Panetta: NATO at ‘Pivotal Point’ in Afghan Mission

BRUSSELS, April 17, 2012 — Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta arrived here today ahead of this week’s NATO “jum­bo” min­is­te­r­i­al con­fer­ence, where the alliance’s defense and for­eign min­is­ters are sched­uled to dis­cuss Afghanistan secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion and alliance capa­bil­i­ties.

Panet­ta said dur­ing a Pen­ta­gon news con­fer­ence yes­ter­day that the gath­er­ing will take place against a back­drop of change with­in the 63-year-old alliance.

“We’re at a piv­otal point for the alliance as we build on the gains that have been made in Afghanistan and try to chart the course for the future in that area,” he said.

George Lit­tle, act­ing assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for pub­lic affairs, today told reporters trav­el­ing with the sec­re­tary that Panet­ta views NATO as a strong alliance. Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force con­tribut­ing nations remain com­mit­ted to the strat­e­gy, agreed upon at the alliance’s 2010 sum­mit, of a grad­ual han­dover of secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, Lit­tle said.

Panet­ta judged those forces per­formed capa­bly and deci­sive­ly in quelling a series of coor­di­nat­ed attacks attrib­uted to the Haqqani net­work in Afghanistan’s cap­i­tal of Kab­ul on April 15, Lit­tle not­ed. The sec­re­tary expects Afghan forces will sus­tain that lev­el of per­for­mance, and he believes “the over­all [Afghanistan] nar­ra­tive is a very pos­i­tive one,” he added.

A senior defense offi­cial accom­pa­ny­ing Panet­ta said the sec­re­tary will attend a meet­ing of defense min­is­ters tomor­row. Par­tic­i­pants will dis­cuss ongo­ing alliance defense needs and the “smart defense” approach of com­bined invest­ment in NATO mil­i­tary equip­ment, the offi­cial said.

Many NATO mem­ber nations face bud­get chal­lenges, while oper­a­tions in Afghanistan and Libya have exposed some short­falls in the alliance’s over­all defense capa­bil­i­ties, the offi­cial not­ed.

Lat­er, along with Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton, Panet­ta will attend the larg­er ses­sion involv­ing defense and for­eign min­is­ters, which the offi­cial said will focus on Afghanistan and fund­ing for Afghan secu­ri­ty forces. For­eign min­is­ter meet­ings will con­tin­ue into April 19, but the defense seg­ment of the week’s NATO gath­er­ing will con­clude tomor­row, the offi­cial added.

The offi­cial called the “jum­bo” min­is­te­r­i­al con­fer­ence “a rare bit of geom­e­try.” While the two groups of min­is­ters nor­mal­ly hold sep­a­rate meet­ings, this last gath­er­ing before the alliance’s Chica­go sum­mit in May will allow senior offi­cials to “move issues along” so heads of state won’t need to argue over pol­i­cy ques­tions next month, the offi­cial said.

“We don’t want our boss­es to have to deal with things that we can’t resolve on our own,” the offi­cial added.

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