Overnight Defense: New Defense chief's first press conference

Overnight Defense: New Defense chief's first press conference
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Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinCan a common bond of service unite our nation? Politics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Pentagon releases training materials to address extremism MORE said Friday that an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan hinges on a reduction in Taliban attacks.

“The violence must decrease now,” he told reporters in his first press conference as Pentagon chief.


A different plan: The United States has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, a number reached after former President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE earlier this year pressed ahead with a drawdown despite the Taliban not living up to its commitments to reduce attacks and participate in peace talks with the Afghan government.

But Austin — a retired four-star Army general who previously oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East under former President Obama — said there would be no “hasty” withdrawal.

“We want to do this methodically and deliberately,” he said.

A looming deadline: Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, signed by the Trump administration last year, the Taliban is supposed to deny safe haven to terrorist groups intent on attacking the West, including al Qaeda, in addition to engaging in talks and reducing violence.

In exchange, the U.S. military is supposed to fully withdraw by May. The Taliban has vowed to renew attacks on U.S. forces if they do not withdraw by that date.

Austin said that he is “mindful” of the looming May deadline but indicated that it would not be reached as long as the Taliban are not meeting commitments.

‘Violence is too high’: “Clearly the violence is too high right now and more progress needs to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations. I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace,” he said.


A review: The Pentagon is also in the midst of a “rigorous interagency review” of the U.S. deal with the Taliban and its role in Afghanistan, but “at this time, no decisions about our future force posture have been made.”

Austin stressed that the United States will consult with allies and partners in the country and "there will be no surprises" as to Washington’s decision.

He noted that he expressed the same sentiment to NATO allies at the two-day virtual NATO defense ministers meeting earlier this week.

NATO waits for a decision: NATO, meanwhile, is awaiting the Biden administration’s decision on Afghanistan. The 30-member alliance currently has more troops in the country than does the United States.

President BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE earlier on Friday also would not reveal his plan for troop levels in Afghanistan.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Munich Security Conference, Biden would only pledge to support the Taliban-Afghan government peace process and to keep the country from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.



Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday there has been no request for the National Guard to stay at the U.S. Capitol beyond mid-March.

“Right now, in terms of our expected stay, it is March 12,” Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. “We don’t have an additional requirement or requests from another federal agency to provide them support.”

Asked if the Pentagon was tracking any credible threats that would require the guardsmen to stay longer, Austin would not comment, saying, “it’s probably not appropriate for me to talk about intelligence matters from this podium.”

Further details: He added that the Pentagon will continue to assess threats “and decisions will be based upon what we believe is credible or not.”

“My plan is to not keep [troops] there one day longer than is necessary, but they know and understand that if our lawmakers need help they need protection, they stand ready to provide that protection,” he said.

A long-time presence: Thousands of National Guardsmen have been deployed to Washington, D.C., since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol involving supporters of former President Trump.


At their peak, roughly 26,000 guardsmen were in the city ahead of and during President Biden’s inauguration before dropping to 7,000 by the start of February. Capitol Police requested that 4,900 guardsmen remain until March 12.

The National Guardsmen are expected to remain in the Beltway until next month due to concerns that followers of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory may travel to the city over hopes that Trump will be returned to office March 4.



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