Panetta Begins Trip to Visit ‘Most Capable Partners’
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Jan. 14, 2013 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta boarded this Air Force jet at Joint Base Andrews, Md., today, bound for Portugal, Spain, Italy and Great Britain on what he termed “likely my last international trip as secretary of defense.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta briefs the press on a flight to Lisbon, Portugal, Jan. 14, 2013. Panetta is on a six-day trip to Europe to visit with defense counterparts and troops. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Panetta told reporters traveling with him that as “a son of Europe” –- he often speaks of his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Italy -- it is appropriate that his final international trip, the 18th he has made as secretary, will include visits to some of America’s “most capable and closest military partners.”
“I have visited more than 30 countries, including … [traveling to] the war zone a number of times,” he said. “But I’ve made it a priority, as part of our defense strategy, … to emphasize the importance of strengthening our alliances and partnerships throughout the world.”
The goal for his final trip is in line with that strategy, the secretary said, as he will:
-- Emphasize the importance of NATO and bilateral alliances;
-- Reflect on the accomplishments Portugal, Spain, Italy and Great Britain have helped to achieve as members of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan; and
-- Lay the groundwork for the future as nations around the world face both national security and budget challenges.
Panetta noted the countries he will visit have all maintained a strong commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. “Because of that commitment, we’ve been able to make significant progress in the effort to … build an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself,” he added.
As President Barack Obama announced last week, the secretary said, Afghan forces will assume the lead for security responsibility across their country this spring, with ISAF forces moving into a supporting role.
“That’s a significant milestone that is the result of the efforts by the United States, by ISAF and by the Afghans themselves,” he said. The secretary added that U.S. leaders had “a successful series of consultations” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the future U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s security during that leader’s visit to Washington last week. Panetta said he looks forward to updating counterparts on those discussions.
The secretary said he also will discuss with allies innovative approaches to common budget challenges, and that he’ll speak with counterparts about key bilateral security issues.
“As always, I will also use this opportunity to visit the troops, and have a chance to thank U.S. men and women in uniform for the sacrifices they’re making,” he said.
The secretary said that after more than 10 years of war and with the budget constraints the United States and its allies and partner nations face, the United States nevertheless continues to complete its mission in the war in Afghanistan and continues to confront the terrorism threat.
Terrorist activity -- particularly from al-Qaida factions -- in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Mali is a threat common to all the nations he will visit, Panetta noted. North Korea and Iran, turmoil in the Middle East and the cyber threat also are issues of common interest, he added.
No one nation can confront these threats alone, the secretary said.
“The only way we’re going to be able to do it is by strengthening and reaffirming and building new partnerships and new alliances in the world,” he said. “The model for that is NATO, … really the oldest alliance we have.” That alliance’s responses to Afghanistan and Libya, he added, demonstrate its continued importance to global stability.
The 74-year-old secretary said he also hopes to communicate some of his feelings about the alliance to the younger citizens of the countries he will visit this week.
“NATO goes back to 1949,” he said. “I think the reality is … that there are generations that have been born since the fall of the Berlin Wall that may not fully appreciate how important NATO is as an alliance [for] the future.”
Panetta said he will focus in his discussions, and in a speech he will deliver in London later this week, in part on “how important it is to be able to pass the baton to [younger generations] when it comes to the strength of these transatlantic alliances and partnerships that we have.”
He added, “The purpose of my trip is to make clear that we are going to need this alliance -- today, tomorrow, and in the 21st century.”