Patrick Shanahan plays down ‘speculation’ of more U.S. troops to Middle East

May 23, 2019 GMT

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan dismissed reports that up to 10,000 U.S. troops would soon be heading to the Middle East to counter Iranian aggression in the region, but did admit administration officials were weighing an uptick in the American military presence in the region.

The acting defense chief said he plans to brief the Trump White House on the current security situation regarding Iran in the region, as well as hold additional talks with U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie on the Iranian threat.

“What we’re looking at is: Are there things that we can do to enhance force protection in the Middle East?” he told reporters at the Pentagon, ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on Wednesday. “It may involve sending additional troops.”

While Mr. Shanahan did acknowledge talks over bolstering the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East were ongoing, he flatly denied any decision on troop numbers had been made. Recent news reports claimed the Pentagon was weighing sending as many as 10,000 more U.S. troops to the region.

“There is no 10,000 and there is no 5,000,” he said ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. Later, the acting defense chief repeated that reports of actual troop deployments to the region were pure speculation.

“Part of the conversation that’s just normal is: Do we have the right assets in the region?” Mr. Shanahan said. “Those are the conversations that have occurred,” he added.

He declined to comment on the specifics of his talks with Gen. McKenzie, who reportedly asked for the additional thousands of U.S. troops, but noted the discussion fell in line with the routine communication between commanders in the field and the Pentagon.

“This was the normal back-and-forth that we have with [Central Command]. We’re at a high elevated level given all of the dynamics that are in the Middle East,” Mr. Shanahan said.

The fears of rising Iranian aggression have already prompted the White House to deploy the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and a Air Force bomber task force to the region. Any future deployments of American troops or resources to the region will depend on Tehran’s actions going forward.

“This gets back to the risk of Iranian miscalculation,” Mr. Shanahan said, regarding the possibility of increasing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. “We’re very protective of our men and women. We’re very protective of our interests in the region.”

Both President Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei have both said in recent days that they are not seeking a war, after a string of provocative incidents and new U.S. intelligence suggested Tehran and its proxies were stepping up their pressure campaign against the U.S. and its regional allies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Thursday that Mr. Trump was evaluating the force posture in the region “every day.”

“We’re evaluating the risks, making sure that we have it right,” Mr. Pompeo said.