SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: No. I'm glad to take a couple of minutes here with everybody. Let me take a little shot here and -- it's water. (Laughter.)
SEC. HAGEL: It's too bad. This is a disciplined outfit isn't it?
Well, first, thanks for coming with me on this trip. I think we've got an interesting day ahead of us tomorrow.
I just finished a meeting with the Afghan minister of defense and the deputy minister of the interior and the commanding general of the ANA, Afghan National Army. And it was a good exchange on updates where we are with the ANA, elections, confidence, support, all the big issues.
A couple points I want to make and then we'll open it up to questions. First, I wanted to listen to them and get their sense of what they think about how they are progressing and moving forward in preparing for elections, security for those elections.
I wanted to get their take on the bilateral security agreement. I wanted to get some thoughts from them about next year, and if we could get this BSA signed. Our enduring presence and their sense of how we're doing and what we needed to do more of. I thanked them for all the work that we have been able to accomplish together.
I also wanted to make sure they understood that I had heard from General Dunford and some others that there was some question about whether the United States was going to continue to support the armed forces here, the Afghan armed forces in some way as the result of a punishment of the BSA not being signed right away or some threat or lack of support.
That's not true. We are continuing our support in every program in every way just as we have committed to do. We want the Afghans to succeed. We want their army to succeed. We want their institutions to succeed.
It's in their interest. It's in the interest of the people of this country. It's in our interest. It's in the region's interest.
So I want to make sure that there was no misunderstanding about that because I had heard and I had seen press reports on this. So I hope I cleared that up with them.
I also talked a little about confidence because the longer the bilateral security agreement goes without being signed, that affects confidence in every dimension of how the Afghan people, their army, their leaders go forward post 2014. It directly affects our ISAF partners, our planning, our support for them.
And we had a good discussion about that. So, last point I would make as to, again, my purpose of being here. My purpose for being here is to spend the day with our troops, thanking them, acknowledging what they're doing, bringing them greetings.
We've got the holidays coming very shortly. These are tough times for men and women away from home and away from their families. I wanted them to know that we're thinking about them. We care about them. We appreciate what they're doing.
So I'm looking forward to all day tomorrow with the men and women. And also having an opportunity to listen to a number of the Afghan leaders where we will be. And also getting a sense from the Afghan army commanders what they think.
And in the process, as I did today in the meeting I had with the minister of defense and the deputy minister of interior and the ANA commander, is to congratulate them on the work they did on the Loya Jirga. That was not an easy assignment, the security that they accomplished.
There were no incidents that affected the Loya Jirga. And they deserve to be acknowledged for the kind of work they did. I think it was impressive. And I will end on the Loya Jirga point.
The Loya Jirga came forward in a rather overwhelming and clearly pronounced way, recommending that the bilateral security agreement with the United States be signed by the president. They also emphasized in that recommendation to the president that it be signed very timely. And I think they even had a date to no later than the end of December.
So that's an important part of all of this because it is the people of Afghanistan who have spoken on this. And it is something that we, the United States, and all of our ISAF partners recognize as a critical component for our future for any enduring presence post 2014. So we had some opportunity to discuss that in the meeting I just had as well.
So that's why I'm here. And that's why I look forward to tomorrow. Open up to questions.
STAFF: We have time for just a few questions. Lita?
Q: Mr. Secretary, there's been some confusion about whether or not you are invited to the palace, whether you were invited for dinner or a meeting with Karzai. I was wondering if you could clear that, if there was ever any thought or any request or anything for a meeting.
And secondly, in your meetings with the MOD and the deputy MI, what was their response when you talked to them about the BSA, about possibilities that someone else signed it, or what the best course of action is right now?
SEC. HAGEL: On the first question, I never asked for a meeting with President Karzai. That was not the purpose of my trip, never suggested it in any way.
I never received an invitation to meet with him. I didn’t expect a meeting with him. As I have noted -- explained, this trip is about the troops.
As to your second question, the minister of defense assured me that the BSA would be signed and would be signed in a very timely manner. I think it's -- from what I heard and heard today, the ministers all believe that it is in the interest of Afghanistan to have that just as the Loya Jirga recommended to have that BSA signed and signed in a very timely manner. The minister of defense assured me that it would be.
Q: Could I follow up on that -- why wouldn’t you want to meet with Karzai? I mean you came all the way to Afghanistan. He holds the key to getting the BSA signed.
Why wouldn’t you want to use this opportunity to kind of cajole him and pressure him, to seek out his concerns and kind of come to -- at least get closer to a deal to make this happen?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, let me answer it this way. I say again, this trip to Afghanistan was planned weeks ago. And it was planned for the sole purpose of working with our troops, reaching out to our troops, thanking our troops, wishing them happy holidays, acknowledging the work they did. So that's number one.
Second, there is not much I could add in a meeting with President Karzai to what has already been said two weeks ago. The national security advisor to the president of the United States, Ambassador Rice, was here and spent a lot of time with President Karzai. And I don’t think there was much left that was ambiguous about what we want to see go forward.
But even more to the point, I don't think pressure on -- coming from the United States or more pressure is going to be helpful in persuading President Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement. The people of Afghanistan through the body that he empaneled, the Loya Jirga, spoke rather plainly and clearly and dramatically about the interest that they believe for this country in going forward.
So that's not my -- that's not my role to pressure presidents.
STAFF: We have time for one more. Ernesto?
Q: Carl Levin has written a letter to administration suggesting that they simply ignore Karzai and continue planning for a post-2014 group presence under the assumption that there will be a new president with whom you can work with. Is that a viable option? Is that something you're studying?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, you all know we are planning for a post-2014 presence here. You know NATO is planning for that. Our ISAF partners, many will still be involved with us if we're able to get an agreement.
So that isn’t new, we're continuing to do that. But the reality is, as we have said before, and I think it was pretty clear that at the NATO ministerial in Brussels last week where General Dunford was with Secretary Kerry that our NATO partners, our ISAF partners, just like us, as we plan for our involvement, for their involvement, for different roles.
You can't do that at the last minute. There are budgets. There are commitments. You've got political constituencies. You've got congresses, parliaments, national leaders.
So, if for no other reason than the timeliness of having some certainty and clarification, which goes back to the point I made earlier about confidence, which gives the army, the people, all countries involved confidence that there will be a continuation of ISAF support and involvement at the invitation of the people of Afghanistan.
That's a critical point here because we should not be -- no country should be in a position to try to coerce a leader of another country, to convince that leader to have us be a presence in his country if the people of that country don’t want us. And that's why I said the Loya Jirga is really the most important factor here. They've spoken the people of Afghanistan.
So planning goes forward. But at some point then you can't plan for a post-2014 presence as the way we have all thought we would without the clarification of a bilateral security agreement, which, by the way, for NATO and ISAF forces means a status of forces agreement and all the other dimensions to this.
Q: And when is that point? Could you potentially wait until the election?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, there are a lot of dimensions to this. And I think if you go -- let's play that out. I mean no one is certain about outcomes.
But the election is scheduled for April 5. If there is a runoff, which is very likely, which means that it's extended for a couple months at best before a new president is elected. Now you're well in to mid-2014.
So there will be at some point here a cutoff point. And I'm not prepared to give a date on that. But I would say that one of the things you might want to look at is the NATO defense ministers' ministerial meeting at the end of February. And some answer's going to be required at that NATO ministerial.
Q: Thank you very much.
SEC. HAGEL: Now, one other thing, too. General Dunford, I understand, is going to meet with you all. So he'll obviously have a lot of the pieces to it too, as you know. So thank you. I'll see you tomorrow.
STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.