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Secretary Esper Address to Service Members in Afghanistan

Thank you Secretary General Stoltenberg. We appreciate your hard work and your leadership of the NATO alliance.

It’s great to be here in Kabul again with the troops of the Resolute Support coalition. I want to start by thanking all of you for your service. We have over 25 nations represented here, all working towards one common objective – to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe-haven for terrorists to threaten our homelands.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we have fought alongside each other and our Afghan partners to achieve this goal. Many of you have served multiple tours here, missing out on birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, and other important life events. Your families have sacrificed much as well, doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy, while you have been away serving your country. And some of you standing here today, may not have even been born when this war first began.

Throughout the course of the past 19 years, almost 800,000 U.S. troops have served in Afghanistan. Over 20,000 of our veterans have been wounded here in combat and will forever bear the scars this conflict. And nearly 2,000 brave Americans made the ultimate sacrifice on Afghan soil by laying down their lives in the defense of freedom. Across the coalition, other nations have sacrificed their own blood and treasure to help bring peace to a country that has been at war for far too long.

Together, our military coalition has worked tirelessly to support the Afghan Security Forces. Over time, we have watched them grow in capability, as they have taken the lead for the security of their country. And today, they are an effective force on the battlefield, thanks to the efforts of this coalition.

But despite this progress, achieving our objectives in Afghanistan will not come from military force alone. An end to the fighting will happen only when Afghans decide for themselves to lay down their arms and come together as one people. That is why the best path forward for the future of this country is a through a political agreement that respects the integrity of the Afghan people, and preserves the accomplishments that we and our Afghan partners have fought so hard to achieve.

Today, Afghanistan took a great step forward along that path. Just a couple of hours ago in Doha, Qatar, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban that sets the conditions for a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan. And, earlier today, President Ghani and I made a joint declaration of our commitment to carrying out that agreement, which begins with an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. These events mark an historic opportunity for Afghanistan to pursue a future of peace.

But despite today’s significance, we still have a long way to go. All of our decisions moving forward are conditions-based and require the Taliban to maintain the ongoing reduction in violence. If the Taliban fail to uphold their commitments, they will forfeit their chance to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government, and will not have a say in the future of this country.

However, should the Taliban abide by the agreement, the United States will begin a deliberate phased redeployment of troops, initially reducing our force level to 8,600. As we do this, we will work closely with our allies and partners to reduce their forces as well, in a proportional manner. Just as we entered this fight together, we will draw down together, and eventually, we will leave together.

Fully reducing our presence in Afghanistan down to zero – our ultimate goal – will take many months. Even as we drawdown our forces, our train, advise, and assist efforts will continue, and we will not hesitate to strike terrorist threats throughout the country as they emerge. Central to our agreement with the Taliban are measures to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups or other individuals who seek to harm the United States or our allies. Should that ever become compromised, we will take all necessary measures to protect our homelands and our people.

Those of you standing here today must recognize that your mission is far from over. In fact, you all face a very significant challenge as we look to transition even more responsibility to our Afghan partners. Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place, with multiple terrorist groups who would like nothing more than to spoil the ongoing efforts towards peace. Your number one priority remains the protection of our people, and you must not let your guard down. I expect you to carry out your duties with the upmost professionalism and vigor, and do not become complacent, even as we move towards a more peaceful environment.

As we drawdown our forces, the United States and our international partners remain fully committed to our relationship with the government of Afghanistan and its security forces. We will continue to provide them support as necessary to assist in their ability to defend the people of Afghanistan. We have shed much blood with our Afghan brothers-in-arms, and it is important to all of us to see them succeed.

Ultimately, that success, and an end of the war, depends on Afghans joining together to embrace this opportunity. This is the best chance Afghanistan has had in 19 years to achieve peace. The sacrifices of all those who have come before you have brought us to where we are today. And the brave work of this military coalition has set the conditions for this process to succeed.

The road ahead will not be an easy one, but no one is better prepared than all of you to lead us through this transition. The American people, and the President of the United States are proud of all that you have accomplished, and thankful for your continued service. I’m honored to be here with you today as we look forward to the coming weeks and months with optimism.

May you all stay safe, remain vigilant, and continue to serve with honor.

God Bless you all.

Thank you.