By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 20, 2013 – Milestone 2013, which happened June 18 and marked Afghan forces’ assumption of the lead in security responsibility for their country, is an unprecedented achievement for the Afghan people, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday.
“keeps us on track to responsibly end the war next year in Afghanistan and allows us to transition to a far more limited, noncombat mission to assist the Afghan government as it takes full responsibility for the country's future.”
The secretary noted the United States and other nations will continue to engage in Afghanistan and will work with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India “to advance security in that critically important region in the world.”
After his speech, Hagel responded to a question about the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future. The group has opened an office in Qatar, he noted, and the United States supports that initiative.
“We've always supported a peaceful resolution to the end of the bloodshed in the war in Afghanistan,” Hagel said, noting that acceptable conditions are in place for the United States to accept the possibility of a next set of meetings between Taliban and Afghan government representatives.
He cautioned, however, that the Taliban would have to “agree to certain things” before meetings would involve the United States.
“I think it's worth the risk,” he added. “But it can't be done without President [Hamid] Karzai, without the government of Afghanistan.”
Hagel pointed out that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen attended the Milestone 2013 ceremony in the Afghan capital of Kabul, representing the 50 member nations of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Both NATO and U.S. forces have worked to establish stability in Afghanistan for more than a decade, he noted.
“This is really about the people, or it should be -- giving the people of Afghanistan … rights and freedom to make their own lives,” Hagel said.
The secretary noted that as a senator, he was part of the first congressional delegation to travel to Afghanistan after 9/11. “I've dealt with President Karzai right from the beginning,” he said. “I've known him since 2001 and have a very good relationship with him. But he represents his government, his people. He needs to do what he thinks is right.”
Hagel acknowledged the process is a bit frustrating. “But we have to continue to work at it,” he added, and we will continue to work at it.”
Afghanistan’s future depends largely on a political situation based on peace, Hagel said. If a politically negotiated settlement is possible, he asked, “Isn't it smarter, isn't it worth some risk, if the terms are right, to try to facilitate some agreement here that would … give the poor people of Afghanistan some opportunity to not to have to live in constant war that they've had to live in for decades?”
U.S. and NATO leaders are cleared-eyed about the possible obstacles to political settlement, the secretary said.
“But I think we have to continue to work it,” he added. “And it can't be done without the government of Afghanistan.”