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American Forces Press Service

Hagel Highlights NATO Capabilities, ISAF, Ukraine

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

BRUSSELS, Feb. 27, 2014 – Over two days of meetings here, discussions among NATO defense ministers focused on future alliance capabilities, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and NATO's defense relationship with Ukraine, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in his closing remarks here today.

Defense ministers from 18 of NATO's 24 member nations, Ukraine's Acting Defense Minister Oleksandr Oliynyk, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his deputy, and member-nation permanent representatives participated.

Hagel reassured allies of the continued U.S. commitment to NATO and to its global responsibilities, and he told the ministers that President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget request, which he will present to Congress next week, "preserves and protects key capabilities such as missile defense and other capabilities that we discussed today in our sessions. These capabilities underpin our commitment to European security."

The U.S. defense strategy demands even closer partnership with European allies, he added.

"As allied nations confront fiscal pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, and as NATO transitions out of its combat mission in Afghanistan, many of us plan to field smaller military forces in the years ahead," the secretary said, adding that with savings the U.S. military achieves through a smaller force, he intends to buy readiness, capability and combat power.

"We expect NATO allies to do the same," Hagel said.

This is a time to set priorities, make difficult choices and reinvest in key capabilities all nations will need for the future, he said, including those that have been neglected over the past decade of war.

Ahead of September's NATO summit in Wales, Rasmussen will focus on improving NATO's military capabilities as a down payment on meeting shortfalls, the secretary added.

"As an alliance, we must invest in global reach, technological superiority and leading-edge capabilities like cyber and special operations," Hagel said, adding that together NATO member countries must spend money on defense more strategically and effectively.

On Afghanistan, Hagel said, the conference offered a chance to take stock of accomplishments over 13 years.

NATO's main objective in Afghanistan was to enable the Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country and ensure that the country can never again be a safe haven for terrorists. Progress there can be measured by the growing confidence of Afghans in their national institutions and the Afghan national security forces' leading role in securing the country, the secretary said.

"As we look beyond the end of our combat mission this year, I told ISAF ministers that the United States continues to support planning for a noncombat, NATO-led mission that would train, advise and assist Afghan forces after 2014," he said.

"But the longer we go without a bilateral security agreement and a NATO status of forces agreement," he added, "the more challenging it will be for the United States and other ISAF nations to support, plan and execute this post-2014 mission."

Earlier this week, President Obama directed the U.S. military to begin contingency planning for Afghanistan that takes into account the lack of a signed agreement, Hagel said.

"We will ensure that adequate plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States [decide not] to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014," he said.

"Today in our ISAF session," the secretary added, "we agreed that the alliance should also begin planning for various contingencies in Afghanistan while still supporting continued planning for the Resolute Support mission" that is expected to start Jan. 1.

Hagel commended Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. for their critically important leadership of the ISAF campaign, he said, particularly Dunford's consistent, wise and steady leadership. Dunford is the ISAF commander in Afghanistan, and Breedlove commands U.S. European Command and NATO's Supreme Allied Command Europe.

Today's final session was the NATO-Ukraine Commission, the secretary said, adding that he was pleased to welcome that nation's participation in the ministerial conference, given the rapidly evolving political situation in Ukraine.

"Today I affirmed America's strong support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, and NATO defense ministers made the same declaration in a joint statement," Hagel said.

The ministers expect other nations to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and avoid provocative actions, he added.

"That's why I'm closely watching Russia's military exercises along the Ukrainian border, which they announced yesterday," Hagel said. "I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities, and I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted, or lead to miscalculation during a … time with great tension."

The secretary said it's important for all nations with an interest in a peaceful future for Ukraine to work together transparently to support a Ukrainian government that fulfills the aspirations of its people.

"Our session today also focused on Ukraine's opportunities for defense reform and our ongoing military-to-military cooperation –- including Ukraine's participation in NATO operations. And we welcomed the Ukrainian armed forces' responsible decision to exercise restraint amidst the nation's political turmoil," Hagel said.

From Kandahar to Kiev, he added, 20 years ago no one could have foreseen how NATO contributes today to global security. With the United States' strong support, Hagel said, NATO must continue to be a force for peace, prosperity and freedom in Europe and around the world.

"That is our responsibility in the 21st century," the secretary said.

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