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Defense Department Still Without Permanent Secretary


It's been six weeks since former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left the Pentagon, and there's still no hint of a permanent nominee to replace him. In the meantime, his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, is the acting secretary. He's putting his senior staff in place and appears prepared to serve for the foreseeable future. Today, he's in Afghanistan on a trip that will end in Europe in meetings with NATO allies. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio to talk more about this. Hey there, Tom.


CORNISH: So Mattis resigned over President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. He disagreed with much of the president's agenda. What do we know about Patrick Shanahan and his relationship with the president?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, we don't know for sure. President Trump has had some nice things to say about Secretary Shanahan on Twitter. But as we all know, the president is quite fickle, and that could change at any time. What we do know is that Shanahan is unlike his predecessor, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who questioned some of the president's decisions, was quite forceful on some areas behind the scenes such as removing troops from Syria. Mattis said we just can't leave Syria. We have to prevent ISIS from returning. We have to stay there and create another security force, local security force. We haven't really heard much from Shanahan on that point.

CORNISH: So the president has also made clear he wants to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What is Shanahan saying on this trip about the U.S. future there?

BOWMAN: Well, he was pretty vague about the way ahead in Afghanistan other than to say there are no orders to remove troops. And he pointed to the work being done by the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is talking with the Taliban, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and also national security adviser John Bolton. Let's listen.


PATRICK SHANAHAN: I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan. The direction - and this is in close coordination with Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton - is to support Ambassador Khalilzad in these peace negotiations.

BOWMAN: So, again, pretty vague there. So he's not been directed, as he said, to reduce troops. What we do know behind the scenes is that the commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, is looking at maybe shifting some of the responsibility for training Afghans to other countries, and Shanahan didn't really get into that. The other thing is, listening to what he's saying, the big unanswered question about Shanahan is this - is he a player or is he a placeholder? And at this point, we just don't know. He doesn't really have any experience in policy, either military policy or foreign policy. To listen to that quote, it sounds like he's waiting to be told what to do by others who are really players here.

CORNISH: Right. In the meantime, is there any movement towards nominating a permanent secretary of defense?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, there is some movement. I'm hearing they're interviewing people for the job. One name that pops up is director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. I do know that a couple of people turned down the job. One of them is Army General Jack Keane. Another is Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina. But the move to maybe replace Shanahan is continuing. But I think this trip he's making over to Afghanistan and then onto Europe is going to be a big deal for him. It's going to be something of a coming-out party. And if he does well on the trip, maybe he'll stay, but at this point, we just don't know.

CORNISH: You mentioned his trip to Europe and to NATO. Syria is also on the agenda there. What do we expect that conversation to be like?

BOWMAN: Well, what he did hint to reporters there - he would like other countries to pick up the slack in Syria. As U.S. troops leave, maybe some of these other countries - particularly Britain and France - could stay, train local forces, provide some sort of security. That's what he'll be talking with them about in the NATO summit in Brussels.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.