by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen following the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers with non-NATO ISAF Contributing Nations, Brussels
I want to take a moment to recognise the terrible earthquake and tsunami that happened earlier this morning in the Pacific. We have all seen the dreadful images as the tsunami made landfall on the coast of Japan. Japan is one of NATO’s global partners and on behalf of NATO Allies I want to extend our heartfelt condolences to those who have lost loved ones, to those who have lost their homes and their livelihoods.
I have just come from a very productive meeting on Afghanistan. Ministers from all 48 nations contributing troops to the ISAF mission have today taken a crucial step in this critical mission.
They have endorsed the recommendations of the Joint Afghan-NATO Transition Board for the first set of areas to be transferred to Afghan lead.
So today, NATO has taken its own decisions regarding the readiness of ISAF to support the transition process. But I want to make clear that this is not the final decision. Transition will not start until it has been approved by the Afghan Government and announced by President Karzai.
I will now convey ISAF’s decision to the Afghan authorities. Minister of Defence Wardak participated in our meeting and in our discussion. I anticipate that President Karzai will then formally announce the start of transition on March 21, during his speech marking the Afghan New Year. This will indeed mark the start of a new era of stability, security and responsibility for Afghanistan.
We are fulfilling the commitment we made last year in Lisbon, and building on the progress we continue to see on the ground. Our strategy is working. And it is being achieved in ever-closer partnership with the Afghans.
We have seen progress all over Afghanistan and the briefings we have received today from General Petraeus and my Civilian Representative Ambassador Sedwill and also the intervention from Defence Minister Wardak have confirmed this progress. Since we met at the NATO Summit in November we have seen expanded security governance and economic development in the South of Afghanistan. We have seen expanded security in the West and the North. We have added more than 18,000 Afghan soldiers and police. We have expanded the Afghan local police programme and disrupted cross-border insurgent networks and operations. So it is indeed significant progress.
There is still, of course, much hard work to do to ensure that transition is successful and irreversible. Today, Ministers also discussed and agreed the principles by which we will implement transition, in line with the declaration made by ISAF Heads of State and Government at the Lisbon summit last November.
As the Afghan security forces take an increasing responsibility this may result in the thinning out of ISAF forces in a particular province. This transition dividend will be reinvested in other areas as required. Of course, ultimately decision on the redeployment and reinvestment of forces remain a national responsibility.
But ISAF nations have agreed to follow certain principles as they plan for force adjustments.
And let me just highlight three of these principles. Firstly coherence: national decisions will take into account the overall force requirements. Secondly relocation: troops freed up in one area could be moved to another area and thirdly reconfiguration: combat forces could be moved into training capabilities.
These principles constituted an expression of solidarity and joint commitment.
We are on track to achieve the goal we laid down at Lisbon together with President Karzai: that the Afghan National Security Forces will lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.
Today we have opened a new chapter in our joint endeavour. Afghan and international security forces continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Despite the ongoing challenges, we can take real pride in what we are achieving together.
I want to make one final point. As we start to implement transition, NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan will evolve, but we are not heading for the exit.
We have committed to a long-term partnership with the Afghan Government and its people We do not intend to keep a leading combat role a day longer than necessary. We will continue to provide expert help and training to the Afghan security forces, even as they take ever more responsibility for the security of their country and their people.
And with that, I am happy to take your questions.
Q: Slobo Lekic from the AP. Secretary General, would you mind commenting on whether these are the provinces and cities that have been agreed on? Lashkar Gah, Herat, Mazar i Sharif, Bamyan and Panjshir province and also Kabul, except for Surobi District?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (Secretary General of NATO): As I clearly stated in my introduction, the final decision as to which provinces and districts will be transitioned first the final decision will be made by President Karzai. I have seen a lot of speculations in the media, but we fully respect the procedure that has been laid out, the decision-making process which makes this a sovereign Afghan decision. And this is also reason why I do not want to comment on speculations at this stage.
OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): BBC.
Q: Secretary General, could I get your thoughts on two things. First of all, the reports that NATO forces killed Hamid Karzai's cousin in an operation recently. And also reports that we're getting from Afghanistan that General Petraeus has sacked two of his officers who were involved in the bombing of the Kunar province in which nine boys were killed.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: I understand, as regards the alleged killing of President Karzai's cousin, I understand an investigation is under way into this operation. But I would like to stress that it's an operation which took place outside the ISAF framework.
Q: And the officers who have reportedly been sacked by General Petraeus?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: I have no comment on that. I have full confidence in General Petraeus.
OANA LUNGESCU: DPA.
Q: Dieter Eberling from DPA, the German Press Agency. Secretary General, yesterday you didn't want to react to rumours, but today we have the French president saying in Brussels that he is in favour of targeted actions against Libya. What is your reaction to that?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: We have not discussed that issue at our meetings here in NATO. This idea was not raised during our deliberations. As I outlined yesterday we have not taken any operational decision from NATO side. We have asked our military to conduct prudent planning for all eventualities, but I've also made it clear that any NATO operation will take place in accordance with and pursuant to a clear UN mandate.
OANA LUNGESCU: Jane's.
Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defense. Two quick questions. The ANE needs modern equipment and weapons and lots of it. Did the 48 nations today discuss that and were there any major commitments to that end. And secondly, are any changes foreseen to the overland transit arrangements with Russia and Central Asia for the kinds of supplies, non-lethal or otherwise, that might be needed in the future? Thank you.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: You're right, one of the future tasks... or one of the, also, present tasks, will be to provide sufficient equipment for the Afghan Security Forces. To that end some trust funds have already long ago been established and this issue was also raised during today's meeting and by the end of the meeting I urged allies and ISAF partners to provide economic resources for these funds.
We need an increased number of Afghan Security Forces, but obviously the Afghan government is not able to sustain economically such a huge number of security forces, so they will need assistance from abroad and to that end we have established a trust fund, and I hope NATO allies and ISAF partners will be able to provide economic resources for these funds.
Q: (Inaudible...) overland transit agreement? Will it need to be broadened or...?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: As you know we made an agreement with Russia on the transit arrangement, we're very satisfied with that agreement which allows for reverse transit through Russia. It entered into force on the first of January and I think that arrangement provides sufficient capacity.
Q: This is Marat(ph) from Radio Free Europe, Afghan (inaudible). When we're talking about a transition in security capabilities of Afghan forces, how much the lack of an effective Afghan air force will affect the capability of Afghan forces, because ground forces almost they're relying on air support. So if there's no strong Afghan air force so how much this will affect? Is there any plan from NATO to make stronger Afghan air force?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: Still, I think troops on the ground are important, speaking about the future security of Afghanistan. But of course, we're also very much aware of the air force capacity, and this is also the reason why more than a year ago I suggested, in my talks with the Russians, that we should provide helicopters for the Afghan army. And I'm pleased to see progress in that respect. Not least thanks to some bilateral arrangements between Russia and the United States. So I would expect helicopters to be provided for the Afghan army.
In addition to that, and within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council we have established a particular trust fund, which can finance provision of spare parts, and also finance training of helicopter personnel. So we are very much focused on that aspect as well.
OANA LUNGESCU: Last question over there.
Q: (Inaudible...). Secretary General, can you somehow tell us how do you envision that the volatile situation in Northern Africa, the Middle East, most of them Muslim countries is going to affect our campaign in Afghanistan? Thank you.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: We have all agreed during the meetings yesterday and today that whatever happens it will not have any impact on our operation in Afghanistan. We have the right strategy, we have the right resources to accomplish our mission in Afghanistan. We're making progress, and we will stay the course and no event will make us deviate from the strategy we have prepared for our campaign in Afghanistan.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much. Have a good weekend.