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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel En Route to Halifax, Nova Scotia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
November 21, 2013

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon. You all were there at the Bath Iron Works. I know we don't have a lot of time, so I'll kind of cut right to your questions here in a minute.

I do want to quickly note why I'm doing this, because I think this Halifax conference continues to be more and more important for the Arctic Circle region. The future up there is going to be more and more important for -- not just the interests of the eight Arctic Circle countries, the five that border the Arctic Circle, the three others, but the world, when you look at the shifts in environment and climate change and how that area is most likely going to continue to open up, where we may have a polar sea lane eventually. That's going to give many new opportunities to countries -- to the world. That will come with new challenges, as well.

So the United States needs to be very active in this group and be very involved, because we're talking about climate change, energy resources, security, space. There are just so many factors that play into this. So I'm very enthusiastic about spending the day. I think we've got about 25 defense ministers going to be up there. So you're seeing every year this increase not only in attendance, but in interests.

So that's why I wanted to do this. Plus, I wanted to get up to one of these shipbuilding facilities and take a look, and then the Zumwalt, I was particularly interested in that.

What do you want to talk about?

Q: Can you give us a sense of where things stand with Karzai at this point and kind of lay out for us what the path forward is going to be, in terms of deciding on numbers for that post-2014 period?

SEC. HAGEL: You all know I'm in the process -- I haven't heard anything in the last few hours that's changed. But you know that Karzai spoke this morning with the loya jirga. You know that a draft text has been presented. You know all of that. You know the president sent a letter. I was with Secretary Kerry, in fact, all day yesterday when we were with the Australians and then we met with the king of Morocco. So we've -- Secretary Kerry and I have had kind of nonstop conversations the last few days. So you know where we are.

To your question on numbers and -- that's all going to be defined as a result of the final approval of a bilateral security agreement (BSA). That's what President Obama has said from the beginning. That has been our arrangement, our agreement. You know when we signed about a year ago the strategic partnership agreement. In that agreement, it was noted that we would have a BSA within 12 months. Well, the 12 months, I think, is this month. And I think the end of the year -- we believe by the end of this year we should have that agreement signed, we need to have that agreement signed by the end of the year.

I think President Obama's been very clear on that. He's been clear on -- he can't make any commitments or defined any -- any future role in troop numbers post-2014 until we have that. Our allies are waiting on this. Our Australian ally asked about it again yesterday. When I was at the NATO Ministerial, as some of you were with me, they asked about where are we.

We continue to plan for a post-2014 train, assist and advise counterterrorism role. But until we get that BSA, we can't do any more than train, and it really needs to be done by the end of this year.

Q: But what do you think about the fact that it may be delayed and they may not sign it until next spring? What does that -- what would that do? Is that a deal-breaker?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I don't make deal-breaker decisions. But I think it would put the United States in a very, very difficult position, because until we have a signed bilateral security agreement that essentially gives us then the assurance that we need to go forward, I don't think the president is going to commit to anything. He's said that. And my advice to him would be to not.

We have to assure that our forces in any future role there are protected. Force protection is a critical element of this. And as you note, in the president's letter, he noted that that was also a part of the agreement that President Karzai agreed to, along with Secretary Kerry.

So we have to have assurances that our forces would be protected in -- in every way, and without a bilateral security agreement, I don't think we can go forward.

CARL WOOG: We're landing shortly, so -- we're landing shortly. Two quick ones here.

Q: Okay, well, so could you then in May or whenever it were signed then commit? I mean, you say you can't commit until you have it signed, but does that mean you can't wait until May to sign it or to have a signed agreement?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I don't think the president, who ultimately makes the decision on what our presence will be post-2014 -- he'll make that decision. But if this -- this issue rolls into next year, it is going to be very difficult for my responsibilities, along with our military, to go beyond just the planning stages. I mean, this would -- this is a big operation to position assets and rotations and commitments, and not knowing how many people to start with. And that's the president's decision, but I think he's been pretty clear on that.

Q: Just to be clear, was this a total surprise, this declaration of waiting until April and the elections? And as far as its effect on the future, what about its effect on 2013 and the next year's fighting immediately? Does it make it that much harder to know what's coming, what we need?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, we're almost through 2013, as you know.

Q: I meant 2014, I'm sorry. Not -- not after 2014, but how does it affect next year's fighting?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, let me put it this way. I don't get into subjective issues, because you all know that we've been up and down the hill on this many times, and I recognize that President Karzai represents the country of Afghanistan. He's a duly elected leader. That's a sovereign nation. We respect the sovereignty of Afghanistan.

At the same time, this country, the United States of America, has done a tremendous amount of good. Our troops, their sacrifices, our treasure there has helped the people of Afghanistan a lot the last 12 years. We want to continue to do that. But, again, we have to also protect the interests of the men and women who serve and -- and the interests of our country. We want a partnership. We want to go forward. I anticipate we will. And I look forward to seeing that BSA agreed to and signed by the end of the year.

MR. WOOG: Okay, thank you all. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Q: Thank you, sir.