by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Today, Defence Ministers addressed the situation in the wider Middle East and North Africa. And what more NATO can do to contribute to stability and security. Conflict and turmoil in our southern neighborhood have caused untold suffering. And they pose challenges for us. Driving the refugee and migrant crisis. And also fuelling the threat of terrorism. This is why NATO and the NATO Allies have been engaged in the region for many years. And, working together with our partners from the region, we have made remarkable progress in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Liberating all the territory and the millions of people this brutal terrorist group once controlled.
Today Allied ministers reaffirmed our support to Iraq, and agreed in principle to enhance NATO’s training mission. In the first instance, this will consist of taking on some of the Global Coalition’s current training activities. Ministers also agreed to explore what more we can do, beyond this first step. Let me be clear: NATO is in Iraq on the invitation of the Iraqi Government. And we will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome. Because NATO fully respects Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Everything we do will be in close consultation and coordination with the Iraqi government. I remain in close contact with the Iraqi leadership. And we have constructive discussions on the way forward for the NATO mission in Iraq. Our aim is to increase the capacity of the Iraqi armed forces so that they no longer require our support. Together we are committed to fight terrorism. And ensure that ISIS does not come back. Over the past years, the Iraqi people and the Iraqi forces have demonstrated great courage and commitment in the fight against terrorism. We commend them for their sacrifices.
Ministers also discussed the situation in the wider Middle East and North Africa. And they decided to further explore what more NATO can do. To fight terrorism, build stability and strengthen our partnerships across the region.
We also addressed Afghanistan. As we continue to consult closely on the way forward. NATO fully supports the US-led peace efforts, which can pave the way for intra-Afghan talks. But the Taliban need to demonstrate that they are both willing and capable to deliver a reduction of violence. And contribute to peace in good faith. The aim of our Resolute Support mission is to strengthen the Afghan security forces, so they can fight terrorism and create the conditions for peace. And we will continue our discussion tomorrow with all our contributing partners.
Tonight, we will discuss our cooperation with the European Union. The EU High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell will join us for the first time, together with our partners Finland and Sweden. NATO and the European Union are two sides of the same coin. So we will consider what more we could do together to deepen our unique partnership and strengthen our security. And with that, I am ready to take your questions.
Oana Lungescu [NATO Spokesperson]: Okay, we’ll start with the BBC.
Jonathan Beale [BBC]: Secretary General, can you just tell us whether any NATO members have agreed to increase their military contribution, their training mission to Iraq, whether any countries have said they will move from under the US-led coalition banner to the NATO mission? And then also, finally, can you let us know whether, you know, what evidence do you have that Iraq would welcome? You say you’ve been in close contact, but there’s no letter or any hard evidence that Iraq will approve of this, of NATO forces taking a larger role, an expanded role in Iraq?
Jens Stoltenberg [NATO Secretary General]: Well, we are in Iraq today. And we are in Iraq today based on an invitation from the Iraqi government. And the first step is to do more within the existing mandate, within the existing operational plan for our training mission in Iraq. And, as I said, we will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome, because we fully respect the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Iraq. So the only way for us to be there is based on invitation from the Iraqi government. And we are in Iraq already.
Then we are in close consultation with the Iraqi government on the possibility of expanding, scaling up, doing more. And of course, we are consulting closely with the Iraqi government. I have spoken with the Prime Minister several times and we have staff-to-staff talks. And based on the decision today, we will then develop those options further. But again, everything we’ll do in Iraq will be in full coordination and with the consent of the Iraqi government.
Then, several Allies, or all Allies, actually, supported the decision to do more and also to take over some of the activities which is today conducted by the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
And we are also, of course, closely coordinating and consulting with the Global Coalition. And on Friday morning, I will meet with the Global Coalition in a meeting in Munich and then we’ll go through this again and continue to consult.
So every step, every decision will be taken, of course, in close connection, consultation, with the Iraqi government, but also in close connection with the Global Coalition.
And we have to remember that what we do there is to train the Iraqi forces, to help them, to support them. And the aim is, of course, to enable them to be even better and stronger in the fight against our common enemy, ISIS. So this is in their interest, it’s in our interest. We pursue a common goal to make sure that ISIS never return. And I would like to commend the Iraqi government for their achievements and their leadership and their commitment to that fight and also the sacrifices they have made in the fight against ISIS. So, yeah, we have a very good and constructive dialogue with the Iraqi government and will continue to do that as we move forward.
Oana Lungescu: Okay, we’ll go to TOLO, first row.
Question [TOLOnews]: This is Miraqa Popal from TOLOnews, Afghanistan. As there are reports that a peace deal is near between the Taliban and US, so I would like to ask you that: what will be the future role for NATO in a post-deal in Afghanistan? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: We discussed the situation in Afghanistan today. We will also discuss it tomorrow when we meet with our Resolute Support partners.
We welcome any step towards a reduction of violence in Afghanistan and we strongly support the peace process, any initiative to establish an intra-Afghan dialogue. And that’s exactly the aim of the dialogue, the talks between the Taliban and the United States, is to facilitate, create the conditions for an agreement to initiate intra-Afghan dialogue. Because the only way to create lasting and sustainable peace in Afghanistan is, of course, to have the Afghans owning the peace process and agreeing on the way forward.
We strongly believe that and we also consult closely with the United States. Secretary Esper briefed Allies today. Ambassador Khalilzad was in NATO recently and updated and consulted with Allies on the efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban.
Taliban has to show and demonstrate a real willingness, a real willingness and that they are capable of delivering reduction in violence. And Taliban has also understand that they will never win on the battlefield, they have to make real compromises around the negotiating table. And that’s exactly why the best way NATO can support the peace process is to continue to support, train, assist and advise the Afghan security forces and continue to provide funding. We are committed to do that.
And then, of course, it will depend on the intra-Afghan dialogue and the results of a peace agreement in the future. That will decide what role NATO can play in the future in Afghanistan. The important thing today is that we are committed and we are ready to continue to provide support, as long as that is wanted and needed to create the conditions for a lasting peace.
Oana Lungescu: Jane’s. Up there.
Brooks Tigner [Jane’s Defence Weekly]: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane’s Defence Weekly. Two questions if I may. How do you personally assess the risk that NATO’s presence in Iraq will stretch into many years, like that in Afghanistan? High risk or low risk? And on a separate issue, the reflection group on NATO’s future external stance, was this discussed today? And what did the ministers agree to do? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: I didn’t get the last question?
Brooks Tigner: The reflection, this so-called reflection group . . .
Jens Stoltenberg: Oh yeah, the reflection, yeah, yeah, sorry, sorry, I understand.
Brooks Tigner: What’s going to happen, and what did they agree on? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: NATO is a military alliance. And we have been conducting operations in many places where we are faced with threats and challenges, that’s part of being a military alliance. But at the same time, I think that we have demonstrated, throughout our history and through the way we have conducted all our military operations and missions, that we are always concerned about, and our top priority is, the protection of our forces. And that’s also the reason why we suspended the training in Iraq and moved some forces out. But we still have forces in Iraq and we will resume the training activities as soon as possible.
So, we always give the fullest possible attention - the highest priority to the security of our forces. Also, when we are operating in difficult and challenging places.
Then on the reflection process, we agreed to launch a reflection process in NATO, to strengthen the political dimension of NATO. I think what we have seen over the last year is a significant strengthening of our military capabilities. The biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War has taken place in NATO over the last years. High readiness of our forces, deployment of forces in the eastern part of the Alliance, increased defence spending and more training. And also North America and Europe doing more together, including with the battlegroups in eastern part of the Alliance.
At the same time, NATO is a military and political alliance and therefore I also welcome any reflection, any ideas as to how we can strengthen … further strengthen the political dimension of NATO. And we are preparing that reflection process. And the idea is then to have this process and then to put forward proposals for the leaders meeting or the summit in NATO in 2021.
Oana Lungescu: Okay, we have Shamshad.
Question: Thank you, Mr Secretary. As we all know, Afghan security and defence forces are in the frontline of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. So what plan NATO has for strengthening of armed forces and how much longer will NATO continue its support? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: There are many difficulties and many problems in Afghanistan. But at the same time, we have to also recognise that we have made some serious and real progress in some areas. And one of those achievements we have made together is that we have been able to train and strengthen the Afghan army and security forces.
We have to remember that not so many years ago, NATO was in Afghanistan with a big combat operation, with more than 100,000, 130,000 troops in a combat operation. Now, the NATO presence is a 16,000-large train, assist and advise mission. And we are able to do that, so we have been able to do that, reducing our presence from 130,000 to 16,000 because the Afghan forces are more capable, more professional, and they are now able to be in the lead for the responsibility of the security in their own country.
So we have achieved a lot by strengthening the Afghan army and security forces. We will continue to train them. We are working on many different strands together, including helping them to develop air force, special operations forces, command and control, and in many other areas. And we see the results because now the Afghans have an air force. They are able to conduct air operations themselves. They have a much larger special operation forces than they had before. So we see, step by step, that by providing training and assistance, we are helping the Afghans to protect and help themselves.
Oana Lungescu: Okay. The lady in blue over there in the middle.
Question [German Press Agency]: Hi there, German Press Agency here. So, you say that the NATO mission is going to take over some of the Global Coalition forces’ training activities. Does that mean that troops, or rather personnel, are being moved over from the Global Coalition forces to the NATO mission? And if so, how many?
Jens Stoltenberg: Today, we have made a decision in principle, then we will continue to work on the details and the numbers and exactly what kind of activities. So that’s too early to say today. But again, we are in close coordination and consultation with the Global Coalition. And we have to remember that all NATO Allies are a member of the Global Coalition. So we are, NATO Allies are, of course, members of NATO, but they are also a member of the Global Coalition. We will meet Friday morning, so we will then, when we now have made this decision, we will work out and decide on the details and on the specific numbers and activities, we will then take over.
Oana Lungescu: TV 2, lady in white over there.
Question [TV 2, Denmark]: Yes, Mr Secretary General, as we have learned that you had hoped from the NATO side to be able to give out a public . . . a joint statement with the Iraqi government today about the NATO mission in Iraq. That didn’t happen. So. So I just need to know: do you need a re-invitation from . . . from the Iraqi government to be able to go back for full strength in Iraq? And do you need it if you need an expanded mission? And if you need it, when do you expect to get it?
Jens Stoltenberg: Well, we . . . we are already in Iraq, based on an invitation from Iraq. And we will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcomed. And every step, every decision will be taken in close coordination with the Iraqi authorities. And we have to also remember that what we are doing is to train the Iraqi forces. So then the only way we can do that is, of course, with the consent of the Iraqis. And, again, the idea is, in a way, to enable the Iraqis and to strengthen them so much that one day they will no longer, need our support.
So our plan is not to stay in Iraq forever. Our plan is to stay there as long as that is needed, to make sure that we together, NATO Allies, the Coalition and the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces, are able to make sure that ISIS does not return. And, yeah, we are there on invitation from Iraq and we will only stay as long as we are welcomed.
Oana Lungescu: Anadolu, at the top there, gentleman in the white shirt.
Question [Anadolu Agency]: Mr Secretary General, in which extent military escalation by Russia-backed regime forces in Idlib, came into discussion today? And should we expect any concrete support from NATO to its Ally, Turkey? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: The situation in Idlib was raised during our discussion today and what we see there now is the consequences of a brutal use of violence, horrendous attacks against innocent civilians and indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. We condemn this because this is something which is not acceptable. And we call on the Russian-backed Assad regime to stop all these attacks, which is killing innocent civilians and to fully support and engage in the UN-led peace efforts.
NATO provides support to Turkey today. We are Turkey’s NATO Ally and NATO is present in Turkey and also we provide some assurance measures for Turkey, including some capabilities augmenting their air defence systems. So NATO provides support and we are very concerned about the situation in Idlib.
Oana Lungescu: One last question, Pajhwok - the gentleman here.
Question: Thank you, Secretary General, for NATO which is the priority: Afghanistan peace or election result?
Jens Stoltenberg: Well, for me, that’s no contradiction. And also because I think what the aim of the talks between the United States and Taliban, which is then strongly supported by NATO, and we are closely consulting with the US on these talks, is to initiate intra-Afghan dialogue. A lasting peace agreement, a sustainable peace in Afghanistan can only be achieved through intra-Afghan dialogue, so that Afghans agree on the future for Afghanistan. So that’s not for NATO to decide. It’s not for any NATO Ally to decide. That’s for Afghans to decide. But what we are trying to create is the conditions for this intra-Afghan dialogue, which is the way to peace. And there is a long way to go. But, at least, I hope that we now are close to a situation where we can start this intra-Afghan dialogue, where the Afghans can start the Afghan dialogue. And again, I think the best way for NATO to contribute to that is by continuing to provide support to the Afghans, so Taliban understands that they will not win on the battlefield. They have to demonstrate a real and clear will to reduce violence.
Oana Lungescu: Thank you very much. We’ll see you tomorrow.
Jens Stoltenberg: Thank you.