By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2015 – U.S. and coalition troops have a new mission in Afghanistan but the same strong commitment to sustaining an enduring partnership, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today during a joint press conference with Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.
This is Carter’s first official trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary but his 10th trip there over the years. Approximately 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, working with their partners in the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF.
In Kabul the defense secretary received briefings from U.S. Ambassador P. Michael McKinley, U.S. Central Command Commander Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, and Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
Changes for the Better
“My last visit here was in 2013 and a lot has changed here, so much of it for the better,” he said.
The Afghan parliament overwhelmingly approved the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, Carter said.
The ANSF has evolved into a force that is 350,000 strong and has assumed full responsibility for security in Afghanistan, and Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah assembled a unity government, elevating the good of their country above all else, Carter said...
“All this progress has enabled the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces and the transition to a new phase in our relationship,” the secretary said.
“The United States and our ISAF partners have ended our combat mission and are now focused on helping train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces,” he added, “as well as the counterterrorism mission against Al Qaida and its remnants.”
Making Progress Last
Carter said he and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed during their first meeting this week that their priority is to make sure that progress in Afghanistan lasts.
To that end, the secretary said, Obama is considering options that will reinforce U.S. support for Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“That could mean taking another look at the timing and sequencing of base closures,” Carter added, “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 … the right force protection footprint for our remaining personnel.
Beyond troop numbers, he said, U.S. and coalition long-term commitments in resources, equipment and other support are just as critical for long-term Afghan security, as is expanding the partnership to include deeper political, economic and cultural ties.
Carter thanked Ghani and his colleagues for important forward-looking discussions that included the evolving counterterrorism landscape and regional and strategic issues.
“We are discussing and rethinking the details of the counterterrorism mission and how the environment has changed here with respect to terrorism since we first laid out our plans,” Carter explained.
“That's an important consideration for [Obama] 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,” he added.
Ghani also offered “heartfelt words” for the sacrifices Americans have made in Afghanistan, the secretary noted, adding, “That means a great deal to me, Mr. President, and to all Americans to hear that from you.”
Ghani and Abdulla are scheduled to meet with Obama and Carter in Washington in March.
Strong and Enduring Partnership
“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,” Carter said, including a strong and positive partnership with Ghani, progress and challenges facing the ANSF, political progress, and regional dynamics.
“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,” Carter said.
“We honor them,” he added, “by ensuring that the U.S.-Afghan partnership is as strong and as enduring as it has been and promises to be.