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Media Availability with Acting Secretary Shanahan While En Route to Brussels

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

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Good, so it's good to be back together, it's been kind of a whirlwind the last couple of days.  And we're pretty - at least I am energized for the NATO part of this, right?  

This was kind of the - the warm-up, but maybe just a couple of recaps, then we can get into the detailed questions.  I really enjoyed my time with General Miller, and having a chance to - to meet his team and when you think of words that stick in your mind, opportunity was the one I took away from my visit with General Miller.

He possesses an enormous amount of experience and talent and then out of that combination with the opportunity that these negotiations represent.  And one of the things that really I took away from the visit was he possesses, with the commandos, the potential to create diplomatic leverage.

It's really what I witnessed in my time with him.  He, with the capacity and the capability through the commando team, will generate real diplomatic leverage.  And we are all in support of Ambassador Khalilzad.  I had a good visit at the palace with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah.

We did, in our meeting there and around the country, update with his cabinet members.  But he was very clear to me about the importance of being able to maintain the institutions that have been created and why he and other members of the government need to be a part of - of the negotiations.

That was a clear message I took back.  The visit, I would conclude, for me was valuable in the sense of getting the operational context.  And then to do two things when I get back to the United States; very tight alignment with General Miller and support his needs there in Afghanistan, and then truly rally around the State Department and Ambassador Khalilzad in the diplomatic and negotiation process.

We got a little bit of sleep, jumped on an airplane and we went to Baghdad.  (Inaudible) I was greeted by Joey Hood, the deputy there, had a terrific - terrific diplomat, it was really a privilege to meet him.  And then I met Lieutenant General LaCamera down at Fort Bragg previously, so this was not my first interaction with him.

The time with him and his team was - was very effective.  I did two things.  The first was really get some feedback on progress in Syria.  So it was a good opportunity for me.  I track operations in Syria on a daily basis, it's one of the first things I do in the morning.

But the opportunity to meet with his direct reports who lead those operations and then be able to ask questions was really helpful for me to be able to calibrate risk and timing.  And then the second part of the discussion was really around his assessment of how the advising and assisting to the Iraqi Security Forces was progressing and the maturity of ISIS.

And, as you're all aware, it's a very big country, so the risk varies from different geographies of the country.  I then - you know, we whisked over to the palace and had an opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Mahdi.

A very good energy in that meeting.  I was pleased that it was very interactive dialogue.  You know, maybe to just kind of characterize the things we spoke about, first and foremost the recognition of Iraqi sovereignty.

I  made very clear that we recognize their sovereignty, their focus on independence and that we're there at the invitation of the government and that our role there is to advise and assist and to grow the - not just the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces but also the capacity.

Talked a little bit about politics, we talked about hopefully soon the Cabinet - we have some open Cabinet positions that they'll be filled and you know a couple of other minor issues.  And then we jumped on the plane and we're here.

Tomorrow will be a - a good day, I'll be able to report back to my counterparts here at NATO some of my perceptions of Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and what the opportunities are for the coalition, of where we can take advantage of the opportunity there in Afghanistan.

And the opportunity in Afghanistan is a - it's different in terms of timing.  That's a timing window that's right in front of us.  When we talk about Syria, it's a different kind of opportunity in terms of the potential in northeast Syria to establish an observer force.

And then in Iraq it's, really more long-term how do we leverage the - the coalition resources?  

Also, we'll spend time talking about those activities, but then more importantly, what does NATO look like, five years from now?  What are our - our roles, how do the - how does the threat that we see today evolve in terms of changing our missions and growing a different type of capacity and a different type of capability?

So, should we do questions?


How are you?

Q:  Good, thank you.


Q:  I had a question for you about your discussions with the Prime Minister in Baghdad.  You mentioned Iraqi sovereignty, I'm wondering whether either - well first of all, did either of you raise the question or the issue of U.S. moving some additional CT troops into Iraq as troops are reduced in Syria?

And secondly, did the Prime Minister raise any objections, criticisms or suggestions about President Trump that - that Iraq could be used as a base to either monitor Iran or to attack Syria... 


Q: terms of sovereignty?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  The - you know, we actually talked to - we didn't discuss troop levels or the movement of men and women out of Syria.  It just didn't come up.

Q:  Into Iraq?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Into Iraq.  We did discuss Iran indirectly, and the conversation was more about Iran in the context of Iraq's independence.  And what the prime minister shared with me was that he said we need to maintain good relationships with all of our neighbors and we also need to maintain strong relationships with the United States.

That was the context in which we discussed the United States as well as Iran.

Q:  And that was separate from the question about the U.S. using Iraq as a way of monitoring Iran, that didn't come up?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, that did - that did not come up.

Q:  OK.

STAFF: Missy? 

Q:  Just to clarify, but presumably your message of emphasizing Iraqi sovereignty was designed to quell any concerns they have about that, right?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well that - that message was really to anchor back to reinforcing why we're there. As you're all probably aware, there's activity in their legislature that it is - that discussions have been - should they restrict the number of U.S. forces in Iraq?

And I wanted to make clear to him that we recognize our role.  We understand that we're there by invitation, that we jointly share the resources and that we clearly recognize their sovereignty and our - this was - this was a message I shared.

It was security stability is fundamental to economic growth.  And in his position in the country, economic growth is so important.  And from a political standpoint - and really creating that political stability, which is so important, we really talked about that economic security.

We talked about his view of ISIS or Daesh.  We talked about how we can generate more capacity and capability for the Iraqi Security Forces, and in his view, the success that's been realized over time.

Q:  OK.

STAFF: Sylvie?


Q:  You - you mentioned the potential to - to establish an observer force.  What kind of force will be - would belong to it?  What would we belong to it and where would it be deployed?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  There have been a number of discussions prior to today about how, once the United States departs Syria, could we ensure stability and security?  You know, what would be the - the mix of resources?

Who would lead those efforts?  And clearly, the coalition, with its resources and capabilities, is an option.  It is one that we're pursuing and it - at this stage, it's - it's still being discussed, so I really want to hold from talking about numbers.

But one of - one of the reasons I wanted to meet with General LaCamera is to get in his mind- what are the right levels of support?  What is the right mix of skill?  You know, roughly where might they be placed?  

And those were the conversations that - that we had and they'll help me in my discussions here at the - at the NATO Conference.

Q:  And do you think you have support from the allies about this initiative?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  It'll be part of the conversations I have with them.

STAFF:  Idrees.

Q:  Just to clarify in northeast Syria where the de-escalation zone or deconfliction zone that's been talked about, so we're monitoring for that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Correct.

Q:  OK.

Q:  At the - at the Turkish border, so you - it will be at the Turkish border?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, it would be northeast - let's - let's just say northeast Syria.

Q:  And so you obviously spoke with the military commander there, as well.  In those conversations, did you talk about how best to reposition assets from Syria and whether they may counteract?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We - we talked deliberately about how they would move out of Syria, but we didn't talk about where they would be staged permanently.

Q:  Did you get that after talking to him the timeline should be extended or shortened or anything like that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We're on schedule to our commitment.

STAFF:  Cami?

Q:  Back to Afghanistan, if you'd please.  


Q:  You mentioned General Miller's change in his needs.  Can you tell us first of all what those needs are and how they're changing?  And can we expect to see a sort of change or modification at the strategy based on what he's doing on the ground and what you heard from him?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  First of all, I don't - in terms of a change to the strategy, there's really no fundamental change to the strategy.  What General Miller brings is a wealth of experience and his expertise, you could literally feel it in the meetings I had, is an acceleration of that capability development.

And I'm sure you saw in the visit to Camp Morehead the tremendous assets that are there.  What I believe General Miller, in close coordination with his counterparts - I think they're going to generate in the near term considerably more capacity.

So when you think about the command force, the Afghan commando force, that capacity that we have - and I won't provide a number, but it'll be considerably higher, given the work that they're doing.  And that's why I think of it as a real opportunity, because the work the commando force, the special forces is providing is really driving this negotiating opportunity.

Q:  Well in terms of - of resources and - and U.S. troops and the things that the U.S. provides, can we expect to see that shifting as the peace talks show some results or don't?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  The peace talks offer the opportunity to change the composition of our - the composition of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  That's the opportunity that rests - and that's why we're working so closely with that - Ambassador Khalilzad.

STAFF:  And Tara, you have the last quesiton.

Q:  Thanks, I have one follow up on Idrees’ question that I'm ... 


... on - on a follow up to Syria.  So is Iraq at this point not an option anymore for relocating U.S. forces that are in Syria, and if that's the case, are you talking to other regional partners about potentially moving U.S. forces there instead?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Can you ask that question maybe a little differently? I mean, I generally understand your - your question.  The - more broadly, are there other places that we could go?  There always are more - other places we can go.

I think - maybe try that one again and then I'll - yeah.

Q:  Sure.  I'm just trying to get a read on, did you come out of your meetings today thinking that - or with an understanding that Iraq is not an option to relocate the U.S. forces that are in Syria?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That did not at all come up in the discussion as to where we were going to relocate them to.  The nature of the conversation was progress, are we achieving the progress?  And part of what I wanted to - to really do - and - and this was the value of coming out and meeting with all of the leaders is to hear it from them.

How's it going in the MERV? And less talk to them about timetable.  Asking people with those kinds of missions to draw a line in the sand is challenging.  It's days - whether it's two days or four days, that's - that's immaterial as much as it is to have what you need to succeed and are you able to manage the risk properly?

Then more broadly, in terms of a coordinated disciplined withdrawal, are we on track to do that to the timelines that have been laid out?  And they assured me of that.  Beyond those discussions, in terms of - like the earlier comment, the permanent location of equipment and people, we didn't discuss that.

Q:  OK, and then my question sir, this is the first chance we've had to ask you about - the president seems very comfortable with your working relationship right now with U.S. Acting Secretary.  Would you be willing to serve as an Acting Secretary in - for the long run?

I ask because today Senator Inhofe, at a Defense Writers Group breakfast, suggested that he wouldn't be supportive of a full nomination to - for you as a defense secretary.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'd be happy to serve the country in any capacity the president asks me to do.

STAFF:  Missy?

Q:  OK, just to - so I just have one on Afghanistan really quickly.  President Ghani or Abdullah bring up anything about concerns that - of - that the Afghan government might be excluded from the peace process or that the United States might offer concessions to the Taliban that would, you know, jeopardize Afghan security interests?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, the - no, the - the conversation was on the importance of the Afghan government in negotiations for the future of Afghanistan.  I mean, he shared with me the significant progress that's been made over the years and he really wants to make sure that those interests and those stakes are properly represented.

Q:  OK.

Q:  Just to - sorry, to follow up to Tara, sir.  But President Trump has said several times I'd like to have Cabinet members in acting capacity because I can be more flexible, because I can do things more quickly.

Can you just tell us your view on that?  Because it's an unusual statement to make publicly, that you don't want your Cabinet members to be confirmed so they can act at the full capacity - what's your response - your reaction to that?

STAFF:  He already answered that question, Missy.

Q:  No, it's a different question.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'm happy to answer the question.  The Department of Defense is an amazing institution, and whether it's ‘Acting’ next to your name or not, it's the same job.  I'll do the same - I'll do the job the same way.

It's a pleasure to serve in this role and like I said before, I serve at the pleasure of the president and I'll serve in any capacity he asks me to serve in.


STAFF:  So we've got - this is going to be the last question, (inaudible).

Q:  Just to clarify, are you saying that the safe zone slash buffer zone along the Turkish border could include U.S. troops as an enforcement mechanism?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I did not say that.

Q:  So it's more coalition?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That's what I said.


Q:  That's the option you were talking about as a coalition, non-U.S. ... 


SEC. SHANAHAN:  ... yeah, yeah, no, no, yeah that's an important distinction.  Yeah, thank you, thank you for pointing it out.  OK.