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Panetta, Dempsey Speak on War, Women in Combat

By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2013 – Three-quarters of the Afghan population is under the security responsibility of its country’s own forces because of the progress those forces, the U.S. military and its coalition partners have achieved in the war there, the Pentagon's top leaders said today.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey spoke during interviews on CNN’s "State of the Union" and on NBC’s "Meet the Press" about the war’s drawdown, the U.S. military’s responsibility in Afghanistan after its combat mission ends in late 2014, and the recent decision to lift the combat exclusion for servicewomen.

“We’ve made good progress in the war,” Panetta said. “We’ve been able to diminish the Taliban’s capabilities. Violence has gone down. We’re also developing an Afghan army that’s increased its operations skills to provide security. We’re on the right path to give [Afghanistan] the opportunity to govern itself.”

With significant gains in building their army’s numbers and skills, he said, “[the Afghans] have developed their ability to provide security.”

The secretary added, “We couldn't make a transition in the areas that need transition … if there weren't an Afghan army that was becoming much more capable of doing their jobs.”

Panetta said the rate at which Afghan forces gain competence will, in part, determine “the level of enduring presence that we will have once we reach the end of 2014.” He reiterated that the core U.S. and coalition mission in Afghanistan is to make sure al-Qaida never again establishes a safe haven there.

Dempsey said the military will live up to its commitments to maintain a long-term partnership and relationship with the Afghan government. The U.S. military’s top-ranking officer also said that post-war U.S. and NATO missions with the Afghan government will “largely relate to the counterterror mission, continuing to keep pressure on transnational global terrorism, [and] the continued development of the Afghan security forces. My instinct … [is] that our numbers after 2014 can be modest.”

About 68,000 U.S. troops continue to serve in Afghanistan, Dempsey noted. And while the number of U.S. troops that will maintain a presence there beyond 2014 hasn’t yet been determined, he added, that decision will be based on several factors.

“The ultimate number will be based on the mission and how deeply we want to be involved with their continued development, and what the [Afghan government wants],” he said.

“You can also count on us to match the mission to the number of troops and to keep three things in equilibrium as we get there,” Dempsey said, noting that the mission, retrograding equipment and people out, and the protection of the force are those factors.

“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd told Dempsey that as women begin to fill combat roles following the end to the ban against their serving on front lines, there is a movement on Capitol Hill to pass a law to make sure standards aren’t lowered for them. Dempsey said there’s no need for such legislation.

“We are going to make sure that we have the right standards for the right jobs that maintain the readiness of the force,” he said.

“My primary responsibility is the readiness of the force, and I would do nothing to allow that to be undermined,” the chairman continued, adding that Congress is required to review the department’s actions in opening occupational specialties to women.

At that point, he noted, Congress will "have the opportunity to ask us what we’ve done to standards.”

Lifting the ban, Dempsey said, “really is about changing the paradigm from one of exclusiveness to inclusiveness -- to do the best job to make the best force for Joint Force 2020. We’ve got to … make sure we’ve got the right talent force, and this is part of that.” 

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Leon E. Panetta
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

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