Ambassador Douglas Lute, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Remarks to Afghan Journalists via Digital Video Conference

May 21, 2015

Ambassador Lute:  As Shannon introduced, NATO Foreign Ministers met last Wednesday and Thursday in Antalya on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.  The 28 Ministers came together and did a lot of NATO business, but the opening session of the two-day ministerial was the session on Afghanistan.  So here you had Foreign Minister Rabbani representing Afghanistan.  You had General Campbell and Ambassador Aramos representing the Resolute Support NATO Mission, and they were joined by more than 40 other Foreign Ministers.  These are 40 ministers who represent the 40-plus nations that make up the NATO coalition today in Afghanistan, and they spent more than two hours discussing progress, hearing from Minister Rabbani, and also from the NATO leaders on the ground, Campbell and Aramos, then discussing the way forward for the NATO mission in Afghanistan and I thought we’d spend just a few more minutes today than we normally do focusing on these events. Because I don’t have to cover the whole ministerial, I can focus on the Afghan session.

First let’s spend just a few minutes setting the context for what NATO has done in Afghanistan over the years, because I think, as many of you know, if you better appreciate where we’ve been, you can then place in context where we are today and, most important, where we’re headed.  So let me just take a few minutes to do that.

Of course, the Western intervention, the U.S.-led coalition, came to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 in 2001.  So in the fall of 2001 the Taliban regime is dissolved, displaced largely with the leaders moving into Pakistan.  Two years later, NATO assumed responsibility for the ISAF mission.

The ISAF mission has its roots in UN Security Council Resolution 1386.  And about two years after ISAF was formed in 2001, NATO assumed the lead for it in 2003.  So, really, for NATO, the Afghan mission began in 2003.

By 2006, the mission, run by NATO, had expanded to a coalition of 50 nations and had expanded militarily to combat operations across all the provinces in Afghanistan.  It started as a Kabul-centric mission, but by 2006 it had expanded north, south, east, and west, and NATO and its coalition were operating across Afghanistan.  At its peak, this ISAF combat mission was 140,000 combat troops from 50 nations.

So that’s a bit of context in terms of where we’ve been.

Of course, the basic mission for ISAF had to do with containing and reducing the threat from al-Qaida – the threat that brought us the attacks on 9/11 itself, but also a secondary mission to provide sufficient space and time for the Afghan National Security Forces to build.  You’ll appreciate that, with the fall of the Taliban, we essentially started from no Afghan army and police, and over the course of the ISAF mission in about a ten year period, we built up to over 350,000 Afghan army and police.

So it was a two-part mission for ISAF: Deny safe haven, defeat al-Qaida, but also build up the Afghan National Security Forces.  And that mission that I’ve just outlined was successfully concluded in December of 2014 after 11 years.

Last December, of course, all of you or most of you reported on the fact that the mission shifted when ISAF was decommissioned, and at the very same ceremony, the Resolute Support Mission, the follow-on mission, was stood up.  We’re now about six months into this new mission, Resolute Support.  And I just want to emphasize that it is categorically, it is fundamentally different than ISAF.  It is not simply a smaller version of ISAF.

First of all, for NATO it’s a non-combat mission.  And second of all, it focuses not on combat operations across the country every day as ISAF did, but rather it focuses on providing the key support to your security forces.  We say that Resolute Support is all about training, advising and assisting the ANSF.

So we went from a combat role to non-combat train, advise and assist mission.  And you might ask how can NATO today with, say, 13,000 troops, one-tenth the size of ISAF, how can it still do its job?  The answer is simple: because it’s now joined on the battlefield by 350,000 Afghans.

So we’ve gone from 140,000 ISAF to 13,000, and in the same time, in that same period, we’ve gone from virtually no Afghan army and police to 350,000.  So the balance here has been that Western, NATO-led forces have gone down as Afghan forces have gone up — not only in numbers, but in capability.

We remain engaged today in Resolute Support.  There are about 40 countries that support the 13,000 NATO-led troops in Resolute Support today.  And we anticipate that this mission will go on for about two years.

While we’re only six months into Resolute Support, it brings up the discussion that took place last week in Turkey.  Because last week, as we’re only six months into this mission, we began to craft, and we got guidance from ministers, on what will follow Resolute Support.

So, the first message for you here today is that when Resolute Support ends, NATO’s engagement with Afghanistan will not end.  So what happened in Turkey last week is that ministers gave initial political guidance to NATO military leaders to plan the follow-on mission.  We’re currently planning on the follow-on mission beginning in January of 2017, so 18 months from now.  Why?  Because we think two years from now the Afghan National Security Forces will continue to develop, and just as we shifted from ISAF to Resolute Support, we will be in a position to shift from Resolute Support to what we now call Enduring Partnership.

Let me just explain a little bit about the vision of what this partnership will look like.

First of all, it won’t be the only partnership NATO has in the world today.  We have over 40 examples of partnerships between NATO and partner countries.  So for example, case in point here, is that today NATO has a partnership with many North African countries, running from Mauritania through Egypt.  NATO has partnerships with four of the six countries that make up the GCC in the Gulf.  NATO has partnerships with Asian countries — Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, for example.  We have partnerships that span geographically from Mauritania all the way east to Japan.  And what Foreign Ministers agreed to last week was that, after Resolute Support, we imagined such a partnership with Afghanistan.  Your country has asked for this partnership and what happened this week is that NATO accepted.

So we have now a handshake, we have an arrangement, an agreement, that there will be a follow-on mission beyond Resolute Support and I think for Afghans this is a very good news story that should not be missed.  I know today much of the news that your agencies report, is not great news in Afghanistan.  There’s not a lot of good news in Afghanistan.  But one good news story here is that last week, and this is the one I don’t want you to miss, that NATO and more than 40 countries agreed that we’re going to be with Afghanistan for the long haul.

Now this partnership is not fully defined.  We’re working with Foreign Minister Rabbani, we’re working with your President, your CEO’s office and your National Security Council to further refine exactly who will do what in this partnership.  After all, we’re 18 months out so we have some time.  But that detailed work was commissioned last week and will continue now and put us on a path so that by early 2017, we’re ready to do, again, a transition and at that time make the transition from Resolute Support to Enduring Partnership.

I’ll take your questions on the future vision, but the new story here is that last week in Turkey, we confirmed in the presence of Foreign Minister Rabbani, and based on an Afghan request, that NATO will be with Afghanistan beyond 2016.

Now, in the course of taking this decision last week, NATO internally had a discussion before the ministers’ meeting and we assessed what is it that NATO has actually accomplished in Afghanistan over this 10-plus years of engagement. Fundamentally the view here from Brussels and NATO headquarters is that NATO’s engagement has provided our Afghan partners the time and space to develop their own authentic institutions, Afghan institutions.

What do I mean by that?  I mean first of all, security institutions, and I’ve already mentioned the 350,000 Army and Police.  So the years of NATO’s engagement has fundamentally been an investment in Afghan Security Forces because it takes time to stand up an army.  It takes time to stand up a police force.  What we’ve tried to do for Afghanistan is give you that gift of time.

The second body of institutions that ISAF and now Resolute Support have enabled are Afghan political institutions. I think the most solid example of your development is that last year, by way of your presidential elections, Afghanistan for the first time in its history peacefully transitioned power from one political administration, one presidency to another, peacefully; and second of all, under an Afghan constitution using democratic principles.

Now look, the process was not perfect.  Few election processes are perfect.  But the point is, you made a lot of progress from where you were to what you demonstrated last year and I think the National Unity Government that’s in place today, while it’s still in its early months, is proving that Afghanistan has made progress with political institutions.

So you have security institutions, political institutions.  Then finally I think NATO’s contribution to the Afghan people has given you space to work with your neighbors, to work in the region, which is admittedly a tough neighborhood.  Afghanistan lives in a tough neighborhood.  That’s just a harsh reality.  But the last ten years have been an investment in Afghanistan’s ability to establish itself internally and then to begin to work constructively with your neighbors.  I think you see that playing out today.  I know that just recently Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Chief of the Army staff, for example, both were in Kabul visiting.  I know your president and your CEO have made visits across the region to try to reestablish Afghanistan’s rightful place in a tough neighborhood.

So, as we look at it from NATO headquarters, we believe our contribution has been to give your leaders time and space to develop security institutions, political institutions and relations in the neighborhood that are appropriately Afghan in nature.

The basic message here is simply this:  That over the last years I think NATO, and the United States in particular, the lead of the NATO coalition, have proven that we’re committed, that as Afghanistan steps up after 30 years of war, as your country steps up and stands on its own legs, that you will not have to stand alone. You will stand with us, and we are willing to stand with you as you continue to make progress.

Let me stop there.  That’s a short history of where we’ve been since actually 2001, and a bit of a preview in terms of where I think we’re going to go in the coming years.  And now I’m happy to take your questions.

Media:  I am Sharif Amiry from Tolo News.  I have a question for you, Mr. Ambassador, about how you think the Taliban is not our enemy.  What do you think right now?  Is the Taliban your enemy right now?

Ambassador Lute:  I don’t think I addressed the Taliban.  I think it’s quite clear that the Taliban is the enemy of the Afghan state.  I don’t think there’s any question about that.  If we look at who the Taliban attacks, the Taliban focus on your security forces, so that sounds to me like the definition of an enemy.

Now I think the second question behind that question is, okay, so what do we do about it?  I think that your government has been quite clear that it is committed to showing strength by way of your security forces, but it also is willing to open a conversation with the Taliban, even though the Taliban is an enemy, because this balance between strength and dialogue is really the pathway out of most conflicts like the conflict that Afghanistan is seeing today.

So I think your government, as we’ve listened to them and as we’ve worked with them, have been quite clear that they see a two-pronged approach here.  It’s an approach that features strength in your security forces, but also features the openness to dialogue.

Now we’ll see.  Does this dialogue, does it materialize?  Does it happen?  I don’t know.  It hasn’t yet.  So we’ll have to see how that develops.  But I think this path, this two-pronged approach is a very reasonable, prudent approach, and certainly NATO supports your government as you try to do that, as does the United States.

Media:  Ahmad Wali Arian, One TV.  What do you think, ISIS is working with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Ambassador Lute:  Look, the ISIS threat is centered in Iraq and Syria.  It is, no question, a very serious threat.  And over the last year we’ve seen ISIS open franchises, if you will, beyond Iraq and Syria.  Whether there is such an emerging threat in Afghanistan I think is too soon to tell.

There have been reports that ISIS may have an ambition to operate in your region, but quite frankly, I don’t think that we have solid evidence yet.  So I think more to follow.

And, of course, the same security forces and the same kind of NATO/Afghanistan partnership that enables you to deal with the Taliban would enable you to deal with ISIS.  So from our interest it doesn’t change, from NATO’s perspective, here at NATO headquarters, it doesn’t change our mission.  I mean we’re all about enabling your forces whether they’re fighting ISIS or they’re fighting Taliban or they’re fighting al-Qaida.

Media:  Javed Kakar, Pajhwok Afghan News.  I have a question.  [Inaudible], what was the [inaudible]?  What has been decided from the last [inaudible]?

And my second question, the [inaudible] mission was [inaudible].  Will the Afghan-enabled mission [inaudible] agreement with [inaudible]?

Ambassador Lute:  Let me just take those in reverse order.

The same Status of Forces Agreement that your government signed in September of last year that made the invitation for the Resolute Support Mission, that same agreement will serve us for the partnership beyond Resolute Support.  So we don’t need a new agreement.  Inside that agreement, your government and NATO shook hands, agreed on approved activities.  So the partnership that we were talking about in Turkey last week is one of those approved activities.  So we’re good.  We don’t need, and here I’m very grateful that we don’t need to go through another negotiation process for a new agreement. We can simply use the same one.

With regard to the assessment of the first six months, whenever we make big transitions like to transition from ISAF to Resolute Support, or to transition from NATO combat forces being in the lead to Afghan combat forces being in the lead, there are going to be transition challenges. I think that this year, the first year in which NATO is not in a combat role and your forces have not only the lead for combat- which by the way your forces have had for two years now, the lead for combat operations passed in June of 2013 to Afghan Security Forces – now you have the lead and the NATO combat forces are not there in the numbers to back you up.  So we’re in the midst of a new transition as well.

Whenever you do these transitions you’re going to have challenges and I think that we’re in one of those challenging periods right now.  How your security forces respond, how your government responds, how the National Unity Government coalesces around its two leaders and decides to move forward, how your parliament supports that National Unity Government is all a piece of the action.

So this is both a security fight and a security challenge, but it’s also a political challenge. I’d also add how your government reaches out to the neighborhood is another piece of the equation.

So you have a security challenge, you have a political challenge internal to Afghanistan, and you have a regional challenge, all of which are happening at the same time.

So yes, I think it’s going to be a challenging year.  But I have confidence that those pieces will come together with continued NATO support.

Media:  Rased Zwak, Shamshad TV.  Will Afghanistan partnership be discussed for the Defense Ministerial meeting in June?  And [inaudible] engagements that will start from 2020?  If not, will the ministers talk about that in coming meetings?

Ambassador Lute:  Yes, so upcoming NATO meetings, to include those that don’t involve our ministers.  We meet, NATO headquarters meets four or five times a week at my level, right?  So these conversations are going on every week.  They simply get marked every two or three months by a ministerial.  So we have persistent conversations about the shape of the partnership beyond 2016.  The NATO resources required for that partnership, we have ongoing conversations with your government about which tasks NATO will do 2017 and beyond.  That conversation continues and I do think Afghanistan will continue to be on the agenda of NATO through ministers, but quite frankly I think we can already forecast that, a year from now at the next NATO summit where President Obama sits with his 27 NATO leader counterparts, that Afghanistan will be on that agenda as well, the summer of 2016, next year.

I’m sorry, I missed the first part of your question.  You asked about future agendas.

Media:  I asked about the agenda of the June meeting —

Ambassador Lute:  Oh, the Defense Ministerial.  Yes.

Here’s the arrangement we have with your government.  If there is a nominated and confirmed Afghan defense minister, then we’re prepared to host a session in what we call Resolute Support format.  That is your minister here in Brussels with his 40 counterparts from the Resolute Support coalition — if he is nominated and confirmed.

Now I’ve seen, you probably have reported, press reports today that maybe we have a nomination of a new defense minister.  That’s very welcomed news here.  And we think that’s vital given the challenges I’ve outlined.  If the defense minister is nominated and confirmed by your parliament, he will be welcomed to Brussels in four weeks.  That’s the challenge for the political system.

Media:  Ms. Friba Wahidy, Radio Azadi. My question is that [inaudible] —

Ambassador Lute:  I’m sorry, we’re not picking you up.  Could we move one of the microphones a little closer?

Embassy:  The only microphone that’s working is up here.  So I’ll get them to come up closer.

Ambassador Lute:  Yes, please.  I think it’s a good question, I just can’t hear it.

Media:  [Through Interpreter].  Ambassador, she is Friba Wahidy from the Radio Adazi of Afghanistan.

She mentions General Jacobs who has said that the reason for the rise in the number of casualties of ANSF is one, lack of [inaudible] of [inaudible] by Afghan decision-makers; and the reason is that there is, because in so many areas [inaudible] checkpoints have been established and that also may be the reason for the rise in number of casualties.

Moderator:  What was the first reason?  We didn’t quite catch the first reason.

Embassy:  It was with a lack of studying strategic war and strategy and —

Ambassador Lute:  I see.  I certainly would hesitate to comment on General Campbell’s view on this or General Jacobs’ view on this.  I think it’s probably best if we let them speak for themselves.  But let me just say that as Afghan Security Forces this year faced the challenges that I’ve already described, which comes every time you transition from the old to the new, there will be challenges. I think that some of what we see on the battlefield today simply represents that we’re moving from the past to the future.  And increasingly the future rests in the hands of your security forces.

So it’s a bit of a challenge this year and I think that’s to be expected.  And, to some extent, this challenge will just play out and we’ll have to see how that goes.  But the good news about this is that as you face this challenge this year, and look, next year is likely to be a challenge as well, that all the time your forces and your government are developing, they’re becoming stronger, and I think that’s exactly why NATO is still there.

And the good news is even in the face of these challenges you don’t have to face these challenges alone.  And that I think is our job.

Media:  [Through Interpreter].  Mr. Mohammad Ihsan, Ariana TV News.  Two questions.

The first question is that NATO has not focused a lot on Afghanistan self-sufficiency when it comes to its security forces and the need for the Afghan forces to provide security to the country.  [Inaudible] that NATO has had a mission that [inaudible] to another mission in 2017 as you said.  Why has NATO not thought seriously about ways of making Afghanistan self-sufficient in areas of security?

The second part of my question is about the deteriorating situation across the [inaudible].  I think it implies that [inaudible] in the north.  And if the situation continues to be deteriorating, will NATO [inaudible] an active combat role in support of ANSF?

Ambassador Lute:  On self-sufficiency:  We’re in the process. Self-sufficiency is not ‘you are not self-sufficient’ one day and ‘you are self-sufficient’ the next day.  It’s a process that takes a good deal of time.  And it is part of that process that we’re in the middle of right now.

This is one reason I went back in my earlier remarks into some of the history here.  I would argue that in the ISAF days with 140,000 largely Western troops in Afghanistan, it was clear that Afghan forces were not self-sufficient.  They relied on 140,000 troops from outside your country.

Today there’s one-tenth that number of troops, 13,000, right?  And they’re in a non-combat role.  But you have fielded 350,000 army and police.  That is quite remarkable progress toward self-sufficiency.

Now there’s one important element of self-sufficiency which your government is not yet prepared to make and that’s funding.  So, today, your forces are largely reliant on international support by way of funding.

So we’ve decreased our combat support, but we’ve sustained our financial support.  I believe that that support will continue through the Resolute Support Mission and I believe at the Warsaw Summit, NATO Summit next summer, we’ll have something to say about financial support beyond Resolute Support.

So the forms of support have changed from combat troops on the ground to, increasingly, Afghan combat troops with international financial support.  Eventually, not this year, next year or the following year but eventually, Afghanistan will need to be self-sufficient even for financing, but we don’t have a date for that yet.

So, the forms of international support have changed as the self-sufficiency of Afghan forces has grown.  It’s been a bit of a transition over time.

Now the deteriorating, as you’ve said, the worsening security situation, this is what I meant by facing a security challenge this year.  The Taliban, the enemies of Afghanistan, will test your security forces this year, and that’s what’s going on.  That’s happening.  You’re reporting on it.  You’re seeing this.  But we should not make a mistake about what this is.  This is a test of your security forces, and I think you’ve seen in significant operations across your country — in northern Helmand, later in Zabul Province and most recently in response to a situation up in Kunduz and in Badakhshan, you’ve seen your security forces do things that they were not capable of doing even a year ago.

So this is not perfect, but that’s because your security forces are still making progress.  They still have work to do.  But I think that the Afghan people can see the difference between 140,000 Westerners and 352,000 Afghans, and that is progress.

Media: Javed Kakar, Pajhwok Afghan News. Afghan National Security Forces took the responsibility from the [inaudible].  But the [inaudible] community is [inaudible].  That is not enough [inaudible].  Because before more than 100,000 foreign troops were involved in operations, but Afghan National Security Forces are doing this.  When [inaudible] money for Afghan Security Forces?

Ambassador Lute:  So at the Summit before last, bear with me here because this again takes you back into history to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago in the United States.  So, at the Chicago Summit, the international community pledged $4 billion a year for years 2015, 2016, and 2017.  So we’re in the first year of what we call the Chicago pledge.  And this year, we have delivered the $4 billion, so it’s not $1 billion, it’s $4 billion.  One billion is provided by the international community; $3 billion by the United States of America.  So it’s three plus one equals four.  That arrangement is in place this year, and we have commitments in place for the next two years, for both 2016 and for 2017.

Now beyond 2017, there’s a question mark, and it’s that question mark that I believe we will address at the next NATO summit which is in Warsaw, Poland next summer.  But this year and the next two years, we have funding in place to sustain the ANSF.

Now, I should also mention there’s a third source of funding here and that’s your government.  Your government has also made a pledge to contribute as it can inside its budget, to contribute to sustaining your own security forces. That’s an important piece of this puzzle, but your government also has many other demands — education, health, running the government itself and so forth.  So this is a part of the partnership that I’ve described – the partnership that’s in place today, by way of Resolute Support, but also the pledge that this partnership will continue and that we will sustain funding support for the Afghan Security Forces.

Now you might say, how long can this go on?  Well, I’m not sure.  I don’t write the checks.  But what I can tell you is the single best thing that the Afghan government can do to sustain this international funding support is number one, perform on the battlefield.  Prove that the commitment of international funding to the ANSF is paying off.  And I believe your security forces are doing that.

The second most important thing your government can do is make the Government of National Unity work. So, get past the political differences of the past, and move forward together into the future.

The third thing your government can do to sustain this confidence, this funding support from the international community, is to continue to reach out to your neighbors and try to find peaceful, cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships with your neighbors, even though Afghanistan lives in a tough neighborhood.  You can’t change your neighbors.  They’re not going to change.  You’re not going to move, they’re not going to move.  Geography is geography.  So Afghanistan’s role here, as a responsible player in your region, is to do what you can to reach out and have cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships with your neighbor.

So yes, the international community is stepping up and supporting your security forces, and all I’m suggesting is that in order to sustain that level of support, which by the way is the single largest such support mechanism in the world.  No country in the world is receiving the level of security assistance that I just described that Afghanistan is receiving.  In order for Afghanistan to sustain that, you must continue to make progress on all three of these fronts – on the security front, on the National Unity Government and in the region.

The good news is I think you have in place a government that’s trying to do exactly that.  And I’d ask the citizens of Afghanistan to support your security forces, to support your government internally and regionally so that that progress can continue.  And as the international community sees that progress, we’ll have the strongest possible argument to sustain this funding.  And that’s as good as we can do, right?

So I guess what I’m saying, in closing, is that after the investment the international community has made in Afghanistan, investment in lives, in serious injuries to our soldiers, in funding support, all forms of investments, the single best thing that Afghanistan can do is make good use of that investment.  Take advantage of the time provided by the international community to make progress in all three of these areas: security, governance and the region.

And if you do that, you will have done everything possible to make a strong argument for the international community to stay engaged and to continue to provide support.

I want to thank you again. I know it’s not easy to get into the U.S. Embassy.  I have trouble getting into the U.S. Embassy in Kabul myself so I can only imagine you probably have challenges, but I appreciate your patience in doing that.  I appreciate the support from our Embassy colleagues there in sponsoring this.  And I look forward to talking to you again.  Hopefully before the June Defense Ministers when a newly appointed, newly approved, confirmed defense minister will meet with his NATO colleagues.

Thank you very much.