By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, December 19, 2015 — Work over the past year has put Afghanistan on a better path forward, and the mission there remains a top priority, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said yesterday.
Carter and Afghan Defense Minister Muhammed Masoom Stanekzai spoke during a press briefing in Jalalabad after a meeting on the security situation in Afghanistan and the partnership between the nations into the years ahead.
Carter is on a weeklong trip to the Middle East to meet with defense leaders and thank U.S. and coalition troops for their service and sacrifice, especially during the holiday season.
“Back in March, during his first official visit to the U.S., President Ghani came to the Pentagon and did something very special,” Carter said.
An Important Message
Ghani thanked the men and women of the U.S. military for the sacrifices they and their families made over the past 14 years, the secretary said, and he visited Arlington National Cemetery to remember the fallen.
“It was an important message,” Carter added.
To the Afghan people Carter offered his own message -- “We're with you. We stand by you. And we must continue to work hard together to do what we said we would do -- give a bright future to the Afghan people and a strong security partner to America.”
In the battle for Afghanistan, Taliban advances in some parts of the country underscore that the fight is tough and dynamic, Carter said.
“As groups like [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] emerge on the battlefield, or al-Qaeda seeks to reestablish a safe haven, we must be prepared to deter their growth and counter the threats they pose,” the secretary said, noting that they can never have a secure base anywhere else in Afghanistan.
In October, President Barack Obama announced his decision to maintain 9,800 troops through most of 2016.By January 2017, U.S. forces will be at 5,500 troops deployed at several places around Afghanistan, including Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar and Jalalabad, Carter said.
“Shortly I will submit the U.S. defense budget for 2017 [that] contains full funding for the Afghan security forces, so we're looking years ahead,” the secretary said.
U.S. forces will work in the those years in support of the train, advise and assist support to the Afghan security forces, and the counter-terrorism efforts, he added.
“The U.S. presence that will be sustained here at [forward operating base] Fenty will continue to serve both these missions,” Carter said, “and represents the importance we place in our continued partnership with Afghanistan and the enduring nature of U.S. interests here.”
Carter said the coalition constantly seeks ways to increase the Afghan forces’ capability and capacity.
“As our annual assessment of the Afghan security forces demonstrates, there's much progress to be made in key areas such as intelligence and special forces, ministerial development, and logistics and aviation,” the secretary said.
These critical areas are being improved, he added, and the assessment also shows that the Afghan security force is well worth investing in.It has the motivation and the resilience required to ensure the long-term success of the partnership and the security and stability the Afghan people deserve.
“U.S. and NATO troops will tailor their train, advise and assist efforts to ensure that Afghan security forces’ capacity continues on an upward trajectory,” Carter said.
For example, he added, in the next few months the Afghan Air Force will start to take off with greater firepower into the air. Multi-role fixed-wing A-29s will arrive and provide close-air support, and this will be a key element in increasing the superiority of Afghan forces over Taliban forces.
At the end of his remarks, Carter thanked Stanekzai for everything he has done to bring the coalition partners and Afghan forces to a point of promise, potential and strength.
And the secretary expressed his thanks “to the American, NATO and Afghan contingents who have served and sacrificed together over the past 14 years in the name of peace, security and freedom.”