Kabul, Afghanistan, –
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked U.S. and NATO service members who have served and are serving in Afghanistan on a day of tremendous hope for peace.
Introduced in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul by Army Gen. Austin S. Miller, commander of the Resolute Support mission, the two men talked about the joint declaration signed between the United States and the Taliban today in Doha, Qatar. Both stressed to the service members from 25 countries that the declaration is conditions-based and that coalition nations and the Afghan government will hold the Taliban to the agreement's conditions.
Esper and Stoltenberg also emphasized that the coalition — including the United States — will continue to support the Afghan government as the process moves ahead.
"All NATO allies and partners, we are ready to continue to provide support for Afghanistan, but also to adjust and reduce our presence there if the conditions are met, because everything we do here will be conditions based," Stoltenberg said.
Esper assured the service members that an end to the fighting will happen only when Afghans decide for themselves to lay down their arms and come together as one people. "We're at that moment," he said. "That is why the best path forward for the future of this country is through a political settlement."
The agreement, Esper said, respects the integrity of the Afghan people "and preserves the accomplishments that we and our Afghan partners have fought so hard to achieve."
American service members came to Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed 2,977 people in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. The attacks were planned and directed from Afghanistan by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Since then, almost 800,000 U.S. troops have served in Afghanistan.
"Over 20,000 of our veterans have been wounded here in combat and forever bear the scars of this conflict," Esper said. "And nearly 2,000 brave Americans made the ultimate sacrifice on Afghan soil by laying down their lives in defense of freedom."
Coalition partners made similar commitments and sacrifices.
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also noted the sacrifices. "We owe a debt of gratitude to America's sons and daughters who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, and to the many thousands who served over the past nearly 19 years," he said in a written statement. "The only responsible way to end the war in Afghanistan is through a negotiated political settlement. Today is a reflection of the hard work of our nation's military, the U.S. Department of State, intelligence professionals and our valued partners. The United States is committed to the Afghan people, and to ensuring that Afghanistan never becomes a safe haven for terrorists to threaten our homeland and our allies."
Esper told the service members in Kabul that there is still a long way to go. "All of our decisions moving forward are conditions-based and require the Taliban to maintain the ongoing reduction in violence," he said. "If the Taliban fail to uphold their commitments, they will forfeit their chance to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government and will not have a say in the future of this country."
But if the Taliban live by the agreements, the United States will begin a deliberate phase with redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, initially reducing the force to 8,600, the secretary said. "As we do this, we will work closely with our allies and partners to reduce their forces as well in a proportional manner," he added.
Still, even as the process begins, U.S. and NATO forces will continue their train, advise and assist mission. "We will not hesitate to strike terrorist threats throughout the country as they emerge," the secretary said. "Central to our agreement with the Taliban are measures to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups or other individuals who seek to harm the United States or our allies.
"Should that ever become compromised, we will take all necessary measures to protect our homelands and our people," Esper said.