Panetta: NATO at 'Pivotal Point' in Afghan Mission
By Karen Parrish
BRUSSELS, April 17, 2012 - Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today ahead of this week's NATO "jumbo" ministerial conference, where the alliance's defense and foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss Afghanistan security transition and alliance capabilities.
Panetta said during a Pentagon news conference yesterday that the gathering will take place against a backdrop of change within the 63-year-old alliance.
"We're at a pivotal point for the alliance as we build on the gains that have been made in Afghanistan and try to chart the course for the future in that area," he said.
George Little, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, today told reporters traveling with the secretary that Panetta views NATO as a strong alliance. International Security Assistance Force contributing nations remain committed to the strategy, agreed upon at the alliance's 2010 summit, of a gradual handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, Little said.
Panetta judged those forces performed capably and decisively in quelling a series of coordinated attacks attributed to the Haqqani network in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul on April 15, Little noted. The secretary expects Afghan forces will sustain that level of performance, and he believes "the overall [Afghanistan] narrative is a very positive one," he added.
A senior defense official accompanying Panetta said the secretary will attend a meeting of defense ministers tomorrow. Participants will discuss ongoing alliance defense needs and the "smart defense" approach of combined investment in NATO military equipment, the official said.
Many NATO member nations face budget challenges, while operations in Afghanistan and Libya have exposed some shortfalls in the alliance's overall defense capabilities, the official noted.
Later, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Panetta will attend the larger session involving defense and foreign ministers, which the official said will focus on Afghanistan and funding for Afghan security forces. Foreign minister meetings will continue into April 19, but the defense segment of the week's NATO gathering will conclude tomorrow, the official added.
The official called the "jumbo" ministerial conference "a rare bit of geometry." While the two groups of ministers normally hold separate meetings, this last gathering before the alliance's Chicago summit in May will allow senior officials to "move issues along" so heads of state won't need to argue over policy questions next month, the official said.
"We don't want our bosses to have to deal with things that we can't resolve on our own," the official added.