REMARKS TO THE PRESS
ANTONY J. BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE
LLOYD J. AUSTIN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL
APRIL 14, 2021
MODERATOR: Good evening. Welcome to NATO Headquarters, to this press conference with the Secretary General, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense. They will make short introductory statements, and then we’ll be able to take a few questions. Secretary General.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Good evening. We have just concluded an important joint meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have joined us here in Brussels. So Tony and Lloyd, I’m very grateful for your personal strong commitment to NATO, to our transatlantic bond. Your presence here today is a continued demonstration of the importance of the transatlantic bond, and the United States commitment to consulting with its NATO Allies.
Today, we decided together on the future of our presence in Afghanistan. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, after we invoked Article 5 of our founding treaty for the first time in support of the United States after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, we have paid a high price in both blood and in treasure. Thousands of our troops from allied and many partner nations, and from Afghanistan, have paid the ultimate price. Many more have been wounded. We are grateful to all who have served, and we honor all those who have sacrificed so much for our shared security.
Together, we have prevented Afghanistan from serving as a safe haven for terrorist attacks against our own countries. Since 9/11, there have been no terrorist attacks on allied soil organized from Afghanistan. We also helped to build the Afghan Security Forces from scratch. With great bravery and professionalism, they have provided security across the country over the last years. And in the almost two decades of international military presence, we have helped the Afghan people achieve social progress.
Over a year ago, we welcomed the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghanistan joint declaration. Since then, we have gradually reduced our troop presence as part of the peace process. Currently, we have around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the majority from non-U.S. allies and partner countries.
We have been closely consulting on our presence in Afghanistan over the last weeks and months. In the light of the U.S. decision to withdraw, foreign and defense ministers of NATO discussed the way forward today and decided that we will start the withdrawal of NATO Resolute Support Mission forces by May 1st. Our drawdown will be orderly, coordinated, and deliberate. We plan to complete the drawdown for all our troops within a few months. Any Taliban attacks on our troops during this period will be met with a forceful response.
We went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together, and we are united in leaving together. This is not an easy decision, and it entails risks. As I have said for many months, we face a dilemma, because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops.
This is not the end of our relationship with Afghanistan, but rather the start of a new chapter. NATO Allies and partners will continue to stand with the Afghan people, but it’s now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace that puts an end to violence, safeguards the human rights of all Afghans – particularly women, children, and minorities – upholds the rule of law, and ensures that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.
Today, NATO ministers also addressed Russia’s military buildup in and around Ukraine. This is the biggest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and it’s a part of a broader pattern of Russian aggressive actions which raises very serious concerns. Allies fully support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we call on Russia to de-escalate immediately, stop a pattern of aggressive provocations, and respect its international commitments.
Today’s meeting is an important demonstration of unity, and in this complex and more competitive world, we must continue to strengthen NATO to face the full range of challenges not just of yesterday, but today and tomorrow. So Tony and Lloyd, it’s great to be here together with you, and please, I hand it over to you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you, Jens. Thank you so much, Secretary Austin. Good evening, everyone. It’s very good to be back here at NATO just a few weeks after my first visit as Secretary of State, particularly for such an important day in the history of our alliance.
Twenty years ago, after the United States was attacked on 9/11, this alliance invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history. An attack on one is an attack on all. Together, we went to Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and prevent future terrorist attacks from Afghanistan directed at our homelands. Now, we will leave Afghanistan together and bring our troops home.
President Biden just laid out our plan in detail in a speech to the American people.
And as you heard and as Jens just noted, we’ll begin our troop withdrawal by May 1st and we’ll complete it before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 later this year.
After years of saying that we will leave at some point, that time has come. The threat from al-Qaida in Afghanistan is significantly degraded. Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. We have achieved our original objective.
And we don’t believe that maintaining an indefinite troop presence in Afghanistan is in our interests – not for the United States, not for NATO and our allies. The world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and as you heard the President say, we have to adjust our strategy to meet the threats of 2021, not 2001, and take on the challenges that now demand our focus and resources.
The United States and our allies will coordinate closely on our next steps. We have always said, as the secretary general noted, that our plan was “in together, adjust together, out together.” And today, we began to hammer out what “out together” looks like. We will withdraw our troops responsibly, deliberately, safely.
Let me be clear: Even with our troops home, we as an alliance and the United States as a country will continue to invest in and support the Afghan people and their chosen leaders.
We’ll also remain vigilant against any possibility that the threat of terrorism re-emerges in Afghanistan. We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities to stay on top of that. We’ll also hold the Taliban accountable to its commitments to keep al-Qaida or any terrorist organization from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks against us.
We’ll pursue a durable and just political settlement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. And we’ll engage other countries that have a major stake in a stable future for Afghanistan and will now have to step up after years of NATO underwriting stability.
We’ll continue to support the Government of Afghanistan and provide assistance to the Afghan Security Forces who have fought and continue to fight valiantly and at great cost on behalf of their country.
And we’ll keep investing in the well-being of the Afghan people. We’ll bring our diplomatic and development resources to bear to protect and build upon the gains that the Afghan people have made in recent years. We’ll continue support for the rights of Afghan women and girls, minorities advocating for their meaningful participation in the ongoing negotiations and their equal representation throughout society, and we’ll maintain significant humanitarian assistance to those in need.
In short, bringing our troops home does not mean ending our relationship with Afghanistan or our support for the country. And as Jens said, this will be the start of a new chapter grounded in diplomacy – just like our relationships with other countries. The future of Afghanistan ultimately is in the hands of the Afghan people, where it belongs. But our support, our engagement, and our determination remain.
Let me just also take a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary courage and strength of the troops who have served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. At its height, the International Security Assistance Force had troops from 50 NATO and partner countries. Today, Resolute Support has troops from 35 NATO Allies and partners. Our service members risked their lives, lost their lives in this effort, but we have succeeded in achieving the objective that we set out to achieve thanks to them, and we honor their service and their sacrifice.
I also have to say that the United States will never forget the solidarity that our NATO Allies have shown every step of the way. No country could have achieved what we achieved as an Alliance working together. And as my friend Secretary Austin can attest, these years in Afghanistan have transformed our troops and our countries in ways that we will be reflecting and acting on for a long time to come.
On a separate note, as the Secretary General said, we also spent some time today talking about the deep concern that Allies share about Russia and its actions on the borders of Ukraine, the largest concentration of forces there since 2014. And what was striking to me was, in the North Atlantic Council meeting, listening to every single ally, all 30 of us, express those concerns and a determination to see Russia take steps to de-escalate the tensions that it is creating.
Our conversations today here at NATO are just the start of the intensive planning that our countries will do together over the next several months. We are grateful to our Allies; we’re grateful to you, Mr. Secretary General, for your leadership, as we undertake this historic transition together.
SECRETARY AUSTIN: Secretary General Stoltenberg, thank you for today’s productive discussions. And I’m grateful to be joined by my friend and colleague today, Secretary Blinken.
And tonight, I want to thank our NATO Allies and partners for the time that they have afforded us to complete our review and explain the President’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. And I fully support his decision. Our troops have accomplished the mission that they were sent to Afghanistan to accomplish, and they have much for which to be proud. Their services and their sacrifices, alongside those of our Resolute Support and Afghan partners, made possible the greatly diminished threat to all of our homelands and – homelands from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. These brave men and women also made possible economic, civil, and political progress.
And so today, the Afghan people police their own streets, they defend their own interest, they elect their own leaders, many of whom are women, they send their children to school, and they own and operate more private enterprises than ever before. There is still too much violence, to be sure, and we know the Taliban still will seek to reverse some of this progress. And that is why we support wholeheartedly the diplomatic efforts ongoing to achieve a negotiated and political settlement that the Afghan people themselves endorse.
But today, the President has given us a new mission: to responsibly draw down our forces and transition to a new relationship with our Afghan partners. And thanks to the efforts of coalition and allied training, the Afghan Security Forces are better and more capable of securing their borders and protecting their fellow citizens. And we will continue to support them in those efforts. We will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces. We will also work closely with them and with our allies to maintain counterterrorism capabilities in the region, sufficient to ensuring Afghanistan cannot become a safe haven for terrorists who threaten our security.
Now, I know a thing or two about executing a drawdown or what the military calls “retrograde.” It is incredibly hard work even in the best of circumstances, but I am confident that our troops and our leaders will accomplish this new mission with the same skill and the same professionalism with which they have done everything else in Afghanistan. They will do it safely, they will do it orderly, and they will do it deliberately. And they will do it in lockstep with their allies.
As you’ve heard a couple of times this evening, we have all said that we went in together, we adjusted together, and now we will leave together. And I must add that we will respond forcefully should the Taliban attack any of our forces or those of our allies during this drawdown.
Now, I believe that it’s important to remember that the President’s decision also gives us an opportunity to refocus our efforts, to deter, and, if necessary, to defeat future adversaries. And we will do that in no small measure by revitalizing our alliances and partnerships, such as this one, and by being ready to meet the challenges that most credibly undermine our international rules-based order. And as I’ve said before, the People’s Republic of China is our number-one pacing challenge as it seeks to reshape the international order. Likewise, I call on Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. We are committed to assisting Ukraine with its self-defense needs.
And in closing, I want to thank all those who served in Afghanistan. I know all too well the sacrifice that we’ve all made to get us to this point. And to the families and the loved ones of those who did not make it home, and for all those forever changed by this war, I pledge our unwavering support for the grief and the challenges that you still endure. We honor you and we honor their memory, and we always will. And I believe that the President’s decision proves exactly that.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We now have time for a few questions. We’ll start with John Hudson from Washington Post, in the front row.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Secretary Blinken, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been applauded by war-weary Americans, but many advocates for getting out have also said the U.S. must be willing to take in Afghan asylum seekers and also interpreters who worked with military personnel who may be imperiled by this decision. Can you commit to that?
Secretary Stoltenberg, will you encourage NATO members to take in Afghan refugees and asylum seekers?
And Secretary Austin, I’m told you made a very powerful case for withdrawal in the NAC meeting today. Did uniformed U.S. military leaders share your view about this decision to withdraw in September?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’ll start very quickly and say simply, yes. We have a commitment, especially to those who worked with us, who helped us, whether it was our military, our diplomats – and we have a program that I think you’re all aware of that is the so-called Special Immigrant Visa program that they would be eligible for, and I’m certainly committed, if there’s a demand for it and request for it, to move forward on that.
More broadly, as I said earlier, the fact that we are removing our forces from Afghanistan does not mean that we’re removing our commitment to Afghanistan, and that includes an ongoing commitment to Afghanistan’s development, to humanitarian assistance, particularly to those in need, as well as support for the Afghan Security Forces. So working with our partners, working with our allies, working with the international community, I am convinced you’ll see sustained support for Afghanistan that will help address challenges that Afghans continue to face in their lives.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Let me just briefly say that it’s for each and every ally as individual nations to make decisions on asylum. But what I can say is that NATO as an alliance, together with all the Allies, will continue to support the efforts to create a sustainable peace in Afghanistan. And that’s exactly why we so strongly support the peace efforts, and that’s also the reason why we all have adjusted our force presence in Afghanistan as part of the peace process. So we will continue to provide support to Afghanistan, but we will do that not by having thousands of soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, but through our partnership with Afghanistan, with support to the peace process, and also, of course, working to make sure that we maintain the gains we have made, not least in the fight against terrorism.
SECRETARY AUSTIN: In terms of the input of our senior military, I won’t speak for them. What I can tell you is this was an inclusive process, and their voices were heard and their concerns taken into consideration as the President made his decision. But now that the decision has been made, I call upon them to lead their forces, to lead their forces through this effort, through this transition. And knowing them all very well, as I do, I have every confidence that they will in fact lead their forces through this effort.
MODERATOR: Will Mauldin from The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. For the secretary general, what proportion, if any, of your organization’s members expressed some concerns about a U.S.-led withdrawal and what it would mean for Afghanistan, either as a possible location for terrorist elements or for the stability of the Afghan Government and civil and women’s rights there?
And if I may, for Secretary Blinken, what is your response to Iran’s claim that it will move to 60 percent uranium enrichment, and is that an expected or an appropriate response to the attack on the Natanz that Tehran has blamed on Israel?
And then for Secretary Austin, a question about Russia’s military buildup that’s worrying so much of Europe today: What response do the U.S. and its partners have to impose costs on Moscow if it interferes further in Ukraine other than the kind of targeted sanctions we’ve seen since 2014, and were those responses discussed this week with NATO and other partners? Thank you.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: All Allies agreed, and all Allies agreed actually a statement which we agreed at the ministerial meeting today, where we clearly state that we now have decided to start the withdrawal of all our NATO troops from Afghanistan starting 1st of May, and the plan is to finalize that drawdown or withdrawal within a few months. So this is not something we just discussed, this is something actually we decided and adopted a joint declaration, where we state that clearly and also explain why we made the decision.
At the same time, I think all Allies are aware that this is not an easy decision, and this is a decision that entails risks, and also a decision that really requires that we continue to stay focused on Afghanistan, partly to make sure that the withdrawal takes place in a safe and secure and orderly way, that we’re sending a very clear message to Taliban if – that if they start to attack us, we will retaliate and answer in a very forceful way – but also to start to work on building a new chapter, a new kind of partnership with Afghanistan, because there are many ways to support the country.
There are – it’s not – the case is that it’s not – there are many different – the only way to support a country is not by having thousands of combat troops deployed in the country. We are working with countries all over the world. We have diplomatic tools. We have economic tools. We have development. We have humanitarian aid. All of that is at the disposal of NATO Allies and NATO to continue to provide support to Afghanistan.
So this is not the end. This is the beginning of a new way of working with Afghanistan. But I think that after 20 years, Allies saw that the time had come to end our military presence there. And in light of the U.S. decision, all Allies agreed to the statement.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: With regard to Iran, we take very seriously its provocative announcement of an intent to begin enriching uranium at 60 percent, and the P5+1 should be unified and united in rejecting that. I have to tell you the step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks, just as it underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
The United States and Iran have both stated a common objective of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We’ve been engaged constructively in a diplomatic process to achieve that goal. In Vienna last week, we explored concrete approaches that we could take, the steps that Iran and the United States would take to return to compliance. And I think the United States demonstrated very clearly to the other participants in this effort and to the world our seriousness of purpose. It remains to be seen whether Iran has that same seriousness of purpose.
But the goal – returning to compliance with the JCPOA – and the diplomatic process, which is resuming in Vienna this week – that remains the best way to limit Iran’s nuclear program in a lasting way, to verifiably ensure that Iran cannot produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short notice. And we’re committed to pursuing that process, but the real question is whether Iran is, and we’ll find out.
SECRETARY AUSTIN: With regard to the Russian force buildup, we remain concerned about what we’re seeing, and so we continue to monitor very closely the activity there and we continue to consult with our partners. And as you heard us say earlier this evening, we call upon Russia to cease their provocations and to be more transparent about this recent activity. You’ve also heard us say that we believe that the territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected. We have provided some materiel support to Ukraine in the past, and we’ll look to continue to do that. The national security architecture or team will always present our President with a range of options that are focused on employing the – all of the elements of national power that we have available to us when we consider options to present to the President, and I’ll just leave it at that.
MODERATOR: We’ll go higher up. Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
QUESTION: Yes, thanks a lot. One question to Secretary Blinken, please: In their annual threat assessment that was published just a few days ago, the U.S. Intelligence Community said about Afghanistan, and I quote, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” unquote. Do you agree with that assessment? How did it play into the decision making on Afghanistan? And what should prevent the Taliban from searching a military solution to the intra-Afghan conflict?
And then a question to Secretary General Stoltenberg: You have been the number one proponent of a conditions-based withdrawal, and I think tonight is the first time I hear you speaking about Afghanistan without mentioning these famous three conditions to the Taliban. President Biden came to the conclusion that this conditions-based approach would be a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever. What do you reply to him tonight? And what do you reply to what he just said in his speech, that basically for the past 10 years NATO lacked clear objectives to justify its mission in Afghanistan? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: With regard to the first question, I think the National Intelligence Estimate is a very realistic assessment. But it’s important to remember how we got here and to have that context for what we – what the President decided and where we’re going.
As a reminder, we inherited the lowest number of U.S. and partner forces in Afghanistan since the very early days of the war. We inherited an agreement between the United States and the Taliban to draw down all forces – all U.S. forces, in any event – by May the 1st. And we inherited at best a military stalemate between the Taliban and Afghan forces. That’s the context in which the President undertook a very rigorous review.
To Secretary Austin’s point, that review included contributions from everyone across our government, including, of course, the Intelligence Community, which provided a basis upon which the President could start to make judgments. We also had very important inputs from our allies, and it was vital to the President that we hear from them, including during consultations here at NATO just a few weeks ago.
But throughout, there was no sugarcoating. That would not serve America, it wouldn’t serve our allies, and as the secretary general said, these are hard decisions and hard choices. But what emerged from that process, from that review, was a clear-eyed assessment of the best path forward to advance our collective interests, and those interests are ending the war in Afghanistan after 20 years by removing our remaining forces.
As I said, our commitment to Afghanistan goes well beyond a single number. It’s very important to note that we are very focused on advancing what prospects there are for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, pressing the parties to engage in meaningful negotiations to a political outcome and peaceful settlement. We’re engaging other countries in that effort to take their responsibility for Afghanistan’s future as well. Many other countries have interests in and influence with Afghanistan that they have not focused on in the last 20 years as we’ve been the ones doing the hard work, so we expect to see that too, and that can have an impact.
And finally, I would say the Taliban has a choice to make. They say that they want international recognition, that they want international support. They’re part of Afghanistan’s governance. Of course, there are a number of other things that they want, including prisoner releases and delistings and so forth. And those things will, I think, be significantly affected by the path that the Taliban chooses to take going forward. In addition, I think it’s in no one’s interest, including the Taliban’s, to plunge Afghanistan back into a long war, into a civil war that will do terrible damage to the country and to everyone.
So I think the assessment, again, is a realistic one, but there are I think a whole series of incentives and disincentives that will continue to shape what happens. But ultimately, the people of Afghanistan will be the ones to decide their future. We will do everything we can to support efforts toward a peaceful, stable, just future, but they’re the ones who have to decide.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Over the last months, my main message has been that after the signing of the deal between the United States and the Taliban last year, January last year, we all have faced a dilemma. And it is either to leave in a orderly way, and that decision of course entails risks, and I don’t underestimate – I’m actually really clear-eyed about the challenges we’ll face. But the alternative is to stay, but then we need to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military presence, and most likely we’ll have to increase the number of NATO troops in Afghanistan to withstand increased Taliban pressure, more violence. And therefore, we have consulted very closely over many months how to make this difficult decision. And no one is saying this is easy, and no one is saying this is risk-free. But we just have to make a decision.
And actually, I am impressed by the way NATO Allies have been able to consult, discuss, assess, and then make a decision together. We have been in Afghanistan for 20 years. There are many challenges, many problems, many unsolved challenges still in Afghanistan, but we have achieved a lot together with Afghans. We have for all these years prevented that Afghanistan is a base where national terrorists can organize, plan, finance, execute terrorist attacks against our own countries. To prevent that, that was the main goal of going in.
Second, we have helped to build an Afghan Security Force which now consists of hundreds of thousands of professional, well-trained, brave soldiers, military personnel, which are now in charge of security in their own country. We will continue to support them, even though we are ending our military presence on the ground.
And thirdly, we have helped the Afghans to make significant economic and political social progress in their own country.
So this is a total different Afghanistan than the Afghanistan we went into in 2001. And therefore we have also gradually adjusted our presence. So this is actually – this is the end of an on-the-ground process which started some time – more than a year ago. Not so many years ago, we were more than 100,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan in combat operation. Now, we are roughly 10,000 in a mostly train, assist, and advise mission.
So when we now in a way make the final decision to end our military presence, this part of adjustment which has gone on for some time.
And again, I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying it’s risk-free. But I’m saying that compared to alternative, and also based on the U.S. decision, all Allies agreed and therefore they also adopted and agreed to the statement which clearly state that we will start the withdrawal, the final withdrawal, the first of May, and then be out within a few months.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to Bob Burns in the third row from Associated Press.
QUESTION: Yes, Robert Burns, Associated Press. Secretary Austin, both you and Secretary Blinken mentioned that once the withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces is complete, that there will be a repositioning of counterterrorism forces in the region. And I wonder if you can explain what exactly that means. In other words, where will they be, and in what kind of numbers? And can you say, Secretary Austin, that it’s actually realistic to target extremist groups inside the vast expanses of Afghanistan if you’re not actually there?
And for Secretary General Stoltenberg, will NATO be part of that over-the-horizon force?
And for Secretary Blinken, what sort of diplomatic arrangements will have to be made in order to accomplish that? Thank you.
SECRETARY AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Bob. Great question, but I think you’ll understand why I won’t get into specific details about where our counterterrorist assets may be positioned. I would tell you that we are beginning the process now of working out details with allies and partners about how we’re going to do that, and we’ll work those details in the appropriate channels.
As you know, Bob, we have a range of capabilities that are available to us. And the President has been clear that we will not allow our homeland to be attacked again from the spaces of Afghanistan.
In terms of our ability to acquire targets and engage them in places where we are not – actually, you’re seeing us do that each and every day in places around the globe, where that be in remote places in Africa or other places. We have the reach and the ability to in fact do that.
And I would just say working in conjunction with our allies and partners, there’s probably not a space on the globe that the United States and its allies can’t reach. Thanks.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I have very little to add to what Secretary Austin said. Let me just say, though, more broadly that with regard to other countries in the region, I think one of the striking things is that while we have many differences with many of them on a number of accounts, there are clearly some shared interests across a number of countries, whether it is Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and others. And when it comes to Afghanistan, I think there is an interest that many of these countries have in not seeing the country descend back into civil war, into a long war. The risks that that could pose to them, including potentially extremism and terrorism directed against them, refugee flows heading in their direction, drugs as well, all of those argue that countries will have an interest and also some influence with the parties in Afghanistan to try to keep things moving in a positive direction.
As I noted earlier, for the last 20 years, these countries have not had to do much because NATO has been there at least providing – helping to provide with the Afghans some basic stability. I think countries will now have to look hard at the interests that they have, look hard at the influence they have, and decide whether to use that in ways that ensure that Afghanistan is not a source of instability and a source of terrorism and extremism.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: We will continue to provide support to and work with Afghanistan also after the end of our Resolute Support Mission. I spoke with President Ghani today, and one of the issues we discussed is actually how to develop this new partnership, and that will address different things. It’s partly about how to make sure that we are able to provide support to our diplomatic presence, diplomatic missions, the political efforts. It’s about continue to provide support to the Afghan Security Forces, and we will also have to look into how can we make sure that we not jeopardize the gains that have been made in the fight against international terrorism. Exactly how we will do that, exactly what role NATO will have is not yet decided, but all of these issues have – are on the table and are now discussed among NATO Allies and also with Afghanistan.
Let me also add that, of course, in our engagement with Afghanistan, to support the peace efforts – fragile, difficult, no guarantee for success but the only way to lasting peace – is also something that NATO will – NATO and NATO Allies will be focused on. We welcome the upcoming Istanbul conference. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was here and updated our Allies on the preparations for that conference.
What NATO can do is to support, help, assist the Afghans, but at the end of the day, it is the Afghans themselves that have to create peace in Afghanistan. So I think one of the main messages from the meeting today is that we will continue to support, we will continue to help, but we also in a way call on Afghans to really make serious efforts to create peace in their own country. And at the end of the day, it’s only the Afghans that can create peace in Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: For the last question, we go again higher up, and it’s Ansgar Haase from DPA.
QUESTION: Thank you. You agree today that it is essential for NATO to continue delivering support for Ukraine. Secretary Austin and Secretary General Stoltenberg, can you tell us what kind of additional military support Ukraine can expect?
And a more general question to Secretary Austin: Why are you stepping up your support for Ukraine while taking a decision that could destroy the young Afghan democracy? Thank you.
SECRETARY AUSTIN: I didn’t hear the last part of your question. Could you say that again?
QUESTION: Last part was to Secretary Blinken, a more general question: Why are you stepping up your support for Ukraine while taking a decision that could destroy the young Afghan democracy? Thank you.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: So I think the first one was what do you – how – what kind of support the United States is going to provide to Ukraine, and then —
SECRETARY AUSTIN: Yeah, so I think – I think you heard me say earlier that we were providing materiel support to Ukraine, and we’ve been doing that for some time. That includes nonlethal materiels and some weapons and some trainers that we provided in the past to assist with that. And we would look to continue to do the same types of things going forward, so – based upon their needs.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Okay. So NATO Allies provide political and practical support to Ukraine in many different ways. We have, over years, established and developed a partnership with Ukraine. We helped with capacity building, with modernizing and reforming their defense and security institutions with some training. And different NATO Allies also provide on a bilateral basis equipment and different kinds of materiel support.
And I encourage NATO Allies to step up and to do more, and I also welcome the fact that we also do more within the NATO framework including, for instance, on naval capabilities. The last time I was in Ukraine, I visited the naval academy in Odessa and there are NATO trainers there helping them to modernize and strengthen their naval capabilities. So we are working with Ukraine in many different ways.
On top of that, we have also increased our military presence in the Black Sea region more in general, in Romania with more air policing, with more naval presence. So the support for Ukraine is only one element of more NATO presence, partly into partner countries Georgia and Ukraine, but also three littoral states – Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania – in the region are stepping up and together with other NATO Allies have increased their presence in the region.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And on the last part of your question, I appreciate the question, but I just don’t share its premise at all.
First, and to reiterate and emphasize something that I think we’ve all said in different ways this evening, we’ve been in Afghanistan militarily for 20 years. But to equate support for Afghanistan solely to our military presence and engagement, I think, is wrong.
And as we’ve made clear, even as we bring our forces home after 20 years and after they achieved the objective for which they went there – to deal with the people who attacked us on 9/11 and to ensure that Afghanistan would not again become a base for terrorism directed against any of our countries – even as we do that, we remain committed to Afghanistan. We remain committed to the diplomatic effort to bring the Afghan parties together to try to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict. We remain committed to assisting the country with development assistance, humanitarian assistance, support for the Afghan National Security Forces. And all of that will endure.
With regard to Ukraine, again, what – we’re deeply concerned about what we’re seeing, about Russia’s ongoing aggressive actions, rhetoric directed at Ukraine. And as I said, what was striking today was every single ally expressed the same concerns. We’re watching very closely, as we see very credible reports of this troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders. That, as we said, are now at levels not seen since Russia’s invasion in 2014. So we are right to be concerned about that. We know what happened last time.
We’ve also seen continued attacks by Russian-led forces at the line of contact in eastern Ukraine that, at least as of this morning, had resulted in 12 Ukrainian personnel killed since the last week in March. And meanwhile, Ukraine has demonstrated, I think, real restraint in the face – excuse me – of Russian provocations. So that’s why we’re focused on this. That’s why the alliance is concerned and we are united in that concern.
Let me just add, though, one point, because I do think it’s important with regard to Russia: We would prefer a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, and that, in turn, requires open lines of communication to be very clear about our views, about our policies, about our objections to Russia’s actions. And that’s also important to avoid miscalculations, and that’s exactly what you saw yesterday with President Biden picking up the phone, calling President Putin, and also proposing that they meet in the weeks ahead.
So we are very focused on this challenge, and it’s one that I think is shared across the entire alliance.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. This concludes this press conference. Thank you. Thank you.