Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to Traveling Press

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Thank you all for joining us on the trip.  It’s really historic.  It’s taken us longer than I wish that it had to get from February 29th to here, but we expect Saturday morning, for the first time in almost two decades, to have the Afghans sitting at the table together prepared to have what will be contentious discussions about how to bring – move their country forward to reduce violence and deliver what the Afghan people are demanding: a reconciled Afghanistan with a government that reflects the country, that isn’t at war.  That will give the American people the opportunity to reduce the risks to our young men and women who have been there now since – tomorrow is 9/11 – been there almost 20 years now, enormous blood and American treasure to help the Afghan people be successful and to take down al-Qaida in Afghanistan, a tremendous success, right.

There are less than a couple hundred al-Qaida left in Afghanistan.  The vast majority of their senior leadership is no longer on the battlefield.  We can be proud of what we’ve achieved, but it’s time for this next step, and I have – I’m mindful of how difficult these conversations will be among the Afghans, but it’s theirs for the taking.  It’s their country to figure out how to move forward and make a better life for all Afghan people.

And so with that, I’m happy to take a couple of questions on that subject or on the rest of the trip that we’ll stop in Cyprus for an important trip as well.

MR BROWN:  You want to go?

QUESTION:  So this is obviously the anniversary of 9/11 here into – when we get there.  Can you tell us the importance of that as well, the significance of this meeting (inaudible)?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah.  Look, I don’t think there’s any American who doesn’t remember that day, any American who’s 25 or 24 or older who remembers, was old enough to be watching the TV screen that day or be living in New York City that day.  I remember, I was in Kansas running my small business.  I remember getting a call from my wife saying to turn on the TV and go see what’s going on.  I remember the anger.  I remember the righteous indignation that we all had, and America has responded to that in a way that was wholly justified, enormously successful and appropriate, and now is a moment to put Afghan – Afghanistan on the next step in its trajectory.

There’s jihadists in the world still.  There’s still counterterrorism work to do.  President Trump is deeply mindful of that.  We’ll continue to ensure that we protect the homeland and do all the things necessary to reduce risks from terrorist acts, not only from Afghanistan but from Syria, Iraq, Asia, from all of the – from al-Shabaab, all the places where there are terrorists.  America will still do its part to make sure that we’re reducing risks to the homeland as well.

QUESTION:  So, Mr. Secretary, two quick questions.  Do you think the U.S. is prepared to withdraw troops from Afghanistan fully, even before an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan Government is signed?  And then second, what do you make of the reports from the UN and others that the Taliban continue to shelter foreign fighters, al-Qaida elements but also other foreign fighters?  And are those a large enough threat to change the U.S. calculus on this at all?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So those are two connected – those questions are actually connected to each other.

QUESTION:  Yeah.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  There are a series of commitments that the Taliban have made.  We have every expectation that they will follow through on them.  Our commitment to reduce our forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement.  So we’re very clear about their responsibilities with respect to terrorist activity taking place in Afghanistan that is plotting against external – an external – plotting external operations.  It’s very clear that the violence levels have to come down to acceptable levels.  Look, we saw just yesterday, maybe the day before, there have been a lot of spoilers out there.  There are people who don’t want this to go forward.  They want America mired in this place.  They don’t want peace in Afghanistan.  Most Afghan people want that; that’s what we’re going to stay focused on.

And so as for our force posture –  the President’s said and I think General McKenzie said yesterday that by late fall we’ll be down to roughly 4,500 U.S. soldiers.  There’ll still be a significant number of Resolute Support Mission soldiers.  I’m mindful, too, it’s not just Americans who are at risk there.  There are an enormous number of international forces who have sacrificed as well in this fight for the last 19-plus years.  We want everyone to have the chance to reduce the risk, reduce their forces.

And so our movement to the appropriate levels will be consistent with the two goals the President laid out when I became Secretary of State – two goals.  One, reduce our forces there.  Get as close to zero as quickly as you can get to that number.  We’re intent on doing it and we’ve made real progress.  Second, you can’t sacrifice security for the homeland.

So we – I believe those objectives are both achievable between what we’ve done and what the Department of Defense has achieved over these last couple of years.  We’ve made real progress on both objectives.

QUESTION:  But is that timeline conditioned at all with the – with the discussions?  I mean, if these talks drag on for months, maybe longer, how does that factor in (inaudible)?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah.  Look, we’ll be looking at the conditions on the ground, right.  So these conditions are a risk-based set of conditions, and so the negotiations are a part of that in a sense, but what we’re really looking at is what’s the security posture, what’s the risk – risks that al-Qaida has places to grow, risks that there are attacks taking place that are external.  Those are the conditions that were placed in the agreement; that’s what we’ll be looking at as we advise the President on the next set of decisions to make about how quickly we can in fact get to our objective, which is to have no American forces in Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, given that the President has (inaudible) in the next eight weeks —

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yes.

QUESTION:  — are you concerned that disincentivizes the Taliban from negotiating in good faith?  And how do you guarantee that they’ll even (inaudible)?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  There are no guarantees in Afghanistan.  I think after 19 years this is what we can see.  We can also see that when the previous administration had tens of thousands of forces there, they couldn’t achieve the core objectives at all.  We’ve done that.  We’ve executed that.  No, I think the Taliban has every incentive to get this right.  President Trump has made clear: if they put Americans at risk, we’re going to come at them and we’re going to come at them hard.  We’ve done that.  We’ve done that over these last three and a half years.  We’ve inflicted real costs on the Taliban when they put American lives at risk.  We will continue to do that.  We’ll continue to have a force posture that will permit us to do that in a way that preserves the twin objectives that the President laid out.  I’m very confident of that.

QUESTION:  Would the administration be prepared to send troops back in if necessary?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, the President’s said that.  The President’s said that whether it’s a year from now or three years from now, if there is a risk to the United States of America, we’ll go in, and I think he used more colorful language than this, but he said we’ll go in there and we’ll take care of business.  We’ll execute the mission in a way that will protect and preserve American security.

QUESTION:  Can you talk a little bit about your Cyprus stop and why was —

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, so it’s important.  First, I had planned to go there previously and waived off on a previous trip.  I don’t know, Nick, maybe you were on that trip when —

QUESTION:  I wasn’t there.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  — when we had to go to another location.  So I’m catching up.  It’s also the case that the things that are taking place today in the Eastern Mediterranean are important and I want to have a chance to talk with the leaders there in Cyprus about their perspective, their objectives, the things they would like to do.  The President’s been very clear and he’s asked – he’s spoken with President Erdogan, he’s spoken with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, and in each case he’s said this has to – the disputes, the maritime disputes have to be resolved in a way that is diplomatic and peaceful.  And so I’ll be working on that project as well, trying to make sure that I understand the risks that are associated from the people of Cyprus’s perspective and take that on board as we continue to work on the challenges that the Eastern Mediterranean is presenting today.  It’s something we’re very focused on.  The Germans have done a good job trying to diplomatically get them to begin their conversations about how to proceed.  We hope they’ll be real conversations and we hope the military assets that are there will be withdrawn so these conversations can take place.

QUESTION:  The waiver you issued was quite a shot across the bow to Turkey.  I mean, they were not pleased with that, with that waiver (inaudible).

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So, look.

QUESTION:  I mean, what do you – where’s it going with Erdogan at this stage?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So the waiver – it was a long time coming.  We’d been working on it for a while.  It was consistent with American policy for an awfully long time.  It was simply the right timing to actually make the decision.  So we completed our analysis, we made sure that we considered every set of risks associated, and we quickly moved out from there.

Anyway, I’ve got to run.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.

QUESTION:  Thank you.