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Joint Press Conference with Secretary Mattis, Secretary General Stoltenberg and President Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan


Presenter: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Sept. 28, 2017

Joint Press Conference with Secretary Mattis, Secretary General Stoltenberg and President Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS:  Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

And President Ghani, thank you, sir, for — for hosting Secretary General Stoltenberg and myself here today.  We’re grateful to you and Chief Executive Abdullah.

And I would say too, Mr. President that this delegation stands united in our desire to advance peace in Afghanistan and remove the impulses and manifestations of terrorism that threaten the innocent.

We are here today to support Afghanistan because instability in South Asia, as secretary general and the president have already stated, and the extremism that it cultivates endangers all nations as well as the people of Afghanistan.

In recognition of these vital interests, and thanks to the national unity government, I would just say that the support of the international community is now rallied under the NATO flag.  And we are here today as evidence of a new strategy that has given us a new opportunity.  And Secretary General Stoltenberg’s strategic and unflappable leadership at NATO has been key to this opportunity.

Our NATO commander, General Nicholson, has earned the trust and admiration of the Afghans and the international community while leading the 39 partner nations of NATO’s Resolute Support mission.  Each nation stands united with their fellows in their support and we will not abandon Afghanistan to a merciless enemy trying to kill its way to power.

President Ghani, our renewed commitment here today is not only grounded in our shared security concerns.  It is also grounded in our confidence in you and Chief Abdullah — Chief Executive Abdullah’s demonstrated leadership in your efforts to unite Afghanistan under a government of national unity.

I first met Chief Executive Abdullah in the Panjshir Valley over 10 years ago.  And I’m confident here today that your friend — that his friend Ahmad Shah Massoud’s spirit stands with us today because of what he represented to an Afghanistan pulling together.

President Ghani, forming a unified government among so many constituencies following the first democratic transition in Afghanistan’s history while battling an active insurgency inside your own country — it’s not only a difficult undertaking but it’s a historic achievement by the Afghan people.

It’s not a tidy process and it’s hard work.  And despite enormous political pressures, you have demonstrated a commitment to put your country and the people of Afghanistan first.

You have also made clear that the Afghan government and security forces remain responsible and in the lead for securing your country.  With our new conditions-based South Asia strategy, we will be better postured to support you as your forces turn the tide against the terrorists.

As NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said last week at the United Nations, this is about making sure that Afghanistan doesn’t once again become a safe haven for international terrorists.  And the best way of doing that is to enable the Afghans to have defense security forces which are strong enough to do just that.

Under this strategy, we are approaching the problem with a more holistic and comprehensive regional framework, providing advisers to accompany Afghan units, to provide NATO support to them, adding more U.S. troops alongside additional allied contributions, and making clear that we are not quitting this fight.

In short, uncertainty has been replaced by certainty.

All of this will be carried out within the coalition framework, making this campaign politically, fiscally and militarily sustainable.

This new strategy is conditions-based, not time-based, because war is principally a matter of will.  And we’ve made clear that we have the will to stand together.

Our Afghan partners have fought valiantly and the Afghan Security Forces, today number (sic) more than 300,000 strong, will continue to take the lead.  As President Ghani said last week in New York, “Afghans are determined to fight.  No one should mistake our will to defend our country,” and we stand with you.

Through our partnership, we will suffocate any hope that al-Qaida or ISIS, Daesh, Haqqani or the Taliban have of winning by killing.  I want to reinforce to the Taliban that the only path to peace and political legitimacy for them is through a negotiated settlement.  We welcome those who commit to a peaceful future for Afghanistan.  We support Afghan-led reconciliation as the solution to this conflict.  And the sooner the Taliban recognizes they cannot win with bombs, the sooner the killing will end.

President Ghani has established a four-year plan to improve the strength, the professionalism and the sustainability of the Afghan Security Forces.  And we in the coalition support his plan.

Specifically, increasing the lethality of Afghan Security Forces, by increasing its commandos, special forces and air capabilities, will bring increasing capability to the protection of the Afghan people.

Our coalition is committed to doing everything humanly possible to protect the innocent caught up in this war where our enemy purposely targets the innocent.

We also see an improving generation of Afghan leaders, thanks to additional coalition trainers at training centers and the new selection process for who leads in this fight.  By instituting reforms found in President Ghani’s plan and implementing counter-corruption efforts to ensure accountability, we will see sustained improvement.

Mr. President, on this latter point, I want to applaud your personal commitment to reform.  You recognize the value in fighting corruption and in accelerating institutional reform across government, ensuring the protection of your people by more capable security forces and better government services for your people.

The recently launched bilateral compact outlining more than 200 measurable benchmarks for reform demonstrates our shared emphasis on achieving these goals.

And lastly, Mr. President, we continue to support Afghanistan.  We remain committed to building the capacity of your armed forces to secure Afghanistan and to end this war, reconciling with those who want a better future for the Afghan people and a world free of terror.

Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you.

And now onto questions, we’ll start with Tom Watkins from A.P.

Q:  Thank you.

First, I was wondering if any of you could please respond to the reports this morning of a rocket attack near the airport, just after we landed today.  Doesn’t this highlight how bad the security situation is, even in the capital?

Then I’d like to ask each one of you a question.

Mr. President, if I may, there are reports that President Trump is pressuring you to close the Taliban office in Doha.  Are you going to agree to that?

Then for Secretary Mattis, what is your current assessment of how much weaponry and support Russia and Iran are now providing the Taliban?

And finally, for the secretary — secretary general, NATO has praised the new conditions-based approach for Afghanistan, but some European officials are grumbling that not enough has changed.  How do you persuade European members to support this indefinite extension to the Afghan mission?

Thank you.

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI:  Thank you.

There has been an attack our CRU, our special forces, are dealing with.  This is — attacking civilian targets is a sign of weakness, not strength.  Simultaneously, you need to take account — they are losing against every single Afghan army.

The conduct of war this year — its leadership has been exceptional.  But terror does not recognize boundaries.  Is an attack on London a sign of weakness of London, or the heinousness of the terrorists?  We stand together against the forces or terror, and we will continue.

The report is a rumor, and let’s leave it at the level of the rumor; it’s not policy.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG:  On the question of how to make sure that European allies are contributing troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, I would say the — say the following, and that is that a stable and secure Afghanistan is in the interest of NATO.  The more stable Afghanistan is the more safe will we be.

So, that’s the reason why we are in Afghanistan, because we have seen that it is extremely important to support Afghanistan in their fight against terrorism, because that’s also our fight against terrorism.  And we have to make everything we can — or we can — we have to do everything we can to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.

We saw what happened last time that was the case, back in 2001:  9/11.  So, I’m absolutely convinced that European allies will not only support the U.S. new strategy in words, but also in deeds.  At our defense ministerial meeting in June, we actually decided to increase the troop levels of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and several allies have already started to come up and step up their pledges to send more troops.  So they are sending troops to Afghanistan because it is in their interest to have a more stable and secure Afghanistan.

SEC. MATTIS:  You know, on the — I want to mention something about the attack from the international airport, if in fact there was an attack.  I have only heard some press reports so far, not confirmed.

But an attack on international airport anywhere in the world is a criminal act by a terrorist.  It’s designed to go after generally innocent people to make some sort of statement.  And this is a classic definition of what the Taliban are up to right now.  It defines their approach to how they see their role here.

And if in fact this is what they have done, they will find the Afghan Security Forces continuing on the offensive against them in every district of the country right now.  So it is what it is, but it’s also the reason why we band together and we don’t — we don’t question what we’re doing here.

On the role of anybody providing support to the Taliban, I would just put it this way:  Terrorism is a scourge for everyone in this world.  Those two countries that you’ve mentioned, Tom have both had — suffered losses due to terrorism.  So I think it’d be extremely unwise to think that they can somehow support terrorists in another country and not have it come back to haunt them.  But I’m not willing to discuss the specifics at this time on those two countries.

STAFF:  All right thank you, Fein Ludi from Ariana News.

Q:  My next question goes to Mr. Secretary of Defense.  What do you think, if Pakistan not take any action regarding the safe havens — what the next steps will be?

PRES. GHANI:  (UNTRANSLATED)

Mr. Secretary.

MATTIS:  Thank you, Mr. President.  I agree 100 percent with President Ghani that this South Asia strategy and this renewed commitment is an opportunity for Pakistan to engage in the counterterror campaign.

The South Asia strategy is not exclusive of someone.  It is inclusive for all responsible states that want to stop terrorism in its tracks and defend the innocent.  So I see this as an opportunity, and we will work this issue forward with that idea in mind, that vision in mind.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Jennifer Rizzo from CNN~.

Q:  How have the rules of — the new rules of engagement changed the battlefield in the fight against the Taliban?

And, Mr. President, have the new rules of engagement caused you any concern over whether there’ll be more civilian casualties?

SEC. MATTIS:  Jennifer, the point I would make is that, for many years, the NATO forces have operated with one fundamental precept, and that is, we are here to protect the Afghan people when we — while we attack the terrorists.

We’re up against an enemy right now that intentionally fights from among innocent people, that intentionally hides behind women and children, that intentionally tries to draw fire on the innocent.  And we do everything humanly possible, whether you call them rules of engagement, you call them the traditional chivalry of the NATO forces — we do everything possible to protect the innocent on the battlefield

We’re not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys.  And we will continue to do everything possible.  There will never be a time when we decide that the safety of the noncombatants, of the innocents on the battlefield, is something to be bartered away for some sort of military advantage.

We would hope for a Taliban that would show some sort of consideration, but they have proven over years they have no consideration, no respect for the Afghan people.  But we will continue to do our level best and everything humanly possible to avoid any casualties.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Sajar Mohamedi from TV 1.

Q:  (UNTRANSLATED)

SEC. MATTIS:  The number of troops we’re bringing in — we are bringing in reinforcements, and those reinforcements are designed to add more advisers to your units in the field and more trainers in your military schools.

In other words, the Afghan forces continue to take the lead, as they should, in the defense of their country.  But we are going to give them more advantage to the NATO access and advantage from the NATO air forces overhead to make sure that no time — no time does the Taliban own the high ground.

We will always own the high ground.  And we are going to make certain those aircraft have a connection to the troops on the ground, who are fighting to protect their people.

I prefer not to go into the specific numbers right now.  We are bringing in more Americans.  There are also more coalition forces, non-Americans who are coming in.  I don’t want to tell the enemy exactly what we’re doing.

But the whole point is to make certain that we have a compelling battlefield advantage over anything the Taliban tries to mass against your forces.  We’re not going to stand for that.

So far as Pakistan, we will watch Pakistan’s choices.  We will engage with Pakistan.  We will continue to work in a unified way between NATO, the coalition, the Afghan government and the other regional governments in South Asia as we try to set the conditions for a positive set of nations and team against the — and teamwork against the terrorists; Taliban; Daesh, ISIS; whoever they might be.

There’s an increasing collusion.  There’s increasing teamwork among the various terrorist bands.  And I would just tell you that this simply gives more impetus to those of us who are against terrorism to work together.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Bill Gallo from Voice of America.

Q:  Yes, hello.  Thank you very much.  This question is for Secretary Mattis and Secretary General Stoltenberg.

Under the new strategy for Afghanistan, what are the metrics you’re using to define success?  How will you know you’re winning and that the new policy is making a difference?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, Bill, what we’re going to do is we’re going to take the compact that has been put together.  We’re going to match it to the NATO mandate of support to the Afghans.  We’re going to then evaluate President Ghani’s 200 — more than 200 benchmarks, plus we have others we are going to engage with the Afghans to adopt as well as we mature this — this metric system.

And we will evaluate them on a frequent basis, some of them on a monthly, some of them on a yearly basis depending on what kind of metrics we’re using for which issues.  And we are going to be monitoring them across the various issues that have been spoken about up here today:  Who initiates the most fights with the enemy?  How are we doing on selection of junior officers from NCO ranks?  How are we doing on counter-corruption?

All of this comes together in an integrated whole-of-government, whole-of-coalition campaign, and the ongoing evaluation will be transparent.  In other words, we will share all of our data.  We will review it together and we’ll make adaptations as needed.

Secretary General?

SEC. GEN. STOLTENBERG:  The main reason for NATO being in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.  And the best way to achieve that is to enable the Afghans themselves to stabilize their own country.

And we have made a lot of progress.  Because not so many years ago, there were more than 100,000 NATO troops in a big combat operation in — in Afghanistan.  Now we are 13,000 is the current level and the main purpose of that mission is to train and assist and advise the Afghans.

And the Afghans — so the Afghan Security Forces took over responsibility for the security in this country in 2015.  So we are step by step enabling the Afghans to handle the situation in Afghanistan themselves and that’s the best way to achieve the main goal of our presence, namely to make sure that Afghanistan not once again is a safe haven for international terrorists.

And that is important for us because instability in Afghanistan is not only problem for the Afghans, but is also big problem and threat to people living in NATO-allied countries.

Let me also, since it was asked in the beginning, just say that I totally agree, of course, with President Ghani and Secretary Mattis on the comments on the attack.  An attack on a civilian airport is a criminal act.  It’s an act of terrorism and it’s a sign of weakness, not of strength, and that’s exactly why I would like commend — commend the Afghan Security Forces which are handling these kind of attacks and it is yet another example of how they are — how professional they are, how committed they are and how they are able to handle this kind of security threat which happens in Afghanistan, and just underlines why we continue to train and assist them and advise them.

STAFF:  Thank you.

(UNTRANSLATED)

Q:  (UNTRANSLATED)

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you.

You know, we just rolled the strategy out, and before I consider making any pronouncement about its success or failure, or about, you know, as far as somebody looking at it, saying they don’t like it, I want to engage with them first.

You understand that we need to engage; we need to sit down together and talk — talk very — very openly and frankly about where we’re at today, where we’ve been and where we’re going to go.  And so those discussions will be ongoing.  And you have — you have seen the strategy yourself, so you know where our position is, and we’ll move forward along those lines.

PRES. GHANI:  (UNTRANSLATED).

STAFF:  (UNTRANSLATED).  Gordon Lubold from Wall Street Journal.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, question on Iraq for you.  I wondered if you could give us a reaction to the Kurdish vote toward independence in Iraq and how that might affect American forces operating there.

And President Ghani and Secretary General Stoltenberg, as you know, Secretary Mattis has returned from India.  Do you see that there is a risk of the U.S. strategy vis-a-vis India could backfire when it comes to angering potentially angering Pakistan more, and getting it to move in the wrong direction, not in the right direction, with regard to Afghanistan?

Thank you.

SEC. GEN. STOLTENBERG:  We welcome the new U.S. strategy for many different reasons.  One reason why we welcome that new U.S. strategy announced by President Trump recently is that it has this regional approach.  And this region includes both Pakistan and India.  So therefore we have — both those nations have to be included in a mutual approach.  We urge all countries in the region to support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

And I can’t see — there is no reason that dialogue and you have India as part of this regional approach should create any problems.  I think in the opposite, if India was not included, that would be a big mistake.  So we urge all countries to participate, but as part of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

SEC. MATTIS:  Geography is compelling.  There’s several nations in South Asia and we have to deal with all of them.  And I, you know, in the case of India, they have been very, very generous in their assistance, development assistance to Afghanistan.  And I believe they are committed to doing even more to help the people of Afghanistan.  Certainly, that cannot be seen as contrary to another nation’s interest to help people who are working their way out of many, many difficult years since the Soviet invasion.

As far as in Iraq, we have had no impacts to date based on the Kurdish referendum, and we’re engaged with all the different parties in the area there right now politically, but militarily it’s had no impact.

PRES. GHANI:  Well, thank you.

First, India is a major partner in development.  In Brussels conference, India pledged a very generous sum of $1 billion dollars for assisting the Afghan people.

Second, India is our largest export partner.  The largest amount of exports from Afghanistan go to India.

And third, India is potentially one of the largest investors in Afghanistan.  We have two choices, either a lose-lose regional strategy or a win-win regional strategy.  In a win-win regional strategy, we need to all recognize that a stable Afghanistan is in everybody’s benefit and Afghanistan can become the platform for regional cooperation.

Afghan territory will not be permitted to be used for destabilization of any of our neighbors, and this is a cardinal principle with us.  We do not differentiate between good and bad terrorism and do not engage in destabilizing our neighbors.

But a central component of sovereignty is the ability to have relationship with a third country.  We are having an equally productive dialogue with China.  China again is a fundamental, economic regional power and we are having the same dialogue with — (inaudible) — with the Gulf.  It needs to be seen as part of an approach that the natural resources of Afghanistan, its location, and the immense talent of its people can only be developed as part of the regional approach.

And I hope that the necessary wisdom that is required to embark on a win-win strategy starts in this South Asia strategy as a harbinger of things to come.

STAFF:  Thank you.

(Inaudible), Kabul News.

Q:  (UNTRANSLATED)

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, first of all, I think we have to look at the history of where this all began.  And when you look back at the history, it creates a very difficult framework for Afghanistan as a country, for Afghanistan’s people.

When the Soviets came in with the invasion, they basically turned the society upside down.  Many of the local areas that were under certain types of local control, which was acceptable to the Afghan government in those days, they were eviscerated.  They were destroyed by the Soviet invasion.  And in that social fabric being torn apart, I think an awful lot of refugees were created.  Children were left without parents.  Family structures were destroyed.  Tribal alignments were — were basically thrown against each other.

And by the time we see the Soviets leave, much of the damage had been done.  You have children who are going to schools which are teaching them hatred at a young age.  And then you’re trying to come in now with a review of this and say, “How could this be?”

Well, that is exactly why we re-did our strategy; why we sat down with members of your government, taking information from them, and why we looked at this regionally to begin with; why we decided to realign our forces into almost a totally advisory role and teaching role and expand that role, so that we can turn this situation around.

You know, there’s a saying in the game of golf you have to play the ball where it lies.  I cannot change where the ball lies today.  All I commit to you is that we stand united with your Government of National Unity, and with the Afghan people to restore peace in this turbulent time.  And that means we’re all going to have to work together across the South Asia region and that’s the way we plan to go forward on what President Ghani defined as a win-win regional strategy, and that’s our commitment here today.

(UNKNOWN):  (UNTRANSLATED)

STAFF:  Thank you, everyone, for coming out for the presser today.  The press briefing is concluded.  Please be seated and allow His Excellency the President, as well as —

(CROSSTALK)

PRES. GHANI:  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the secretary general and Secretary Mattis, my great friends and great friends of Afghanistan, for coming together.  This is an unprecedented event that the secretary of state of the United States, a distinguished general, and secretary general of NATO, a distinguished diplomat, come together.

Your arrival together is a sign of your commitment, but equally the reciprocal commitment of the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the Government of National Unity and myself, that whatever sacrifice is required in order to bring enduring peace and stability to this country will be committed to; and that corruption, the menace that has haunted Afghanistan, is being recognized for what it is and it’s going to be confronted.  I don’t think that in our history there has been a three-star general that has received a prison sentence or others or rich men that have been indicted in a court of law.  We will re-double our effort.

I thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your enormous dedication to the strategy.  We want to thank President Trump and your entire team for taking the time.  Time was required to arrive at something that was comprehensive, that was holistic.  And as always, your partner both against terrorism and for stability are this people of this country.

And Mr. Secretary General, please convey our thanks to all the 39 countries that have committed their sons and daughters to us.  And let me state one thing categorically:  There is no return to combat role either for NATO or for the United States.  The role is advice, train and assist, and this will ensure that our security and defense forces are enabled to do what is our patriotic duty and historic obligation to do.

Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you.

With this, our press briefing is concluded.

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