Online press conference
by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the second day of the meetings of NATO Defence Ministers
On the agenda of our meeting today were our training missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Both are key contributions to the fight against international terrorism.
Defence Ministers had a thorough discussion on the situation in Afghanistan.
We are faced with many dilemmas and there are no easy options.
At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence, but, as the May 1 deadline is approaching, NATO Allies will continue to closely consult and coordinate in the coming weeks.
We remain committed to our Resolute Support mission, with training and funding for the brave Afghan security forces.
NATO strongly supports the peace process, and as part of it, we have significantly reduced the number of our troops.
The peace process is the best chance to end years of suffering and violence.
And bring lasting peace.
It is important for the Afghan people.
For the security of the region.
And for our own security.
But the talks are fragile, and progress is slow.
So it is now imperative to re-energise the peace process.
All sides must seize this historic opportunity for a peaceful settlement.
Without further delay.
The Taliban must negotiate in good faith, reduce the high level of violence and live up to their commitment to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups.
NATO’s goal is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that would attack our homelands.
So Allies will continue to assess together the conditions on the ground.
As we do, the protection of our troops remains paramount, and we will take all necessary measures to keep them safe.
Today, we decided to expand NATO’s training mission in Iraq.
To support the Iraqi forces as they fight terrorism and ensure that ISIS does not return.
The size of our mission will increase from 500 personnel to around 4,000.
And training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions, and areas beyond Baghdad.
Our presence is conditions-based, and increases in troop numbers will be incremental.
Our mission is at the request of the Iraqi government.
It is carried out with full respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
I spoke with Prime Minister Al—Kadhimi this week and assured him that everything will be done in full consultation with the Iraqi authorities.
We are also closely coordinating with the Global Coalition.
I would like to thank Canada for leading our training mission in Iraq for two very challenging years.
And Denmark, for taking over command at this critical juncture.
And with that, I am ready to take your questions.
OANA LUNGESCU [NATO Spokesperson]: Ansgar Hasse from DPA.
ANSGAR HASSE [DPA]: Secretary General, you say that the promise to leave Afghanistan is condition-based. Can you please tell us exactly what conditions you are talking about and is a ceasefire in Afghanistan one of the conditions for NATO to withdraw? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG [NATO Secretary General]: All NATO Allies welcomed the agreement between the United States and Taliban last year. At the same time, we clearly stated that, of course, there are conditions in this agreement that have to be met. And, therefore, I have many times made clear that Taliban needs to negotiate in good faith, violence has to be reduced, and the Taliban has to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups that are planning terrorist attacks on our own countries, on Allied countries. This is very clear and this has been conveyed many times. And this is important because we are, of course, seeking a lasting and sustainable political agreement in Afghanistan. And that’s also the reason why we will continue to assess the situation before we make any final decision on our future presence in Afghanistan.
OANA LUNGESCU: OK, we can now go to Osama Javaid from Al-Jazeera.
OSAMA JAVAID [Al Jazeera]: Secretary General, thank you very much for taking the time. I have two questions for you, one for Afghanistan. You say that your . . . the presence of NATO forces is going to continue and it’s conditions-based. So how will you measure the condition that the Taliban is actually severing ties? And in case there is an uptick of violence, is additional forces on the ground from NATO and the United States still on the table?
The second question is about Iraq. I would like to know about . . . further details about how these additional troops will be housed. As in recent months, there have been a number of attacks that have been launched by the militias against coalition forces inside Iraq. Thank you very much.
JENS STOLTENBERG: We are closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and, of course, by having our own troops there, intelligence, surveillance capabilities, we are able to follow the situation very closely. We’re also working with the Afghan security forces and are exchanging information and intelligence also with them.
There is an ongoing assessment, an ongoing close monitoring of the situation. And, based on that, Allies will make decisions together.
And, I also very much welcome the very clear message from Secretary Austin, who made it very clear that the United States is going to continue to consult with NATO Allies and continue to make sure that we are coordinated as we move forward in Afghanistan.
We have to remember that we have been there for many years and we have worked together there for many years. And when you ask about the troop numbers, what we have seen over the last year is a significant reduction in the total number of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Today, there are roughly 10,000 troops. The majority of the troops are from European Allies and partner countries. We will do what is necessary to make sure that our troops are secure, safe. We have adjusted the troop numbers before, but I will not speculate, because now the focus is on making sure that the peace talks are successful.
So our aim is to make sure that we have a lasting political agreement that can make it possible for us to leave in a way that doesn’t undermine our main goal, and that is to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven.
We have seen, not so many years ago, we were more than 100,000 troops in a big combat operation. We have been able to work together with the Afghan security forces – train, assist, advise them – and now the Afghan security forces have proven to be capable, professional, and therefore they are in the lead of the security in the country. But, we are staying committed and continue to provide support to them.
On Iraq, NATO has been there already for some years with a Training Mission, but they’re much smaller than the mission we are planning for now, or we have agreed to launch today.
NATO Allies have also participated in the Global Coalition. So, NATO Allies have been in Iraq for, actually, several years. We will do this step-by-step. The Iraqi government is going to continue to closely consult. And work with the Iraqi government, and everything we do in Iraq, will be based on demands, requirements, from the Iraqi authorities.
But, we see the importance of NATO Allies providing training and capacity-building for the Iraqi security forces, because that’s the best way we can prevent ISIS from returning.
We will also increase the geographical presence of the NATO Training Mission beyond the greater Baghdad area. But again, step by step. And everything we do, we will, of course, focus on the importance of protection of our forces. So, force protection enablers will be part of the increased NATO presence in Iraq.
OANA LUNGESCU: And I think we can now go to London and Larisa Brown from The Times.
LARISA BROWN [The Times]: Thank you very much. Can I just ask, again, about Iraq? You’ve obviously talked . . . talking about quite a significant increase of troops. What’s the . . . what’s your sort of idea of threat that ISIS poses? You’re talking about a re-emergence. Have they managed to increase in numbers over the last few months? And then also, are you talking about new bases that could be built to house these NATO troops? Or, will this be bases that are already in existence? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: So what we have seen over the last years is that the territory that ISIS or Daesh controlled in Iraq and Syria, all that territory they have lost control of. And that is because the joint efforts of the Iraqi security forces, supported by the Global Coalition and NATO, that they have been able to liberate the territory and the millions of people that were under the control of ISIS.
At some stage not so long ago, ISIS controlled a territory as big as the United Kingdom and roughly eight million people. They have lost that control. But, ISIS is still there. ISIS still operates in Iraq. And we need to make sure that they are not able to return. And we have also seen some increase in attacks by ISIS – and that just highlights the importance of strengthening the Iraqi forces.
We say in NATO that prevention is better than intervention, meaning that, of course, NATO and NATO Allies should always be prepared for, again, engaging in big combat operations. But in the long term, it’s much better if we train local forces, build local security institutions, as we’re now doing in Iraq and as we will expand doing in Iraq in the coming months, because local forces, they will, in a more sustainable way, be able to stabilise their own country and fight the terrorists themselves.
So, the purpose of the Training Mission, the capacity-building mission by NATO in Iraq is to prevent a situation where NATO Allies, again, may be forced into a situation where they need to be part of bigger combat operations. And that’s exactly why we are there and why we are expanding our mission.
We will do this in incremental and in, what should I say, and based on demand from the Iraqi authorities. But there are several bases already in Iraq that we can use. Partly bases where NATO Allies already operate under the umbrella of the US Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh and partly other Iraqi bases.
I have visited some of them, and it’s good to see how NATO forces work closely together with Iraqi forces. So, the main problem is not finding bases, the main challenge is, is to make sure that we target what we do, that we tailor-make the advice and the training in the best possible way for the Iraqi forces.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you, we now come back to Brussels, and hopefully we can we can take a question from Marilou Lucrezio from RAI, Italy.
MARILOU LUCREZIO [RAI]: Good evening, Secretary General. What is the way ahead now on Afghanistan, after all you spoke about . . . we hope about the peace talks are successful. And if I can, if you can say, if I may ask a few words on Italy’s role in Afghanistan and your expectations from the Draghi administration? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: The best way ahead in Afghanistan is that we see a reenergised peace process, where all the parties take the responsibility to find a political-negotiated solution. So, that’s our main message from this meeting, is that we urge all parties to really make a serious effort to agree and to find a platform that can provide sustainable peace in Afghanistan. That has to include, for instance, a ceasefire. It has to include a political settlement. And it has to include measures to make sure that Afghanistan does not once again becomes a platform for international terrorists to prepare, organise attacks against NATO countries and other countries in the world. That is the best way forward.
The problem is that we are in a situation where we have a date – 1st of May – approaching. And so far we have seen that the peace talks are fragile. They are not making so much progress as we want to see. And, therefore, we also, of course, are extremely concerned by the increased level of violence. And, therefore, our message to Taliban is to reduce violence, negotiate in good faith and make sure that they stop all cooperation with international terrorist groups.
That’s also the reason why we have not made a final decision today, at the ministerial meeting today, on our future presence in Afghanistan, because we believe that there is still time to reach a political agreement to see progress before the deadline, 1st of May. So, our focus is on the peace process and we will do whatever we can to make that be a successful process.
Italy is playing and has played an important role in Afghanistan for many years. I have met and visited Italian forces in Afghanistan several times in Herat, where Italy is the lead nation, or the framework nation. And NATO, we are extremely grateful for the contributions over many years by Italy to our Mission in Afghanistan, fighting international terrorism.
Prime Minister Draghi, Mario Draghi, is a highly-respected politician, or international leader and now a politician. I have had the privilege of meeting him in different capacities. And I know him as a very strong supporter of the transatlantic bond, NATO, the cooperation between North America and Europe. And I’m looking forward to working with him in his new capacity as Prime Minister of Italy.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. And I we’ll now go to Kabul to Shershah Nawabi from PMG News, Afghanistan.
SHERSHAH NAWABI [PMG News]: Yeah, thank you so much, Mr Secretary General, for giving us your time. Actually, there are two questions that I have. In current situation, according to the news reports that we have, Taliban are now working or planning for their spring fight, for their spring assault. So what do you think about this case, as you haven’t decided about your presence in Afghanistan? What would be the . . . your stand on the issue of a spring assault? And the second issue is: a few days ago, Mullah Baradar just sent an open letter to the US government and also to the international community and urged all sides to pull out the troops from Afghanistan. So what’s NATO’s stance in this case? Thank you so much.
JENS STOLTENBERG: So, our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based. And that’s also the reason why we now are closely looking into and monitoring and assessing the situation on the ground in Afghanistan before we make a final decision. Any increase in violence will undermine the peace efforts. And a spring offensive will, of course, undermine the prospects for peace. We are actually expecting the opposite. We are expecting that the Taliban reduces violence and by that, demonstrating faith in the peace negotiations.
So, any increase in violence will be the opposite message and thereby also undermine the possibilities of a lasting, negotiated, peaceful agreement in Afghanistan.
OANA LUNGESCU: OK, next is Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
THOMAS GUTSCHKER [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]: Thanks a lot. Secretary General, did you get any indication from Secretary Austin on when the US intends to make its decision and whether it already has any inclination on the way forward? And, in addition to that, does only withdrawal, an end to the mission in Afghanistan, need to form a decision, or also a continuation? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: It is not for me to speak on behalf of the United States, but what I can say is that Secretary Austin, in the meeting, clearly expressed a commitment by the United States to continue to consult closely with NATO Allies and also consult with partners. Because we have to remember that in our mission, the NATO Mission in Afghanistan, we have, of course, NATO Allies, but we also have partners like Finland, Sweden and other partners, Georgia, contributing troops and forces to our mission in Afghanistan.
So, we all should stay closely coordinated and continue to closely consult. And we will make the decisions together, not least because there are many US troops in Afghanistan, but there are also many troops from Europe, from European NATO Allies, and from partner nations. So, we need to make this decision together based on consultations and assessments we are making together.
But, we all agreed that this was not the time to make the final decision, because we think there is still a possibility to reach a peaceful settlement to the crisis, to the conflict in Afghanistan. So, therefore, the message from this meeting is that we have not made a final decision, but we are putting as much pressure as possible on the peace process and especially on Taliban to make sure that they negotiate in good faith.
But, there’s also the message to all of the parties involved, that all parties should now really make an effort to reenergise, revitalise the peace negotiations in Doha, because there’s still time for peace in Afghanistan.
Let me add one more thing. This is obviously a difficult decision. No-one is trying to say that this is easy. We are faced with very hard and difficult dilemmas. Because, if we stay beyond 1st May, we risk more violence, we risk more attacks against our own troops, and we risk, of course, also to be part of a continued presence in Afghanistan: that will be difficult. But, if we leave, then we also risk that the gains we have made are lost and that Afghanistan again could become a safe haven for international terrorists.
So, that’s exactly the reason why we need to make sure that we maximise the likelihood that all the conditions are in place, in the best possible way, to prevent that from happening again. And then we need a thorough assessment of to what extent are conditions met, to what extent are we willing to take some risks in a very difficult situation in Afghanistan.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. For the next question we’ll go to Naser Ahmadi, Deutsche Welle, Afghanistan.
NASER AHMADI [DW Afghanistan]: Thank you very much for giving me the chance. My question is that the Taliban have threatened to start a major war against foreign forces if they do not withdraw by May 1st. Does it mean the collapse of US-Taliban agreement and the end of intra-Afghan peace talks? What is your position regarding this issue?
JENS STOLTENBERG: So, my main focus now is to avoid or prevent ending in the situation where we see increased violence and new fighting in Afghanistan. We still have the possibility to create the conditions for a lasting peace. This is the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process, so the Afghans have to create the peace.
But, NATO and NATO Allies provide support. We are committed to continue to provide support to the Afghan security forces. We are committed to extend funding til 2024. And we are there with our Resolute Support Mission, which is much smaller than our previous training mission . . . no, sorry, our previous combat mission, with more than 100,000 troops. But, we think that the training has been important because it has helped to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan security forces. And we have seen the courage, we have seen the professionalism of the Afghan security forces, especially over the last years since NATO ended its combat operations and went into a train, assist and advise mission.
But, again, any increase in violence by Taliban will undermine the prospects for peace. And, therefore, we expect them to reduce violence, not increase violence.
OANA LUNGESCU: And for the final question, we’ll go to David Herszenhorn from Politico.
DAVID HERSZENHORN [Politico]: Thanks so much. Mr Secretary General, I wonder if you could share with us, after two days of your overall talks with the defence ministers and consultations, if you feel you have consensus from Allies in going forward with your initial ideas around the 2030, the response to the 2030 reflection, report. And if . . . where you go in terms of next steps from here? Some sense that . . . that maybe some Allies were a little concerned you had shared some of those ideas with . . . with us first. Of course, we only encourage you to keep up good communication with the press. Thanks so much.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, part of my mandate for the NATO2030 process is to engage in public discussions and to do public communications. And I really believe that that’s part of the job description for a Secretary General, NATO, is also to engage in public debates, especially about such important issues as how to make sure that NATO is fit for the future, how to make sure that NATO continues to be the most successful alliance in history. And the main reason why NATO is the most successful alliance in history is that we have been able to change when the world is changing. And now the world is changing again, so NATO has to change again. And that’s exactly the purpose of NATO2030.
This is a process which has been going on for some time now. I have consulted closely with the capitals. We also had input from the Expert Group, which I appointed to support me in this work. I had Young Leaders - they provided some support. And this is not the end of this process. I will now continue to consult with capitals, because the purpose and the aim is to have a forward-looking, substantive agenda for the NATO summit later this year.
We have a unique opportunity now to open a new chapter in the transatlantic relationship, North America and Europe. We need to seize that opportunity. But, to do so, we need to demonstrate the strength of the transatlantic bond, not only in words, but also in deeds.
Any my NATO2030 agenda is exactly about that. How to make sure that we are able to demonstrate that commitment, not only in words, but also in deeds. And we will continue the process, 30 Allies.
It always takes some time to develop common positions on all the issues. But,we had a good and stimulating discussion on NATO2030 yesterday. I look forward to continue those discussions and I’m very confident that NATO Allies see the value of using this unique opportunity, or seizing this unique opportunity to strengthen the bond between Europe and North America.
There is no way to deny or to hide that over the last years, we had some difficult times, some challenging moments. Now we have a new US administration very much committed to NATO, to the bond between Europe and North America embodied in NATO. And I really think that we should then build on that and have some real substance and forward-looking decisions at our summit later this year.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much, this concludes this press conference and the ministerial meeting. Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.