Transcript

Media Availability with Acting Secretary Shanahan While En Route to Afghanistan

Feb. 12, 2019
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan

SEC. SHANAHAN:  OK.  We will -- we'll use out -- outdoor voice.  So, before Joe gives all the ground rules, which are -- everybody already knows, just a big -- big welcome.  We're really excited that you could come along on this trip, and I mean that with the greatest sincerity.  I -- again, I'll do a big shout-out to Joe.  He implicitly understands the importance of your role so we can get the stories out, so people can understand all the things that are going on.  

And we all -- we all see how complicated the environment is.  So the more we can talk about these things, the more questions -- I really want to be able to try to answer all your questions.  I'm not going to play cat and mouse but we have to figure out a way to be able to talk.  And the -- it's kind of funny.  The other day, we got to all use the press room.  I'm hoping we're going to get to the point where we actually get to do things on camera and kind of back to what I would call normal order.

I think this should be a fun trip.  If you have some thoughts as we're going along that we could make this better, we'll certainly go to do that.  But better we can inform people about all the things that are going on in the world, I think we're doing our jobs.  So thank you for coming along.

Now, an official announcement.

STAFF:  OK, so I just want to make clear that we're on the record throughout all the questions.  We've got one question per so it'll be about 35 minutes here.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  OK.  And that's 35 minutes outside of my ....

STAFF:  (Inaudible) 35 minutes.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  ... My topper here.  So ...

Q:  (off mic)

STAFF:  Each one of you has an (inaudible), yes.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, and use my outside voice?  All right, so let me see here.  Check my glasses here real quick.  So, I thought I'd just make some framing remarks, you can get a sense of just how I've been looking at this trip.  And there are maybe four components here, I just kind of scratched things out that -- as I've transitioned into this role, this is how I've been approaching the job.  So the first one is, this trip didn't happen by happenstance.  So the planning took place quite some time ago.

The -- if you -- if you think about this in terms of just geography and like rings, my time has been spent first in the Pentagon and then making sure there's been an orderly transition from Secretary Mattis to myself.  And then the staff within the Pentagon.  And then if we draw that ring wider, being very deliberate, and this is kind of week by week, working the interagency.  So State, Treasury, NSC, the White House.  But also, if we pulled out my calendar, you'd see I've went and visited all the major stakeholders in Congress as well, to talk to them about the transition and the things that are going on in the department.

And then I reached out to all of my counterparts in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, just to start to work on the relationship and give them confidence that, you know, things would continue as Secretary Mattis had established relationships between the respective countries.  Then, if you look at really kind of the next phase of this, it's been moved to the AOR.  So that's what this trip really represents.  So Afghanistan, Iraq, and then NATO.

And what I'd say is, there's a baselining that I'm doing -- and I use the expression, you can't manage from behind a desk.  So you have to go to where the work is, to go spend time with the people.  And one of the biggest things that I could do is really listen, put on -- on my ears, I have really big ears, and listen, and then see.  It's so important to get that type of context.  That's why I'll spend the time.  Now, I'd love to be able to spend more time.  Two things, if I can get out of this trip.

One, the foundation for an ongoing relationship with the various stakeholders.  And then, gauge risk to our plans and understand where -- where there are more opportunities.  My next stop will be to -- to Europe to follow up on the discussions I had with Secretary General Stoltenberg, talk about the future of NATO, you know, how we'll work together and grow that relationship.  Now, if we were -- look at where the ring goes next, it'll be to Asia.  And we'll do that planning as well.

The -- so that was, we kind of talked about the four things and the transition.  I've been very focused, when I'm in the building, on understanding, are we executing to the priorities of the building?  So whether it's southwest border, whether it's Syria, Iraq, Yemen, go around -- go around the world.  Russia, China.  So, all eyes on those activities.  The third is changes I want to make within the building.

So, you know, you always have to -- you have your eyes in front of you, then your eyes downrange.  And I'm really working to do more integration -- and I call across the seams, so how the departments more fully integrate with the combatant commands, how we shore up the interagency department, our coordination with State.  And then kind of the last -- last piece of this is, you know, anchoring to the National Defense Strategy, making sure that we just maintain our methodical implementation approach.

That's -- it's a little bit about the transition, the visit here, and I covered a little bit of this, but it's really around these relationships -- the seeing and getting baseline is real important because I haven't -- I just haven't spent time there.  But the value of the relationship is, as we start -- and I'm hoping to make -- Ambassador Khalilzad is so critical.  And there's a lot of other players in the region and Afghanistan, but also in Iraq.  Those relationships serve to help us circumvent process and bureaucracy that gets in our way.

Now, you always need process, you need bureaucracy, you need the discipline of that but when things are happening, you need to be able to go quickly and the essence of that is good communication.  I want to make sure those lines -- we start to work on getting those established.  We'll spend a little bit of time in Munich and that's more networking, expanding longer-term relationships.  So with that, we can go on the clock, right Joe?

STAFF:  Is that good?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah.  Bob?  Yeah.  Is that loud enough so far?

Q:  So far, so good for me.  I'm a little (inaudible). 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Everybody OK hearing so far?  All right.

Q:  You referenced briefly Afghanistan.  So I wanted to ask you about that, being your first stop and all.  Understanding that you're not part of the negotiations but you have an interest in the outcome of the -- if there are negotiations.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, so just maybe a (inaudible) and I'll let you finish answering question -- I am a part of the negotiations.

Q:  OK, OK.  All right.  I wanted to ...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'm not the -- I'm not the lead negotiator.  Ambassador Khalilzad -- think of this as, he's the quarterback.  This is a complete team sport but he is -- he's the quarterback.

Q:  So my question is, do you believe that whatever sort of quote, unquote, "enforcement mechanism" will be required to enforce whatever is agreed to would require a U.S. military (inaudible) in Afghanistan?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  The -- so I -- when I think about, like, enforcement mechanisms and numbers and timetables and all that details, those are important and they're to follow.  At -- at this stage, Ambassador Khalilzad -- or Khalilzad, what he's doing is so critical, is establishing the framework and the parties and the dialogue that happens within each of those.  Those details -- and I don't minimize that as -- detail sounds like it's not important, they're very important details but, you know, part of a successful negotiation is to give the chief negotiator as much flexibility as people work through and start to talk about the possibilities.

And right now they're in the stage of, what are all the possibilities and which parties should be talking to who?  OK?

Q:  So, as a matter of principle, you don't think it's necessary that the U.S. military remain to enforce whatever happens?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I think the U.S. military has strong security interests in the region.  Its presence will evolve out of those discussions of where, what, concentration, how.  All of that is extremely important but we're going to leave it to the teams to start to look at what mix combination makes the most sense.

STAFF:  (off mic)

Q:  I wanted to ask you, the -- there was an inspector general report this week about not being enough Afghan pilots trained to accept the U.S. Blackhawks that are coming in.  That broader sort of issue of the U.S. training, are you looking at other ways to accomplish the training that the U.S. has been saying needs to be done while, at the same time, considering a drawdown in forces?  When -- when you go to NATO, will you talk to NATO members about contributing more to the training?  Is that something you're looking at, about how to draw down forces and keep up this training at the same time?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, so that doesn't count as one question.

Q:  Sorry.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, no.  I just want to answer it but let you ask another question.  On the -- on the inspector general report, I haven't had a chance yet to go through it.  But part of my visit is to be able to sit down with General Miller and his teams so that they can share with me, what are those -- because when you look at our presence there, there's lots of risk and there's lots of opportunity.  What are those things that he feels are significant, that we need to address.  And if that's one of those items, it'll be important that we figure out how to go work that.  Or if it's much lower on the list of priorities.  I need to read the report.

But you do bring up a really critical point in terms of the discussions with NATO.  And I want to make sure that I'm properly calibrated so we can have those discussions.  I have a number of bilaterals set up so we can get into some of those specifics, as well as we have the D-ISIS ministerial in Munich.  But did you want to ask another question?

Q:  Yeah, I just -- it seems like the U.S. has focused for so long on the training and yet the Afghan Security Forces are still suffering these huge losses, which even U.S. military officials have said are unsustainable.  How do you -- how do you keep up the pressure on the Taliban, continuing training the Afghans and, at the same time, look at drawdown forces?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, I'll -- I'll maybe say -- let me talk to General Miller to get calibrated on his view versus my view at this time, and maybe post-visit, true up the two.  OK?

Q:  I'll ask one (inaudible).  The (inaudible) passed on by the Afghan government is their desire to be involved in any sort of peace talks or peace negotiations or agreement.  Can you guarantee that any sort of agreement will include the Afghan government?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I will -- I will -- just as a matter of practicality, Ambassador Khalilzad is the one who's negotiating.  So he'll make guarantees.  It's important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan.  The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future.  They're all -- it's not about the U.S., it's about Afghanistan.  The U.S. has significant, significant investment in ensuring security.  But the Afghans decide their future.

Q:  Just one more follow-up.  How do you explain to critics who are saying that even a small withdrawal will roll back the key (inaudible) that have been made over the past 17 years?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  It's -- it's been interesting for a newcomer to come into this process because -- this is just my own perspective.  More discussion occurs around the criticism than what are the possibilities.  And why I'm encouraged with Ambassador Khalilzad is he talks about the possibilities.  And in bringing these parties together, you know, how do we facilitate that but limit ourselves based on history.  And that's why I want to go and talk to President Ghani, and that's why I want to go talk to General Miller.

Q:  Tara Copp, Military Times.  So on those possibilities, it seems like (inaudible) Taliban was key (inaudible) is the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  Are you looking at maybe different options or possibilities for things that could (inaudible) a visible reduction to be kind of in good faith to help (inaudible) these peace talks (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  So the framework discussions -- this is Ambassador Khalilzad putting those parties together to discuss just that.  How does peace come about?  And what's the structure required to sustain that?  It always gets back to assurances, right?  I mean, there is risk-taking, but there have be assurances.  

And putting in place the mechanisms to give people the confidence to take the risk is what those discussions and those frameworks are designed to do.  

Q:  So, but is the Department of Defense already kind of looking at maybe the options that you generate to show the good faith and help these talks move forward?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  So just maybe to put more of an edge on that, the Department of the Defense is playing a critical role in facilitating the dialogue around those framework discussions.  So in that, policy members, military members will be part of the groups that get together and generate ideas and options.  

Q:  After the first (inaudible) talks you saw reports from the Taliban, U.S. troops, or half the troops will leave by May.  Is there any credibility to that, or is this just, like, one of the options on the table.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I would really look to Ambassador Khalilzad to characterize the discussions with the Taliban, OK?  

Q:  (Inaudible) from AFP.

Do you agree that the U.S. should withdrawal troops from Afghanistan (inaudible) as soon as (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I think your caveat, as soon as possible, I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defense and supports regional stability.  And that any type of sizing is done in a coordinated and disciplined manner.  

Q:  So (inaudible) is not something that is (inaudible) right now?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No.  

Q:  Do you agree with President Trump that ISIS has been defeated (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Can you put a little bit more of a caveat on that?  I mean, ISIS is...

Q:  The president saying, you know, ISIS has been defeated; we don't need to be over there anymore...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That's not how I've heard him characterize ISIS.  I heard him characterize the physical caliphate being nearly defeated.  But...

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  ... ISIS is a global presence.  So certainly the global presence still persists.  The degree of ISIS's capability is widely varied.  I mean, everything from, you know, residual pockets, the sleeper cells.  But in the context of military operations, I think the characterization of progress within Syria has been that they've been decimated, and that we're making significant progress in the MERV.  

Yes.

Q:  Just to clarify on Afghanistan, so was there an initial decision to withdraw a significant portion of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?  Because it seemed -- I know that the president never made an announcement to that effect, but it certainly seemed like there had been some sort of obstruction or order from the White House to initiate planning for near-term significant troops withdraw.  So if you could just clarify that, and then I have Syria question.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, maybe you could say that again.  Did...

Q:  Yes, so was there any sort of initial decision or order from the White House to withdraw a significant number of troops from Afghanistan, because that was the reporting that occurred, that I think all of us wrote back in December.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.

Q:  Even though Trump himself never said so, but now it seems like that sort of has drawn away or being overtaken by the peace talks discussion, but I think it's important for us to understand whether or not there was any sort of decision on this (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan.  The direction -- and this is in close coordination with Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton -- is to support Ambassador Khalilizad in these peace negotiations, OK.

Q:  OK.

And then the Syria question is, so we're coming out of Syria.  There's been a lot of concerns or predictions that ISIS could come back without sufficient support to your local forces made by military forces publicly and privately seems like just that a lot of people are worried that the gains of the last three years could be squandered.  And I'm just wondering whether you share those concerns, or what your view on that (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, I think any time you have significant military operations and then you shift away from them, they must be back-filled with security operations.  And how you provide security is very important.  It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that if something hasn't been completely eradicated, the risk of it returning remains.  

Risk can be high and risk can be low.  So I think people's concerns is just over the course of history they've seen how difficult it is to eradicate terrorism and that, you know, the seeds are sown in so many different places, in particular where you have the IDPs or the refugee camps.  

So, you know, the follow-on, the support and security -- and this is where we really look to the coalition partners who have significant stakes in this as well.  And I think that will be an important part of the discussions that I have when I'm in Europe this week.  

You'll maybe just tie on to that, Chairman Dunford, Ambassador Jeffrey have been working across the Atlantic all through the night seven days a week to really, you know, address those next stages.  OK?

Q:  Just to follow (inaudible) on (inaudible) Syria.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Did you ask a question?  

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I know, but it's OK.  All right.  (Laughter.)

So we're going fast.  

Yes -- no, go ahead.

Q:  On Syria, so when you were visiting your counterparts in Iraq will you be bringing up the (inaudible) of (inaudible) some of those withdrawn troops from Syria in Iraq to be able to keep an eye on Iraq not -- not addressing the Iran question but -- I mean, I'm sorry, Syria?

I can ask that again if I messed it up.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, no, no.  I understand -- I think I understand your question.  Just the nature of the discussions with Prime Minister Mahdi, right, so.

Yes?

Q:  And the potential for maybe putting some of the U.S. forces in Syria (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.  

Q:  (Inaudible) didn't hear the question (inaudible).

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'll try.  

So, Bob, I think the question was, will there be a discussion on moving -- as troops withdraw from Syria, basing them in Iraq.  Will that be a part of the discussions when I'm with the government there?  The conversations I'm hoping to have are about our U.S. presence.  

And what's, you know, important to remind everyone -- not you, but, you know, for -- or maybe just reiterate is that, you know, we are in Iraq at the invitation of the government.  And our interests are to build Iraqi security capability.  And I want to talk to them about what are the things that we can do to enhance their security?  

And that's our mission as well as how do we also -- you know, our coalition partners have a role there that's very important.  I wanted to hear firsthand from them about concerns, the political dynamics that they're facing.  And then based on that we'll obviously factor that into our planning.  

Q:  Is that made tougher by the president's comments about troops (inaudible)?  There's obviously been a huge blowback (inaudible).

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I think the -- you know, this is really about the opportunity to get that relationship in place so that we can be good listeners but really, and this is the important piece, build security capability.  Security, stability is important for the region.  And it is a -- when we're aligned, it is a good anchor for the region.  

Q:  Do you have any updates today on that last stronghold in Syria?  There was reports this morning the fighting was really fierce.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I haven't.  And this is maybe just a general caveat I would put on some of the fighting that goes on there.  One thing we probably should be mindful of, like timetables, when you hear timetables, there are factors beyond our control that we have to just leave margin for, for example, weather, but also there are civilians in those areas.  

And so as we support the SDF, sometimes when we hear about a timetable, then that timetable doesn't happen exactly, those are some of the other dynamics that are factors.  But, you know, it's very, very close.  But we'll just have to kind of watch how things play out.  OK?  

Q:  In general, do you think Iraq is generally (inaudible) for having (inaudible) U.S. forces in order to prevent a resurgence of ISIS?  Especially with, you know, the remaining threat being so close to the Iraqi border?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, I would like to hear it directly from them.  I have a lot of confidence in our ability to help with security in Iraq.  

Q:   Did President Trump ask you to collect (inaudible) information during your trip to Afghanistan that would help him decide what to do there?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  When I get back, and prior to his trip to the summit, I expect to give him an update on what I've learned and insights about -- you know, going forward.  

Q:  You didn't talk to him about it before you left?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We're coordinated on the update, so.

STAFF:  We have time for two more here.

Q:  Can I just follow up on your answer to the Syria question.  So you said that -- you mentioned the role (inaudible) American partners in Syria.  Does that mean that the United States will be asking European countries or the restricted group that (inaudible) to (inaudible) more substantial on-the-ground role in helping SDF and the other groups?  Like actually take responsibility for security in a way that they haven't done?  Because it seems to me like that's the risk factor, because if, you know, as General Dunford has said, like, they're a long way from being capable of doing that on their own.

But if we're leaving, are you asking the other allies to do that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, I think it's a terrific opportunity to demonstrate leadership and partnership, and make a contribution.  And they -- and it's really important, they have significant interests in seeing the refugees that are in Turkey find stability, and the IDPs that we can address, the IDPs that are there in Syria, so.

STAFF:  Last question (inaudible).

Q:  Thank you.

And also (inaudible) some answers from the proposals from the -- from (inaudible) about taking a bigger role in Syria?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  The military-to-military discussions have gone very well.  And there's a lot of coordination occurring at the political level.

Q:  You don't -- you don't (inaudible) to mention one country (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'll probably be able to give you an update after my time in Brussels, OK?

Q:  Will you bring up the foreign-fighter issue, too, the (inaudible) to foreign fighters?  Do you plan to talk about that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That is an ongoing -- I won't have to bring it up because it's an ongoing discussion, OK.

STAFF:  So thank you very much.