Press conference

by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the extraordinary meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs

  • 20 Aug. 2021 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 20 Aug. 2021 23:25

(As delivered)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Good afternoon,

NATO Foreign Ministers have just met to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
What we have witnessed in recent days is a tragedy for the people of Afghanistan.
The situation remains very difficult, and unpredictable.

Ministers discussed a number of different issues.

First, the continuing evacuation of people from Allied and partner countries, and Afghans who worked with us. 
This is our immediate priority.

NATO has worked around the clock to maintain operations at Kabul international airport,
allowing thousands of people to leave.
Around 800 NATO civilian personnel have worked to keep the airport open.
Providing air traffic control, fuel, and communications.                                                   
I pay tribute to them as they work in very difficult circumstances.

I also thank the military forces of NATO Allies,
in particular Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and our partner Azerbaijan,
for their vital role in securing the airport.
And I thank all the Allies who have today pledged to receive Afghans at risk.

Second, we discussed our approach to those in power in Kabul.
The eyes of the world are on Afghanistan.

We expect the Taliban to uphold their commitments,
and ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism.
The Taliban must put an end to violence around the country,
and uphold the fundamental rights of all Afghan citizens – men, women and children.

Over the years, NATO’s presence and the support of the whole  international community,
have allowed Afghans to make unprecedented social, economic and political progress.  
Any Afghan government which attempts to undo this progress risks international isolation. 

Third, ministers agreed that we will not allow terrorists to threaten us again from Afghanistan.

NATO’s engagement was in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11. 
Our objective was to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven for further attacks on us. 
And no terrorist attacks on Allied soil have been organized from Afghanistan over the last two decades. 
These gains must be preserved.
For our own security.

Finally, there are hard questions that we need to ask ourselves over our engagement in Afghanistan. 
We were clear-eyed about the risks of withdrawing our troops.
But the speed of the collapse of the Afghan political and military leadership, and armed forces was not anticipated.

There are many lessons to be learned. 
And I intend to conduct a thorough assessment of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan.

North America and Europe must continue to stand together in NATO. 
The unfolding events in Afghanistan do not change this. 

The shifting global balance of power,
Russia’s aggressive actions,
and the rise of China,
make it even more important that we keep a strong transatlantic bond.

We honour the service of the hundreds of thousands of Allied and partner military and civilians who have served in Afghanistan, and all the Afghans who have stood with us. 

With that I am ready to take your questions.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: And for the first question we'll go to Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Thomas Gutschker (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): Thanks a lot, and good evening. Secretary General, last Sunday when Kabul had fallen, US Foreign Secretary Blinken said that the US could deal with any Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people, and doesn't harbour terrorists. Now, today's statement from NATO foreign ministers goes way beyond that, including notably, rule of law, as a condition. How do you explain that difference? And how would you sum up your message to the Taliban rule as in Kabul today? That's my first question, if I may add a second one. Could you please explain, in which framework you intend to do this thorough investigation of the Resolute Support Mission? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: First of all, we discussed at the meeting today, and I raised the issue of thorough assessment, lessons learned process, not only about the Resolute Support mission but NATO's total engagement in Afghanistan over two decades. 

And as you know that started with the ISAF mission, and then that turned into the Resolute Support in 2014. So, so we have been there for close to 20 years. And we have invested a lot in blood and treasure in Afghanistan. And I think we should now have a very honest and clear-eyed assessment of what went wrong, but also what we achieved, and I will initiate that as soon as possible. 

Exactly how that will be done, I’ll have to come back to that but it was brought support, support from Allies to the idea of an assessment of the engagement to have… to learn lessons and to mitigate and learn. So we draw the right lessons from the engagement in Afghanistan and, and I have a humble approach, because when we see the challenges, the crisis, we are faced with Afghanistan, of course there are some serious lessons to be learned of the two decades in Afghanistan, for NATO. 

Then, fundamentally the message from all Allies, of course, and also the United States, and also what is reflected in the statement from foreign ministers today is the same that the government, the rule is the Taliban. They, in Kabul, in Afghanistan, they need to live up to their international commitments, to not harbour, support international terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, to respect human rights, including the rights of women, and also to give free passage to people so they can leave the country. 

And that of course also includes Afghans, and this has been expressed by Allies, individual Allies. And today also, in a joint statement by all NATO Allies, coming from the foreign ministerial meeting.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: For the next question will go to Paris. Melissa Bell for CNN.

Melissa Bell (CNN Paris): Secretary General, thank you very much. I wanted to ask you first of all, whether you agreed with the statement that's been made these last few days so this was the greatest debacle in the history of NATO, also whether you don't think that what's happened these last few days is really a nail in the coffin of Article Five that Allies can go into battle together, but once they don't withdraw together as a coalition, NATO has a problem.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: This is a tragedy, first and foremost for the people of Afghanistan. We have been there for 20 years, we have deployed hundreds of thousands of NATO troops. Several thousands have paid the ultimate price, and hundreds of thousands of non-US Allies have served alongside US soldiers in Afghanistan and more thousands have paid the ultimate price. 

So this has really been a huge effort by this alliance. When the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban back in February 2020, of course then it was very difficult for European Allies to continue to stay, because as you alluded to, we went into Afghanistan as a reaction… as a response to an attack on the United States. 

And when the United States decided to end its military mission there with the agreement signed back in February 2020, then it was no viable practical option for the other Allies, European Allies and Canada, to remain without the United States. 

NATO remains a strong alliance. NATO has implemented the biggest enforcement or collective defense in Europe since the end of the Cold War, and, and it was a very clear message from the meeting today, that whatever happens in Afghanistan, that should not undermine our ability to protect NATO allied countries NATO allied territory, and, and that was a very clear message from the foreign ministers today.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: The next question goes to Reuters and Sabine Siebold.

Sabine Siebold (Reuters): Thank you, Secretary General, I wanted to ask you whether you have any idea or how long you expect Kabul airport to remain open and to continue evacuations? And the second one if I may. You thanked several states for establishing the security of Kabul airport. Amongst them Turkey. Could you work out a little bit on that one, please? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: So Turkey has been responsible for the airport for several years, and they continue to play a key role in operating the airport, the big difference now is of course that because of the crisis, because of the difficulties because of the, the huge evacuation effort, all the Allies and especially the United States have also deployed a large number of troops to the airport. 

All Allies, thanked today those Allies who are helping to operate the airport, in particular Turkey, the United States, United Kingdom, but also some other Allies who have deployed different kinds of capabilities to be able to run the airport, and also several hundreds NATO officials are supporting… civilian officials, civilian staff are also helping to operate the airport in close cooperation with the United States and other NATO Allies. 

Then on the timelines. That was an issue that was discussed during the meeting today, and several Allies raised the issue of potentially extending the timeline. To get more people out. The US has stated that the timeline ends on the 31st of August, but several Allies raised during the discussion today, the need to potentially extend that to be able to get more people out. 
Our focus is to get, of course, our own staff, people, people working for NATO, for NATO allied countries for partner countries, but also Afghans, and we are working hard to help the Afghans, we have been able to get some out but we, we are working on to get more Afghans out of Afghanistan.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: So the next question we go to Geo TV news from Pakistan and Khalid Hameed Farooqi.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: Khalid we can't hear you. Okay now we can hear you, yes, please go ahead. 

Khalid Hameed Farooqi (Geo TV): Secretary General, it seems that Pakistan emerging as a consensus builder, contacting previous Afghan government, previous [inaudible 12:56] and bringing all Afghan factions together. So, will you support these efforts of consensus building by the Pakistan?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: I think what is important now is that whatever new government, we will get in Kabul, that this is an inclusive government. And everything that can help to support such a process I think is helpful. When it comes to Pakistan, I think that Pakistan has a special responsibility, partly because Pakistan is a neighbour of Afghanistan and partly because of Pakistan's close relationship to Taliban. 

So, I think, Pakistan has a special responsibility to make sure that Afghanistan, live up to its international… that Afghanistan lives up to its international commitments, and, and also that Afghanistan, not once again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists. A stable Afghanistan is in the interest of all countries and not least the neighbours as Pakistan.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu : The next question goes to Washington Post and Reis Thebault.

Reis Thebault (Washington Post): Thank you. Secretary General, before Kabul fell, you warned the Taliban that quote:  “they will not be recognized by the international community, if they take the country by force”. Now that they've done that, what is NATO's position on recognizing the Taliban, as the government of Afghanistan? Is recognition out of the question, or is it instead conditioned on a set of criteria and does NATO currently have a line of communication with the Taliban? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: NATO is not a nation, so NATO does not recognize states, but of course NATO Allies can do that and it was clearly stated in the meeting today, that diplomatic recognition is something which there have to be conditions on how the new government behave and to what extent they live up to their international commitments. 
So the message is reflected in the statement agreed by foreign ministers today. And, and that is about the need for Afghanistan to live up to commitments, for instance, a commitment in the agreement with the United States signed in February 2020, or last year, where they clearly stated that they should not support, provide a safe haven for international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, so that's a very obvious and important commitment because NATO went into Afghanistan, our main task in Afghanistan has to be to prevent the country from once again becoming a platform for launching terrorist attacks against our own countries. 

For 20 years we have prevented such attacks, terrorist attacks from Afghanistan against NATO allied countries, we need to preserve those gains, and we also discussed during the meeting today, how we can preserve those gains, including by stating really clearly to the Afghan, new Afghan rulers, the new government that these are commitments we expect them to adhere to. Then of course it also is relevant when it comes to…. we also expect them to live up to other commitments, including respect for human rights and the rights of women. 

And then some NATO Allies have not recognized the new government partly because there is no new government to recognize. But some Allies, and I think that is important, they have, what I will call operational tactical contact with the Taliban, but that is to ensure safe passage, to manage the situation outside the airport and so on. That is, we have to distinguish these kinds of tactical, operational contact with Taliban, which I think is needed, important, and diplomatic recognition, that's two different things.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: The next question goes to Lailuma Sadid from Brussels Morning.

Lailuma Sadid (Brussels Morning): Thank you very much, Oana, and Mr. Secretary General. As you know, everyone asking about recognition, and also about Pakistan. My question would be about what is next, and also how do you see the future without any government in this kind of situation and also, NATO has a unified commitment for Afghanistan, to get out the people as you say, but who can make this together because some of the NATO country... 

They couldn't send an airplane, or some kind of [inaudible 18:09] …sending or bringing back the Afghan people. How do you manage this kind of things, especially for the moment, with the huge people are arriving, and are at the airport, and I hope in this way, it becomes solved all the problem that they leave the Afghan people, to, if they want to leave the Afghanistan they leave them. Thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: The meeting we had today was a very timely, and I also say constructive meeting of NATO foreign ministers because we addressed some of the urgent issue of evacuation, but also some of the more longer term challenges, counterterrorism, how to have a common political approach to the new rulers in Kabul, and also how to conduct the lessons learned process and how to maintain the unity of the Alliance. 

When it comes to the immediate and most urgent task of evacuation, I welcome the fact that many Allies today, clearly made offers to host Afghans, to receive them in their countries. So, if we get them out there are many NATO Allies who are ready to receive either temporary or permanent resettlement in NATO countries. 

Many Allies have also sent down planes, so we are, of course the United States, but also other Allies have planes in the region, and many have been able to fly in and also take out people from the airport. The challenge, that's, that's in a way, in a very dire and difficult situation at least some good news that Allies are ready to receive Afghans and also ready to send down planes and help to evacuate. 

The big challenge is to get people on those planes. The limiting factor is not the lack of planes. The limiting factor now is actually the ability to get people into the airport process, and on the planes. So that was an issue that was thoroughly discussed in the meeting today, raised by many Allies, the need to work harder on how can we get more people who are now outside the airport, into the airport, then processed, and then on to the planes, because the paradox is that we have more planes than we have people or passengers. Because the process of getting people into and especially Afghans into the airport processed is now the big, big, big challenge. 

So I think that's one of the reasons why this meeting was so important, because then we had thirty Allies, sitting around the table, and focusing on, perhaps the most difficult and urgent task now, and that is to enable more people and make it possible for more people especially Afghans to get to the airport and into the airport.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: Next to go to DPA and Ansgar Haase.

Lailuma Sadid (Brussels Morning): They’ll be saved?

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: Sorry Lailuma, you had a, you had a follow up question?

Lailuma Sadid (Brussels Morning): Just, just a small one, I would like to ask about the woman activists, is there any guarantee they will be saved. This is my rally, always support for the woman.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: NATO Allies are doing whatever they can to get as many people as possible out to Afghanistan. We have been able to get thousands out already, also many Afghans, several NATO Allies also particularly raised the issue of not only helping citizens from our own countries, from partner nations, and Afghans who are working with us, but also all the Afghans at risk, but again we faced the same challenge to get these people to the airport and into the airport, and that was one of the main issues discussed at the meeting today, and we're working hard on how we can make more progress on getting Afghans at risk to the airport and into the airport. 

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: Next we go to the DPA.

Ansgar Haase (DPA): Thank you, Secretary General, how many Afghans who worked for NATO still have to be evacuated? And can you tell us how many places for relocation were pledged today by Allies? And if I may, another question. Is it correct that there are plans to set up central reception centres for rescued Afghans in Kosovo and Poland? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: We are discussing different sites for temporary staging housing areas for Afghans coming out of Afghanistan. And then several Allies offered, declared readiness to also resettle on a more permanent basis. So the challenge now is actually not to find Allies who are willing to receive Afghans, either on a temporary basis or permanent basis. The challenge is to get them to the airport and into the airport, because we have countries ready to receive. We have planes ready to transport them. 

The challenge is to get them to the airport and that was one of the main issues raised, discussed at the meeting today, and I think that in itself that we have thirty Allies pinpointing or making a clear, stating so clearly, and also addressing and discussing how we can make progress on that issue is important, because this is an urgent need to make progress on how to get more people to the airport on into the airport. Then your second question. What was that? 

Ansgar Haase (DPA): On the figures. How many Afghans are still to be evacuated, and how many places for relocation were pledged?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: We have… NATO… we have around 800 contractors and others who have worked for NATO, that number has now been reduced to around, a bit less than 500 at the airport, and a bit less than 200 of those are Afghans, but that's… those Afghans who have worked for NATO, for the NATO agencies. Then, of course, on top of that, you have a lot of Afghans who are worked for different NATO allied countries like Germany, like, like United Kingdom and many other Allies, that number is much bigger. But I know that NATO Allies together, and individual Allies are now doing whatever they can to try to get all these Afghans out.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: And for our last question we'll go to NTB and Idunn Lavik.

Idunn Lavik (NTB): Thank you, Secretary General. Do you know the extent of NATO finance arms that are now possibly in control of the Taliban, and is NATO considering destroying any weapons or vehicles to ensure that they are not getting in Taliban’s hands. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: NATO has ended its military operation in Afghanistan. As we all know, some NATO Allies are present at the airport. And NATO ended its military mission in Afghanistan because thirty Allies agreed to do so. We agreed to do so this spring, but that was a direct result of the US agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, where they agreed to end the US presence. We have different NATO Allies like Norway, like many other Allies they have done whatever they can for now several months. 

Partly to of course get all their soldiers out, but also to take back as much equipment as possible. Some equipment has also been destroyed, but I don't have the exact numbers for all the different Allies because many Allies operated in Afghanistan, and each Ally have had the responsibility for their own equipment. Some has been taken back end some has been destroyed, and some and some is of course, still in Afghanistan.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: Thank you very much. This concludes this press conference. Thank you.