Defense Secretary speaks to reporters in Afghanistan

The video is no longer available, but the transcript is provided for historical purposes.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper holds a joint news conference in Afghanistan, October 21, 2019.

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Well, thank you all for being here today. It’s great to be here on my first visit to Afghanistan as Secretary of Defense. As some of you know, I’ve traveled here many times in the past and most recently in my previous job as Secretary of the Army. Over the past day and a half I’ve had the opportunity to meet with our Resolute Support troops and leaders, as well as our Afghan partners here in Kabul, and to get an update on the situation on the ground. From what I’ve heard and seen, we are making progress towards our common goal. That is, to ensure that we and our allies never again face terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. I’ve had a good meeting yesterday with President Ghani. We spoke about the important relationship between our two countries. The United States and Afghanistan have a strong security partnership built over many years of cooperation and shared sacrifice. That bond was forged in battle and it grows even stronger as our work continues today. I wanna thank Minister Khalid, and Minister Rabbani, for their time today; thank you, both. We had a very productive discussion about the developments we have seen in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, who have taken the lead for the security of Afghanistan. The United States remains committed to their success. Thanks also to General Miller, for his leadership of the Resolute Support mission, and the great work the coalition is doing to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. Earlier today I had the opportunity to visit Camp Morehead to meet with the NATO Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan and the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command. I was impressed by the skill and professionalism of those brave soldiers. Counter-terrorism operations remain critical to our efforts to achieving peace and ensuring terrorist organizations cannot find safe-haven in Afghanistan. I also want to commend the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces for their apolitical approach and their achievements in providing security to the recent presidential elections. This is an example of the important progress being made by the ANDSF to protect the Afghan people from the senseless violence of the Taliban and terrorist groups. Regardless of the outcome of the election, our security partnership with Afghanistan will remain strong. Our mission in Afghanistan has not changed. We continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations while supporting the development of the ANDSF. The United States remains fully committed to helping Afghans create a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan. And to supporting the Afghan’s efforts, led by the government, towards peace. A negotiated political settlement among Afghans is the best path to achieving this outcome. Until that is accomplished, we will continue to pursue an aggressive military campaign against the Taliban and terrorist groups that continue to conduct violence against the people of Afghanistan. Later this week I’ll travel to Brussels for the upcoming NATO Defense Ministerial. Afghanistan is on the agenda as one of our topics of discussion. I look forward to sharing with our allies what I’ve seen here, and expressing our continued support to this important mission. Thanks once again to our Afghan partners for hosting my visit. Together we remain committed to achieving peace in Afghanistan in a way that protects the achievements of the last 18 years, reinforces our shared security goals, and respects the integrity of the Afghan people. Thank you; Mr. Minister?

Thank you, Secretary Esper. And welcome to Kabul. Thank you for your continued help and support and thank you for your sacrifice in blood and treasure. Afghan people will never forget your help and support here in this war against terrorism. This will be the right time to thanks my brother in arms, General Miller and his team for supporting us in this fight against terrorism. Also, Afghan people are sacrificing lives every day, and we are in the front line of this fighting against global terrorism. And we are doing this fight to secure Afghanistan and all the world from terrorism. And I hope, and I am sure we will continue this friendship till the end; thank you for… for everything, what you are doing in the training and equipment of Afghan forces. We are dreaming for our children, as well, to have all of the possibilities which American child have for his future life. And I’m sure we will continue this friendship and working together forever. Still, that time we remember the bad incident of September 11th. We will continue this mission to save the world. And be sure, that Afghan forces and Afghan people will be with you in this mission. Thank you again, and welcome to my country.

Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for visiting Kabul, and also the media team. I was part of today’s discussion and also the President’s, Mr. President’s last night meeting. We talked about how the ANDSF has cooperated, collaborated, in planning for the election, and how successful the conduct of the election from a security point of view was. And how the Afghan Security Forces leadership that are emerging in the security sector has maintained high level of professionalism, and apolitical in this process, which helps. It gives the hope for the future for the Afghan people that the Afghan Security Forces are the custodians of our democracy and will pave the way for the future elections, as they have set the example in the current election. We also talked about the continuous need for reform within the security sector, and continue building capacity across the level, and positioning the security sector and the police to utilize the training, support, and equipments that are being provided for the last years, which will continue; we showed our different programs and initiatives within the security sector for fighting terrorism and fighting corruption within the security sector. And also providing equal opportunity for basic Afghan, a young generation and officers to come and take lead and continue the mission that we have in fighting terrorism and also fighting Taliban. So, it was a great opportunity for us to meet Mr. Secretary, and also an opportunity for us to convey our condolences for the families of the US men and women who sacrificed their lives here. And also express our thanks to General Miller on the great cooperation and collaboration that exists between the RS, Resolute Support, here in Kabul and the ANDSF. So, thank you very much.

Mr. Secretary, I’ll keep my remarks very short so we can go ahead and begin some questions. But I’d just like to welcome you and your team to Afghanistan; I think in the last day and a half we’ve covered quite a lot of ground, both in the political space and the security space. I’m happy to have both Minister Khalid, Mr. Rabbani here. I know it’s an opportunity for you to see the integration of the security pillars, which you’ve heard me say, I have not seen it as strong as it is today. Also, welcome Ambassador Bass, who’s in the audience for this particular event. That also highlights the cooperation between our US Embassy, all of Resolute Support, as well as the security team.

[Reporter] Mr. Secretary, can you tell us right now what role US troops are playing in Syria safeguarding the oil fields? And what is your opinion: Do you approve of this preliminary plan that would leave a couple hundred troops in Syria, in the Northeast, to both protect the oil fields and also to continue the fight against ISIS?

Well, let me just say that the troops, we have troops in towns in South, in Northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields. The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal; the present phase of withdrawal from Northeast Syria involves those troops up along the border, if you will, principally at the Kobani LZ at this point in time. That, as I said yesterday, this withdrawal will take weeks not days; until that time, our forces will remain in the towns that are located near the oil fields. The purpose of those forces, a purpose of those forces, working with the SDF, is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS and others who may benefit from their revenues that could be earned. I’ve made no decision with regard to various options. Those are things that we would have to present to the President in due course. Once those decisions are made, I’m sure you will be informed appropriately.

[Reporter] Mr. Secretary, if I could just follow up, in terms of the withdrawal, you said it’s gonna be weeks not days, but is there a percentage that’s already gone? We’ve seen, I think, probably like, some information about some troops moving into Iraq. So are we 10% there, 20% there? And then for General Miller and the Afghan Ministers, are you concerned the United States, and specifically Trump, could pull out of Afghanistan in the same way he did out of Syria, which is abruptly? Which caught quite a few allies by surprise.

Well, on the first thing, we track the withdrawal of both forces and equipment. I’m not gonna comment on numbers. Like I said, we have a ways to go, if you will; weeks not days, and we wanna be very deliberate. We wanna make sure the safety of our forces is top of the list, and then from there we’ll deal. We wanna be as efficient as possible. I am gonna take, answer briefly your second question, ’cause I’m not sure it’s completely fair to General Miller to comment. He can if he wants, but I will just say this much: The situations in Syria and Afghanistan are very, very different. The reason for our withdrawal from Northeast Syria was because of the imminent invasion, planned by the Turks, a long-standing NATO ally. My concern, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs concern, that our forces would be in harms way. And we did not want to put our forces in that situation. We also were faced with the situation again, where we might be faced with a potential conflict with a long-standing NATO ally. And as I’ve said in other contexts, we had no obligation, if you will, to defend the Kurds against a long-standing NATO ally. Contrast that with the situation in Afghanistan. We’ve been here since 2001. Since the heinous attacks against America as part of 9/11. And we have now a long-standing commitment to our Afghan partners. We’ve invested billions upon billions of dollars. Both the Afghan people and the American people have sacrificed treasure and the lives of their soldiers to defend this, you know, the Afghan government, the people, and really stand up for democracy in liberating this country and this land. And we are facing a vigilant terrorist threat that originated in the form of Al-Qaeda, and now finds itself in the Taliban and ISIS-K and other groups; so very different situations. Very different adversaries, if you will. A very different level of commitment. Very clear policy direction on one. So all these things, I think, should reassure our Afghan allies and others that they should not misinterpret our actions in the recent week or so with regard to Syria, and contrast that with Afghanistan.

[Reporter] Hi, first a question for you, Secretary Esper: The two Republican Senators indicated yesterday, or over the weekend that the President might support increased air presence in Northern Syria. You had indicated to us a couple of days ago that it might be only to provide air cover for US troops coming in from Iraq. Is that something under consideration? And for General Miller, if you do reduce troops down to the 8600 level, and as Secretary Esper said he believes and you believe that’s enough for counter-terrorism operations, what happens to the train and equip program? Is that the end of that?

So, on the first question, as I think I said before, we are maintaining a combat air patrol above all of our forces on the ground in Syria. And we’re also augmenting that with ISR capabilities, and we will maintain that because force protection remains our number one goal. We are allocating some ISR assets to monitor as best we can specific areas of the new safety zone, if you will, to do the best we can to monitor the cease fire. It’s difficult to do from the air. You’re often impeded by weather. You don’t get the precision of visibility that you need, but we’re trying to support that as well as best we can with the resources we have.

Very quickly, because it’s a public number. Just so you’re aware, as we work in Afghanistan with our partners, we’re always looking to optimize the force. Unbeknownst to the public, as part of our optimization, over the last year, at least 2000 we’ve reduced here; our authorized strength by 2000 here. So there’s a constant look as a military commander to optimize the force here. What it’s based on is, understand the risks to the force, risks to the mission, and look at it in terms of capabilities; and where I sit right now as I make my recommendations through my military chain of command, I’m confident that we have the right capabilities to one: Reach our objectives, as well as continue to train, advise, and assist throughout the country.

General Miller’s doing exactly what I’ve asked all of our commanders to do since I entered office two-plus months ago, and that is, the whole concept of reform. How do we free up time, money, and manpower to put it back into what our top National Defense Strategy objectives? So in this case, whether it’s this command, whether it’s SOUTHCOM, AFRICOM, CENTCOM, EUCOM, INDOPACOM, you name it, all the COMs, I’m looking, asking for them to look where they can free up time, money, and manpower to put into our top priorities as charted by the National Defense Strategy. China number one, Russia number two. The countering of violent extremist organizations is also part of that priority list. But I’m asking all of our commanders to make sure that we have sufficient troops on the ground to perform those tasks; not any more or not any less than what we need otherwise. Let me guess, I’m getting this question?

[Reporter] Secretary Esper, I wonder if you could clarify just a couple things you’ve said so far. You’ve talked about troops that might be, are stationed near oil fields, to make sure that they can stay out of ISIS hands; to be clear, is there a plan or discussion of keeping a residual force in the several hundreds in any part of Eastern Syria? Have you spoken to the President about it? Have you been asked to draft any new plans for it? And if so, could you give us a sense in terms of what the scope of that mission would be beyond defending oil fields? And then I had one follow up.

Well, like I said, we presently have troops in a couple cities that are located right near that area. The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own maligned activities. There has been a discussion about possibly doing it. There’s been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that. My job, the military’s job is to prepare options, and then present them to the President, and then let him decide. But we think that’s always my job, is to give the President maneuver room to make policy decisions and policy choices that ensure that we meet the core objectives of our missions in that country. (reporter mumbles) Well, as I said, what I have, my job is to constantly, and the Pentagon is constantly planning. We plan for everything and anything. It’s to constantly present options to the President, to the Commander In Chief, about a number of things. One, I’d spoke previously, how do we maintain the counter-ISIS, the defeat-ISIS operation, if you will, in the wake of our withdrawal from Northeast Syria? That’s number one. What are the options, if you will, to augment the defense of Iraq as necessary? And number three, what are the options that we could present to the President if we want to continue to deny oil revenues to ISIS and others? So those are the options we are constantly thinking about, and that we will present in due course to the President and the other members of the National Security team.

[Reporter] To be explicitly clear, you have presented that option? No?

I have not presented that option yet.

Okay, okay. It’s simply been discussed, is that right? The other thing that you talked about is that the US doesn’t have an obligation to defend Kurds from threats from a NATO ally, but at the same time you’ve also talked about the importance of maintaining a relationship with the Kurds in the counter-ISIS fight. As you know, there’ve been reports today of Kurdish fighters and family members throwing rocks at US troops as they were leaving.

Yeah, no I have not heard that.

[Reporter] Okay, but broadly speaking, I wonder how you reconcile this call to work with Kurdish partners and at the same time, by certainly some measure within those Kurdish partners, a sense of abandonment from them. How do you reconcile that, on one hand saying we’re not here to defend them and on the other hand we wanna continue working with them?

We need to stay focused and remind ourselves the reason why we went into, we partnered with the SDF. It was a partnership of mutual benefit. And that is, each of us had the goal of eliminating ISIS. As of March 19, I guess that’s the date, we had destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS at that point in time. That met the Kurds’ ends and that met our ends. I think we recognized, of course I wasn’t in office at the time, that anything beyond that regarded a broader political framework. This quickly accelerated to my coming into office in late July, faced with at that time, what were the growing threats by Turkey of an invasion of Northern Syria, to specifically remove the Kurds from, in this case the SDF, from the border region. Again, that’s where this really picked up pace. You all know the rest of the story by now. And my point only has been, and the Chairman has made this point as well, is you have to go back to what our mission was. Our mission was to work by, with, and for the SDF to defeat ISIS; we believe we defeated the physical caliphate of ISIS in March. But nowhere in there was that we would fight a long-standing NATO ally in defense of the Kurds to enable the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state. Which is the aim of many Kurds. I just draw those distinctions. I’ll just leave it at that. Again, I wanna thank our Afghan partners for hosting me this past day and a half. And for President Ghani. We had, again, a very good visit. I’m encouraged by what I see on the ground, by the partnership between our forces. Again, we remain committed to the mission, the mission of ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a safe-haven for terrorists to attack the United States and its allies. So, thank you all, once again. (murmuring)

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