Joint press conference

with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Ashraf Ghani of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis - Secretary General's opening remarks

  • 27 Sep. 2017 -
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  • Last updated: 28 Sep. 2017 12:11

(As delivered)

Joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Ashraf Ghani of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis

Thank you, President Ghani.

I have appreciated your friendship for many years, and I also commend you for your great vision for this beautiful country with such great potential. And Secretary Mattis, I deeply value your experience and knowledge at this time of turbulence and many challenges.

I commend you both on your leadership, and I am honoured to be here in Kabul today with Secretary Mattis and to meet with you, President Ghani. Our presence here together reflects our renewed commitment to bringing stability and peace to the people of Afghanistan.

During our visit, I will have the privilege of meeting Afghan and coalition forces. Around 13,000 troops from 39 different countries serve in our Resolute Support Mission. Around half are US troops, with the rest coming from European Allies and our partner nations. Together, they are here to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, and to help build defence and security institutions to help make Afghanistan safer and more secure for the people of Afghanistan and for our own people, in our own countries.

Much progress has been made, but there is still too much violence, still too much instability, and still too much corruption.

NATO’s presence in Afghanistan has come at a great cost.

A human cost. Hundreds of thousands of brave men and women have served under the NATO flag. Thousands have lost their lives, and many more have suffered visible and invisible wounds.

There is also a financial cost. The international community has spent billions sustaining our presence, and in support of the Afghan forces.

So we know the cost of staying in Afghanistan, but the cost of leaving would be even higher. If NATO forces leave too soon, there is a risk that Afghanistan may return to a state of chaos and become once again a safe haven for international terrorism. The last time that happened, it led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, in which almost 3,000 people were murdered. We cannot allow that to happen again.

NATO leaving would also risk further instability in the region, including refugees fleeing for the safety of Europe. These risks to our own security, to our own societies, and to our own credibility are too great, and they would be devastating for the Afghan people.

NATO doesn’t quit when the going gets tough. We keep our promises. That is why I very much welcome that many nations have pledged further contributions to our mission here in Afghanistan, including more troops from the United States. And I welcome President Trump’s new, conditions-based approach to Afghanistan and the region.

With NATO’s help, Afghan forces have come a very long way. Today, they lead the fight against the Taliban and international terrorist groups, and they are putting real pressure on the enemy. As they do so, we will continue to work with them in many different areas, including supporting Afghan Special Forces, building up the Afghan Air Force and strengthening Command and Control.

NATO is committed to funding the Afghan security forces until at least 2020, and we will continue to provide almost a billion dollars each year to the Afghan defence and security forces. So we will stay committed, and we count on the Afghan government to make good on its commitments on key reforms for good governance, the rule of law, fighting corruption and protecting the rights of all its people, including women and girls.

And we need continued efforts towards a lasting, inclusive political solution to this conflict. The Taliban must understand that they cannot win on the battlefield. They have much more to gain around the negotiating table. I encourage the Afghan government to prepare the ground for peace and reconciliation.

So I welcome the Kabul Process, the initiative that you, Mr President, launched in June. You can rely on our support. NATO will continue to support a peace and reconciliation process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. We encourage all countries in the region to support this process, to play a constructive role in helping to stabilise Afghanistan and to shut down sanctuaries for extremist groups.

No-one underestimates the challenges this country faces, but I know that together we have the resilience and the determination to make Afghanistan stable and secure, for all of its people, and for our own security.

Thank you once again, Mr President.

MODERATOR: We'll start with Tom Watkins from AFP.

QUESTION: Thank you. First, I was wondering if any of you could please respond to the report this morning of a rocket attack near the airport… (inaudible). Doesn’t this highlight how bad the security situation is, even in the capital? Then I’d like to ask… (inaudible) Mr. President, if I may. There are reports that President Trump is pressuring you to close the Taliban office in Doha. Are you going to agree to that?

Then for Secretary Mattis, what is your current assessment of how much weaponry and support Russia and Iran are now providing the Taliban?

And finally, for the Secretary Gen—Secretary General, NATO has praised the new conditioned… conditions-based approach for Afghanistan, but some European officials are grumbling that not enough has changed. How do you persuade European members to support this indefinite extension to the Afghan mission? Thank you.

ASHRAF GHANI (President of Afghanistan): Yeah. Thank you. There has been an attack. Our CLU (ph), our special forces, are dealing with it. This is… attacking civilian targets is a sign of weakness, not strength. Simultaneously, you need to take account they are losing against every single Afghan army (inaudible).

The conduct of war this year, its leadership has been exceptional. But terror does not recognize boundaries. Is an attack on London a sign of weakness of London, or the heinousness of the terrorists? We stand together against the forces of terror, and we will continue.

The… the report is a rumour, and let's leave it at the level of a rumour. It's not a policy. Mr. Secretary.

JENS STOLTENBERG (Secretary General of NATO): On the question of how to make sure that European allies are contributing troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, I would say the… say the following, and that is that a stable and secure Afghanistan is in the interests of NATO. The more stable Afghanistan is, the more safe will we be.

So that's the reason why we are in Afghanistan, because we have seen that it is extremely important to support Afghanistan in their fight against terrorism, because that's also our fight against terrorism. And we have to make everything we can. We have… we have to do everything we can to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists. We saw what happened last time that was the case, back in 2001, 9/11.

So I'm absolutely convinced that European allies will not only support the US new strategy in words, but also in deeds. At our defence ministerial meeting in June, we actually decided to increase the troop levels of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and several allies have already started to come up, step up their pledges to send more troops. So they are sending troops to Afghanistan because it is in their interests to have a more stable and secure Afghanistan.

JAMES MATTIS: (Off microphone)… I want to mention something about the attack on the international airport, if in fact there was an attack. I… I've only heard some press reports so far, not confirmed.

But an attack on an international airport anywhere in the world is a criminal act by terrorists. It's designed to go after, generally, innocent people to make some sort of statement, and it's… this is a classic definition of what the Taliban are up to right now. It defines their approach to how they see their role here. And if in fact this is what they have done, they will find the Afghan security forces continuing on the offensive against them in every district of the country right now.

So it is what it is, but it's also the reason why we band together and we don't… we don't question what we're doing here.

On the role of anybody providing support to the Taliban, I would just put it this way. Terrorism is a scourge for everyone in this world. Those two countries that you mentioned, Tom, have both had… suffered losses due to terrorism. So I think it'd be extremely unwise to think that they can somehow support terrorists in… in another country and not have it come back to haunt them. But I'm not willing to discuss the specifics at this time on those two countries.

QUESTION: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

My next question goes to Mr. Secretary of Defense. What do you think if Pakistan not take any action regarding the safe havens? What the next steps will be?

ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

JAMES MATTIS: Thank you, Mr. President. I agree 100 percent with President Ghani that this South Asia Strategy and this renewed commitment is an opportunity for Pakistan to engage in the counter-terror campaign.

The South Asia Strategy is not exclusive of someone. It is inclusive for all responsible states that want to stop terrorism in its tracks and defend the innocent. So I see this as an opportunity, and we will work… work this issue forward with that idea in mind, that vision in mind.

QUESTION: How have the rules of… the new rules of engagement changed the… the battlefield in the fight against the Taliban? And Mr. President, have the new rules of engagement caused you any concern over whether there'll be more civilian casualties?

JAMES MATTIS: Jennifer, the… the point I would make is that, for many years, the NATO forces have operated with one fundamental precept, and that is we are here to protect the Afghan people when we atta—while we attack the terrorists.

We are up against an enemy right now that intentionally fights from among innocent people, that intentionally hides behind women and children, that intentionally tries to draw fire on the innocent. And we do everything humanly possible, whether you call them rules of engagement, you call them the traditional chivalry of the NATO forces, we do everything possible to protect the innocent on the battlefield.

We're not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys. And we will continue to do everything possible. There will never be a time when we decide that the safety of the non-combatants, of the innocents on the battlefield, is something to be bartered away for some sort of military advantage.

We would hope for a Taliban that would show some sort of consideration, but they have proven over years they have no consideration, no respect for the Afghan people. But we will continue to do our level best and everything humanly possible to avoid any casualties.

QUESTION: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

JAMES MATTIS: No, the… the number of troops we're bringing in… we are bringing in reinforcements, and those reinforcements are designed to add more advisors to your units in the field and more trainers in your military schools.

In other words, the Afghan forces continue to take the lead, as they should, in the defence of their country, but we are going to give them more advantage to the NATO access and advantage from the NATO air forces overhead to make sure that no ti—at no time does the Taliban own the high ground. We will always own the high ground, and we're going to make certain those aircraft have a connection to the troops on the ground who are fighting to protect their people.

I prefer not to go into the specific numbers right now. We are bringing in more Americans. There are also more coalition forces, non-Americans, who are coming in. I don't want to tell the enemy exactly what we're doing. But the whole point is to make certain that we have a compelling battlefield advantage over anything the Taliban tries to mass against your forces. We're not going to stand for that.

So far as Pakistan, we will watch Pakistan's choices. We will engage with Pakistan. We will continue to work in a unified way between NATO, the coalition, the Afghan government, and the other regional governments in South Asia as we try to set the conditions for a positive set of nations and team against… and teamwork against the Ta—the terrorists: Taliban, Daesh, ISIS, whoever they might be.

There's an increasing collusion, there's increasing teamwork among the various terrorist bands, and I would just tell you that this simply gives more impetus to those of us who are against terrorism to work together.

QUESTION: Yes, hello. Thank you very much. This question is for Secretary Mattis and Secretary General Stoltenberg. Under the new strategy for Afghanistan, what are the metrics you're using to define success? How will you know you're winning and that the new policy is making a difference?

JAMES MATTIS: Bill, what we're going to do is we're going to take the compact that has been put together, we're going to match it to the NATO mandate of support to the Afghans, we're going to then evaluate President Ghani's 200… more than 200 benchmarks, plus we have others we are going to engage with the Afghans to adopt as well as we mature this… this metric system.

And we will evaluate them on a frequent basis – some of them on a monthly, some of them on a yearly basis, depending on what kind of metrics we're using for which issues. And we are going to be monitoring them across the various issues that have been spoken about up here today.

Who initiates the most fights with the enemy? How are we doing on selection of junior officers from NCO ranks? How are we doing on counter-corruption? All of this comes together in an integrated, whole-of-government, whole-of-coalition campaign.

And the ongoing evaluation will be transparent. In other words, we will share all of our data. We will review it together, and we'll make adaptations as needed. Secretary General?

JENS STOLTENBERG: The main reason for NATO being in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for international terrorists. And the best way to achieve that is to enable the Afghans themselves to stabilize their own country.

And we have made a lot of progress because not so many years ago there were more than a hundred thousand NATO troops in a big combat operation in… in Afghanistan. Now we are… 13,000 is the current level, and the main purpose of that mission is to train and assist and advise the Afghans.

And the Afghans… so the Afghan security forces took over responsibility for the security in this country in 2015. So we are step by step enabling the Afghans to handle the situation in Afghanistan themselves, and that's the best way to achieve the main goal of our presence, namely to make sure that Afghanistan not once again is a safe haven for international terrorists.

And that is important for us because instability in Afghanistan is not only a problem for the Afghans but it is also a big problem and threat to people living in NATO-allied countries.

Let me also, since it was asked in the beginning, just say that I totally agree of course with President Ghani and Secretary Mattis on the comments on the attack. An attack on a civilian airport is a criminal act, is an act of terrorism, and it's a sign of weakness, not of strength.

And that's exactly why I would like to comment… commend the Afghan security forces which are handling these kinds of attacks, and it’s yet another example of how they are… how professional they are, how committed they are, and how they are able to handle these kind of security threats which happens in Afghanistan, and just underlines why we… we continue to train and assist and… and advise them.

QUESTION: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

JAMES MATTIS: Thank you. You know, we've just rolled the strategy out. And before I consider making any pronouncement about its success or failure, or about… you know, as far as somebody looking at it and saying they don't like it, I want to engage with them first. You understand that we need to engage, we need to sit down together and talk… talk very... very openly and frankly about where we're at today, where we've been, and where we're going to go.

And so those discussions will be ongoing, and you'll… you'll have seen the strategy yourself, so you know where our position is, and we'll move forward along those lines.

ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, a question on Iraq for you. I wondered if you could give us some reaction to the Kurdish vote toward independence in Iraq and how that might affect American forces operating there.

And Mist—President Ghani and Secretary General Stoltenberg, as you know, Secretary Mattis returned from India. Do you see that… that there's a risk of the US strategy vis-à-vis India could backfire when it comes to angering… potentially angering Pakistan more and getting it to move in… in the wrong direction, not in the right direction, with regard to Afghanistan? Thank you.

JENS STOLTENBERG: We welcome the new US strategy for many different reasons. One reason why we welcome the new US strategy announced by President Trump recently is that it has this regional approach. And this region includes both Pakistan and India, so therefore you have to… the… both those nations have to be included in a regional approach.

We urge all countries in the region to support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. And I can see there is no reason that… that dialogue and… and to have India as part of this regional approach should create any problems. I think, on the opposite, if India was not included, that would be a big mistake.

So we urge all countries to participate, but as part of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

JAMES MATTIS: Geography is compelling. There's several nations in South Asia. We have to deal with all of them. And I… I… you know, in the case of India, they have been very, very generous in their assistance, development assistance to Afghanistan. And I believe they are committed to doing even more to help the people of Afghanistan.

Certainly that cannot be seen as contrary to another nation's interests to help people who are working their way out of many, many difficult years since the Soviet invasion.

As far as in Iraq, we have had no impacts to date based on the Kurdish referendum. And we're engaged with all the… all the different parties in the… in the area there right now politically, but militarily it's had no impact.

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, thank you. First, India is a major partner in development. In Brussels conference, India pledged a very generous sum of one billion dollars for assisting the Afghan people.

Second, India is our largest export partner. The largest amount of exports from Afghanistan go to India. And third, India is potentially one of the largest investors in Afghanistan.

The… we have two choices: either a lose-lose regional strategy or a win-win regional strategy. In a win-win regional strategy, we need to all recognize that a stable Afghanistan is in everybody's benefit, and Afghanistan can become the platform for regional cooperation.

Afghan territory will not be permitted to be used for destabilization of any of our neighbours, and this is a cardinal principle with us. We do not differentiate between good and bad terrorism, or do… and do not engage in destabilizing our neighbours. But a central component of sovereignty is the ability to have relationship with a third country.

We are having an equally productive dialogue with China. China, again, is a fundamental economic regional power, and we are having the same dialogue with Azerbaijan and then with the Gulf. It needs to be seen as part of a… of an approach that the natural resources of Afghanistan, its location, and the immense talent of its people can only be developed as part of a regional approach.

And I hope that the necessary wisdom that is required to embark on a win-win strategy starts in this South Asia strategy, is a harbinger of things to come.

QUESTION: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

QUESTION: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

JAMES MATTIS: Well, first of all, I think we have to look at the history of where this all began. And when you look back at the history, it creates a very difficult framework for Afghanistan as a country, for Afghanistan's people.

When the Soviets came in with the invasion, they basically turned the society upside down. Many of the local areas that were under certain types of… of local control, which was acceptable to the Afghan government in those days, they were eviscerated. They were destroyed by the Soviet invasion.

And in that social fabric being torn apart, I think an awful lot of refugees were created. Children were left without parents. Family structures were destroyed. Tribal alignments were… were basically thrown against each other. And by the time we see the Soviets leave, much of the damage had been done. You have children who are going to schools which are teaching them hatred at a young age. And then you're trying to come in now with a… with a review of this and say how could this be.

Well, that is exactly why we redid our strategy, why we sat down with members of your government, taking information from them, and why we looked at this regionally to begin with, why we decided to realign our forces into almost a totally advisory role and teaching role and expand that role, so that we can turn this situation around.

You know, there's a saying in the game of golf: you have to play the ball where it lies. I cannot change where the ball lies today. All I can commit to you is that we stand united with your government of national unity and with the Afghan people to restore peace in this turbulent time. And that means we're all going to have to work together across the South Asia Region, and that's the way we plan to go forward on what President Ghani defined as a win-win regional strategy. And that's our commitment here today.

ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaks in a foreign language without interpretation.)

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming to our press briefing today. The press briefing is concluded… (inaudible) Let me then allow the President… (inaudible)

ASHRAF GHANI: I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Secretary General and Secretary Mattis, my great friends, and great friends of Afghanistan, for coming together. This is an unprecedented event that the Secretary of State of the United States, a distinguished General, and Secretary General of NATO, a distinguished diplomat, come together.

Your arrival together is a sign of your commitment, but equally, the reciprocal commitment of the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the government of National Unity, and myself that whatever sacrifice is required in order to bring enduring peace and stability to this country will be committed to it; and that corruption, the menace that it haunted Afghanistan, is being recognized for what it is and it's going to be confronted.

I don't think that in our history there has been a Three-Star General that has received a prison sentence or others or rich men that have been indicted in a court of law. We will redouble our effort.

I thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your enormous dedication to the strategy. We want to thank President Trump and your entire team for taking the time.

Time was required to arrive at something that was comprehensive, that was holistic. And as always, you’re partner both against terrorism and for stability for the people of this country.

And Mr. Secretary General, please convey our thanks to all the 39 countries that have committed their sons and daughters to us. And let me state one thing categorically. There is no return to combat role either for NATO or for the United States. The role is advise, train, and assist, and this will ensure that our security and defence forces are enabled to do what is our patriotic duty and historic obligation to do. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. With this, our press briefing is concluded.