Brussels, Belgium – The United States will maintain more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan through the spring and summer fighting season, cutting to 34,000 by February and staying at that strength through the Afghan elections set for 2014, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today (February 22).
“Once those elections are completed, we will then begin the final drawdown,” Panetta said during a news conference at NATO headquarters after two days of NATO defense minister meetings.
President Barack Obama announced during his State of the Union address earlier this month that the United States will withdraw 34,000 troops — about half its current strength — from Afghanistan in the next 12 months.
The secretary said the current International Security Assistance Force mission and the follow-on NATO mission in Afghanistan were the central topic of group meetings and his own one-on-one discussions with allied and partner ministers here this week.
“There is a strong consensus that our mission is succeeding … on the ground because of the growing role and capabilities that all of us have seen [in] the Afghan national security forces,” Panetta said. Afghan army and police units are on track to step into the lead for all operations this spring, he added.
NATO defense ministers today agreed to begin planning for a follow-on alliance mission after Afghan forces take over security responsibility for their nation, Panetta said. “There are a range of options on [NATO’s] post-2014 posture that would provide for an effective regional presence,” he said. That presence would be placed not only in Kabul, the secretary added, but also in nodes around the country.
As the United States plans for its own Afghan troop presence after 2014, “we will continue to work closely with ISAF nations, particularly other regional lead nations, to … discuss options,” Panetta said.
“Our goal is, obviously, to ensure the success of this new mission and the long-term stability of Afghanistan,” he added, and he praised the “extraordinary unity, strength and resolve of ISAF” in reaching this transition point.
The secretary said he and his counterparts also discussed the number of Afghan troops that will be needed to assure their nation’s security in the years after the transition. A previous plan had set the number of Afghan forces after 2014 at 240,000, but it now makes sense to consider maintaining the Afghan surge strength of 352,000 through 2018, he said.
Panetta said supporting that level of Afghan troops is “an investment that would be worth making, because it would allow us greater flexibility as we take down our troops.”
The secretary said his father used to quote an Italian phrase that translates: “Step by step, you’ll go a long way.”
“I think that’s probably great advice for all of us as we approach this final period, hopefully, in the completion of the mission … in Afghanistan,” he added. Panetta also touched on the threat of terrorism and cyberattacks, warning that NATO must commit to acting together if member nations hope to confront such challenges.
These 21st-century challenges require the response that only a strong NATO alliance can bring, the secretary said. Between shrinking European defense budgets and political gridlock in the United States, he said, “I do fear that the alliance will soon be, if it is not already, stretched too thin.”
The secretary said he asked a question of his fellow ministers this week: “Will we let our nations retreat from our responsibilities in the face of growing budget constraints, or will we demonstrate the kind of creativity, innovation and political will to develop and share the capabilities we must have?”
Panetta praised NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s leadership in guiding the alliance’s growth through efforts such as the new “connected forces” initiative, which will use the NATO Respose Force as the core for multinational training and operations within the alliance after Afghanistan deployments wind down.
Such initiatives are “critical to ensuring the readiness of the alliance, which has to be the top priority in an unpredictable and crisis-prone world,” Panetta said.
The secretary also thanked Rasmussen for announcing that cyber threats will be a central topic the next time NATO defense ministers meet. Cyber is “without question, the battlefield of the future, and it’s an area that NATO needs to pay attention to,” Panetta said.
The NATO alliance was built on 20th-century conflicts, Panetta noted. “After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan,” he added, “I believe we have renewed those bonds for the 21st century.” If the alliance can carry its solidarity forward, the secretary said, “we can realize our shared dream of a better and more peaceful and more secure world.”
Earlier today, after a meeting of NATO and troop-contributing partner nations, Rasmussen said that while the ISAF mission will end after 2014, a new, smaller NATO mission will take its place focusing on national and institutional level training.
While he, like Panetta, said NATO ministers see the new mission organized regionally — rather than limited to one central location — the alliance has not yet determined any specifics. But “Afghans can be confident our support will go well beyond the end of transition,” he added.