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