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Austin Says Afghanistan, Iraq, China Among Topics at NATO Meeting

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., Feb. 19, 2021. (DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders).

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefed Pentagon reporters on the results of NATO’s virtual Defense Ministerial, discussing the decisions to increase NATO support in Iraq and defer a decision about NATO troops in Afghanistan, and summarizing discussions among allies and partners about China.

It was Austin’s first Pentagon briefing since taking office.

The importance of the alliance to American strategy was apparent since Day 1, as Austin’s first call upon entering the Pentagon was to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Austin said the discussions were productive and covered a wide range of NATO concerns. The alliance does face challenges, including a resurgent Russia’s disruptive technologies, climate change, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the persistent threat of terrorism, and an increasingly aggressive China. Exacerbating all of these challenges is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Austin said his first goal in the ministerial was to detail President Joe Biden’s commitment to NATO and underscore that the United States values allies and partners around the world. He emphasized that U.S. foreign policy will be led by diplomats supported by a strong military.

“I also stressed our ironclad commitment to the security guarantee under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty,” he said. “I don’t use that word ‘ironclad’ lightly. Our shared responsibility as allies – our duty – is to protect our populations and our territory. And to meet that duty we require what the secretary general refers to as credible deterrence and defense.”

Doing this requires commitment and funding. Austin was pleased that nine NATO allies now meet or exceed the alliance’s goal of 2% of gross domestic product spent on defense. After years of reductions, the alliance is now in the seventh year of defense spending increases. “Naturally, we want this trend to continue, and we want to see every member of the alliance contribute their fair share,” he said.

The secretary noted that Sweden, Finland and representatives from the European Union joined the talks and were especially helpful on their views about China. “Indeed, I applaud NATO’s work on China, and I made it clear that the United States is committed to defending the international rules-based order, which China has consistently undermined for its own interests,” he said.

He reiterated that the United States sees China as the pacing challenge. “We believe NATO can help us better think through our operating concepts and investment strategies, when it comes to meeting that challenge,” Austin said.

The ministers spent a full day discussing the NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“On Iraq, I reiterated our strong commitment to the defeat of ISIS and to supporting Iraq’s long-term security, stability and prosperity,” he said. “That’s a commitment that I made to my Iraqi counterpart and the Iraqi minister of interior just the other day after last weekend’s deadly rocket attack in Erbil. I also welcomed that expanded NATO mission in Iraq that responds to the desires and aspirations of the Iraqi government.”

In Afghanistan, the secretary walked the allies through U.S. thinking as the Biden administration comes to grips with the reality on the ground. “The bottom line is this: We are committed to a responsible and sustainable end to this war, while preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups that threaten the interest of the United States and our allies,” he said.

Austin said the United States wants to see “a just and durable end” to the long-running conflict.

The administration is conducting an interagency review of the situation in Afghanistan, including all relevant options with full consideration of the consequences of any potential course of action, Austin said.

“We are mindful of the looming deadlines,” he continued. “But we want to do this methodically and deliberately.”

Austin said the Taliban violence is too high and that more progress must be made in Afghan-led negotiations. “I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace,” he said. “The violence must decrease now. I told our allies that no matter what the outcome of our review, the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance’s reputation at risk.”

No decisions about future force posture have been made, the secretary said. In the meantime, current missions will continue and commanders have the right and the responsibility to defend themselves and their Afghan partners against attack.

Any move ahead will be made after consultations among all those interested parties. “There will be no surprises,” he said. “We will consult each other, consult together, decide together and act together.”

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