By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Jan. 29, 2019) -- Meeting with the reporters for the first time since assuming office Jan. 1, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan touched on the Syria withdrawal, success in Afghanistan, the U.S. Space Force, and his role as the head of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Shanahan, who had served as deputy defense secretary until the first of the year, said that from his new position, "the terrain is not different." What has changed, he told reporters, is that he sees the president more often, and works more closely with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Cabinet members and defense counterparts in Europe and Asia.
As acting secretary, he said, he expects to travel less, and to "drive more integration between the services and the combatant commands."
-- On Syria --
Shanahan said the withdrawal is in the early stages. "We're on a deliberate, coordinated, disciplined withdrawal," he said.
ISIS is no longer able to govern in Syria, he said. "ISIS no longer has freedom to amass forces. Syria is no longer a safe haven. We've eliminated a majority of their leadership. We've significantly diminished their financial capabilities," Shanahan said. "The way I would probably characterize the military operations conducted in Syria is that the risk of terrorism and mass migration has been significantly mitigated."
Inside Syria, he said, "99.5 percent plus" of territory controlled by ISIS just two years ago has been returned to the Syrians. "And within a couple of weeks, it'll be 100 percent," he added.
Along Syria's northeastern border, some 3.5 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Shanahan said, and significant numbers of internally displaced people are on the Syrian side of the border. To ameliorate this crisis, he said, military-to-military conversations are happening, and the State Department is involved as well, looking for solutions. "There are very important dialogues going on in major capitals in Europe about support to that portion of Syria, as well as very important discussions with our [Syrian Democratic Forces] counterparts there in northeastern Syria," he added. "The discussions hold real promise."
-- On Afghanistan --
Coalition forces and Afghan national security forces "have been doing a tremendous job," the acting defense secretary said.
There is no change to the "realign, reinforce, regionalize, reconcile and sustain" plan, known as 4R+S, he said.
Discussions are now between Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban. Khalilzad is the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. "The talks were encouraging," Shanahan said. "I would just add to that, we have to give people time."
The acting secretary noted "a new level of energy" in the situation. "The reconciliation portion our 4R+S is working," he said. "Now we need to give the diplomats time and space to advance those conversations."
-- On Space Force --
The Defense Department is looking at some individuals who might lead U.S. Space Command, Shanahan said.
The Space Force will focus on faster development of technology, faster delivery of technology, and leveraging of commercially available technology, he explained.
Concerns on Capitol Hill involve avoiding unnecessary cost and not growing a bureaucracy, he said. His idea of Space Force is that it have a small footprint, he told reporters. "That's why I recommend it sits under the Air Force," he said.