SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: So 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 my 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 are our allies never again face terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.
I 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 want to thank Minister Khalid and Minister Andarabi 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.
Counterterrorism operations have remained 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 counterterrorism 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 Afghans’ 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.
DEFENSE MINISTER ASADULLAH KHALID: 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 in this war against terrorism. This will be the right time to thank 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’m sure — we will continue this friendship (inaudible) and thank you for your — for everything that you are doing in the training and equipment of Afghan forces.
We are dreaming, for our children as well, to have all of the (inaudible) that the American child have and — for his future life. And I’m sure we will continue this friendship and working together forever.
(Inaudible) that time, we remember the bad incident of September 11th. We will continue this mission to save the world. And be sure the Afghan forces and the Afghan people will be with you in this mission. Thank you again, and welcome to my country.
INTERIOR MINISTER MASSOUD ANDARABI: 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 NDSF 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 give 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 continuous to — continue building capacity across the level, and positioning the security sector and the police to utilize the training, support and equipment that are being provided for the past years, which will continue.
And we showed our different programs and initiatives within the security sector for fighting terrorism and providing — fighting corruption within the security sector, and also providing equal opportunity for the best of Afghan — the 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 U.S. 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 R.S. — Resolute Support here in Kabul, and the NDSF. So thank you very much.
GENERAL AUSTIN SCOTT MILLER: 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 from the political space and the security space.
I’m happy to have both Minister Khalid and Minister Andarabi here. And I know it’s an opportunity for you to see the integration of the security (inaudible), which you’ve heard me say, I have not seen it as strong as it is today.
So welcome, Ambassador Bass, who’s in the audience for this particular event. But that also highlights the cooperation between our U.S. embassy, all of Resolute Support as well as the security team. Thank you.
STAFF: (Inaudible) we’ll take questions. We’ll begin with Lita from the Associated Press.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can you tell us right now what role U.S. 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 their fight against ISIS?
SEC. ESPER: 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.
So that, as I said yesterday, this withdraw 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 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, and we’ll — once those decisions are made, I’m sure you will be informed appropriately.
STAFF: Idrees Ali from Reuters?
Q: Mr. Secretary, if I could just follow up — in terms of the withdrawal, I know you said it’s going to be weeks, not days. But is there a percentage that’s already gone? We’ve seen, I think, public source information about some troops moving into Iraq. So are we 10 percent there or 20 percent there?
And then for General Miller and the Afghan ministers, are you concerned the United States and specifically Trump could pull out from Afghanistan in the same way he did out of Syria, which is, abruptly, which caught quite a few of the allies by surprise?
SEC. ESPER: Well, on the first thing, we track the withdrawal of forces and equipment. I’m not going to comment on numbers. Like I said, we have a ways to go, if you will. Weeks, not days. And we want to be very deliberate. We want to make sure that the safety of our forces is — is top of the list. And then from there, we’ll deal — we want to be as efficient as possible.
I am going to take — answer briefly your second question, because I’m not sure it’s completely fair to General Miller to comment. He can if he wants, but I’ll 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 longstanding NATO ally. And my concern and the chairman and the joint chiefs’ concern that our forces would be in harm’s way. And we did not want to put our forces in that situation.
We also were faced with a situation, again, where we might be faced with a potential conflict with a longstanding NATO ally. And — and as I’ve said in other contexts, we had no obligation, if you will, to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally.
Now, 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 longstanding 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, this — the Afghan government, the people, and really stand up for democracy and liberty in this country, in this land.
And we are facing a virulent terrorist threat that originated in the form of al-Qaida, and now finds itself in the Taliban and ISIS-K and other groups.
So, very different situations. Very different adversaries, if you will. Very different level of commitment. Very clear policy direction on one. And 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, with — and contrast that with Afghanistan.
Q: First, a question for you, Secretary Esper. That 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 protect — only to provide air cover for U.S. troops coming in from Iraq. Is that something under consideration?
And for General Miller, if you do reduce troops down to the 8,600 level and, as Secretary Esper said he believes – and you believe that’s enough for counterterrorism operations. What happens to the train and equip program? Is that the end of that?
SEC. ESPER: So on the first question, as I — 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 are also operating 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 — 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. It’s — you don’t get the precision or visibility that you need, but we’re trying to support that as well — as best we can with the resources we have.
GEN. MILLER: 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. And unbeknownst to the public, as part of our optimization over the last year, at least 2,000, we’ve reduced the — our authorized strength by 2,000 here.
So there’s a constant look as a military commander to optimize the force here, and what it’s based on is — understand the risks to the force, risks to the mission, and look at them in terms of capabilities. And where I sit right now is I make my recommendations through my military chain of command. I’m confident that we have the right capabilities to reach our objectives as well as continue to train, advise and assist throughout the country.
SEC. ESPER: And I’ll just foot-stomp that to say that General Miller is doing exactly what I’ve asked all of our commanders to do since I entered office two-plus months ago, and that is the — the whole concept of reform. How do we free up time, money and manpower to put it back into 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 chartered 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 — 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.
STAFF: (inaudible) getting this question.
Q: Secretary Esper, I wonder if you could clarify just a couple things you’ve said so far. You talked about troops that might be — are stationed near oil fields to make sure that they, you know, stay out of ISIS hands. To be clear, is there a plan or discussion of keeping a residual force, you know, several hundred in any part of eastern Syria? Have you spoken to the president about it? Have you been asked directly your plans for it? And if so, could you give us a sense in terms of whether the scope of that mission would be beyond oil — if any oil fields? And then I have a follow-up.
SEC. ESPER: Well, like I said, we presently have troops in a couple of cities where — that are located right near that area. The focus is to deny access, specifically revenue, to ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign 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 let him decide. But that — 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, you know, the core objectives of our missions in that country.
Q: Is there any discussion about keeping troops in northern Syria to protect oil fields? You’ve said there’ve been discussions about that.
SEC. ESPER: Well, as I said, my job is to constantly — and the Pentagon is constantly planning — we plan for everything and anything — is to constantly present options to the president, to the commander-in-chief about a number of things. One — I’d spoken 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 can present to the president if we want to continue to deny oil revenues to ISIS and others?
And so those are the options I — we are constantly thinking of, and that we will present in due course to the president and the other members of the national security team.
Q: But to be explicitly clear, you have presented that option?
SEC. ESPER: No.
SEC. ESPER: I have not presented that option yet.
Q: OK, OK. And it’s been discussed. It’s simply been discussed. Is that right?
SEC. ESPER: (inaudible)
Q: The other thing that you talked about is that you did — that the U.S. 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 the U.S. troops as they were leaving.
SEC. ESPER: No, I have not heard that, so…
Q: OK. Well, broadly speaking, I’m wondering 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 — how do you reconcile that, on the one hand saying, “We’re not here to defend them,” and on the other hand, “We want to continue working…”
SEC. ESPER: 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. We, as of March 19 — I guess that’s the date — we had destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS at that point in time. And that met the Kurds’ ends and that met our ends.
I think we recognized — of course I wasn’t in office at the time. But 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 through the SDF to defeat ISIS.
We believe we defeated the physical caliphate of ISIS in March, and — but nowhere in there was that we would fight a longstanding NATO ally and — in defense of the Kurds — to enable the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state, which is the aim of many Kurds.
So I’d just draw those distinctions. And I’ll just leave it at that.
STAFF: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time. That was the last question. Any final comments?
SEC. ESPER: Well, I just, again, want to 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. And, 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.
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