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Afghanistan collage L-R: Bamyan province, the Salang Pass between Parwan and Baghlan provinces, Band-e Amir National Park in Bamyan province, and River in Nuristan province
A Guidepost Report
Text source: U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Spain and Andorra
In view of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban this 15th day of August 2021, GUIDEPOST is publishing the introductory statements made on 14 April 2021 to the press by NATO SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG, the U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY J. BLINKEN, and the U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels.
This could serve as a backgrounder for what ultimately is going on in Afghanistan today.
MODERATOR: Good evening. Welcome to NATO Headquarters, to this press conference with the Secretary General, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense. They will make short introductory statements, and then we’ll be able to take a few questions. Secretary General.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Good evening. We have just concluded an important joint meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have joined us here in Brussels. So Tony and Lloyd, I’m very grateful for your personal strong commitment to NATO, to our transatlantic bond. Your presence here today is a continued demonstration of the importance of the transatlantic bond, and the United States commitment to consulting with its NATO Allies.
Today, we decided together on the future of our presence in Afghanistan. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, after we invoked Article 5 of our founding treaty for the first time in support of the United States after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, we have paid a high price in both blood and in treasure. Thousands of our troops from allied and many partner nations, and from Afghanistan, have paid the ultimate price. Many more have been wounded. We are grateful to all who have served, and we honor all those who have sacrificed so much for our shared security.
Together, we have prevented Afghanistan from serving as a safe haven for terrorist attacks against our own countries. Since 9/11, there have been no terrorist attacks on allied soil organized from Afghanistan. We also helped to build the Afghan Security Forces from scratch. With great bravery and professionalism, they have provided security across the country over the last years. And in the almost two decades of international military presence, we have helped the Afghan people achieve social progress.
Over a year ago, we welcomed the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghanistan joint declaration. Since then, we have gradually reduced our troop presence as part of the peace process. Currently, we have around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the majority from non-U.S. allies and partner countries.
We have been closely consulting on our presence in Afghanistan over the last weeks and months. In the light of the U.S. decision to withdraw, foreign and defense ministers of NATO discussed the way forward today and decided that we will start the withdrawal of NATO Resolute Support Mission forces by May 1st. Our drawdown will be orderly, coordinated, and deliberate. We plan to complete the drawdown for all our troops within a few months. Any Taliban attacks on our troops during this period will be met with a forceful response.
We went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together, and we are united in leaving together. This is not an easy decision, and it entails risks. As I have said for many months, we face a dilemma, because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops.
This is not the end of our relationship with Afghanistan, but rather the start of a new chapter. NATO Allies and partners will continue to stand with the Afghan people, but it’s now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace that puts an end to violence, safeguards the human rights of all Afghans – particularly women, children, and minorities – upholds the rule of law, and ensures that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.
Today, NATO ministers also addressed Russia’s military buildup in and around Ukraine. This is the biggest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and it’s a part of a broader pattern of Russian aggressive actions which raises very serious concerns. Allies fully support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we call on Russia to de-escalate immediately, stop a pattern of aggressive provocations, and respect its international commitments.
Today’s meeting is an important demonstration of unity, and in this complex and more competitive world, we must continue to strengthen NATO to face the full range of challenges not just of yesterday, but today and tomorrow. So Tony and Lloyd, it’s great to be here together with you, and please, I hand it over to you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you, Jens. Thank you so much, Secretary Austin. Good evening, everyone. It’s very good to be back here at NATO just a few weeks after my first visit as Secretary of State, particularly for such an important day in the history of our alliance.
Twenty years ago, after the United States was attacked on 9/11, this alliance invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history. An attack on one is an attack on all. Together, we went to Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and prevent future terrorist attacks from Afghanistan directed at our homelands. Now, we will leave Afghanistan together and bring our troops home.
President Biden just laid out our plan in detail in a speech to the American people.
And as you heard and as Jens just noted, we’ll begin our troop withdrawal by May 1st and we’ll complete it before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 later this year.
After years of saying that we will leave at some point, that time has come. The threat from al-Qaida in Afghanistan is significantly degraded. Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. We have achieved our original objective.
And we don’t believe that maintaining an indefinite troop presence in Afghanistan is in our interests – not for the United States, not for NATO and our allies. The world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and as you heard the President say, we have to adjust our strategy to meet the threats of 2021, not 2001, and take on the challenges that now demand our focus and resources.
The United States and our allies will coordinate closely on our next steps. We have always said, as the secretary general noted, that our plan was “in together, adjust together, out together.” And today, we began to hammer out what “out together” looks like. We will withdraw our troops responsibly, deliberately, safely.
Let me be clear: Even with our troops home, we as an alliance and the United States as a country will continue to invest in and support the Afghan people and their chosen leaders.
We’ll also remain vigilant against any possibility that the threat of terrorism re-emerges in Afghanistan. We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities to stay on top of that. We’ll also hold the Taliban accountable to its commitments to keep al-Qaida or any terrorist organization from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks against us.
We’ll pursue a durable and just political settlement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. And we’ll engage other countries that have a major stake in a stable future for Afghanistan and will now have to step up after years of NATO underwriting stability.
We’ll continue to support the Government of Afghanistan and provide assistance to the Afghan Security Forces who have fought and continue to fight valiantly and at great cost on behalf of their country.
And we’ll keep investing in the well-being of the Afghan people. We’ll bring our diplomatic and development resources to bear to protect and build upon the gains that the Afghan people have made in recent years. We’ll continue support for the rights of Afghan women and girls, minorities advocating for their meaningful participation in the ongoing negotiations and their equal representation throughout society, and we’ll maintain significant humanitarian assistance to those in need.
In short, bringing our troops home does not mean ending our relationship with Afghanistan or our support for the country. And as Jens said, this will be the start of a new chapter grounded in diplomacy – just like our relationships with other countries. The future of Afghanistan ultimately is in the hands of the Afghan people, where it belongs. But our support, our engagement, and our determination remain.
Let me just also take a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary courage and strength of the troops who have served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. At its height, the International Security Assistance Force had troops from 50 NATO and partner countries. Today, Resolute Support has troops from 35 NATO Allies and partners. Our service members risked their lives, lost their lives in this effort, but we have succeeded in achieving the objective that we set out to achieve thanks to them, and we honor their service and their sacrifice.
I also have to say that the United States will never forget the solidarity that our NATO Allies have shown every step of the way. No country could have achieved what we achieved as an Alliance working together. And as my friend Secretary Austin can attest, these years in Afghanistan have transformed our troops and our countries in ways that we will be reflecting and acting on for a long time to come.
On a separate note, as the Secretary General said, we also spent some time today talking about the deep concern that Allies share about Russia and its actions on the borders of Ukraine, the largest concentration of forces there since 2014. And what was striking to me was, in the North Atlantic Council meeting, listening to every single ally, all 30 of us, express those concerns and a determination to see Russia take steps to de-escalate the tensions that it is creating.
Our conversations today here at NATO are just the start of the intensive planning that our countries will do together over the next several months. We are grateful to our Allies; we’re grateful to you, Mr. Secretary General, for your leadership, as we undertake this historic transition together.
SECRETARY AUSTIN: Secretary General Stoltenberg, thank you for today’s productive discussions. And I’m grateful to be joined by my friend and colleague today, Secretary Blinken.
And tonight, I want to thank our NATO Allies and partners for the time that they have afforded us to complete our review and explain the President’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. And I fully support his decision. Our troops have accomplished the mission that they were sent to Afghanistan to accomplish, and they have much for which to be proud. Their services and their sacrifices, alongside those of our Resolute Support and Afghan partners, made possible the greatly diminished threat to all of our homelands and – homelands from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. These brave men and women also made possible economic, civil, and political progress.
And so today, the Afghan people police their own streets, they defend their own interest, they elect their own leaders, many of whom are women, they send their children to school, and they own and operate more private enterprises than ever before. There is still too much violence, to be sure, and we know the Taliban still will seek to reverse some of this progress. And that is why we support wholeheartedly the diplomatic efforts ongoing to achieve a negotiated and political settlement that the Afghan people themselves endorse.
But today, the President has given us a new mission: to responsibly draw down our forces and transition to a new relationship with our Afghan partners. And thanks to the efforts of coalition and allied training, the Afghan Security Forces are better and more capable of securing their borders and protecting their fellow citizens. And we will continue to support them in those efforts. We will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces. We will also work closely with them and with our allies to maintain counterterrorism capabilities in the region, sufficient to ensuring Afghanistan cannot become a safe haven for terrorists who threaten our security.
Now, I know a thing or two about executing a drawdown or what the military calls “retrograde.” It is incredibly hard work even in the best of circumstances, but I am confident that our troops and our leaders will accomplish this new mission with the same skill and the same professionalism with which they have done everything else in Afghanistan. They will do it safely, they will do it orderly, and they will do it deliberately. And they will do it in lockstep with their allies.
As you’ve heard a couple of times this evening, we have all said that we went in together, we adjusted together, and now we will leave together. And I must add that we will respond forcefully should the Taliban attack any of our forces or those of our allies during this drawdown.
Now, I believe that it’s important to remember that the President’s decision also gives us an opportunity to refocus our efforts, to deter, and, if necessary, to defeat future adversaries. And we will do that in no small measure by revitalizing our alliances and partnerships, such as this one, and by being ready to meet the challenges that most credibly undermine our international rules-based order. And as I’ve said before, the People’s Republic of China is our number-one pacing challenge as it seeks to reshape the international order. Likewise, I call on Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. We are committed to assisting Ukraine with its self-defense needs.
And in closing, I want to thank all those who served in Afghanistan. I know all too well the sacrifice that we’ve all made to get us to this point. And to the families and the loved ones of those who did not make it home, and for all those forever changed by this war, I pledge our unwavering support for the grief and the challenges that you still endure. We honor you and we honor their memory, and we always will. And I believe that the President’s decision proves exactly that.
Thank you very much.
For the complete transcript, including Q&A, please click here.
Featured image (Afghanistan collage): Bamyan province/Sgt. Ken Scar, US Armed Forces, 2012, PD; Salang Pass/Michal Vogt, 2009, CC BY-SA2.o; Band-e Amir National Park/Employee of the US Department of State (Source: US Embassy, Kabul), 2009, PD; River in Nuristan province/Tech Sgt. Brian Christiansen, US Armed Forces, 2011, PD
Collage, PD per Wikimedia Commons
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