Transcript

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Esper and General Milley in the Pentagon Briefing Room

March 2, 2020
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Okay, well, good morning, everyone.

As you know, we have a busy week here at the Pentagon. DOD leadership will be testifying in 20 hearings before Congress in the coming days as we continue to brief the Hill on the department's F.Y. '21 budget request.

As you know, I was in Afghanistan on Saturday with President Ghani and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, where we announced a joint declaration on bringing peace to Afghanistan, which reaffirms the United States' partnership with the government of Afghanistan.

This was an important first step toward a political solution to end the war in Afghanistan. As I reiterated to our Afghan partners, this is a conditions-based agreement, a conditions-based agreement. We're watching the Taliban's actions closely to assess whether they are upholding their commitments.

I also had the opportunity to address our troops and coalition forces while I was in Kabul, and speak with MSO-VSO groups while en route back to the United States.

We must not forget that this agreement was enabled by the tremendous sacrifices our service men and women have made over the past 18-plus years. They continue to do great work, supporting the Afghan Security Forces and taking terrorists off the battlefield whenever they emerge.

My message to the coalition was to stay vigilant because we still have a long and difficult mission ahead of us.

Before I close, I'd also like to provide a brief update on what DOD is doing to address the coronavirus. For the past six weeks, we've had a daily working group meeting at the general officer level, including the Joint Staff, the services, the combatant commands and OSD. As a result, we've issued a variety of memorandums and directives, advising the force on how to deal with coronavirus.

At the end of last week, I did a deep dive with DOD civilian and military leadership, including all the service secretaries, the COCOM commanders, to ensure the entire department is equipped for all scenarios: short and long-term, domestic and international.

Commanders of individually affected geographic commands have all the authority they need and we'll provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve. Meanwhile, NORTHCOM remains the global integrator for all of DOD efforts and entities.

My number one priority remains to protect our forces and their families; second, to safeguard our mission capabilities; and, third, to support the interagency whole-of-government approach.

We will continue to take all necessary precautions to ensure that our people are safe and able to continue their very important mission. With that, I'll turn it over to Chairman Milley.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary.

And good morning to everyone. First, I want to say that as a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan, a former commander of IJC, I fully support the agreement that we signed over the weekend. And I know I speak for those of us in uniform.

A negotiated political settlement is the only responsible way to end the war in Afghanistan, and this was an important step. This agreement would not have been possible without the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines that have served and sacrificed over the last 18 years.

We owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude to America's sons and daughters, who made the ultimate sacrifice; and their families, who have given their all to this nation.

And this not only includes the military, but also the dedicated men and women of the State Department and the intelligence community, as well as our allies and partners from over 40 nations.

This agreement, as the secretary said, is conditions-based and the best opportunity to end the war is now. Protect U.S. national security interests is foremost in this agreement, and it provides the best hope for a peaceful future for the people of Afghanistan.

I would also like to highlight the potential impact of coronavirus and echo what the secretary just said on our military force and on our operations and preparations.

The Department of Defense, under the secretary's direction, has standing plans to respond to the infectious disease outbreaks and we're executing those plans at our bases and operating locations around the world in order to, one, protect the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families, to sustain our ability to continue to defend the United States and execute successfully the National Defense Strategy, and to support the whole-of-government response to the outbreak.

We're communicating regularly with our operational commanders to assess how the virus might impact our exercises and ongoing operations around the world to include our readiness, including those of our allies and partners as well. The U.S. armed forces remains ready to defend the homeland and provide support to the interagency partners that are currently leading this effort.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions.

STAFF: Lita, Associated Press.

Q: Hi. Mr. Secretary, there's already been some violence -- violent attacks on -- particularly up around Khost today. Is there now an opening for the Taliban to conduct any violence for the next, you know, several days, until whenever an agreement is reached?

Are -- is the group able to conduct attacks now against either Afghan or to the U.S.?

And, General, can you just address the U.S. CT efforts from now on?

Will the U.S. continue to conduct CT, particularly against other groups?

And does this idea of, now, new attacks against potentially Afghan forces restrict the U.S. ability to train with the Afghans?

SEC. ESPER: So I'll take the first question. Our expectation is that a reduced level of violence would occur, and it would decrease over time, as we move forward. As we see these things happen, first of all, we have to -- we have to verify that an action, an attack, happened. And then we have to figure out attribution. And we work our way through this, you know, day after day.

So this is going to be a step-by-step process. And we'll evaluate each day. And I'm confident in General Miller's capabilities on the ground to do that and to give us good feedback as with regard to the implementation of the base agreement.

GEN. MILLEY: So, two things, Lita. One is the Taliban's not a monolithic group. There's multiple terrorist organizations operating over there. So we don't know -- I know the attack you're talking about, got some initial reports on it. We don't know exactly who did that yet. That's the first point.

Secondly, I would caution everybody to -- to think that there's going to be an absolute cessation of violence in Afghanistan; that is probably not going to happen. It's probably not going to go to zero.

So this -- this is a significant step forward, this agreement, and it's going to lead to inter-Afghan dialogue and it ultimately leads to a peace agreement. But to think that it's going to go to zero immediately, that probably is not going to be the case.

So on the CT piece, the United States will stay committed to secure our national security interests. And that has been the commitment of this administration and previous administrations.

So we'll maintain whatever capability is necessary to defend the United States against terrorists.

SEC. ESPER: And I'll -- just a quick follow-up, Lita, I spoke to this in Kabul on -- on Saturday. We still are going to conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS-K and other groups that are out there.

Q: Can you update us, either of you, on the draw-down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan? When will it begin? And can you give us a timeline?

There's been some reports of three-five months. Is that correct?

And then, the president also said, over the weekend, that he'll be meeting with the Taliban soon. Do you have any details of that, how that's going to happen? Can you share -- will you be present?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I have no details on it at this point. The State Department will be working that, with regard to your second question, Courtney.

On the first question, the agreement says that we would reduce down to 8,600 within 135 days, if I recall correctly. And that drawdown would begin in the first 10 days. But I -- you know, my instruction to the commander was let's get moving; let's show our full faith and effort to do that. As you know, I've said on many occasions that I'm comfortable we can still conduct all the missions we need to conduct at 8,600, so --

Q: So it has begun, then, the drawdown?

SEC. ESPER: I don't know if it actually has physically begun, but General Miller had my okay, my approval, to begin at his pace, certainly within 10 days, because the requirement said -- the agreement says that, within 10 days, it should begin.

Q: Could you be specific about the impact of coronavirus on ongoing military operations, and also what you're doing here in the United States to prevent the spread of the virus among the troops?

SEC. ESPER: Do you want to take that?

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, David, thanks.

Overseas, we have a variety of exercise operations ongoing. Right now, the overall broad impact to the uniformed U.S. military is very, very minimal. It's not to say it's zero, but it's very, very minimal. Very few cases have been diagnosed, et cetera.

That's not surprising, because we have a very young demographic in the U.S. military, healthy demographic. Lots of immunizations and so on and so forth. And we hope to keep it that way.

We have, however, modified some of the exercises on the Korean Peninsula. There was a CPX that was scheduled, and I think the Korea -- my counterpart in Korea, the Korean chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he requested that that be postponed. We're going to go ahead and do that.

We're taking a look at some other exercises to see if they need to be modified or changed. Right now, Cobra Gold in Thailand is on track, and that's ongoing. We have Defender in Europe, but that's kicked in. So we're looking at the exercises, but right now we don't see any significant negative impact on that.

Here in the United States, we are making all due preparations to protect our bases, camps, and stations, and also to act in support of Health and Human Services. So we've got lots of capabilities, medical capabilities, housing, and so on and so forth that if required and directed by the secretary of defense we'll do our part.

Q: And so, let me -- let me just follow up for a second. Some counties -- a lot of countries - are closing their borders. Is that having an impact on supply lines any place?

GEN. MILLEY: For us, no. Not in any significant way yet.

We're still able -- for example in Korea, the secretary directed some additional medical personnel sent over there, additional medical equipment and personal protective equipment, masks, gloves, gowns, those sorts of things. So we're doing all that.

In addition, our research labs -- our military research labs are working feverously around the -- around the horn here to try to come up with a vaccine, so we'll see how that develops over -- over the next couple months. There's a whole wide variety of things that we're doing, and we'll make available whatever assets and resources that we have that's necessary and direct it to do so.

Q: Two questions. Could you shed any further light on what the conditions will be for the 14-month withdrawal period -- proceeding with that?

And what happens if there's a delay to the start of the initial Afghan-to-Afghan talk? Because they're supposed to begin on March 10th, but now it appears that there's already a disconnect over the prisoner withdrawal and what has been agreed to vis-a-vis that. Would the initial drawdown to 8,600 be paused if the talks don't begin on or about March 10th? Thanks.

SEC. ESPER: Again, we'll take this one day at a time and sort through it. We're in, what, day two right now? Day two, hour 39. And we got to work our way through that.

Our commitment under the agreement was to enable to facilitate that exchange of persons between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. And as I've said over and over, it's all conditions-based. But we are going to show good faith and begin withdrawing our troops, and we can stop that at any moment. We can pause it based on, again, changing circumstances.

Q: Okay, and what is -- what are the conditions for the 14-month withdrawal period?

SEC. ESPER: Well, there's -- you'd have to go back to the base agreement if you -- I think you have access to that at this point. And you could read what we committed to do, but then there's what the Taliban committed to do, and then there's some other things in there. So what we'd want to do is make sure that we're -- that those are completely followed.

But what we'll do is we'll go to 8,600 and we're going to stop, and we'll assess the situation, not just tactically on the ground but also are all the parties living up to their obligations, their commitments? Are they acting in good faith and showing good effort?

And I don't want to get too far ahead of us at this point, but we're just going -- we'll go to that point and we'll assess the situation with all the particular players.

Q: General Milley, I wanted to come back to coronavirus. A couple of things you both mentioned.

I think you guys started up by saying that you were doing planning for all scenarios. So is it correct then you're aligned with civilian federal health authorities that include a planning scenario for the military facing a pandemic? Is that part of your planning scenario?

Did I understand you that military labs are also working on vaccine research?

And a lot of enlisted families, of course, don't have a lot of spare cash to stockpile supplies and all of that. And I'm just wondering if there's any thinking going on as this potentially goes on, whether there's some assistance being thought about. Spouses may not be able to take leave if they're sick, their children still may have to go to childcare. Is there any thinking about what might need to be ready to go to help enlisted families if they, who don't earn as much as others, may have issues with this?

But could you start by telling us if pandemic is in fact one of your planning scenarios, since you gentlemen said you were looking at everything?

GEN. MILLEY: Well, no surprise, the United States military looks at wide varieties of scenarios. We look at best-case, worse-case, and the middle-case, sort of thing. Pandemic is the worst case. And that has not been yet declared by -- to my knowledge, anyway -- by the World Health Organization. So just in terms of executing, no.

But yes, of course, we do -- we do all kinds of planning in the Department of Defense. And we -- we take inventory of all our resources, our stocks, and what tasks would have to be done. So the short answer is yes, of course we do that.

And with respect to the vaccine, yes, the military labs are in fact working, you know, very consistently. Not only on that vaccine, but all kinds of things. So the military labs have all kinds of capability to do that and working in direct support of the Health and Human Services to do that.

On your last point, Barbara, about the -- taking care of soldiers and families, it's the -- it's one of the top priorities of the secretary of defense, it's one of the top priorities of all of us in uniform, it's one of our solemn responsibilities to take care of our soldiers and families and we intend to do that.

And we'll provide whatever assistance is needed to them, to include time off and working with their employers, et cetera, if they're working with civilian employers; to include supplemental help if they're -- if they lack supplies, et cetera, in the home, if they have -- if they get infected, they have to be at home for, say, two or three weeks, something like that. So yes, we'll work with our families and troops.

STAFF: Phil Stewart.

Q: How many U.S. personnel, forces have been tested for -- for COVID-19? And could you give us a sense, when you said that laboratories are working on a vaccine, which laboratories? And are they working in conjunction with private industry as well, are they just working on their own and hoping for the best?

SEC. ESPER: On the testing, we'd have to get you -- go offline and get you separate numbers. You know, obviously, we're doing testing in Korea, for an example, given that -- given the numbers there. And with regard to labs, Fort Detrick, for example, was involved in -- in terms of working with the interagency to help provide -- given their expertise and their capabilities.

Q: And then just a quick follow-on, you said that there have been no impact on exercises, Cobra Gold is going on. Is there any special screening for folks from other member nations in Cobra Gold? And you know, what about folks at Aviano, is there any kind of special precautions being taken to isolate them from the outbreak in northern Italy?

SEC. ESPER: Commanders are taking all necessary precautions because this is unique to every situation and every location. So we've sent out, as I said, memorandums and directives. The commanders have the information they need, and we're relying on them to make good judgments.

And as we tease out other issues such as was raised, that come up through the services, we -- we will continue to deal with those. I have a -- we have another meeting at the end of this week with all the service secretaries and combatant commanders on that.

Chairman --

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MILLEY: And there's -- there's three specific things. Access to bases being restricted in certain locations, such as Northern Italy and in South Korea as an example; secondly is travel restrictions. So the soldiers that are on these bases or airmen that are on these bases are being restricted in terms of their travel inside the AOR, inside the community. In Central Command, EUCOM and in INDOPACOM. So, the travel restriction piece.

And then a last -- last piece is with -- with respect to the protective gear that's -- and test kits that are being distributed, we are pushing some of that forward with the priority of distribution going to the peninsula in Korea.

STAFF: Jennifer.

Q: Secretary Esper, what will the U.S. do if Turkey invokes Article 5 in Syria?

And, General Milley, were Russian pilots or warplanes involved in killing those Turkish troops on the ground in Syria?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to speculate on Article 5 at this point in time. Turkey's -- Turkey obviously is engaged in -- in combat operations over there, and we'll take it one step at a time. I had a brief conversation with Secretary General Stoltenberg with regard to this matter. And like I said, as an alliance, we take this one step at a time so that we are -- we're prepared for what may happen.

GEN. MILLEY: We don't have clear unambiguous intelligence on exactly who was flying what planes, point one. Point two is I personally called my counterparts in Turkey and in Russia and urged de-escalation as rapidly as possible.

Q: Should they open the border between Turkey and close it to Greece?

SEC. ESPER: That's a -- that's a political question, if you will. It's --

Q: What are you calling on Turkey to do?

GEN. MILLEY: With respect to whom?

Q: With regards -- with regards to the border with Syria and the displaced people, nearly 900,000, who want to cross into safety. Do you think that they should open their border to that and do you think they should close their border and stop pushing immigrants --

SEC. ESPER: Turkey's going to make that decision. My conversation with the defense minister last week was to -- was to share with him our support for Turkey as a -- as a NATO ally and member. And -- and to point out the simple fact that Russians aren't always good partners.

And so -- and so that was the extent of my conversation with him. Obviously, at the political level, they need to decide what they're going to do with regard to their borders. That involves the E.U. and their neighbor countries, and they've got to work their way through that with them.

STAFF: One more question. Tara.

Q: Thank you.

SEC. ESPER: I should -- I should add that the United States is looking at providing increased humanitarian aid for the -- for the persons in Syria, that's one thing I had a conversation with secretary of state about that.

Q: And air support?

SEC. ESPER: No.

Q: Thank you.

Also on coronavirus, there may be a cluster, it seems, in the Pacific Northwest. Are soldiers at, say, Joint Base Lewis-McChord or Kitsap, are you doing any additional precautions there to test and maybe test to see if there's any exposure there?

And then secondly for base supplies like the commissaries, what sort of preparations are being made to make sure that those remain stocked?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I'll take the first stab at it and just say, look, we're relying again on local commanders to make decisions that are unique to their situation because it's -- each one is different. With regard to the impact on the community, their resources, their stocks and all that. And what I'm prepared to do is resource them as need be, so we've put out the call. You know, do you -- what authorities do you need, what resources.

How can I surge the -- you know, whether it's DLA or other parts of the -- the medical community within OSD, is to provide the commanders the support they need in order to do those -- those three things: number one, protect our service members and their families; number two, ensure that we're -- our mission is safeguarded, that we can conduct our missions; and number three, support the interagency for the whole-of-government approach.

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, and the commander at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, they have shut down some large widely attended gatherings, for example, places where you get large numbers of people all co-located. But other than that, they -- they haven't had any outbreaks so far. And he's taking appropriate mitigation measures.

But I think we're in reasonably decent shape, even though there's a concentration of it up there at JBLM.

STAFF: Thanks, guys, we have to --

Q: Can I get -- when you said -- just real quickly, a clarification -- when you said that there were changes with coronavirus, is that why they're -- there was a port stop missed and skipped by the USS Eisenhower in Italy?

And then if I can get a clarification from you on -- on Lita's question, if I may. You had said that there were going to be reductions in violence that would continue to reduce. But a Taliban spokesman today just said the reduction in violence has ended now, our operations will continue as normal and the mujahedeen will not attack foreign forces but will continue attacks on Kabul administration forces. Is this at all what you, the U.S., agreed to militarily, if you could just expand upon -- 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: Again, our expectation is that the reduction in violence will continue, it would taper off until we got intra-Afghan negotiations, where it would ultimately consummate in a cease-fire, if you will.

So, again, day two, we've got to -- we'll deal with the issue; we'll make sure we understand attribution, the extent of the attack. And it's going to be a constant engagement.

This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs and we'll stop and start. That's going to be the nature of this over the next days, weeks and months. And so I'm not going to get too excited about what happens at the moment. We're just going to deal with each situation as it arises and make sure we stay focused on the mission.

The mission here, again, number one, is to make sure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to attack this country, and we've been very successful for the past 18 years for doing that; and then, number two, support our Afghan partners in the process; and then, number three, again, as we can, bring our troops home, withdraw our presence in that country.

But that's -- that's our commitment. That's what we intend to do. And we're going to stay focused on that. Because, at the end of the day, the best path, if not the only path, forward, is through a political agreement between the warring parties.

Q: So what the spokesman said is not what we -- is not what the U.S. --

SEC. ESPER: I don't know. You're quoting me something I haven't seen or heard or read. I don't know who the person is. I don't know exactly what they're saying. So --

Q: Mujahid, the main Taliban spokesman.

GEN. MILLEY: That’s one of the examples, yeah.

(CROSSTALK)