WASHINGTON, May 29, 2014 - President Barack Obama's post-2014 troop commitment in Afghanistan was "the right decision," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday.
The deadline for ending America's combat mission in Afghanistan has been set since NATO met in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2010, Hagel told reporters traveling with him.
Hagel was speaking while en route to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, the first stop on the secretary's 12-day trip that will also take him to five countries in Asia and Europe.
In his May 27 announcement of the post-2014 U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, the president presented a "comprehensive, thoughtful, focused [and] clear articulation of what America's security interests are around the world," Hagel said.
"One particular point he made is important," the defense secretary said. "You don't lead with your military in foreign policy. The military is an instrument of power -- it's an important instrument of power -- but our foreign policy is based on our interests around the world. It's based on who we are [and] international law. It's based on our standards, our values."
Defense leaders had "significant input" as the president considered manning levels in Afghanistan, Hagel said.
After the 2010 NATO summit, the department began weighing manpower, capability and capacity requirements for the post-2014 mission, the secretary said.
"It was to be, as the president noted ... a train, assist [and] advise mission, as well as a continued counter-terrorism mission," Hagel said.
Helping the Afghan people build a free, transparent [and] democratic government capable of defending and supporting itself was at the center of mission planning, he noted.
"It has always been the focus of the United States' role in Afghanistan to help the Afghans build their institutions, their capabilities, their capacities," the defense secretary said.
The president's announced troop levels in Afghanistan, with 9,800 U.S. troops at the start of 2015, to draw down to roughly half that amount by 2016, and a normal embassy presence by the end of 2016, is sufficient to help build and maintain existing progress, Hagel said.
The defense secretary said the Afghanistan mission will be a central point of discussion next week as he attends a NATO ministerial in Brussels.
Later in June, another NATO meeting will focus on developing the specifics of NATO's contributions to the post-2014 mission, he said.
"Italy, Germany and Turkey have all agreed to be framework nations in this regional approach for 2015 in Afghanistan," Hagel said.
This will continue to be a NATO mission, he said. Many of the non-NATO nations participating in the International Security Assistance Force mission have expressed interest in having a continuing role in Afghanistan, the defense secretary noted.
"So, there will be a specific conference on this part of post-2014 after the NATO ministerial," Hagel said.
Concerns that Afghanistan might unwind into deep instability after ISAF troops leave means that over the next two years the core objective of the Afghan mission will be protecting and expanding the development of Afghan security forces, he said.
"The progress that has been made by the Afghan army has been remarkable, by any measurement, any standard, any metrics," the defense secretary told reporters.
"We're building with them, helping them build their own institutions and their own capabilities, their own capacities to deal with threats that will continue," he said.
Everyone in the defense leadership -- starting with the commanders on the ground -- has great confidence that the Afghan security forces will continue developing and improving their abilities, Hagel said.
"There are no guarantees in anything in life," he said, "but we are confident that the decisions that we have made -- and the decisions that we have made specifically over the next two years -- will help the Afghans get to where they need to be to support themselves, defend themselves, govern themselves and secure their country for their future."
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