Patrick M. Shanahan said his first trip as acting defense secretary was timely and has given him a lot to chew on moving forward.
In a session with reporters traveling with him, the acting secretary also spoke about the president’s emergency declaration.
The trip took him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Belgium and Germany. He met with American service members in Afghanistan and Iraq, and attended a NATO meeting of defense ministers in Brussels. Shanahan ended his trip at the Munich Security Conference, where he also participated in a meeting of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In Afghanistan, the acting secretary was briefed by U.S. commander in the country, Army Gen. Austin S. Miller. “The importance of that was to assess the plan and then go meet with the Special Forces themselves and talk to how they were going to generate more capacity because this is all about generating more capacity,” Shanahan said. “I've got a set of taskings as a result of those visits and I'm sure General Miller is supported.”
He also met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. They gave him a better sense of some of the peace dynamics.
In Iraq, Shanahan was briefed on progress by Army Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera. “That gave me a good sense of where we stand on Syria,” he said. They also spoke about building the security forces in Iraq.
The acting secretary said he came away from the NATO meeting with four takeaways. “One, we're aligned on Afghanistan,” he said. “No. 2, we really talked about the Russian threat and the best evidence of our alignment on the Russian threat was the unanimous support to the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty] decision.”
The third was discussion about China, and fourth was how to grow capability and capacity for NATO. What’s more is the discussions on how to do it together.
“Personally, I had a number of very high quality bilateral discussions that were helpful as we talked about Syria and Afghanistan,” he said. “Also, the chance to interact with so many members over a couple of days and a number of meals, I really do feel like I have a very good standing with them and the ability to pick up the phone. That short period of time and the types of interaction give me great confidence that with a couple of phone calls we can really address issues as they come up.”
In answer to a question, Shanahan said DOD is examining the processes the department will use with respect to the national emergency declaration. “For a number of weeks now, we've been laying out the process we would follow if a national emergency were declared and making sure everybody understands the statutes so that we could do things correctly and legally,” he said.
Shanahan said that in anticipation of this possibility, Northern Command and the Joint Staff were directed to work together to produce a mission analysis of the border with one key question in mind: “Based on the influx of either drugs or people, how would you assign DOD personnel, guard or Reserve, to support the Department of Homeland Security broadly, not just on a task force? So that has been determined. I will go in and review that analysis now that the emergency has been declared," the acting secretary said. "Based on that we can do an assessment of what would be appropriate."