SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon. I know that the secretary general was just here, so I listened to what he said, and I'm aware of his comments. So I will add my thoughts to the last day-and-a-half. I appreciate you giving me an opportunity to make these comments.
Along with my fellow ministers, we just completed a productive series of meetings here at NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] headquarters devoted to the future of this alliance, including our commitment to Afghanistan and the need to invest and adapt to meet emerging security challenges, such as cyber.
I'd like to thank Secretary General Rasmussen for developing a compelling agenda for the ministerial and commend General Breedlove for his leadership as our new supreme allied commander, as well as thank General Dunford.
I also want to recognize and thank our departing U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder. We all wish Ivo and his family well as they return to the United States in his new capacity, job and responsibilities in Chicago. Ivo's strong leadership and wise counsel has been a steady and guiding force within NATO at a very transformational time. I will personally miss Ivo's leadership here, but we know how to get a hold of him. So, Ivo, much success to you and warmest regards to your family.
NATO is as important today as it's ever been. And as the world grows more complicated and interconnected, a strong, cohesive and capable collective security alliance will be an essential component of helping preserve peace, stability and freedom.
Every day, that reality is demonstrated by NATO forces fighting together in Afghanistan. Today's meeting of ISAF[International Security Assistance Force]ministers was an opportunity to review the significant progress our forces continue to make with our Afghan partners, under the capable leadership of General Joe Dunford.
This progress is enabling the Afghan national security forces to assume leadership for combat operations across the country. Achieving this milestone is a fulfillment of our pledge our NATO leaders all made last year in Chicago. And it keeps us on track for Afghans to assume full responsibility for their country's security by the end of 2014.
The United States and its allies are transitioning in Afghanistan. We're transitioning, not leaving. The United States has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the future of Afghanistan. President Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. The United States committed to provide substantial financial support to the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] and development assistance to Afghanistan after 2014. That's in line with the Chicago summit and Tokyo conference.
President Obama underscored agreement on these and other areas of cooperation during President Karzai's visit to Washington earlier this year. Today, ISAF nations continued discussions about the new NATO train, advise and assist mission, which will develop Afghan capacity and capability in coming years.
In the session we just completed, ministers approved a concept of operations for this new non-combat mission. In the months ahead, NATO will develop an operational plan and further determine requirements in Afghanistan. The United States is committed to being the largest single contributor to this mission and to being the lead nation in the east and the south. We appreciate the commitments other nations are making, including the announcement by Germany and Italy, that they will serve as lead nations for the West and the North.
Turkey has also indicated they are favorably considering serving as the framework nation in Kabul. As our operations in Afghanistan evolve, NATO is at an important inflection point. It must adapt to meet new challenges and invest in the capabilities relevant to future threats.
How to do this in the face of fiscal and budget constraints was another major topic of discussion the last two days. The budget challenges we are experiencing in the United States, while maybe less severe than what many nations on this continent are confronting, are forcing us to prioritize and review every aspect of our defense enterprise.
I assured my fellow ministers that the United States is not considering any reductions that will affect NATO's ability to fulfill its core task of collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. Our commitment to NATO remains iron-clad.
Still, over-dependence on any one country for critical capabilities brings with it risks. And as European defense investment continues to decline, the alliance's dependence on the United States is growing. I shared with my fellow ministers that in order to justify to the American people the commitments that the United States will continue to make for deterrence and defense in Europe, we must be able to demonstrate that our NATO partners are willing to share -- share in this burden.
We also must ensure the alliance is capable of confronting 21st century challenges such as cyber. Yesterday, as you know, NATO defense ministers held the first-ever session devoted exclusively to cybersecurity. Our nations are all heavily dependent on cyberspace, and we share a critical infrastructure that are targets for cyber attacks.
We all agreed that the alliance must do more to ensure that we respond to these growing, deadly threats to cyberspace. We all must take meaningful actions quickly and focus on several key NATO missions, depending -- defending the alliance networks and systems, developing cyber defense capabilities to support alliance missions, and preparing to defend member states against a destructive cyber attack that could lead to a loss of life or serious economic consequences.
Also on the agenda was Libya. Following NATO's successful operation to protect the Libyan people, NATO ministers agreed yesterday to respond to a request from the Libyan government for training assistance. We will develop a plan for how NATO can play a role in boosting the capacity of the Libyan government to secure its borders and counterterrorism. This effort will enhance security for the Libyan people, and it will help address a security challenge on Europe's southern flank.
This is a defining time for the transatlantic alliance. Last week, President Obama and Secretary General Rasmussen agreed to have another summit of NATO leaders next year. This summit will help keep the alliance on a path for the future following the end of a combat mission in Afghanistan. I look forward to continuing to work with my fellow ministers to help defend our common interests and ensure a strong NATO for the future.
GEORGE LITTLE: The secretary will take a few questions. We'll start with Lita Baldor of the Associated Press.
Q: Mr. Secretary, considering -- thank you -- considering the latest evidence provided by the French regarding the use of chemical weapons, specifically by the Assad regime in Syria, and some of the loss of ground by the rebels there, is it time now, do you think, for the U.S. and some other allies to take more aggressive action to support the rebels? Should NATO take a more official role in this?
And you met with the French while you were here. What was your discussion with them? Did they ask for any particular support?
SEC. HAGEL: I met with the French minister, as well as other NATO ministers. And as I said, many of these issues were discussed on specific terms, answering your question. No, the French minister did not request anything specific from the United States.
As to your reference to the announcement on use of chemical weapons, I've not seen that evidence that they said that they -- they have. I've not talked to any of our intelligence people about it, so beyond what I read actually in the paper and the reference the minister made to it, I don't know anything more than that.
On Syria itself, NATO's responsibility, I think, has been evidenced in the last day-and-a-half. But as you know, even before this ministerial, our focus is on protecting our members and what we are doing to assure the defenses of Turkey and assist our NATO member, Turkey. But beyond that, we didn't get into any additional war plans regarding Syria.
MR. LITTLE: (inaudible) -- Teri Schultz -- (inaudible).
Q: Thank you. Teri Schultz with NPR and CBS.
Mr. Secretary, how seriously is the Pentagon considering this bridging proposal that was brought up by a group of people, including former ISAF Commander John Allen? And do you get the sense from allies that they are getting impatient for the U.S. to reveal their plans for troop levels in Afghanistan after 2014? Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. Well, I think, first a general comment. I laid out in the last day-and-a-half, first, the firm commitment of the United States to go forward with being a framework nation in a post-2014 Afghanistan. We will provide more personnel. We are looking at providing new expert professional assistance to the Afghan army in the area of contracting and fuel support, not just soldiers.
So I made it very clear, as did President Obama when he met with Secretary General Rasmussen on Friday, that we intend to be there for the long haul, and I made that -- that commitment very clear today, as well as financial assistance.
The issue of specific numbers, I have talked to all my colleagues and counterparts about this. Everyone is planning as they must, but I think when you look at the German commitment that's already been made, the Italian commitment that is being -- has been made, the Turkish commitment that's being considered, all of the NATO members who are going to continue to play a role, as will NATO, as the secretary general said, are planning and they are -- they're moving forward with their plans based on our commitment that we're going to be there.
I think General Dunford noted yesterday in his remarks that we have time to sort out specific numbers. So with our supreme commander in Afghanistan, his advice -- and you heard that yesterday -- I think we're all on the -- on the same page on this, all of our NATO allies, and the ISAF allies that will remain and want to stay committed and involved.
SEC. HAGEL: On -- on General Allen's -- actually, I have not read the piece. I think it was coauthored by three people. I've not read it. I saw news reports. Certainly, these are highly respected individuals that have every right to express themselves and what they think, but the reality is, those of us who have the responsibility of our nation's defense and our allies and our commitments to our allies, ultimately the president, as commander-in-chief and president of the United States, we have to make the decisions, and those decisions are very much based on what our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan and our allies there are telling us.
So, again, I haven't read the story, but they're three individuals who are well regarded, and they're certainly entitled to their opinions.
MR. LITTLE: We'll turn now to Ernesto Londono of The Washington Post.
Q: Mr. Secretary, the Obama administration has made clear that one of the things it's interested in post-2014 is maintaining a robust counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. This didn't come up today. Is this still on the table? Is the Afghan government amenable to -- to this being a component of a carry-on mission? And would this operate under a NATO umbrella?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'm not going to get into the specifics of our counterterrorism policies, activities, or programs or policies, but anything we do in Afghanistan has to have the agreement and the sign-off of the Afghan government. They are partners.
MR. LITTLE: And, finally, on Afghanistan, we'll turn to Afghan TV.
Q: (off-mic) from Afghanistan.
Mr. Secretary, the people of Afghanistan are worried that, while our allies will be busy in transition in 2014, it's a very busy year both for the international community and Afghanistan facing an election. And the international community, they think, may forget the election and may forget that in that zeal to achieve certain international goals, the Afghan people's rights will be trampled on by government that has not fulfilled its commitment and by the international community who has not held anybody accountable in some ways, and they're worried about that.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, the United States, our allies, our partners, NATO, have made it very clear that a free, open, fair election and an election that peacefully transitions to a new government is an essential part of any future commitment. So I don't think anyone will take their eye off of the election in Afghanistan. The election in Afghanistan is a critical component to the future of Afghanistan.
That's the whole point here. The people of Afghanistan must have the right to choose their leaders and be free and express themselves. So a free, fair, open election is nonnegotiable and it has to happen. And we'll do everything to help assure and what we -- we can do and play a role as the Afghan government would want us to, but particularly the people, the people of Afghanistan.
MR. LITTLE: That's all the time we have. Thank you very much for joining us today.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you very much.