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Joint Press Conference by Secretary Hagel and President Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaking in foreign language).


President Ghani, thank you. It is a privilege to be here with you and renew a friendship, as you have noted, that goes back many years. And I am particularly pleased that I am able to personally congratulate you on your new responsibilities.

I also want to note that Dr. Abdullah, the CEO of the new unity government, is an old friend. And I appreciated very much an opportunity to see him again and congratulate him as well.

I would like to make a brief comment at the front end of this press conference with President Ghani. And that is to address the murder of American citizen Luke Somers. I released a statement a couple of hours ago about Mr. Somers' death.

He was murdered during an attempt by American forces to rescue him from terrorist groups in Yemen. Our hearts are full of sorrow tonight. Our prayers and thoughts go out to the Somers family.

There was also another hostage who was also killed in that attempted rescue, and our prayers and thoughts go out to all the families involved.

I do think, though that this is further evidence of America's continued commitment to always find its American hostages no matter where they are and make every effort to get those hostages returned to the United States.

This mission, in which there will be more detail forthcoming, was extremely well executed. It was a very dangerous and complicated mission. But like always in these efforts, there is risk.

And again, I wanted to begin my comments today by noting the murder of Luke Somers. And again to his family and the families involved, our thoughts and our prayers go out to all of them.

I want to go back to the partnership, the friendship, the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States. And I noted in my opening comment the unity government that President Ghani and CEO Dr. Abdullah are leading, and their commitment to that unity government for the people of Afghanistan. And it's an effort, a unity government that the United States strongly supports.

And I want to also note, Mr. President, and commend both you and Dr. Abdullah for putting the interests of your country first, as the people of Afghanistan have hoped. Challenge is ahead, as you have noted, we all recognize that.

But what happened this year a few months ago, the historic, peaceful transfer of power, was quite significant. And that deserves not only recognition, but also acknowledgement for the people of Afghanistan who refused to be intimidated and turned out and took part, active participation in an electoral process that produced a new government.

I also want to thank the United States efforts and all here who helped in that process over the last few months. And I particularly want to welcome our new American ambassador to Afghanistan. He's not exactly new. But he is the new U.S. ambassador, Ambassador McKinley, who I think just came in this morning.

And also acknowledge once again Gen. Campbell and his team, and of course our ISAF partners who have been so critical, who will remain critical to the future of Afghanistan.

And I want to note and thank the outgoing retiring U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ambassador Cunningham, who has played a very, very important role in this process over the last three years. For his service to his country and in particular his service to strengthening this special partnership between our two countries, we thank Ambassador Cunningham and his family, and wish them well.

And I want to thank all of our men and women in uniform, and those who are here in civilian capacities for what they continue to do. And I want to note especially during this time of holidays approaching, their sacrifices are particularly important because they will be away from their families. And to their families and to all of them, please know that President Obama and all of America appreciate your sacrifice and your service.

Reflecting a bit on what President Ghani noted in my statement about our friendship as well, I would note that I first visited this country as my first country that I visited after I was sworn in as secretary of defense.

This is my fourth trip to Afghanistan as secretary of defense. But even before that I traveled to Afghanistan many times as a United States senator. In fact, my first trip was in January of 2002.

So I had seen firsthand over many years of visits to this country enormous progress that this country has made in its development, in its democracy, in its possibilities and hope for all its people. And that, I think is further testimony to the strong partnership of our two countries.

As the president said, this afternoon I had the opportunity to spend some time with the president and chief executive officer. And as President Ghani noted, I had the opportunity to discuss that progress, as well as the transition to a new chapter in America's partnership with Afghanistan.

And I think again when we go back to last summer and the electoral process, it's important to review that. Because since the summer of last year Afghan Forces, Afghan Forces have been in the lead in defending their citizens and their country.

And as we saw during Afghanistan's elections this summer, Afghan Forces have made tremendous strides in protecting the interests and the citizens of this country. Still more to do. Still challenges ahead.

But at the end of this month ISAF's combat mission will come to an end, as everybody knows. NATO coalition forces will transition to the new resolute support mission: training, advising and assisting Afghan Forces as they assume full responsibility for their own nation's security.

The coalition's new mission has the support of the Afghan people, which will be critical for its success. Last month, thanks to the leadership of President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, the Afghan parliament overwhelmingly approved the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement, and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement.

However, because of prior delays in signing these agreements, the force generation effort for resolute support is several months behind. It's behind where we hoped it would be at this time.

As a result, President Obama has provided U.S. military commanders the flexibility, the flexibility to manage any temporary force shortfalls that we might experience for a few months as we allow for coalition troops to arrive in theater.

This will mean the delayed withdrawal of up to 1,000 U.S. troops so that up to 10,800 troops, rather than 9,800, could remain in Afghanistan through the end of this year, and for the first few months next year. But the president's authorization will not change. It will not change our troops' missions or the long-term timeline for our withdrawal.

As planned, resolute support will focus here in Kabul in Bagram with a limited regional presence. As part of this mission the United States is prepared to provide limited combat enabler support to Afghan Forces. And American personnel will always have the right and the capacity to defend themselves against attacks.

We will maintain a limited counterterrorism against Al-Qaeda and its remnants because as we drawdown the combat mission, we have not forgotten, not forgotten what brought America to Afghanistan over a decade ago. We're committed to preventing Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States, our allies and partners, and the Afghan people.

And we will take appropriate measures against Taliban members who directly threaten U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, or provide direct support to Al-Qaeda.

This afternoon President Ghani, Dr. Abdullah and I also discussed the important commitments made by coalition nations at this week's conferences in Brussels and London. Between 2012 and 2015 the United States will have provided more than $8 billion in civilian assistance, and our commitment will be enduring. The recent wave of Taliban attacks has made clear that the international community must not waiver in its support for a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan.

I want to again thank my friend President Ghani, my friend Chief Executive Abdullah for their leadership and their commitment to this partnership. And I want to recognize the tremendous service and sacrifices of not only all our U.S. troops, but coalition troops and our partners in the Afghan National Security Forces. Their commitment has forged a defining moment of opportunity for Afghanistan's future and for the people of Afghanistan.

Thank you very much.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President, because of the cameras. This is Mustafa from Turkish News (inaudible). (Inaudible) Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Mr. Secretary, 2012 or 2013 President Obama was planning to pull out combat troops in Afghanistan and combat mission will end in Afghanistan. But now we are saying that the beginning of the next year the Afghan -- U.S. forces will continue to combat mission in Afghanistan. What is the reasons of the continuing combat operation?

Mr. President...

PRES. GHANI: I think you misunderstood entirely what the secretary and I said, Mr. Mustafa. There is no combat mission. You've just misunderstood.

SEC. HAGEL: Let me respond. And I know you have a question for the president. But as the president has just noted, what I said in my statement that President Obama has not changed the mission of U.S. forces. Our combat role will end the end of this year.

The additional margin of up to 1,000 troops, U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan for the next -- possibly for the next few months will be as a necessary result of getting our ISAF, now Resolute Support mission, partners, trainers and their contributions to the future mission here in place.

So we've essentially -- President Obama has just bought some time for the process to catch up. But the mission does not change. Our combat role is over.

Q (through translator): One question, please. First of all, Mr. Secretary, let me pay our respects for the loss of life of your citizen Mr. Somers in Yemen. Let me also take this opportunity to thank the families of all servicemen and women, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice by losing their lives.

Over 3,400 NATO personnel during the last 10 years as NATO paid the ultimate price. Over 30,000 were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of veterans have shared our lives, and I know that their lives are marked by our deserts, valleys and mountains. We pray for all the fallen, and thank you for noticing the sacrifices of the Afghans.

We have come a very long way together. And we want to make sure that at this season the families of American servicemen and women understand that their sons and daughters are doing something to protect their homeland with stability, as well as help us.

We do understand their sacrifices and we hope that Christmas will be peaceful. And thank you again for coming.

PRES. GHANI: (Speaking in foreign language).

Q: (Speaking in foreign language). I want to ask just one question for Mr. Hagel...

PRES. GHANI: No. Just one question. One question you can (inaudible) polite. So, please pass on to someone else.

I'm sorry. We have to have equality here. I've not seen the hand. Yes. Two questions on this side and then I'll answer your question.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you feel responsible for the outcome of the Yemen raid? Do you believe Mr. Somers would have been killed by his captors if the U.S. had not acted?

And Mr. President, what additional U.S. assistance do your forces need? Are your forces underequipped for the year to come?

PRES. GHANI: One last question and then we'll answer. So, please?

Q: Missy Ryan from the Washington Post. Mr. Secretary, Secretary Hagel, I'd like to ask about the decision which you just announced to leave up to 1,000 troops temporarily -- extra troops temporarily into next year.

Do you believe that that decision along with the recent decision to expand some of the air support and enabling authorities for the United States post 2014 undermines the message of ending the war in Afghanistan for the United States? And do you have firm numerical commitments from NATO countries to provide troops to the resolute support mission by a certain date next spring so that then you can go down to the 9,800? Thank you.

PRES. GHANI: Mr. Secretary, you first.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. Well, let me take your question first on the decision that the president made to keep an additional 1,000 troops here to help fill the resolute support mission gap until they catch up, based on what I've said in my statement. Because the election process took longer and that set everybody back.

That does not undermine. That doesn't change the president's policy, his commitment on numbers. What I've just explained is the reason that he made that decision.

That was a recommendation that Gen. Campbell made to Chairman Dempsey and me. We recommended that decision to the president. The National Security Council was unanimous in their recommendation to the president. It does not undermine anything, doesn't change any part of what the president's strategy is.

You had a second part...

Q: (off mic).

SEC. HAGEL: We are in the process of finalizing those now. As you know, that was part of what we were doing. Secretary Kerry, Gen. Campbell, others at the two recent meetings in the NATO ministerial in Brussels. And then of course it was part of the London conversation as well.

We still have, just as we had planned, the four framework countries that are committed. And we will have the rest of the last pieces in place here over the next few weeks. Gen. Breedlove is working with Gen. Campbell on that. So I'm confident that we'll be able to make those kinds of commitments and those commitments will be in place.

As to your question about the rescue effort for Mr. Somers, I think anyone with any responsibility for any missions always has responsibility for actions. That's number one.

Number two, a rescue mission for a hostage is a very complicated matter. It consists of intelligence that we must have tremendous confirmation or the best we can get on, even before an operation is considered.

Intelligence is aware of where that hostage is, who is holding that hostage, where, all the dimensions of security around that hostage. The next piece of that is the operational plan itself, which is very complicated. Many parts, moving parts, all at one time.

Another important factor is was the hostage's life at risk? Would we be taking unnecessary risk to get a hostage out? Those are but just three components that go into a series of dimensions of consideration before any serious consideration of a rescue attempt is ever made.

So I say that because again, our hearts are full of sorrow as I said, that Luke Somers was murdered. He was taken hostage. His life was clearly in danger. And we all, including the president on down, we made the recommendations to the president, of course, have to take responsibilities for any action or inaction, or inaction that we didn't take.

So I would let that answer it.

Q: (off mic)

PRES. GHANI: Well please, no dialogue.

SEC. HAGEL: I will...

PRES. GHANI: Please observe the same rules as that one journalist.

SEC. HAGEL: I like his style here.

But he's the president so.

There will be more details coming out on this specific mission. But at this point I don't have any further details to share.

PRES. GHANI: (Speaking in foreign language).

Who else?

Q: (Speaking in foreign language)?

PRES. GHANI: (Speaking in foreign language).

Let me welcome your question. First of all the key issue is the use of existing capability. There is no army on Earth, there is no security force, there is no civilian that will not ask for more.

But the job of leadership is to first ask of itself and of the team. Are the existing resources being used most efficiently, most accountably, most transparently?

So our first attempt is focus on reform of our security institutions where we'll be able to account for every penny of expenditure, every vehicle that is used, every piece of weaponry. Our focus now is not on fighting individual battles. It is on systems, on management and leadership, on the capabilities.

In the last two months we've taken the rare step that was not taken, different circumstances, of retiring 15 senior generals in Afghanistan's army. The criteria was age and physical ability to perform tasks. This has opened up a long room for change of 70 senior positions.

All of these are being handled through a very careful process. I promise that as commander-in-chief I'll be personally interviewing every person who's promoted to brigadier or is assigned to the rank of brigadier and above. And I've been doing this.

So I think our first job is to make better use of existing resources. In this regard I want to express my most sincere appreciation to Gen. Campbell and his team. We couldn't ask for better partners in this interval. And Secretary Hagel and the entire U.S. team for focusing on the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that we need to understand that we need to bring peace, stability and prosperity to this country. Every problem is not a nail to be hit with a hammer of force.

We need governance reform. We need focus on the economy, and especially rule of law, the glue that binds to make our gains enduring. It's the wider strategy within we're putting the resource.

Second, there's a plan. Every plan under the context of Chicago. And according to BSA we have the agreement that this plan will be visited annual in terms of better efficiencies regarding use of resources. And we're focusing on that.

Having said that, of course we do have shortages in certain particular areas. Those are part of our bilateral and multilateral discussions. And we very much hope that our forces will have the full capabilities.

But let me conclude by thanking our forces most sincerely. Every single member of Afghanistan army and police is a volunteer, man or woman. Nobody's compelling them to serve in the Afghan Armed Forces. Their patriotism, their willingness to sacrifice, their commitment to this country is what keeps us going.

We face threats that you're aware of. We're facing changing environments of threats. But one thing needs to be clearly understood, our gains are irreversible and we are determined to make sure that our people live in safety and security.

What we strive for is normalcy, to take a walk, a grandfather take a walk with a granddaughter and be safe to return. A young student going to school and making sure, being confident that she's not blown up. Children who play volleyball and can enjoy the game and not be received at mangled bodies.

So while we're absolutely keen on peace and we know that this conflict must end politically, it also needs to be understood that our spirit will not be weakened by cowardly violence against our civilian, particularly our children, women, religious colors, places of worship.

And it's that determination that will ultimately make the difference. And everybody will realize that Afghanistan is here to stay.

A peaceful Afghanistan is not a threat to anyone. A stable Afghanistan is key to regional prosperity. We're very keen on the regional dialogue that we've started, and we very much hope for peace and liberty. Thank you very much and goodbye.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. Thank you.