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Town Hall Meeting, Manas International Airport, Kyrgyzstan
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Manas International Airport, Kyrgyzstan, Thursday, April 14, 2005

Thank you, sir.  Mr. Ambassador.  Folks from the Spanish contingent.  Greetings.

I didn't get a good sense of the breakdown of the Air Force, the Army, the Marines, and the Navy.  Is there anyone from the Navy in here?

There's one!  All right.

What about the Marines?  That's pretty good.

The Army?  Very good.

The Air Force?  I think I get it.

I am delighted to be here.  I have had quite a week.  I'm trying to think when we left the United States.  I think it was Monday.  We spent some time in Iraq, had a chance to talk to troops there and meet with the government that's going out and the government that's going to be coming in, to move around the country a bit and to get a sense as to the progress.

It's a worrisome thing.  You go in there and you see improvements every time you go.  I guess I've been in there eight or nine times now.  The progress is real.  The successful election was impressive.  The government is rational and constructive.  If you think about it, the Sunnis stayed out of the election, which they made a big mistake in doing it; they understand they made a big mistake in staying out of the election.  The Shia, that had been the lowest on the totem pole in that country for decades while the minority Sunnis ran it, prevailed and yet their approach is one that's constructive.  They're reaching out to the Sunni community.  They recognize the importance of seeing that they have one country and that it's respectful of all of the various groups in the country.  The Kurds have of course had difficulties with the Saddam Hussein regime over the decades.  Chemical weapons were used against them and they'd been living in a good deal of fear.  They are constructive and leaning in as is everyone in the country.

It isn't an easy thing to go from a despotism to a democracy.  Thomas Jefferson once said you [ought] not to expect to move from despotism to democracy on a featherbed.  That's for sure.  It's a tough business.  And they're engaged in the politics of a democratic process which is new to them.  It's unfamiliar, but they're making good headway and the folks that are serving there, I'm trying to think if it's 29 or 30 or 31 or 32 countries, are doing a superb job, they really are.  We're so fortunate they have a task of not only dealing with the insurgency and the risks and the casualties that are occurring almost weekly, but they also are simultaneously engaged in various types of construction and assistance to the Iraq people and a great deal of the focus is now shifting to assisting the Iraqi security forces in developing a proper chain of command and mentoring those people in a way that they're going to be able to take over an increasing amount of the security responsibilities for the country.

The problem I've got is when I go in there I see the progress, I hear the reports, and it's very different from what one reads in the newspaper or the television, because obviously the bad things tend to get reported more than the constructive things and the good things.

So I talked to General Casey.  He showed me a list of all the things that could go wrong down there and could be a problem.  And obviously there are things that can still go wrong because it's not a smooth road.  It's a few steps forward and one back, and a few steps forward and one back.  But they're making good solid progress and we're darn fortunate to have them doing it.

I spent some time in Afghanistan.  I had not been there since -- I was there for the inauguration of President Karzai.  Here's a country that you all, some of you have been in and are en-route out, others are en-route in, and all of you are involved in one way or another with the fact that 25 million people in Afghanistan have been liberated.  They have had the first popularly elected President in 5,000 years.

Again, it's a country quite different from Iraq.  They do not have the oil wealth, they do not have the water wealth, and they've suffered greatly under Soviet occupation.  They suffered in civil war, they suffered with drought, and the people of Afghanistan, nonetheless, went out and voted and took a great risk.  The women voted, which is unheard of in that country, and participated.  They're on a path towards a democratic system.  They're going to have parliamentary elections we think in September, which is an important step.  And the progress there, every time I go in I'm just amazed at the energy on the streets and the activity and the fact that some two million refugees have come back into the country.  They're voting with their feet.  They're saying wherever they were, they want to be where they used to be.  And they're willing to go back into that country and help to build it into a more prosperous and democratic country.

So what's happening in the world is impressive, it's important.  And the role that you folks are playing is significant.

Every one of you I know is a volunteer.  You weren't forced to do anything.  You were asked if you would and you held up your hand and said yes.  And that is the strength of what's going on here.

So, I know that you folks are a long ways from your families and that they also sacrifice, even though they're not in a war zone or in a difficult situation -- they're not living in tents.  I saw the tents when I came by.  I can't imagine what they look like with 10 or 12 inches of snow.  Has anyone been here for that?

Did any of the tents cave in?

Did the heat go out?  Well, life's like that.

I saw the new buildings going up which is of course a good thing.  I don't know how long before they're going to be occupied, but it looks like progress.  You'll be long gone.

I had quite an experience last week.  There was a non-commissioned officer in the Army in Iraq whose unit was overtaken by a large group of Saddam Hussein's folks not too far from the Baghdad airport as the war was just moving into Baghdad.

Instead of leaving, he stayed and they speculate that he killed, I think it was by actual count some 50 of Saddam Hussein's folks who were overrunning the area where his people were.  Saved the lives of probably up to 100 of his unit and people that were behind the unit, in I believe it was an emergency hospital where they were taking care of people.  His family was in the White House for the ceremony where President Bush gave him the Medal of Honor.  It was the first Medal of Honor given in the Global War on Terror.

The next day his widow came over to the Pentagon, and in the Pentagon they have a Hall of Heroes where all the names of the people who have received the Medal of Honor are listed.  Audie Murphy from World War II; Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt; Jimmy Doolittle is there from his raid over Tokyo.  In fact I've been around so long I knew Jimmy Doolittle.  Not Theodore Roosevelt, that was a little past my time.

But she spoke.  She was German.  He'd married her when he served in Germany, and she spoke and reminded everybody of what the American military did in World War II, in effect freeing that continent of Europe and opening up those concentration camps and letting people out.  It was impressive.  She said that what you folks are doing in this generation, have in fact liberated 25 million Afghans, 25 million Iraqis, and that their lives are going to be so notably different because of what is being done.

If you look beyond that and see what's happening in the world, in the Palestinian election that was held; what took place recently in Ukraine; the changes that are taking place in Lebanon where the Syrians are now pulling out of Lebanon.  There is clearly a set of very vivid examples, and the great sweep of history is for freedom.  And that's the side you're on.  And that's the side to be on.

I was in South Korea last year and a reporter came up to me, a woman, stuck a mike in front of my face and she said, they were just having a debate, whether anyone from the Korean military should go serve in Iraq.  She stuck it in my face and she said, "Why in the world should any Korean go halfway around the world to fight a war and get wounded and possibly die in Iraq?"

It was a fair question.  She was young.  She hadn't lived during the Korean War.  Her whole life experience was in a free political system and a free economic system in South Korea.

I have on my desk the Korean Peninsula, a satellite photo at night.  It shows the demilitarized zone:  North Korea/South Korea.  Same people, same resources, same population.  The difference is in the North they have a vicious dictatorship; they have a command economy.  In the South they have a free political system and a free economic system.  And the electricity that is seen from that satellite photo at night in the South, and the totally black country -- nothing except one pin-prick of light in the capital city of Pyongyang.  It just tells everything.

I said to her, look out the window and what do you see?  And I said think of what the folks up north of the DMZ see.  That's why people should do it, and that's why young people from the United States went over to Korea and fought in that war.  That woman and those people in South Korea would not be free today had they not done so.

So my guess is that you're going to look back on this and people are going to, I don't know, five years, ten years, fifteen years, twenty years -- the good Lord willing -- those two countries and other countries that see that will be on a path of freedom, a path where the people have the right and privilege of helping to guide and direct their country; and the economic opportunities that come from free economic systems.  You'll be able to look back and know in your hearts you were a part of that.

For a complete transcript, including questions and answers, please visit:

http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2005/tr20050414-secdef2521.html