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Joint Press Conference with Secretary Carter and President Ghani at Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
February 21, 2015

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

Thank you.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Thank you.

Well good afternoon, and thank you so much Mr. President for this visit and for what has been a very trenchant and complete analysis by you of the situation here, and I'm going to try to be brief in my own comments, because I understand that the president runs a very tight ship.

But as he just mentioned, along with Chief Executive Abdullah and other Afghan leaders, this morning we had very productive meetings about the future of the U.S.-Afghan partnership, especially as President Obama and I look forward to their visit to Washington next month.

I'm devoting a lot of my first trip as secretary of defense to listening here in Afghanistan, and I also appreciated the opportunity to be briefed today by Ambassador McKinley, General Austin and General Campbell earlier, and I want to thank them for what they're doing on our behalf to strengthen the partnership between our two nations.

As many of you know, Afghanistan is the first country I am visiting as America's secretary of defense, and that is because first of all, I wanted to thank the 10,000 U.S. troops who are here and their partners in the Afghan National Security Forces. And in this connection, I want to mention and reciprocate the very heartfelt words of the president for the sacrifices Americans have made in Afghanistan. That means a great, great deal to me, Mr. President, and to all Americans to hear that from you, and I'd like to reciprocate that to express my feelings and American's feelings for those here in Afghanistan who have put themselves at risk for the security of this country, including those who have perished and those who have been wounded.

I wanted also to come here at this time to make clear that while U.S. and coalition troops now have a new mission, we have the same strong commitment to sustaining the United States' enduring partnership with Afghanistan, and I wanted to hear directly from President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah and other Afghan leaders about the progress of the Afghan National Security Forces, and how U.S. forces, along with our coalition partners, can continue to support that progress.

This is, as it happens, my tenth official trip to Afghanistan, and throughout my last tour in the Pentagon American troops were still engaged in active combat operations here, My last visit here was in 2013, and a lot has changed here, so much of it for the better.

The Afghan parliament overwhelmingly approved the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement, and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement.

The ANSF has evolved into a 350,000-strong force, and has assumed full responsibility for security in Afghanistan.

Elevating the good of their country above anything else, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah have assembled a unity government.

All this progress has enabled the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces, and the transition to a new phase in our relationship. The United States and our ISAF partners have ended our combat mission, as the president mentioned, and are now focused on helping train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces, as well as counter-terrorism mission against Al Qaeda and its' remnants.

As President Obama and I discussed in my first meeting with him in the Oval Office, earlier this week, just a few days ago, our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks.

That is why President Obama is considering a number of options to re-enforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops. That could mean taking another look at the timing and sequencing of base closures, to ensure we have the right array of coalition capabilities to support our Afghan partners, the right array to ensure that hard-won progress lasts, and of course the right force protection footprint for our remaining personnel.

But we also have to look beyond troop numbers, because the United States and our coalition partners' long-term commitments in resources, equipment and other support will be just as critical for Afghan security over the long haul. And an enduring partnership means expanding our partnership beyond the security space to include deeper political, economic and cultural ties as well. And the president and I had an opportunity to discuss those dimensions also, including the economic dimension, in which he has such enormous expertise and experience.

That all of this is why the forward-looking conversations that we had today are so important, and I want to thank President Ghani and his colleagues for a wide-ranging and trenchant analysis, including the evolving counter-terrorism landscape and regional and strategic issues.

As I formulate my best advice to President Obama in the time to come, this visit will ensure that my recommendations reflect the reality on the ground, including our strong and positive partnership with you, President Ghani, the progress and challenges facing the ANSF, political progress, regional dynamics that have long-impacted the conflict here as well.

A few weeks ago at the Munich Security Conference, President Ghani talked about the progress that his country has made. He mentioned a story about an Afghan man who had not allowed his wife to leave their house for 40 years, but who during the recent elections took 40 trips on his tractor to get women to polling stations. He noted that 4,000 ulema, religious scholars, who last month uniformly registered support for the Afghan National Army, as well as security compacts between Afghanistan, the United States and our coalition partners.

Today we remember all of the men and women, military and civilian, Afghan, American and many others, who paid the ultimate price to make Afghanistan's progress possible, the men and women who have allowed us to look toward a brighter future for all Afghans, and a more secure future for America and for the world. We honor them by ensuring that the U.S.-Afghan partnership is as strong and as enduring as it has been and promises to be.

Thank you.

PRES. GHANI: Thank you.

Q: (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

PRES. GHANI: The question pertains to a number of troops.

SEC. CARTER: The number of troops?

PRES. GHANI: Number of U.S. troops and debate surrounding them, and any indications.

SEC. CARTER: Absolutely. Two things I'd say in response to your question, sir. One is that we have indeed been discussing that this morning with President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah and the other leadership here. We have been discussing that in Washington, as the president has indicated, and with our leaders here in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, and that will be one of the things that President Ghani and President Obama will be discussing in Washington shortly, and exchanging their views and analyses, so that they come to a view of what troop numbers should be in the time to come.

And I'll say one other thing about it, which is another thing that President Ghani and I stressed in our conversation was that troop numbers are important, but there are other aspects to the relationship as well that are just as important, and other indications of our cooperation going forward, the way we cooperate in the building of the ANSF, the way we cooperate economically and politically in the region and around the world.

So there are many dimensions, of which troop numbers is one, but a very important one.

STAFF: Next question from (off mic).

Q: Thank you.

President Ghani, Senator McCain said recently that you warned lawmakers meeting in Munich that the current drawdown plan would endanger your country. Could you explain why you feel that way?

PRES. GHANI: Could you repeat? I did not --

Q: Sure. Senator McCain said that you told lawmakers in Munich, he says at an open congressional hearing, that the current drawdown plan could endanger Afghanistan, and I'm just curious if that is the case, and if so why?

And then I have a question for Secretary Carter.

PRES. GHANI: The first issue is, we completely accept President Obama's framework, because he's promised the American public a certain date, and that needs to be respected.

The process of transition has been successful.

What we need to do together is to understand the changed context, in what I call the ecology of terror.

In an enduring partnership, partners engage in comprehensive analysis to see what the state of play is, what is the balance force, how to use a multidimensional relationship to maximum effect.

As the secretary just indicated, our relationship is not defined by the number of troops, but the comprehensive nature of the partnership.

Within this, I'm very gratified that we have predictability regarding 2015. It has -- President Obama arrived at the bridging strategy to make sure that we had continuity; 1,100 additional U.S. troops were retained, and that was a very significant decision.

And during our visit to Washington, we'll discuss numbers in the context of the larger partnership.

Q: And Secretary Carter, just to clarify, you spoke a lot about the kinds of options that are being considered right now, and they all seem to lean in one direction. They lean -- they seem to lean toward some sort of slowing of the withdrawal. Is that a fair assessment?

SEC. CARTER: I think what they -- the common denominator to all of the things we're thinking about is the -- the most important factor influencing our thinking is the change that is represented by the unity government of President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, and what that means for the promise of certainty, predictability and progress that just a few months ago we couldn't have planned on. That's a major change.

There are other changes as well, and we had a very interesting conversation about them, changes of all kinds, but that's the fundamental one, and that's the one that occasions the question about whether within the frame that we have, we need to think -- rethink all of the variables and how we're going to use them in the time ahead, and certainly, the kind of option that you've discussed is one of the ones that's on the table.

And I just want to echo one think that the president just said, which is that troop numbers is an important variable, but it's only one variable.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Minister, I'm (inaudible) from (inaudible) News.

Earlier you had told that you will reconsider the presence of American forces in Afghanistan. What do you have to say about that, and to what extent they will be engaged in anti-terrorism combat.

(SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SEC. CARTER: I'm sorry, could you repeat your question to me, please, sir.

Q: You had -- earlier you had told that you will reconsider the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What do you have to say about that? And also to what extent they will engaged in anti-terrorism combat.?

Thank you.

SEC. CARTER: I -- with respect to troop numbers, as I indicated, that is a consideration, that is something that President Ghani and President Obama will be discussing during the visit of President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, and that is a very important consideration for them, but it's only one, and I think they're going to range pretty widely in their conversation, as our conversation this morning ranged pretty widely.

PRES. GHANI: (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

STAFF: Final question. Dan De Luce, AFP.

Q: President Ghani, could you tell us your assessment of the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban leadership, and compare the prospects to, for example, six months ago or a year ago.

And is it the case that the Taliban leadership has signaled a willingness to enter in direct negotiations with your government, and would the Haqqani Network be a part of that discussion?

And then I have a question for Secretary Carter.

PRES. GHANI: Well, thank you.

The grounds for peace have never been better in the last 36 years. Our approach is productive. We're hopeful, but categorical answers in a peace process are dangerous.

I've reviewed more than 100 peace agreements, and I wrote a long article about them in 2007. Peace is at hand when you've reached agreement and crossed all the t's and the dots. The questions are under consideration. The direction is positive. We can not make premature announcements.

Q: Secretary Carter, you talked about reconsidering reviewing the current plan in light of the positive developments. What about the mission of counter-terrorism? Is that something that the U.S. will maintain in a robust way beyond 2016? And if not, would that be something that would be up to the next administration?

SEC. CARTER: I think it's safe to say, and I think this is -- I'm afraid I couldn't hear the previous questioners line of questioning, but I think it was pretty much along the same lines. Counter-terrorism of course will be a continuing preoccupation and commitment of ours here and everywhere where that needs to be done. And we are discussing and rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission, and how the environment has changed here with respect to terrorism since we first laid out our plans, and that's an important consideration for the president, our president, as he thinks about the next few years, discusses them with President Ghani, and they reach their views about what we're going to do.

So it is very -- rethinking the counter-terrorism mission is part of the discussions that the two presidents will be having next month.

PRES. GHANI: Thank you.

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