“I’m not using the ‘withdrawal’ word right now,” the Pentagon’s top uniformed leader said Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford downplayed concerns that President Trump will withdraw from Afghanistan without leaving enough troops to keep it from becoming a haven for terror groups.
As negotiations with the Taliban appear to be nearing some sort of conclusion, critics fear that Trump — who has called it “ridiculous” that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 18 years — will make the same kind of abrupt announcement as he did when ordering a withdrawal from Syria in December.
Dunford and Esper spoke Wednesday at the Pentagon in the first on-camera press conference given by the Defense Department’s top civilian and uniformed leaders in a year. Dunford told a packed briefing room of reporters that Trump has been “very clear” that any agreement with the Taliban will be “conditions-based” and will meet any ongoing security requirements that the United States has in the region.
“I’m not using the ‘withdrawal’ word right now,” Dunford said. He called the question “premature.”
“The president and the secretary have been quite clear to me that as this progresses, we’re going to be sure our counterterrorism objectives are going to be addressed,” he said.
Esper and Dunford declined to discuss the state of negotiations between the Taliban and the State Department’s envoy, Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad. News reports have suggested that an immediate drawdown of 5,000 troops from the 14,000 currently stationed in Afghanistan could be on the table. But seeking an agreement with the Taliban that will lead to discussions between the Islamist political group and the Afghan government is “worth trying,” Dunford said, if it can help curtail violence in the war-weary nation.
“I believe that what is needed is some type of disruption to the status quo,” he said.
Although Esper opened his remarks by saying that the Indo-Pacific region remains the Defense Department’s “priority theater,” he and Dunford spent most of their time at the podium addressing fielding questions on Afghanistan and ballooning threats across the Middle East.
Esper said Turkey could not keep Russian-made S-400 missile defenses if it wants to reenter the F-35 program, apparently closing an offer made through Sen. Lindsey Graham that would allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to keep, but not activate, the air defenses. Trump has appeared reluctant to place congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey.
“It’s either the F-35 or the S-400. It’s not both; it’s not ‘park one in the garage and roll the other one out’,” Esper said. “It’s one or the other.”
U.S. commanders are continuing to work with their Turkish counterparts to address concerns about threats along the border with Syria, Dunford said. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in the region a terrorist threat, and the two countries agreed to establish a buffer zone and carry out combined patrols, which Dunford said are being structured in a new coordination center in Ankara. He would not say when those ground patrols would begin. (Turkish officials say there has already been at least one joint helicopter flight.)
“We’ve also made agreements to immediately address some of the threats along the border between Turkey and Syria, removal of heavy weapons and those kind of things,” Dunford said. “We’re going to grow this capacity…so we can drive down to the appropriate tactical level between commanders the specific actions we’ll take every day to eliminate the threats.”
Esper and Dunford also expressed concern about the safety of U.S. forces in Iraq in the wake of reported Israeli attacks on Iran-backed groups there. Neither criticized Israel directly, with Esper saying that he was concerned about “anything that may impact our mission, our relationship, or our forces.”
Since May, Trump administration officials have maintained that Iran is carrying out a provocative campaign designed to push the United States away from its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign on Tehran. Esper offered cautious optimism that those tensions are subsiding.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to call the crisis over yet, but so far so good,” he said. “And we hope the trend lines continue that way, and we hope the parties, that Iranians would agree to meet and talk and help us resolve these issues.”
Esper repeated claims that the Pentagon believes that more countries will join the U.S.-led maritime security coalition aimed at deterring Iran in the Gulf, the so-called Operation Sentinel. Just three countries — Bahrain, Australia, and the U.K. — have signed on so far.
Esper said that he intended to reinstate the practice of holding regular press briefings at the Pentagon, which have largely disappeared since then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s top press aide, Dana White, delivered her last briefing in May 2018. Senior leaders last briefed the press from the podium in August 2018.
Kevin Baron contributed reporting.