Panetta: Afghanistan Tops NATO Conference Topics

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Feb. 1, 2012 — Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta said today he will stress dur­ing this week’s NATO defense min­is­ters con­fer­ence that ongo­ing coali­tion com­mit­ment is essen­tial to suc­cess in Afghanistan.

“One of the pil­lars of our strat­e­gy is to build on suc­cess­ful part­ner­ships, and NATO is, with­out ques­tion, one of the most suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary alliances in his­to­ry,” the sec­re­tary told reporters trav­el­ing with him to Brus­sels.

Panet­ta said min­is­ters will dis­cuss key issues such as fund­ing for Afghanistan’s army and police forces, as well as car­ry­ing through the strat­e­gy agreed upon at the alliance’s Novem­ber 2010 sum­mit in Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal. The strat­e­gy calls for lead­ing up to secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion to Afghan forces in 2014 and then con­sol­i­dat­ing the Afghan lead for secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty.

As the strat­e­gy out­lines, Panet­ta said, the NATO-led Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force in Afghanistan will shift dur­ing the final phase of tran­si­tion to Afghan lead in mid-to-late 2013 from a pri­mar­i­ly com­bat mis­sion to a train­ing and advi­so­ry role as Afghan forces take respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty there.

“We’ve got to stick to the Lis­bon strat­e­gy,” Panet­ta said. “The Unit­ed States has a very strong com­mit­ment to Lis­bon and to the strat­e­gy that was laid out there. What we want is for all of our part­ners to adhere to that strat­e­gy.”

Panet­ta said he under­stands French Pres­i­dent Niko­las Sarkozy’s recent state­ment that he would remove French com­bat troops from Afghanistan after an Afghan sol­dier killed four French troops Jan. 20. While he was sad­dened at the loss of life, Panet­ta added, his under­stand­ing is that the French gov­ern­ment still plans to con­tribute to ISAF, pos­si­bly with train­ers.

“My hope is that at this min­is­te­r­i­al, we can dis­cuss this deci­sion and hope­ful­ly bring [France] back into the Lis­bon strat­e­gy so that we can all walk for­ward togeth­er,” he said.

ISAF efforts turned a cor­ner in 2011, the sec­re­tary said, with low­er lev­els of vio­lence, a sus­tained ISAF effort tar­get­ing Tal­iban lead­ers and an Afghan army that “stepped up to the chal­lenge” of assum­ing secu­ri­ty in parts of the coun­try.

“About 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Afghanistan will now be under Afghan gov­er­nance and secu­ri­ty,” he said. “That’s an impor­tant step.”

Next year will be even more crit­i­cal, Panet­ta not­ed, as Afghan forces take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the final, tougher areas in Afghanistan, while 2014 will involve “con­sol­i­dat­ing the tran­si­tion, mak­ing sure those gains are, in fact, held.”

Panet­ta said Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma has made clear that U.S. troops will have an endur­ing pres­ence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 — in coun­tert­er­ror­ism and “train, advise and assist” roles, for exam­ple. No final deci­sions have been made about exact num­bers or mis­sions after 2014, he added.

The sec­re­tary said he will seek 1 bil­lion euros in fund­ing for Afghan army and police forces in dis­cus­sions with his fel­low defense min­is­ters, and that he would like to expand the cur­rent fund­ing pool to include more nations, such as Arab coun­tries, Japan and South Korea.

“The key is to have a suf­fi­cient and sus­tain­able [Afghan] force that can be there for the future,” Panet­ta said. “One of the things we’ll be dis­cussing is the size that force should be, but a lot of that is going to be depen­dent on the funds.”

The sec­re­tary said anoth­er key mes­sage he brings to the min­is­te­r­i­al con­fer­ence is the strong and con­tin­u­ing U.S. com­mit­ment to Europe and to NATO. He added he hopes to encour­age the alliance to adopt a strat­e­gy-based approach to future defense needs, as the Unit­ed States did.

The recent­ly released U.S. defense strate­gic guid­ance informs Defense Depart­ment plan­ning for the mil­i­tary up to 2020, the sec­re­tary said, and “in many ways … NATO has to go through the same process, of look­ing for­ward and decid­ing what kind of force” it wants by the end of the decade.

DOD’s Joint Oper­a­tional Access Con­cept, also released in recent weeks, stress­es that U.S. forces must in the future oper­ate and deploy quick­ly, across ser­vices and domains, and with an inte­grat­ed atten­tion to cyber and space threats along with sea, land and air oper­a­tions.

In Sep­tem­ber, NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al Anders Fogh Ras­mussen out­lined his vision for NATO mov­ing for­ward. “We must pri­or­i­tize, we must spe­cial­ize, and we must seek multi­na­tion­al solu­tions,” he said. “Tak­en togeth­er, this is what I call ’smart defense.’ ”

Panet­ta acknowl­edged that bud­get pres­sures argue for com­bin­ing defense capa­bil­i­ties with­in the alliance, but he told reporters that shed­ding vital pro­grams can be risky. “What I don’t want to see is ’smart defense’ used as an excuse for not main­tain­ing core capa­bil­i­ties,” the sec­re­tary said.

The dan­ger in future crises is that a nation that opts out of the sit­u­a­tion “could take an impor­tant capa­bil­i­ty with it that NATO may need,” he added.

Panet­ta said he also hopes to dis­cuss future Euro­pean engage­ment between U.S. and oth­er NATO troops. Even after the Defense Depart­ment removes two of the Army’s brigade com­bat teams from Europe, he said, the region will host the world’s largest U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence, which will then be 37,000 troops.

A senior defense offi­cial said Panet­ta will meet tomor­row before the for­mal min­is­te­r­i­al con­fer­ence with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from ISAF troop-con­tribut­ing nations, includ­ing non-NATO mem­bers Aus­tralia and Geor­gia. Dur­ing the min­is­te­r­i­al ses­sions, the sec­re­tary will con­fer with NATO ISAF mem­ber nations’ min­is­ters, and will meet Feb. 3 with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all 50 troop-con­tribut­ing nations, the offi­cial said.

Min­is­ters also will dis­cuss oper­a­tions in Koso­vo, where Koso­vo-Ser­bian clash­es sparked through late last year, the offi­cial said.

“The min­is­ters are going to review strat­e­gy and force pos­ture … [and] make sure that we main­tain suf­fi­cient capa­bil­i­ties there to deal with any renewed flare-up in ten­sions,” the offi­cial said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)