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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel Enroute to Brussels, Belgium

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
October 21, 2013 12:00 PM EDT

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: The best way to do this is the easiest…

STAFF: Yes, sir.

STAFF: Just hold on to it.

SEC. HAGEL: Good morning, good afternoon. You (inaudible) a few minutes ago on (inaudible) focus on the next (inaudible). Let me just highlight a couple things and then we'll get some questions.

This ministerial is going to focus on three primary things. One is post 2014 Afghanistan, planning, building on the Chicago Summit, Tokyo. Obviously the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that is now going forward, as you know, in Afghanistan. A framework -- the country's role of -- continued role of NATO and ISAF countries post 2014 and all those dimensions. So we'll spend a lot of time on that.

Second, this will be also an opportunity to start shaping the summit for next year. The date for that summit has not been determined. But the location will be in the U.K. So we'll spend some time on that. Also, I would anticipate we'll have some opportunity to get into some intense conversation about where does NATO go, the role of NATO over the next few years.

So I look forward to a pretty substantive couple of days here. I'll have some bilateral meetings and I look forward to those as well as the larger meetings. So it'll be a full two days. And it comes at an important time given what's going on in the world.

So with that, what are your questions?

Q: (Inaudible). You're going to have a meeting with your Afghan counterpart. Is now the time to talk to them about how vital it is for them to come together on the BSA? I mean what's your message to the Afghan minister at this point? And how do you, I guess move forward on the BSA?

SEC. HAGEL: I think that we're making and have made good progress on the BSA. You know Secretary Kerry was there a week ago. And he and President Karzai agreed on a framework in principle Jackson you know process. And it'll go to as far as Jirga because President Karzai felt that was important that the people of Afghanistan feel that they have a voice in this. And I think that is important.

That right now is tentatively scheduled for some time around the 19th or 20th of November. Then however way the loya jirga advises on the Bilateral Security Agreement then the parliament will take it and will make a formal decision.

Now during that process, which is important because everybody has to be part of this and certainly Afghanistan is a sovereign nation. And whether it's the United States or any ISAF or NATO country, is there an invitation of the people of the government of Afghanistan? So they have to have a very intense role in this.

At the same time, we as the United States, along with our NATO and ISAF partners, have been working on the last year especially, a plan for post 2014. Our side of this, the United States' side, as well as our ISAF partners, has been following our plan of (inaudible), coming down with our force presence there, getting a lot of our equipment out. We're on schedule on all of that.

As you know, we are no longer in any lead positions, no combat roles. So this transition has been underway. It needs to be formalized. And the first step in that is the Bilateral Security Agreement because the Status of Forces Agreement will be required as well to NATO.

So as your -- to answer your question, what will I say to the minister of defense of Afghanistan? That we'll continue to work together; we have to. We’re going to be straightforward with each other. I think they are moving on this with considerable dispatch. They have to think it through, the people of Afghanistan, the leaders.

You have an election coming up next year. I know President Karzai is not unaware of that. Who follows President Karzai as the next president, or if there's a parliamentary election following here.

So I think they're handling this with responsible analysis. And we're on track. We're not behind schedule on this.

But it has to be done this way because so many people and countries are involved. But in particular, the Afghan people have got to sign off. They've got to be comfortable. They've got to be the ones inviting us to stay as a partner.

Q: (Inaudible) what is the risk, Mr. Secretary, should the loya jirga or parliament delay because of events on the ground or politics? Is there sort of a deadline by which the U.S. and the coalition needs an answer so that they can prepare for and execute a post 2014 mission?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think as the president, President Obama has said, and I think everybody agrees that the sooner that we get a Bilateral Security Agreement, the better. I mean I think that's obvious. But the timeline we're on now, which we fully expect to be carried out, and I've already noted what that is, that's sufficient time.

Again, I remind us that we didn’t just start planning for this. We, with our ISAF, NATO partners have been planning over the last year very intensively on this, not only on the drawdown but post 2014, the train, the assist, the advice mission. What a counterterrorism beast would be in addition. All of those things that fully, fully got through and planned for.

So I don’t think there's any deadline that we have to have it by Thanksgiving. But if we stay on track, which I fully expect we will with the timeline we're on, that gives us plenty of time.

Our partners in this, in particular the Germans, the Italians and the Turks who have already stepped up and said that they would be framework (inaudible) in the North and in the West are also saying the same thing. We can continue to plan it. But obviously the sooner, the better, but we're okay. We're not panicking.

Q: (Inaudible) anything about reconciliation or peace talks with the Taliban since the administration made an effort to get things off the ground back in the summer? Would you say there's still any hope for movement on that front in the next year? Or would you say it's looking pretty bleak?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, again, there are a number of pieces that would have to fall into place to be able to go forward on all sides. We're always hopeful that there can be some openings for reconciliation. I think most of us believe if we can find that, if it's real, then we would want to explore that. We would want to pursue that. But it takes all sides to be committed to that.

So it's always a possibility. It's always something that we're exploring. But I think where we are right now, moving forward with what we've got in front of us, the Bilateral Security Agreement, moving on schedule on that and then following behind that Task Force Agreement. But reconciliation is always something that we have as a possibility that we would explore. We never shut that option off.

Q: Yeah. I thought I heard you say that we were in an anti-combat role in Afghanistan at this point. Is that what you said, or?

SEC. HAGEL: Non-combat role, but seeing combat efforts.

Q: And leading combat role?

SEC. HAGEL: I mean obviously we're still losing the groups. I mean force protection we're always going to protect our forces in the war. And it's still dangerous and it's going to continue to be dangerous, but all the leads in combat activities and missions where that was turned over to the Afghans and we're not doing that.

Q: (Inaudible) on your meeting with your Russian counterpart, I mean usually on Syria. What do you expect they'll accomplish in that meeting?

SEC. HAGEL: I (inaudible) considerable progress with the Russians regarding Syria. I look forward to talking with the minister about this in particular. When you consider within the last month we have gotten a very solid U.N. Security Council agreement, we've worked closely with the Russians on this and we've got the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] in there now.

The Russians are integral to this. We're cooperating closely. We'll continue to cooperate. I think there's a lot of good news in that because it isn't just a chemical weapons issue, but it's hopefully what Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov have continued to work toward, as well as our U.N. counterparts on this.

(Inaudible) try to get this to a higher ground of peaceful, diplomatic resolution in Syria. So, a long way to go, a lot of complications, not easy, but we're in the right direction. And for the first time we've really got some consensus on some pretty big issues.

Q: (Inaudible) from allies to commit to certain levels post 2014? (Inaudible) discussion anything about how many troops the U.S. is prepared to commit?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, of course all our allies are going to want to know. They should know, they have to know once the decision is made as to what our decision is going to be. But I don’t look for any, as you say, pressure here in the next few days.

We've been in touch with all of our allies. All our allies know. I talked to many of them on the phone. The ministers who are going to be here, NATO ministers, ISAF ministers, they know that we can't go forward until we have a Bilateral Security Agreement. But again, all the planning is still going forward. And they're okay with that.

Again, the sooner the better, of course, but we haven’t done this unilaterally in a sense that we don’t communicate. We talk with our allies all the time, with the Germans, the French, New Guinea, and all of the ISAF partners on this. So they know exactly what the status is on where we are.

Q: Have you seen something at this point that would move anyone off that initial number, 8,000 to 12,000? That since the last meeting there's been nothing of the date that you've seen either in Afghanistan or the allies that would suggest that number's a problem?

SEC. HAGEL: No, I have not seen any of that. We're in constant communication with our allies on this. I talk to them. Harry talks with them.

Q: That's still the…

SEC. HAGEL: Yes, but yes. That was the option that we presented -- Secretary Panetta presented in February. And that's the range that's still being considered.

Q: Last question. Mr. Secretary, a high number of casualties, a sustained high number of casualties among the ANSF this fighting season. How has that affected your planning or recommendations?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, unfortunately, first, as I remind us all, we are at war in Afghanistan. And there are going to be casualties.

As to more specific your question, I think it was not a surprise that the Taliban would increase their efforts and would step up their attacks, putting as much pressure as they could on an Afghan army to test the Afghan army. That was not unanticipated. That was actually something I think we all thought would occur.

The Afghan army's doing remarkably well. They've got a continuation of focus and training and efforts and things that any new army is dealing with as they work out their NC04 and their leadership and their training and their coordination of weapons, of course. But they have done very, very well this year as they've handled these big operations themselves.

And so that I think has given a lot of us some considerable confidence. And so they'll be prepared to handle this.

STAFF: Thank you.

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