Press briefing on Afghanistan

by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

  • 17 Aug. 2021 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 17 Aug. 2021 18:05

(As delivered)

Online press briefing by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the situation in Afghanistan

Good afternoon.

The North Atlantic Council has met to discuss Afghanistan.
The situation is extremely serious and unpredictable.
Kabul has fallen, and the Taliban have taken control of most of the country.
I am deeply saddened by what I see unfolding in Afghanistan.

NATO’s focus right now is to ensure the safe departure of personnel from Allied and partner countries, and of the Afghans who have helped us.
NATO has been working round the clock to maintain operations at Kabul international airport.
Around 800 NATO civilian personnel have remained to provide key functions under very challenging circumstances.
Including air traffic control, fuel, and communications.
And I would like to thank them.
Let me also thank the military forces of NATO Allies, in particular Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom for their vital role in securing the airport.
Operations at the airport are now gradually resuming.
And during today’s meeting Allies announced that they are sending additional airplanes.

We have also maintained our diplomatic presence.
Our Senior Civilian Representative Ambassador Pontecorvo and his team have been working closely with Allies and the rest of the international community to coordinate and facilitate the evacuation.
And we remain committed to completing evacuations including of our Afghan colleagues, as soon as possible.
The Taliban must respect and facilitate the safe departure of all those who wish to leave.
The airport, as well as roads and border crossings, must be open.
All Afghan men, women and children deserve to live in safety and dignity. 
There must be a peaceful transfer of power to an inclusive government.
With no revenge or retribution.

A government that does not respect the fundamental rights of all Afghans and reinstates the reign of fear, risks international isolation.

The United States agreed with the Taliban last year that US troops would withdraw by May.
And after many rounds of consultations, all Allies agreed to follow the US decision.
Ending our military mission was not easy.
We were faced with a serious dilemma.
Either leave, and risk seeing the Taliban regain control.
Or stay, and risk renewed attacks, and an open-ended combat mission.

We never intended to stay in Afghanistan forever.
Over the past few years, from over 100,000 troops we went down to less than 10,000 – and now to zero.
But what we have seen in the last few weeks was a military and political collapse at a speed which had not been anticipated.
Parts of the Afghan security forces fought bravely.
But they were unable to secure the country.
Because ultimately, the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted.
This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today.

At the same time, we need to have an honest, clear-eyed assessment of NATO’s own engagement in Afghanistan.
Despite our considerable investment and sacrifice over two decades, the collapse was swift and sudden.
There are many lessons to be learned.

But we should also recognise the gains we have made.
NATO Allies and partners went into Afghanistan after 9/11 to prevent the country from serving as a safe haven for international terrorists to attack us.
In the last two decades, there have been no terrorist attacks on Allied soil organised from Afghanistan.
Those now taking power have the responsibility to ensure that international terrorists do not regain a foothold.
Allies have the capabilities and the vigilance to address future terrorist threats from Afghanistan.

Due to our military presence and the support of the international community, a new generation of men and women have grown up in a new Afghanistan.  
Able to get education, take part in the political process, run their own businesses, and enjoy a vibrant media scene.
Today’s Afghanistan is very different to the Afghanistan of 2001.
So those gains cannot be easily reversed.

The world will be watching.
And must continue to support a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

With that, I’m ready to take some questions.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

For the first question, we'll go to Lorne Cook from Associated Press.

Lorne Cook (Associated Press):

Secretary General, I hope you can hear me well. Lorne Cook, Associated Press. You mentioned your own surprise at the speed of the collapse of the Afghan security forces. I wonder if you can tell us how much did that training effort cost over 18 years? Why should European and American taxpayers allow their money to be spent on training in other countries, which NATO does, when this happened after several years of NATO effort in Afghanistan? And can you guarantee that there's going to be an official inquiry, or some kind of study, to learn these lessons of the failure that we've seen here?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

There are lessons to be learned. And, of course, when we have been there for 20 years, invested billions of US dollars, and also sacrificed lives of our own soldiers, then, of course we need to examine, to look into those lessons, because we need to continue to fight international terrorism. We also know that sometimes NATO has to deploy combat troops in big combat operations, as we did after 9/11 in Afghanistan, and as we also have done elsewhere.

But in the long run, we strongly believe that it's better to build local capacity, to train local forces, as we have done in the Balkans, as we do in Iraq, and also as we have done in Afghanistan. But the big question we have to ask and understand in the clear-eyed way is, why didn't the forces we trained, and equipped, and supported over so many years, why were they not able to stand up against the Taliban in the stronger and better way than they did.

We were always aware of the risks that Taliban could regain control. That was stated clearly when we made the decision to end our military presence. But it was a surprise, the speed of the collapse, and how swiftly that happened. So, international terrorism remains a challenge and a threat in many places in the world. Therefore, NATO needs to stay vigilant, to stay at the forefront of the fight against international terrorism. But there are lessons that need to be learned from Afghanistan, and we will do that. But the main focus today is to get people out of Afghanistan, out from the airport, and then we will draw the lessons and examine the lessons learned after the evacuation has been finalised.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

Lailuma Sadid from Brussels Morning next, please.

Lailuma Sadid (Brussels Morning):

Thank you very much Secretary General for this statement. I would like to ask especially about the NATO role in Afghanistan. NATO is not only US. Don’t you think that decision that you or NATO took it was wrong? How do you respond for that and how many more said policies will be followed before a workable one will be implemented and planned? Because when we saw the situation as a Afghan women and like a normal Afghan citizens, you see the situation that has really passed and there is thousands of women who really don’t know for the future what is going on and what should  happen for them and they are always asking what does it mean 20 years? NATO with the whole international community is inside in Afghanistan and then we are going back again 20 years after we were on that place. I would like to ask how is that possible? The US and EU with their talk of civilisation in the world, have beaten Nazism, fascism and imperialism, but after the Second World War NATO and the European Union with all this big intelligence and they are not able to defend for the… only a group of Taliban and then you are doing everything again for just 20 years after and how do you see the future? And I would like to ask as a woman please, don’t recognise the Emirate Islamic Taliban without any conditions like the agreement which is signed between the Taliban and the government of Trump and then all we do is following that. Please don’t recognise the Taliban and don’t put us again in the same situation. Thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

It was extremely difficult to make the decision to end the NATO military presence in Afghanistan. And it was difficult because I share your pain, I understand your frustration.

I was Prime Minister Norway back in 2001 when we decided to send the troops, for the first time, to Afghanistan. And now I am the Secretary General of NATO, responsible for our presence there and the ending of our military mission. And all these years I've been many times in Afghanistan. I met people, I met, not least a lot of women, standing out as strong leaders, with a strong voice. And I've seen that social and economic progress you have been able to make in Afghanistan over these years. And therefore, we will continue to support, we will continue to watch, and we will continue to hold the new rulers accountable for living up to a fundamental human rights, including, of course, the rights of women. It is, it is a tragedy what we now see taking place in Afghanistan. At the same time, there has been gains. And we all need to make all efforts to try to preserve those gains, including the fact that generations of men and women, but in particular women, are now educated, are now taking part in political processes, and it will not be easy for a new rulers to remove, to take away all those gains.

So, I understand the anger. But I also have the responsibility to convey the message that the plan intended to never stay in Afghanistan forever, the plan was to build an Afghan state, the Afghan security force to take responsibility for the future of Afghanistan. And the tragedy was that, after 20 years, we saw a very sudden collapse of Afghan leadership, politically and militarily, that led to the advances of the Taliban.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

Mustafa Sarwar from Radio Free Europe – Dari section, please.

Mustafa Sarwar (Radio Free Europe – Dari Section)

Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary General. Which NATO countries, specifically, are involved in the evacuation efforts of Afghans who are at risk? And, the airport issues aside, what are they planning to do to get those Afghans out? And my second question is, what's your message to the Taliban now that they are in control of Kabul? Thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

NATO's main focus now is to get the people out. Of course our own staff, but we retain some critical staff at the airport to be able to run the airport, air traffic control, fuel, and so on.

To get our own staff out, to get staff from NATO Allied countries out.

People who have worked for NATO, but also Afghans who have worked and supported NATO and NATO Allies over all these years. And we are working hard on that, 24/7. And we are already seeing that some diplomatic staff but also some locally employed Afghans have been evacuated out of Afghanistan.

We are working to speed that up, to get more planes in and more planes out with, with people leaving. Then some NATO Allies have also stated that they will not only focus on, and provide support to, those Afghans who have worked for us over all these years, but also other Afghans who are vulnerable, or in a difficult position.

We have seen public announcements by several NATO Allies, but the precondition for getting also these other Afghans out is of course to have the airport, up and running, and we have now many NATO Allies, helping to ensure exactly that. We have the United States, they are deploying more troops to secure the airport, we have Turkey, who has been at the airport for many, many years. We have Norway running the hospital at the airport, we have the United Kingdom and other Allies also helping and supporting. And during the meeting of the North Atlantic Council today, several Allies announced that they are sending in airplanes to the region, to be able to build air bridge, air bridge to get people out. So, there is a huge effort by many Allies to keep the airport open and to help to evacuate. And several Allies also announced that they're ready to support, and also provide resettlement of other vulnerable Afghans.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

For the next question we'll go to POLITICO and David Herszenhorn.

David Herszenhorn (POLITICO):

Thank you. Thanks. Secretary General, I wanted to ask about the scale and scope of the current operations, but you mentioned, first, the fact that this was all Allies making a decision to follow the US. And I wonder, normally when you talk about, we talk about a tragedy, it's something like a natural disaster, a climate, is something that couldn't be prevented[…]this is a consequence of a clear policy decision. And I wonder if you view this as an American failure, the decision to pull out and the inability to predict how quickly the country would collapse politically and militarily or view this is a failure of all Allies in not insisting, and for you personally, insisting on a conditions based withdrawal, which is what you had talked about for quite a long time before Joe Biden took office and then revisited Donald Trump's agreement and decision.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

This has, this is first and foremost the tragedy for the Afghan people who have been seeing the gradual progress towards democracy, freedom over decades, and made enormous social and economic progress. So it's a tragedy for them. But of course also for NATO personnel, servicemen and women who have served in Afghanistan, and pay the high price over many years.

For many years, we had the conditions based presence. Then, in February last year, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban, and agreed to end the military presence by May. And Allies welcomed that agreement. And after extensive consultations with the new Biden administration, this spring, this winter, all Allies agreed that the time had come to end the military presence, the NATO presence in Afghanistan, knowing that there were risks, knowing that there was possibility that the Taliban was going to regain control over the country.

But Allies took that risk with open eyes, clear-eyed, because they knew that alternative was not to continue with the limited military presence. The alternative was most likely continue with an increased presence of NATO troops and forces, and to once again engage in combat, because since the negotiations, since the deal was signed, NATO troops, US troops were not attacked by Taliban. We could not anticipate that that would continue. So the alternative was either more fighting, more troops, more combat, and an open-ended NATO military presence, or to leave. And then, of course, hope that all the investments we had made in the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government, not only NATO, but the whole international community, with development aid with reform programs for the Afghan government, that all of that from the European Union, from NATO, from the UN, from many countries all over the world, that would prove sustainable and viable, meaning that the Afghan government, Afghan state structures, the Afghan security forces were able to withstand the pressure from the Taliban. That didn't happen. We saw the risks, we anticipated the challenges, but, and no one anticipated the speed of the collapse of the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government, and Afghan states structures.

David Herszenhorn (POLITICO):

A choice than to turn the country over to the Taliban rather than risk the continued endless mission, the continued endless fighting. That was the choice.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

The choice was to choose between two very difficult total alternatives with the risks and downsides, connected to both of them. Either, as we stated when you made the decision, the risk of the Taliban returning, or the risk of more decades, many more years in Afghanistan, trying to build an Afghan state and Afghan security forces. And this is an effort not only by NATO but by the whole international community. And the frustration is easy understand when we see that so many years of efforts by the whole international community, have proved so, has not given better and stronger results when it comes to the strength of the Afghan state structures.

At the same time, some of the gains will be hard to reverse. The fact that millions of young girls and boys have got education is an achievement that is lasting. The fact that we have more independent, stronger political voices in Afghanistan now are gains that are not easily reversed, and it's our responsibility of all of us to, to do whatever we can to support the Afghans in trying to maintain those gains. But there is no doubt that this was difficult. It was a difficult decision between difficult alternatives, and we have seen the consequences of a difficult decision made by 30 Allies, together, when they decided to end the military mission.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

We will now go to Teri Schultz from NPR.

Teri Schultz (NPR):

Thank you. Mr. Secretary General, you and I have spoken many, many times over the last years about the situation of girls. And you just heard from Laila. But I'm also talking to people there about the journalists though, some of the women journalists who were empowered there and they're now hiding in their houses and they can't go out. How did this suddenly not become a priority anymore? And having some education is not going to save them now.

And how does NATO plan to continue supporting them? Something that you've said consistently, NATO will continue supporting civilians. What can you do? What can you do? Where are you sending money? I mean, I don't understand, I don't understand how this planning, planning for all contingencies that you mentioned, will play out now. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

The most important, and the most immediate, thing that we are doing is to keep the airport open to help people evacuate, leave Afghanistan. And we’ve send a clear message to the new rulers that they need to allow people to leave. And we are helping people to leave. Of course not only our own staff but also Afghans who have worked for us. And several Allies are also stated very clearly, they're ready also to help, and support, and provide asylum to other Afghans who are in an exposed and dangerous position.

And to be able to get these people out, we need the airport, up and running. And that's exactly what we have been working on 24/7, for now several days, with NATO Allies, with NATO staff working at the airport, running the airport, providing critical services. And then we also tried to help people to get to the airport, and to get them out. So, the precondition for any support, or at least help people out, is that we are successful in the big task it is now to make sure that we have functional airport, an operational airport. And I welcome the fact that Allies have clearly stated today that they are sending in more planes, and also that we see that operations, the flights in and out from the airport, are gradually resuming, as we speak.

Teri Schultz (NPR):

I am sorry, but do you mean that on the long term you're keeping the airport open or for a few days until you get your own people out? As I understand it, it's just for a few days for evacuation flights for those people that NATO, NATO and Allies are helping to get out. You don't plan on any long-term maintenance of the airport, do you?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

I will not speculate about exactly how long, but the thing is that we will try to evacuate as many people as possible, and we have stated clearly, again and again, that all those who want to leave should be allowed to leave by air, airplanes, or by land, the open border crossings, they're not open now but we will continue to work for opening of the border crossings.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

Next question will be from Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Thomas Gutschker (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung):

Secretary General, two questions. The first one, what would happen to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund? NATO had committed to continue funding for the Afghan army until 2024. Will these payments now being frozen or stopped? Have you discussed that in the NAC and what is your recommendation? And the second question: In past days, UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace has said in a number of interviews, that he had consulted with Allies, whether stabilization force could be, could remain in Afghanistan, even without US involvement. Have you been involved in these consultations? And do you think, at any point, it could have been possible to stay in Afghanistan, without US troops? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

First, we have, of course, suspended all support, financial and other kinds of support, to the Afghan government, because there's no Afghan government for NATO to support. So all that is frozen and suspended. And we will come back to how we will then.. the Trust Fund for the Afghan army, that's something we can solve later. But no money is transferred, no support is provided to Kabul, after the collapse of the government. And as I have seen reports about attempts to try to establish a kind of coalition of the willing to replace NATO and the US presence in Afghanistan. I have read that in the newspapers, I've not been part of any consultations in NATO about that.

But I think it reflects the reality that when the United States decided to end its presence in Afghanistan, and of course the United States has been responsible for the majority of the soldiers and has carried their part of the burden, all the way, there were no willingness from other European Allies, Canada or the partner nations, to replace or to fill in after the United States. So, so that is also reflected in the fact that after an extensive consultation, several ministerial meetings, many meetings at the Ambassador level in February, March and April, we decided, together, 30 Allies, that we would end the mission. We have said many times that we went into Afghanistan together, we adjusted our presence together, and we left together. And 30 Allies agreed on this decision. And that is also now reflected in the fact that all Allies were part of that decision when we made it in NATO.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

The next question, we'll go to NRK, Philippe Bédos Ulvin.

Philippe Bédos Ulvin (NRK):

Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary General. Does NATO consider it probable that terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda will return now to Afghanistan in full force after the Taliban takeover?  And what kind of assurances has the Alliance gotten from the Taliban that this will not be the case?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

The agreement that the United States made with Taliban last year in February 2020, was an agreement that the United States agreed to end its military presence in Afghanistan and NATO Allies agree to that and follow the US decision. But at the same time, the Taliban agreed to make sure that Afghanistan not once again becomes a platform for international terrorists to organize, plan, terrorist attacks against NATO Allied countries. And of course we expect the Taliban to live up to those commitments. And we also will follow on, watch that very closely. And NATO Allies will remain vigilant and we have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from distance if we see that terrorist groups again, trying to establish themselves, and plan, organize attacks against the NATO Allied countries. We have seen that, NATO Allies have those capabilities, and they are also of course available to be used in Afghanistan, if needed, strike against those groups from distance.

We see a tragedy unfolding, we see the sadness and the pain that Afghans suffer. But one of the achievements we have made over these 20 years is actually that we have been able to really fight, and destroy terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is hardly existing, is much weaker today than it was when we started our military operation. And therefore, the main purpose of NATO going into Afghanistan was to make sure that the country was not a platform for international terrorists and, and the NATO presence, together with partner countries, has been extremely important in achieving exactly that.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

Markus Preiss next, from ARD, please.

Markus Preiss (ARD):

Yes, thank you very much, Mr. NATO Secretary General. Many European leaders are worried that the events in Afghanistan might lead to a new flow of refugees. And my question is: in this case, do you think the US has a moral obligation to accommodate refugees on their own soil? Or is it only a problem for Europeans and Turkey? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

Well all Allies, including all the European Allies, we all made the decision together, knowing that there were risks. And also knowing that without the United States, there were no  willingness from other the Allies to fill in and to replace the United States’ capabilities in our mission in Afghanistan. And I understand that also because the NATO Mission Afghanistan was triggered by an attack on the United States. So partly because the United States has all these capabilities, and partly because the whole operation was triggered by an attack on the United States. Of course the United States decided to end its presence, it was natural also for other NATO Allies to do the same, to end their military presence in Afghanistan.

We will continue to work for a stable Afghanistan for many reasons, but also to prevent a flow of refugees from Afghanistan to Europe and to other countries. The United States have clearly stated that they are ready to take on, and to receive, and to resettle Afghans who worked for them over these years, but we all need to make an effort to avoid or prevent a new flow of refugees migrants coming from Afghanistan.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

For the next question we'll go to VG and Alf Bjarne Johnsen.

Alf Bjarne Johnsen (VG):

Thanks. Mr. Secretary General, I would like to take you back, to the two months back to the NATO Summit in June where there was a clear commitment, combined to the withdrawal of the forces, to stand with the Afghan people. Not mentioning which party that would rule in Kabul to continue to provide training and financing of security forces. And not at least to safeguard the human rights for particularly women, children and minorities. So is it possible, in this situation, to stand firm on these promises? And how do you see the view and the future of the commitments that the leaders gave in June? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

The situation in Afghanistan is evolving and therefore it's a bit hard to predict exactly what kind of situation, and also what kind of government, we will have in Afghanistan in the future. There are efforts to try to establish some kind of inclusive government, many national actors have called for that. And of course if that happens, it will be easier to have some kind of relationship, compared to, if we have a Taliban ruler which is something similar to what we saw 20 years ago. So, first of all, I think the important thing is to try to convey a clear message that we need a peaceful transition of power, transfer power, and we need an inclusive government in Afghanistan, respecting fundamental human rights.

NATO has ended its military presence, but of course the international community can, and also NATO can, continue to play a role. Development aid and different nongovernmental organizations, they are playing an important role in Afghanistan as they have done over many years, they will hopefully be able to continue to play that that role, to provide humanitarian aid, the development aid, and also to protect and support human rights.

So, the military presence was, and is, important, but the broader efforts of the international community, they may continue, of course depending a bit on the developments in Afghanistan. And the message from the NATO Summit, from the NATO leaders, was that we should look into all these tools, both the military, political, diplomatic, development aid tools to try to continue to support a peaceful development in Afghanistan. And I'm certain that NATO Allies, and a lot of other countries, the international community, is ready to continue to do so.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

For the final question, we'll go to Nick Fiorenza from Jane's Defence.

Nicholas Fiorenza (Jane’s Defence):

Thank you. I think you can hear me now, right. So my question was, what are your responses to what some commentators, saying that US and NATO defeat in Afghanistan could potentially undermine Article Five and, more specifically the US commitment to Europe.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg:

NATO remains a strong Alliance, and we have to remember that the reason we went into Afghanistan was to fight international terrorism, and to degrade al-Qaeda. And we have degraded al-Qaeda through our military mission in Afghanistan. So, so that's also reason why Allies made it clear that we aren't going to stay in Afghanistan forever. That's the reason why we gradually reduced our presence, and back in 2014 ended our combat mission there. And also why we decided, 30 Allies together, to end our military presence in Afghanistan. So, to degrade al-Qaeda, to fight international terrorism, that was the main purpose and al- Qaeda has been degraded, not least, due to NATO's military presence in Afghanistan over all these years.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu:

Thank you very much. This concludes this press point.