BRUSSELS - NATO defense ministers are meeting this week as the alliance faces what many here call an inflection point: how to preserve hard-earned NATO operational capabilities while winding down operations in Afghanistan over the coming months.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attended separate meetings today with several of his counterparts. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said that Hagel spoke earlier with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi. Little said Hagel commended the progress the Afghan national security forces have made this year, as they assumed the lead in providing security for the Afghan people.
"Secretary Hagel stressed there is still work to be done to address Afghanistan's security challenges, and it remains critical for Afghanistan to sign the bilateral security agreement to enable continuing partnership between U.S. and Afghan armed forces," Little said.
The press secretary said Hagel emphasized to Mohammadi that concluding the agreement, continuing development of Afghan forces and conducting a secure, credible, and inclusive election are all in Afghanistan's long-term interests.
"Secretary Hagel underscored that the U.S. armed forces look forward to continuing to work with [Afghan forces] to pursue Afghan security," Little said.
A defense official who attended the meeting told reporters on background that Mohammadi expressed strong confidence that the bilateral agreement would be wrapped up soon, and that the vast majority of Afghans support it.
The official stressed that Hagel emphasized to Mohammadi that jurisdiction over U.S. troops is a critical, non-negotiable element of that agreement.
U.S. forces around the world serve under agreements negotiated between the United States and host countries that stipulate that any criminal charges those troops face will be handled by the American military justice system or U.S. courts. The bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan reportedly hinges on this provision.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met in the Afghan capital of Kabul to discuss the bilateral security agreement. Both leaders said the issue of U.S. jurisdiction for U.S. troops will be brought before the Loya Jirga, or council of Afghan elders, which Karzai has called to meet in November.
A senior U.S. military official here speaking to reporters on background said the Loya Jirga's recommendation will then be referred to Afghanistan's parliament, which has the power to ratify the agreement.
Hagel was firm in today's meeting with Mohammadi, the defense official said, "that jurisdiction is a must for the BSA, and that any issues between the two countries should be resolved privately and not publicly."
Hagel also met here today with Australian Defense Minister David Johnston in their first face-to-face meeting since Johnston recently assumed his new position in the Australian government. Little said the secretary reaffirmed the strong U.S.-Australia alliance, the importance of deepening U.S.-Australian defense cooperation across a range of security challenges, and the value of the rotational U.S. military presence in Australia.
"The secretary expressed deep appreciation for Australia's contributions to the [International Security Assistance Force] mission in Afghanistan, and is looking forward to next month's Australia-United States ministerial consultation in Washington," Little said.
Hagel also met with Canadian Defense Minister Rob Nicholson, another first-time in-person meeting, Little said. Hagel emphasized the importance he places on U.S.-Canadian defense cooperation, and thanked Canada for being a strong ally, friend and neighbor, the press secretary reported.
Little said Hagel and Nicholson discussed the two nations' close security cooperation in the Western Hemisphere and beyond, as well as the importance of investing in NATO and continuing with NATO reform efforts.
Hagel thanked the minister for Canada's support for the international effort in Afghanistan, and the two defense leaders discussed the progress being made in the mission there, as well as the challenges that remain, Little said.
"Secretary Hagel said he looks forward to making his first visit to Canada in his capacity as secretary of defense next month, when he will participate in the Halifax Security Forum," the press secretary said.
Little told reporters Hagel also met with Hungarian Defense Minister Csaba Hende, discussing bilateral cooperation, the importance of supporting security and stability in Afghanistan post 2014, defense budgets and planning, and the current situation in Syria.
Little said the leaders noted the recent 20th anniversary of the State Partnership Program between the Hungarian Defense Forces and the Ohio National Guard, which has seen multiple joint deployments in support of ISAF in Afghanistan.
Hagel recognized Hungary's long-standing contributions in Afghanistan, notably its special operations forces support, Little said, as well as the Hungarian military's force protection mission at Kabul International Airport.
"Secretary Hagel and Minister Hende also discussed the situation in Syria, and the importance of the international community's efforts to work together to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons," Little said. "The leaders agreed to remain in contact as the situation evolves."
Hagel's engagements here will continue tomorrow, when his schedule includes a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council and a one-on-one meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu. The secretary also is scheduled for other meetings and a news conference here tomorrow.