Transcript

Senior Defense Officials Provide Background Briefing on Afghanistan and Iraq Troop Reductions

Nov. 17, 2020
Three Senior Defense Officials

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Hey, everybody. It's -- it's SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1 here. I have with me SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 3 and SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2. We're going to go through and -- and -- and SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2 is going to give some brief remarks here. 

Once again, this is on background to "senior defense official," embargoed until the conclusion of the acting secretary's remarks, which as you're all aware of, start at 14:00, following this. We will leave the line open for you guys to -- to do that, if you’re coming into the building or will be in the building for it. Seating is -- is somewhat limited, but we'll be able to get some time to transition to that.

So we have -- right now, I think we -- we have about 50-60 reporters on. I'll call the questions afterwards. I'm assuming we may want to open it to as many questions as we can, but obviously, we're a little tight on time here, so I apologize, but we do want to give you guys a chance to ask questions.

So with that, I will turn it over to SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Thanks. Thanks very much. I appreciate you -- you, SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1, and your team's efforts here. And thanks to everybody for taking the time to focus on this incredibly important policy matter and national security matter on behalf of Secretary Miller and obviously, the President.

So, as you guys have been hearing rumblings, we are going to be announcing a decision at 14:00 today that will be consistent with the President's publicly-announced engagements regarding this matter, going back to multiple years, but most recently, in June where he publicly announced that based on his continuous interaction with his national security cabinet and his military officials, that should certain conditions be satisfied and the safety and security of America not be threatened, then the president has been very focused and public about withdrawing some troops out of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

And so if we fast-forward over to you today, over the last week, 10 days, since Secretary Miller and I have been in the office, we would say our internal transition here has been exceptionally well-received because of the senior staff that have been working here, along with all the military officials. And so we are continued on the trajectory laid out by the president and his national security cabinet. We've engaged with him directly at the White House since coming on to the seat. And so we are making an announcement that's consistent with his promise to the American people, and also, most importantly, that comes at the recommendation of the senior-most military officials based on the security interests both in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now that the President has arrived at a decision, the secretary will announce that decision, and we'll go from there. Over.

And so for clarity, and as SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1 said, on embargo until the secretary is done with his comments. So the decision that the secretary will announce is that in Afghanistan, we will reduce our troops to 2,500 by 15 January, 2021. And the second announcement is that we will go down to 2,500 troops in Iraq, also by 15 January, 2021.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: OK. All right, so we'll stop there, and we'll go to the phone for questions. So first, Bob Burns, A.P.

Q: Oh, thank you. This is Bob. SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2, you said this is based on recommendations from senior military officials, and so are you saying that these reductions were recommended by General Miller and/or General McKenzie and/or General Milley? And also, what necessary conditions have been satisfied that you said the president would require?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Thank you. So I'm not going to get into specifics as to which senior military officials have conferred with the President and the secretary of defense and national security advisor and Secretary Pompeo and others. Needless to say, we have a national command authority. That has not been ruptured since the transition internally. The secretary of defense has continued to engage with all of his combatant commanders, including the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President, the White House and other officials. And this was a collaborative decision that the president made based upon guidance from all these commanders both in the field, here in Washington, and career officials both at the White House and here at the Pentagon. Over.

Q: What about the conditions on the ground? You said that they've been satisfied. How so?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: So the conditions-based portion of this is a determination made similarly by those individuals we just generally talked about that, first and foremost, is the national security of America threatened by this maneuver, by this decision, and we do not feel that it is. And second, can we maintain a force posture in Afghanistan that permits us to carry out our mission with our allies and partners whom we've all talked to over the last week and this morning, and the answer to that is affirmatively, yes, we can. So those two questions being answered, those were underlied by the specific conditions, which I'm not going to get into, but the professionals both in the military and civilian service have agreed that this is the right move, and they've recommended that to the President, and the President has made his decision.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: All right, Bob, thank you. We'll go over to Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q: Yes, thank you. The fact is that al Qaeda – the Taliban hasn't broken clearly with al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda still has a presence in Afghanistan, but you're still reducing the number of troops. I guess, how do you square that? And then also, will the remaining U.S. troops will be allowed to carry out air strikes in defense of Afghan forces? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Sure. So as far as al Qaeda being in Afghanistan, al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for decades, and the reality is we'd be fools to say they're going to leave tomorrow. What has to happen in Afghanistan, and the President's been very clear on this, as have other members of his national security cabinet, the solution in Afghanistan is to broker a power-sharing or some form of agreement whereby the two, the Taliban and the Afghan people, can live side-by-side in peace. One is not going to militarily defeat the other, nor are we going to engage in a decades-long war to that end, which we will not meet. So we feel this is the best decision to drive towards the peace agreement that we've been working on, and so we think that this supports that and those efforts. 

And as to your second question, in terms of specific capabilities, I won't get into, but the military officials that we've engaged with in the national security cabinet believe that our capabilities will remain sufficient to achieve both of our goals, which is the protection of the American people and also the protection of the Afghan people and also to assist our allies and partners, who support this decision. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: All right, guys, we're going to keep moving along, try to get to as many people as we can. Phil Stewart, Reuters? 

Q: Real quick, I didn’t hear Somalia. Is there going to be an announcement on Somalia? And then on the issue of Afghanistan, what is the exact mission of the 2,500 troops that will remain there? Will it be strictly counterterrorism? Thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: So Phil, this is SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1. We have no announcement on Somalia. We have announcements today on Iraq and Afghanistan. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Thanks. And as it relates to, again, you're asking for the specifics of the mission. The dynamics of the mission have not changed. The military officials and the president's national security cabinet believe that the number of troops that we will go to by 15 January, 2,500, can accomplish everything we have been doing, so there's no need to keep the force posture at over 4,000, where it currently stands. 

So there was no elimination of capabilities. And on top of that, should there be a fracturing event or a dynamic situation in Afghanistan, both the secretary of defense and the president feel that we are well postured to augment our posture in Afghanistan, should it need be done. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: We'll keep moving. Jennifer Griffin, Fox News? 

Q: Thank you, SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1. 

My question is, are the talks with the Taliban over and why not go to zero in Afghanistan? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: The talks with the Taliban was made, I think, public last week are still very much ongoing. Meetings in Doha, meetings in-country by our military officials including General Scotty Miller and others, so that has not changed and we don't believe the trajectory of that will change. That is our goal, is the peace deal. 

And I think the second part of your question is why not go to, did you say, zero? 

Q: Yes. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: At this point, we are not going to zero because we are continuing on the president's approach, which he announced in June, which is to reduce troops to the number necessary to carry out the mission. And the generals and the civilian professionals believe that 2,500 is the best number. The president agrees and executed that decision. 

STAFF: All right, Dan Lamothe, Washington Post? 

Q: Thank you, SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1. 

We've reported that Secretary Esper, before he departed, submitted a memo recommending against additional cuts. That was citing senior military officials at the time. Can you explain the difference, how we got from point A to point B? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: We're not going to comment on any memo which you may or may not have in your possession for obvious reasons. 

Q: As you're casting this as a recommendation from generals, it just seemed like there’s a contradiction there. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: There is no contradiction with the president and his national security cabinet. There is no contradiction with the president and the secretary of defense, and the decision was made in consultation with him along with the vice president and his senior-most military advisors in the region and here in Washington. 

So as for the current state of play, there is no contradiction and we will have no comment on whatever memo you may or may not have. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: All right, thanks, Dan. 

We'll keep moving along, Luis Martinez? 

Q: Thank you again for this briefing. When were these options presented to the President and when did Acting Secretary Miller, when was he briefed on them and when did he decide that this was the course of action based on what the recommendation had been from the military? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: So in terms of when the president and others were briefed on this, as I said earlier, this has been a continuing iterative process. There wasn't a day yesterday or the week before that we just woke up and said this is what we're going to do. 

The President announced in June a reduction of troops, and then he also, at that time, said we would do a further troop reduction, should his national security official cabinet determine that we have achieved a certain position for safety and security of the American people and the Afghan people. So that's the trajectory we've been on, nothing has changed, the president issued his decision. 

In terms of Secretary Miller's position, as you know, his background as former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and before that as a deputy assistant secretary of defense here at the Pentagon, he has been well versed in following matters in Afghanistan involving both the war and the counterterrorism efforts. 

So he was obviously briefed by all the relevant officials and commanding generals when he assumed the post here, but that was again a continuation of his deep background on the matter, and he and the President and others had extensive conversations coming in before making this decision. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: All right, we’ll keep – keep moving along. Kasim Ilari? 

Q: Thank you very much for this. I was wondering, has the White House officially sent a guidance or notification for the withdrawal or not? And when did it arrive? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Kassim, do you mean military guidance within the U.S. government or outside of the U.S. government? 

Q: Within the military, U.S. military. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Ok, fair question. I'm not going to get into the internal dynamics of how that occurs, but the President made a decision through the normal course of the interagency process. That decision was communicated to the Department of Defense, and the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will execute that decision, as you'll see once we do the announcement at 14:00.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: OK, Aaron Mehta? 

Q: Going to defer to my fine colleagues, thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: OK. We'll keep going. Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal? 

Q: Thanks. I have two questions. You mentioned earlier that you talked to NATO allies, have any of them mentioned a proportionate drawdown of their forces? And if so, from what country? 

Also, what discussions have you had with the Afghan government? When were they informed of this decision? 

And can you give any guidance in terms of why, given the reduction in forces in Iraq, what effect if any that will have on Syria, what considerations remain for any possible drawdowns in Syria? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Thanks very much, I'll try to answer all those questions, I'll probably forget the last one by the time I get through them. 

So in terms of communications with allies and partners, since Secretary Miller has been in the seat, we have been reaching out on a daily basis to all of our allies and partners including NATO, General Stoltenberg, and our most important allies and partners in the region for Afghanistan, so that has been a continuous ongoing conversation.

I won't get into the details of that, but I will say that it was not a surprise to any of our allies or partners, this decision, and none of them tried to dissuade us from executing this decision. Rather, they were all supportive of how we can, in a collaborative effort, continue the mission that we have in Afghanistan, which I think leads us to believe we made the right choice because not a single one said otherwise. 

We also talked to many heads of state including both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we could not have been more warmly received when we had these discussions with both their leadership at the presidential and prime ministerial level. 

And I think you had one other question...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Nancy, you have another question? 

Q: I was just asking about Syria and whether there's any defense ministerials, and what effect the draw-downs in Iraq could have on operations in Syria.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: So as to the impact of the decision for the draw-down in Iraq in Syria, the military officials and the combatant commanders in the theater do not see a negative impact for our posture in Syria, and that was a large part of the decision-making process for us to go to that number, because if they felt otherwise, that it would negatively impact our efforts in Syria, we would not have drawn down to that number.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: OK. And just to follow up on the conversations with heads of state, o this morning, the acting secretary spent most of this morning today calling through some of our NATO allies, some of our Resolute Support mission partners and as SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2 mentioned, Iraq and Afghanistan governments. He additionally spent a good bit of time this morning calling through congressional partners, talking with House and Senate leadership, as well as committee leadership to -- to give them a heads-up on the decision, and to seek their input and feedback, as well. So that's been taking place today. We've been doing the contact and -- and doing the process that we normally do if we're making announcements like this.

All right, so we'll keep going. We'll try to get a couple more before we've got to drop off here. So we'll go to Paul Handley, AFP?

Q: Hi, yes. You said that if there's a fracturing event, the posture could be augmented. What do you see would be a fracturing event? That the Taliban would take advantage of this and step up violence? 

And secondly, in fact, the Defense Department IG has reported that the violence levels are up. So how can you say that conditions have actually been met for drawing down to 2,500?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: So thanks for the question. So notto get in front of either the President, the chairman or the secretary of defense. The Department of Defense is set up to respond globally to events based on the conditions on the ground. We will not set a baseline as to if this happens, we will do "Y". But we can commit to you and the American public that the President, through his national command authority, are well-postured in the region and around the world to react, should that become necessary. So we will take that as a case-by-case basis.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: And I'll take the second part. I believe you're asking about the SIGAR report. You know, I'm not going to characterize the findings of the SIGAR report, but would say that we've been clear that we would like to see reduced levels of violence in Afghanistan. We would like to see progress on the peace talks, and we're seeing that in both cases. But what we also see is it's not just the U.S. presence, the U.S. forces, that there are Afghan forces that are becoming more capable in the area. We've got partners there. So we're looking at this as a whole, not just as one piece of data that comes from one specific report.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: All right, we'll keep going. Go to Tara Copp from McClatchy.

Q: My question would be, who is actually going to come home? Do you have an idea of what units might be re-deploying to the U.S.?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: In terms of – I’m not sure I follow your question. When you say who is coming home, I mean, we're not going to get into the details of what soldiers are coming back, but do you mean something else by that?

Q: Yes. Can you give us any indication of, you know, when Fort Bragg troops were brought back from Syria earlier this year there was an announcement about that. Do you know what capabilities or units will be returning home in January?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Yes, I didn't understand the question. Sorry about that. Yes, we have worked through that with the chairman and the commanding generals in theater. Obviously, they are the professionals making the recommendations to get to this number and what types of troops and forces we need to reduce to. So those decisions have been calculated and made. And we will make those decisions, or execute those decisions here today on (inaudible).

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: But we're not going to announce which units today. And then just on the previous question, I think I said the SIGAR report. I meant the IG report, so just to clarify that.

We'll do one more question and then we've got to drop here. So we'll go to Tom Bowman.

Q: Yes, thanks for doing this. I think, SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2, you talked about how the President has been discussing this for years. So is this more keeping a campaign pledge rather than an action that furthers American security interests?

And also as far as the conditions, Frank McKenzie, who heads CENTCOM, just a few days ago said, quote, "The sheer volume of Taliban-initiated attacks against the people of Afghanistan are not indicative of an organization that is serious about peace." He said, "It's less clear to me they're committed to denying Al Qaida a presence in Afghanistan."

So again, it's curious you mentioned, conditions being met, but clearly the biggest ones are not being met.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: As to your first question on whether or not this is to fulfill a campaign promise, I'd refer you to the White House. You know, we over here are in the civilian chain of command running the Department of Defense. And the secretary of Defense will execute the president's decisions no matter what they are. So we’ve heard the decision and you now have full details on the background as to why that happened.

As to the second part of your question with General McKenzie, General McKenzie's statement in the theater is accurate, as he is our combatant general in the theater. But it is one piece of the formula; it is not to say just because there is an increase in violence that other conditions have not been met.

We've had these conversations, not just with General McKenzie but with General Miller, and with Chairman Milley, and the secretary of Defense, along with dozens of other military officials and national security officials here in the Washington, D.C. area obviously. So there is no one singular point of fact which makes conditions have been met or not met.

Q: So what are the other conditions?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: The other conditions are not matters we are going to publicly engage with except to say that the conditions, plural, have been discussed and met. And the decision has been made by the president at the advice of his national security cabinet that such matters have been addressed thoroughly.

Q: So you can't tell the American people what those conditions are that have been met?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: We can tell you that the conditions that have been met are what we've been saying the entire time, that with 2,500 troops in Afghanistan we can protect the American people, we can protect the Afghan people.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: No, I'm talking about the conditions that have been met by the Taliban.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Pardon me, I'm still talking.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Tom, you asked the question three times. SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2 is going to answer it, so if you can just hold off, SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2 will finish his answer and then we're going to move on.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: And the decision to bring troops home was made at the direction of the President because the two greatest concerns, about the protection of the American people and our interests, and the protection of the Afghan people, have been met, based upon the recommendations of the commanding generals in the theater and national security officials here. And the biggest goal and the only solution to Afghanistan is a peace-negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And this takes us one step closer to that…

Q: But again, you can't mention the conditions?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Hey, Tom, I think he mentioned the two conditions that have been met that were the ones that were taken into consideration and on which the decision was based. And that is that there's no national security threat and that we can continue with the operations on the ground that are necessary to maintain that posture. So he's mentioned both of those multiple times.

Q: No, but do you understand my question? My question is the Taliban were supposed to abide by certain conditions which they have not.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Tom, I -- I got it --

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: -- Tom? Tom? Okay, we've got to drop off right now.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: We've got to drop off. We'll talk to everybody in about six minutes.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: Thank you guys.