This was the second occasion I’ve had to meet with the NATO Ministers of Defense at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Over two days of meetings, I took this opportunity to personally brief the defense ministers on our new strategic guidance and recent budget decisions, forthcoming changes to U.S. forces in Europe, and to reassure our allies of the continued U.S. commitment to a strong and forward-looking NATO alliance.
It was important to make clear to our European allies that even as our posture there evolves, we remain committed to NATO – the most successful military alliance in history – and we’ll continue to maintain an innovative, robust, and visible presence in Europe. As part of that robust presence, I told our allies that we will soon begin rotating a battalion-sized task force to Germany for exercises and training, as part of the rapidly deployable NATO Response Force, and we will also establish an aviation detachment in Poland to provide better training opportunities. We are also moving ahead with European missile defense – establishing land-based SM-3 missile sites in Romania and Poland, deploying Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships to Spain, and a radar in Turkey.
Now is a time for every NATO nation to make the most of the fiscal and security challenges we face to become more united as an Alliance and to strengthen our collective capabilities through such initiatives as Smart Defense. We took a big step forward on this front with an agreement to fund the Alliance Ground Surveillance system – consisting of five Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles and a ground control station. AGS has been in the works for many years, and is the first ISR capability NATO has ever purchased as a pooled resource. As I said in Brussels, it’s a good deal, it’s a big deal, and it’s a done deal.
Most importantly, the NATO meetings provided an opportunity to bring together all ISAF troop contributing nations to discuss where things stand in Afghanistan, and the ongoing transition to an Afghan lead for security by the end of 2014. General Allen gave a progress update on the incredible efforts of our troops engaged in winter operations, always a challenge in that country’s mountainous terrain. He said we are clearly making progress in Afghanistan – violence is down, the insurgents have lost momentum, and fissures have opened between insurgent foot soldiers and their leaders. General Allen also noted that half the Afghan population now resides in areas in which Afghan forces have the security lead, and the transition is progressing smoothly.
I emphasized to my fellow ministers the importance of close consultation on force levels as we continue along this transition. Our goal all along has been to help the Afghan National Security Forces take the lead for security, and we hope that as the final transitions are made in 2013, the Afghan forces will take the lead in combat operations with ISAF in support and fully combat capable through 2014. During this transition process, we’ll continue to consult with our allies and Afghan partners about the best way to accomplish our goals.
One thing I made clear in all my meetings was that even as Afghans assume the security lead, ISAF will continue to be fully combat ready – and we will engage in combat operations alongside our Afghan brothers as necessary. We also discussed the need for an enduring partnership, and presence in Afghanistan, post 2014, as well as the need to sustain the ANSF with international support. Failure to support the Afghan forces longer term risks everything we have fought for during the past ten years.
The fact that we can discuss these next steps now is a sign of progress and a recognition that our strategy is working. Above all, it’s a testament to the commitment and sacrifice of all those who have deployed to support Operation Enduring Freedom. There is undoubtedly much hard fighting ahead, and we need to keep the momentum up. We need to keep the enemy on its heels.
The message I came away with from my meetings in Brussels, and that I want to share with you, is that our Alliance remains strong, and fully committed to finishing the job in Afghanistan. Our bottom line is in together, out together. We are fully committed to the transition framework we agreed to in Lisbon in 2010, whereby the Afghan people assume responsibility for their own security by 2014. There is total unity on the transition plan and timeline. I look forward to working further with our allies on the details of this plan when we meet at the Chicago Summit in May, the first U.S. hosted NATO summit since 1999.
From Brussels, I traveled to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where I had an opportunity to meet with and thank some of our incredible service members who care for and transport our wounded warriors. These dedicated professionals, including medical evacuation crews, ground transporters, mortuary affairs specialists and USO volunteers, are a critical link between the “downrange” aid our injured receive, and transporting them to care back home at Walter Reed or Bethesda. Because of the work they do, because of their skill and expertise, lives are saved, and loved ones reunited.
I also thought it important, while at Ramstein, to thank some of our mortuary affairs service members. These dedicated professionals have one of the toughest, and most important, jobs out there: to bring our fallen men and women home. It’s one they perform with dignity, respect and reverence.
From Ramstein, we drove the short distance to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where I had the opportunity to visit some of our wounded warriors, as well as those from some of our coalition partners in Afghanistan. I’m always impressed by the spirit of our wounded warriors, and the incredible strength and fortitude they show even in the face of huge obstacles. They want nothing more than to recover and rejoin their units. As always, I was honored to be in their presence.
I also thanked members of the Landstuhl staff for their service and the care they provide, and had the good fortune to celebrate the 111th birthday of the Army Nurse Corps. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for nurses, because I married one. These selfless healers nurture the most helpless and vulnerable and offer courage and hope to those in despair. They deserve our everlasting thanks.
I ended my trip to Europe by delivering a speech to an audience at the Munich Security Conference, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Held in the historic Bayerischer Hof Hotel, the conference brings together heads of state and military leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. In my remarks, I again emphasized the importance of the NATO military alliance, one that over the past decade of war, from Afghanistan to Libya, has proven its relevance to the security challenges of the 21st century.
I came away from this trip struck by how important the American guarantee of security and partnership is to so many. Our great country remains a beacon of hope for those who seek a better and safer world, and for those who seek to give their children a better life. That we are the security partner of choice is a testament to the incredible dedication and professionalism of America’s service men and women. Thank you all for what you do every day to make this a better world.