While a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan should be completed the sooner the better, NATO and U.S. planning has continued to focus on a follow-on mission to train, advise and Afghan forces, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels Oct. 23.
The secretary concluded two days of meetings with other NATO defense ministers. Hagel said capabilities, partnerships and Afghanistan were central topics in discussions on both days. Todays final event was a meeting of defense ministers from NATO and partner countries that contribute to the ISAF mission.
In a news conference following the meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that since June, Afghan forces have led security operations nationwide, with minimal or no support from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. They now lead more than 1,000 patrols a day, he said, and are planning and conducting complex operations in all parts of the country.
All this will put them in a strong position as they prepare to assume full responsibility for security at the end of 2014, the secretary general said.
Rasmussen said that allies and partners today reconfirmed their support for the Afghan security forces, and are moving ahead planning for Resolute Support, the NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces after 2014. But there is work to do leading up to the end of 2014, he noted.
This includes agreeing on a legal framework with the Afghan government on the status of our forces, Rasmussen said. This is the sort of framework we need whenever and wherever we deploy forces.
He added that next years presidential elections also will be important, particularly because they will be Afghan led and managed.
We expect those elections to be held on time, and to be transparent, inclusive, and credible, Rasmussen said.
Hagel told reporters that a post-2014 NATO troop presence will require the approval of the Afghan government, a signed bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, and a status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and NATO. The secretary has said throughout this week that hes confident those requirements will be met on time.
The secretary told reporters that overall, this weeks meetings have been positive and productive.
One key capability shortfall NATO faces is cyber defense, he noted, adding that the alliance is developing response teams to aid members and partners facing attacks, and that NATOs computer incident response center will come online next week.
The alliance must do more to deal with cyber threats, he cautioned, however.
On ballistic missile defense, he said, the U.S. phased, adaptive approach to European missile defense is on track, with a groundbreaking ceremony scheduled next week for a land-based U.S. Aegis site in Romania. The Aegis system can detect, track and intercept ballistic missiles.
The United States will increase participation in the NATO response force, rotating a battalion-sized force to Europe twice a year, the secretary said, and will deploy ground troops to NATOs upcoming Steadfast Jazz exercise.
This weeks meetings included the first minister-level gathering of the NATO-Russia Council since 2001, officials noted. The meeting centered on military and defense cooperation and pressing international security issues, including Syria.
Rasmussen told reporters in his news conference that during the NATO-Russia Council meeting, participants agreed a pressing need exists for an international conference to pave the way for a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
And we fully support plans to hold it next month, he added.
We also welcome the agreement in the United Nations on the destruction of Syrias stocks of chemical weapons, and the work to put that resolution into effect, Rasmussen said. This is a significant step forward. It is vital that the agreement should be implemented fully and with maximum transparency.
In addition to todays general session, Hagel spoke with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, in a bilateral meeting. Hagel told reporters that he and Shoygu have agreed to hold regular video teleconferences to help further the two nations military-to-military cooperation.
I think its particularly important that leaders from significant world powers have some regular occasion to talk to each other – to anticipate issues that may be coming, he said, rather than waiting for crisis to force interaction.
A senior defense official told reporters the new regularly scheduled video teleconference is the first communication arrangement of its kind between the U.S. secretary of defense and the Russian defense minister.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who witnessed the secretarys discussion with Shoygu, said the two discussed a range of issues of mutual interest, including missile defense cooperation, the situation in Syria, and the United States and Russias shared interest in supporting security and stability in Afghanistan post-2014.
Little reported that Hagel assured Shoygu that U.S. missile defense efforts pose no threat to Russia, and he encouraged Russia to consider joint initiatives that increase transparency and provide for mutually beneficial cooperation aimed at enhancing our mutual strategic stability.
Hagels remarks to Shoygu highlighted the important strides made to reach consensus on how to address Syrias chemical weapons program, Little said. He added that Hagel encouraged Minister Shoygu to continue working with Syria to ensure its full cooperation with the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Yesterdays sessions included a NATO meeting on the alliances Connected Forces Initiative, which aims to maintain the operational experience allies have gained during 20 years of operational experience gained in Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere.
Rasmussen said following that session that the alliance plans to hold a major land, air and sea exercise in 2015, hosted by Spain, Portugal and Italy.
From 2016 onwards, we will conduct such major live exercises on a regular basis, with a broader scope and covering the full range of alliance missions, the secretary general said. He added that ministers agreed to draw up a broader concept for training and exercises up to 2020 — to make sure that everything we do is coherent and connected, within the alliance and with partner countries.
The Oct. 22 sessions also covered cyber defense, NATOs ballistic missile defense system and a review of NATO reforms.