only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement.  Progress has been made on this front, and we'll have more to report on that soon, I hope.

Next, I am pleased that NATO has agreed in principle to expand its role in the Middle East, as the alliance considers growing its mission in Iraq in coordination with Baghdad and the Defeat-ISIS Coalition to promote Iraq's stability and security.

We've also asked NATO's military leaders to consider what more the alliance could do to assist the Iraqi Security Forces.

Looking beyond Iraq, I welcome follow-on discussions on how to broaden NATO's role in the Middle East to defend the international rules-based order, to include deploying air defenses and other capabilities that would deter aggression and reassure partners.

Throughout these discussions we reaffirmed our commitment to the lasting defeat of ISIS, and we will continue to work together to ensure they, or other terrorist organizations, never again have a safe haven to reconstitute and to launch attacks against our homelands.

In addition to discussing operational matters, we also focused on issues critical to the strength and resilience of the alliance.  I reiterated the importance of equitable burden-sharing and urged our allies to build on our progress, $130 billion more in defense spending cumulatively, and hasten toward fulfilling their commitment to invest 2% of GDP in defense by 2024.

We also discussed the NATO Readiness Initiative, which is a critical step to re-instilling a culture of readiness and routinely testing it across the alliance.  Fulfilling the ‘4 by 30s by 2020’ pledge is just the start of our work.  Next, we need to determine how we will sustain high readiness force contributions for years into the future and make this initiative an enduring commitment.

Last night we had a productive discussion on NATO-EU cooperation, hybrid threats, and the China challenge.

I continued to stress to our EU partners that EDF [European Defence Fund] legislation and PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] guidelines for third-party participation must permit the United States and other non-EU NATO allies to take part and lend our expertise to these initiatives.

We need to pursue efforts that compliment NATO activities and bolster trans-Atlantic cooperation, not ones that are competitive or duplicative, especially as allies take a closer look at the challenges posed by a growing and more assertive China.

NATO allies must carefully consider the long-term risks of the economic and commercial choices they make, particularly regarding the integration of Chinese telecommunications into European infrastructure.

At the end of the day, Chinese telecom firms have a legal obligation to provide technical support and assistance to the Communist Party, and that concerns us deeply.  Reliance on Chinese 5G vendors could render our partners' critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation, and espionage.  This could jeopardize or communications and intelligence-sharing capabilities and, by extension, our partnerships.

To counter this, the United States is encouraging allied and U.S. tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions.

In closing, I want to reiterate, the United States commitment to NATO remains ironclad.  Together we form the most powerful multilateral military alliance in the world, one based on our shared values and our shared interests.

Our past sacrifice and willingness to defend one another have been the bedrock of our collective security and the backbone of the international rules-based order.  This will continue into the future so long as we're committed to prioritizing our common defense and investing in it.

Thank you, and I'd be happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR:  Bob Burns, A.P.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, you mentioned the U.S.-Taliban talks.  During a reduction in violence period and in the event of a broader peace deal, will U.S. forces continue to conduct counterterrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaida and others in Afghanistan?

And also, do you think that seven days is really long enough to determine whether Taliban is serious?

SEC. ESPER:  Bob, it's a very good question, but as I said, I'm not -- I'm not going to elaborate any further with regard to the details.  We're in a consultative phase right now with our allies and partners, and I want to be true to that commitment to them, to give them time to digest before we release further details and expectations of their plans.  OK?

Q:  Can I just, real quickly, (inaudible) the second part of my question, (inaudible) your own view on whether seven days is a long enough period to judge for sure that the Taliban’s serious?

SEC. ESPER:  It is our view that seven days, for now, is sufficient.  But in all things, our approach to this process will be conditions-based -- let me say it again -- conditions-based.  So it will be a continual evaluative process, as we go forward -- if we go forward.

Q:  Secretary of State, yesterday --

SEC. ESPER:  Defense.

Q:  -- there was some kind of confrontation in Syria between, I think, a patrol, American patrol, and pro-Syrian-government forces, plus the role Turkey is playing.  So how -- how will you find and separate the (inaudible) Turkey have in Syria and the main NATO American presence and the views towards a solution in Syria?

SEC. ESPER:  Okay, I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I understand your question.  What's the exact question you're asking?

Q:  I mean, there was some kind of confrontation yesterday between an American patrol at a pro-Syrian-government checkpoints, in the north.  This is one.

The second thing, there is a Turkish role in Syria.  How this is in coordination with NATO and the United States?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to speak to the Turkish role in Syria.  I'll refer you to Ankara for that.  There was an incident yesterday.  We're still trying to digest what happened and determine who all the parties were.

We followed our standard procedures.  And I'll just leave it at that for now.

MODERATOR:  Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about your budget that you recently proposed.  One area that's gotten some interest is your decision to cut funding to Stars and Stripes.  I wonder if you could walk us through why you made that decision, and if you share your comptroller's assessment that newspapers are not a necessary form of communication?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, look, you know, as I went into this process, the first thing I did was to stand up the Defense-Wide Review, to find at least $5 billion to put into our modernization priorities: space, the nuclear triad, hypersonics, a variety of systems.

As we went through that, we looked at about $100 billion worth of programs and activities, some in various degrees of return on investment, some in various degrees of priority.  At the end of the day, that didn't -- that was not a priority that met the cut line.  And so we trimmed that support for that -- for Stars and Stripes because we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues.

MODERATOR:  We'll go -- this gentleman here?

Q:  Mr. Esper, I'm from Russian Kommersant newspaper.

During the last year, all the attempts to sign the deal with the Taliban has failed.  Talking about reducing the violence, no cease-fire ever lasted more than three days.

Do you believe that something may change this year?  And what should happen for that?

Do you -- could you tell about any -- the real examples when Taliban kept their word to fully and to comprehensively?

Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'm not going to try and cite the history of -- of this conflict, if you will.  My point is this; our approach is this, that the best, if not only, solution forward is a political agreement.  We have the -- we have the basis for one on the table.  We are taking a hard look at it.  We are consulting with our allies.  We are consulting with Congress and others.  And I think peace deserves a chance.  But it will demand that all parties comply with their obligations, if we move forward.

And for us, for the United States, the key thing will be continued support to our Afghan partners and it will need to be a conditions-based approach to all of this.  OK?

MODERATOR:  Final question, Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q:  Hello, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you.

Did you have any success in getting some of the other members of the alliance to pledge additional troop contributions that might allow the U.S. to reduce its involvement in Iraq?

SEC. ESPER:  The short answer is yes, but I'll leave it up to you to -- to figure out who they are.  It's for them to make their own announcements. 

OK?  Thank you all very much.

MODERATOR:  Thanks, everyone.