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Remarks by Secretary Mattis at an Enhanced Honor Cordon Welcoming Albania Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka to the Pentagon

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Well, welcome Minister Xhaçka, Ambassador Faber and members of the delegation, welcome to each one of you here in the Pentagon.  Minister, it's a pleasure to host you after our last meeting in February at NATO's Defense Ministerial.

And for just to recall a few years now, since joining NATO in 2009, when I was the Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation, engaged in those days, Albania's proven to be a nation whose geographic size matters less than the size of its commitment.

Albania punches above its weight as a staunch NATO ally.  Deploying your fine troops to assist NATO's Aegean Sea mission, and Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and becoming the first nation to donate arms and ammunition to the Defeat ISIS Coalition.

Plus you have been working to counter the spread of extremism in the Balkans and beyond through your NATO center of excellence on foreign terrorist fighters, thank you.  Together, these actions demonstrate Albania's preparedness for leadership in the western Balkans.

As does your written plan to reach two percent of GDP on defense spending by 2024.  Again, thank you for your leadership by example.  Albania's commitment to burden sharing and transatlantic unity come at a time when Russia seeks to divide our alliance.

And here I note, few nations have been more alert to Russia's maligned influence in the region than Albania.  And I commend your work to preserve the integrity of Albania's institutions.  Americans and Albanians have strong ties.

Albania's state partnership program with New Jersey National Guard reflects a deeper bond between families in our country and yours.  So while we'll discuss our nation's military-to-military relationship today, we never forget our bonds go much deeper than that.

And as a final example, I note that in you we welcome a graduate of Clark University located in Worcester, Mass.  The university's motto is, “let there be light,” and we appreciate you bringing somewhat springtime weather with you to Washington.

It's also an important day for your country for other reasons that I'll let you expound on here momentarily.  But Madam Minister, thank you again for coming.  You and your ideas are welcome here.  And if you'd like to say a few words in front of the press.

DEFENSE MINISTER OLTA XHACKA:  Secretary Mattis, thank you so much for this invitation.  I am very honored to pay an official visit to the Pentagon, this is my first time here.  And I should say that, as a student at Clark University, it was my biggest aspiration to be able to work as staff at Pentagon.

Little did I know that one day I'd be visiting as the minister of defense.  I'm very, very honored to be here.  Albania owes a great deal of gratitude to the United States for its continued and longstanding support since its drawing of its borders.

Since then, you have had an invaluably - invaluable contribution for our country.  And you've supported us greatly with the democratization and your Euro-Atlantic path, our path all the way. 

And we are immensely grateful to United States and its administration for the commitment, contribution and support to Albania, to the democratization of its institution, to the rule of law and to all the reforms we've needed to have in order to expedite our affairs.  

Today obviously it's - is a very, very good day for us.  The Council of Europe has recommended the opening of the accession talks.  This is something that the Albanian people have aspired for many, many years.  And I believe that this perspective is crucial to move the country in the right direction.

To give hope to the people that if we sacrifice and we stay on the right course, then we will reach our objectives and we will go towards where our destiny is, with the Euro-Atlantic family.  I’m immensely grateful to you and your government for your irreplaceable and huge support given to the Armed Forces of the Republic of Albania.

For munitions, operations, education and opportunities, training and exercises to our military personnel, capability development assistance, which have all been crucial to repair our militaries for the challenges that - that today's security environment proposes.

We are very strongly committed and we believe that the implementation of NATO's strength, and deterrence and defense and projecting stability is crucial to peace, to security, stability and democracy.  Not just for our countries, but also for the region.

We are making steady progress with our military.  For a country which has limited and efficient budgets and emerging needs in terms of investing in infrastructure, building schools, hospitals, social programs for the needy.

It's always daunting and challenging to make an argument for more defense spending.  However, I should say that we are on the right track, and as we've pledged in the World Summit, the prime minister, the minister of finance, the Ministry of Defense, we are all committed to stand by that pledge.

And we have incrementally increased our budgets in the past couple of years.  And according to our sketched plan, we will bring the defense budget to two percent by 2024, as well as increase of the contributions and engagements in - in NATO on all the essential core tasks in collective defense, in crisis management and cooperative security.  

On the other hand, the Albanian operational contribution to NATO has followed, as you know, an increasing trend.  So far, we have doubled our presence in KFOR. We will increase our presence in Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan by deploying additional military personnel this year, an increase of 60 percent.  We have been engaged and we will continue to be present in enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia.

In addition to that battle group, we are in NATO maritime activities in the Aegean Sea, and this is the second year that we dedicated a patrol boat and 21 crew.  At the same time, we will continue to be present in the EU missions in Mali and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  

And a couple of days ago, I also signed a letter of interest, expressing Albanian interest to participate in the United Nations multi-dimensional integration stabilization mission in Mali.  In total, 650 Albanian Armed Forces personnel will be deployed in 2018 in NATO operations, missions and other various engagements.

The Albanian Armed Forces have already…new equipment of weapons and we are working hard to replace the old ones.  Persons will be committed to fully transform the armaments of the Albanian Armed Forces from the old Soviet to the modern NATO standard.

Obviously as fast as we can, and we've been very well assisted by our friends and allies in this manner, as well.  I take the opportunity also to thank the Defense Attaché Office in Tirana - the American Defense Attaché Office in Tirana.

And also the Defense Cooperation Office for the outstanding support that they've been giving us in the process of modernization.  We will continue this direction for other major investments such as the procurement of the new radars for our air space surveillance.

And we are also looking into opportunities to increase and upgrade the maritime capability.  And Lockheed Martin is involved in these endeavors.  Obviously all this progress would not have been - would not have had this focus if it wasn't for more effective budget management system.

Increased transparency and determination on the fight against corruption.  And also a re-distribution of funds and maximization of performance.  And we are convinced that much more has to be done.  And under my tenure, our focus will be in different directions such as reform and transformation, modernization, acquisition of new equipment, operational and readiness of our forces, personnel, support and so on.

Some of the milestones where we are focusing are the improvement on recruitment and career, education and training cycles, improvement on legal reform and life support for our armed forces personnel, increasing cyber defense capabilities, as we have recently approved the Cyber Defense Strategy for 2019, 2020.

And our goal is to create in a short time a cyber military capability.  Increasing cooperation in exchange of information of fighting against terrorism, organized crime, immigration and illegal trafficking are also high on our priorities.

We are in the process of developing also a concrete reform on civil emergency, as civil emergencies are now the area of responsibility of the Ministry of Defense in order to enhance our capabilities in preventing and responding to disaster relief.

For me, as a new minister, the future means raising the overall performance of our armed forces in general.  And in particular, achieving the goals set for the best units in support of NATO core tasks.  We will continue to boost our capacities and modernize our forces.

And make them more readily available to take over security changes that we all face.  As far as the security environment of the whole region is concerned, I'd like to share with you that we are concerned that the region now is being faced with multifaceted threats.

And we believe that it is very important that we have greater attention or a different approach by NATO and the United States in the region to pay a bit more attention to what is going on.  

SEC. MATTIS:  The specific region in the Adriatic?

MIN. XHACKA:  The western Balkans in general.


MIN. XHACKA:  I understand that right now we much on our plate and the western Balkans does not compare to northern Africa or - or to the Middle East.  But, as we know, ethnic tensions, nationalistic sentiments that are fueled by external actors.

When much is going on in the world, it could prove, I believe, detrimental to a region that's very easily destabilized, if other actors and if other factors sort of find refuge.  We, as Albanian have played an important role, I believe, in being a very strong promoter of NATO's open door policy.

And we have attempted several meetings through our governments, Albania and Kosovo and Macedonia, but even trilateral formats such as Albania, Italy and Serbia, or Albania, Croatia, Montenegro – as to establish dialogue and establish common opportunities to be all on board when it comes to our citizens aspirations to be West-oriented and to not let all these actors meddle into nationalistic sentiments or other things that might destabilize the region.

We understand our role and we are trying to play a very active one.  We've been equally invested and concerned as far as the eastern end of southern flanks are - are concerned.  As you know, in coordination with our strategic partners, the United States and the European Union, we have declared two Russian diplomats persona non grata. And one of them was the Defense Attaché in Tirana.  Of all the threats coming from the south, Albania has been improved - has been involved in different aspects.  Contribution to the NATO maritime activity is one of them.

As you mentioned, we've also been the first country to donate weapons and ammunitions for external forces.  We've - in Iraq, we've had an internal agenda to plan to send military personnel there.  There's been some difficulty with their legal status and the Iraqi government.

But we hope to overcome that and hopefully commit some - some troops there, as well.  As you are aware, we've been very concerned regarding the phenomenon of foreign fighters.  And this has been feeding the terrorist organizations in the Middle East and in northern Africa.

But not only - and we are working hard, and I believe we are in the final stages to materialize the Albanian proposal for establishing a NATO Center of Excellence on foreign fighters.  We believe that we have all the experience and the dynamics in our society.

Where all regions coexist peacefully, gives us enough material to produce the right doctrine that can help our allies in understanding and countering the phenomenon.  Apart from Russian intention to expand its influence and their destabilization action.

Be that through their secret services or investments or other hybrid action, or media propaganda, scholarships and other offerings that they need.  We also see an increased intent, an interest from other nations such as China or Iran or even Turkey.

I believe that a very strong message needs to be sent, that the Western Balkans is a Western-oriented region.  And that we all share and we need to protect the same principles and values and we look forward to strengthening our strategic partnership.

Obviously the destiny of our region is called the Euro-Atlantic family, and we believe that this is the best answer to the nationalists and the region's extremists, as well as Russian interference.  We are very clear on this path.

And United States approach remains key for the future of our region.  Hence, I would very kindly invite you to consider having Albania as a contact nation in the region.  We believe that we are trustworthy in our strategic partnership, and we need efforts for stability in western Balkans.

We understand that our position in the region will play, undoubtedly a constructive role for this security and prosperity in the western Balkans.  And I want to tell you that you can count on us to be a very trusted ally, but as you know, there are many, many special bonds between our countries.

And Herzegovina could really be a strong holder for United States in the region.  We believe that time might be ripe for a footprint of United States in Albania, a presence of either the United States or NATO could be a very clear demonstration that the area is not forgotten by its allies.

We have different ideas in making available our land, air, naval bases, but also other capacities, either bilaterally with the United States or under the NATO framework.  More concretely, our maritime naval bases, our maritime shipyards, the military airport for air-to-air refueling, the visa training area, which is very highly praised by the British, could be some ideas that we could - we could - or opportunities that we could explore.  

At the same time, I'd like to see an increased presence of the United States defense industry in Albania. In this regard, we'd appreciate your support and role to promote these engagements.  Areas where the U.S. NATO industry could invest, can be extensive in Albania.  Specifically air, maritime, land, surveillance capabilities, cyber.

Yesterday I had a meeting with Lockheed Martin, and although they are involved and they're raising our capabilities in the airspace surveillance system, but also in the maritime surveillance system, I offered them to consider getting even more involved.

And hopefully we explore other areas of investment.  I will stop here, maybe I could - I'll stop here and we could - we could then discuss them.

SEC. MATTIS:  Absolutely.  Madam Minister, you have swiftly learned your job. 

I was taking notes as fast as I could write. 

But if the members of the press will excuse us now, we have some work that we're going to do together.  But thank you very much for coming up here, ladies and gentlemen ... 

Q:  One question, sir?

SEC. MATTIS:  And have a good day now.

Q:  One question?  French President Macron said today that the strikes in Syria solved nothing.  That they were meant to defend the honor of the international community.  Do you agree with him?

SEC. MATTIS:  The French, the United Kingdom and the United States allies, all NATO allies, we've worked together to maintain the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.  And that's how we came together, that's why we came together.

We did not have to search for common ground, we had common ground.  And we did what we believed was right under international law, under own nation's laws.  And I hope that this time, the Assad regime got the message.  But thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.