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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta at Forward Operating Base Dwyer, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
July 10, 2011

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  (Inaudible.)  Look, a little bit of wrap-up of today -- (inaudible) -- what I see here in Afghanistan, but at -- (inaudible) -- had a chance to see what’s happening around here.  And I’ve had a chance to meet -- (inaudible) -- men and women who are out there putting their lives on the line.  It’s incredible to meet with these young people and see the level of dedication that they have with regards to what they’re doing.  It’s really amazing.  It’s a call to duty.  It’s a level of dedication that really does serve the nation well.  And you can see it from the results here in Afghanistan.

            I had a chance this morning to meet with the ministers of defense and interior and -- along with General Petraeus and General Caldwell.  You know, both ministers seem very confident about the progress that has been made both with regards to the army and the police.  And everybody commented that two years ago no one would have anticipated that the army or the police could have really become an important force in this country and the fact is that they are -- that we’re reaching the level of force that we’ve been targeting, that they well-trained, that they are partnering with our forces very effectively.  You saw some of that here. 

            There are some concerns, concerns about the leadership.  They do need to develop the officer element within the army.  They just established a West Point to try to provide officers the -- establish some additional training, particularly on literacy.  Literacy still remains a real problem with regards to the army. 

            But having said that, and I asked the question, you know, 2014 -- you know, we are going to be in a situation where we have to transition to the army and the police to be able to maintain security in this country and how confident are you that we can make that transition?  And each of the ministers expressed a high confidence level that they would be able to do that.  Assuming that, again, we continue to provide training, we continue to help support them in their effort, that they felt that they would be able to provide a level of security that can achieve stability within Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from ever coming back.

            In addition, obviously down here I had a chance to spend some time with a group of captains from the units here.  And they each had companies that were conducting operations pretty much on the perimeter here.  And I asked each of them what -- first of all what kind of operations you’re conducting, but more importantly what do you see in terms of the Taliban?  And all of them kind of confirmed that they felt that they had seriously neutralized the Taliban in this area, that while there are some IEDs that pop up, that they aren’t seeing the level of attacks or the level of destruction that they’ve seen in the past.  They’re feeling good about what they’ve been able to achieve here.

            I’ve had a chance, as you know, to talk to the Afghan troops here and spoke to the commander of that group and asked him directly what’s happening with the Taliban.  He, too, confirmed that they felt very good about the fact that they had been able to really limit the influence of the Taliban.  He was concerned about our fighters coming across from Pakistan but he thought in terms of this area and what they’ve been able to accomplish that they really have been able to achieve a greater security that they had not seen in the past. 

            Look at the hospital.  As you know, the hospital is an incredible operation.  It’s the largest tent hospital in this area.  They’re doing incredible stuff there, but saving lives.  It’s a great, great experience to go through that. 

            And then obviously met with the troops here and had a chance to talk with them as they came through the line.  And, again, you know, these are young people who really put their lives on the line.  And I think the bottom line is that we are on the right path here, that we are accomplishing the mission that the president assigned these troops, that we have disrupted al Qaeda, that we have been able to strike at the Taliban effectively and giving the Afghans half a chance to be able to control their own country, and that we developed the security forces to be able to make an effective transition. 

            I think the key right now is to try to maintain the path that we’re on and develop a stronger partnership with Afghanistan so that ultimately we can make the transition.  I’m convinced that we can accomplish the mission that the president assigned to us here in Afghanistan. 

            So with that, I’d be happy to answer some questions.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I ask you to look ahead for a minute to Iraq, where we’ll be going there?  You’re having meeting with Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi government officials.  Can you just tell us what your top priority will be?  Will it be the post-2011 U.S. presence or some other higher topic?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think, as always, the issues for Iraq are, again, concerned about the security there and what’s being done, particularly to deal with the Iranian supply of weapons to Iranian militants in Iraq because, you know, in June we lost 15 U.S. troops, the highest number after what, a year, two years?  Two years.  And that’s really -- that’s concerned us, so I want to raise those concerns with the leadership there. 

            I want to raise questions related to where they are with regards to the governance situation there.  We’re now almost a year since the election and have yet to get a minister of defense or a minister of interior or a consul that they’ve been working on.  So that’s an important issue to address. 

            And then obviously to raise the question about whether or not at some point -- you know, we’re in the process of drawing down.  And we will draw down by the end of this year in Iraq and we’re required to do that.  And if they are to make a proposal with regards to a continuing U.S. presence there, they have to make a formal request that we would obviously consider.  But what is the state of that situation. 

            Q:  Will you encourage them to do so?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, our encouragement  is to make a decision so we know where we’re going.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, could I ask -- do you think that the U.S. should have a small presence in Iraq after 2011?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think it’s really dependent on the Iraqis making a decision whether they need to have a presence there or not.  This has got to be a partnership with them.  If they make the request, I do believe we are seriously considering it.  (Inaudible.)

            Q:  Can they defend their skies without the United States?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think those are the questions that they’re going to have to ask.

            Q:  Just a follow-up on Iraq.  In your comments here to the troops you said that the response -- that the U.S. has a responsibility to do whatever it’s necessary to defend our troops.  What did you mean by that?  If the Iraqi government is not being as aggressive as the U.S. would like, does the U.S. reserve their right to act more unilaterally than it has until now?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, we have the authority to do whatever is necessary to defend our force and we will do that.  I don’t want to go into particulars, but I do want to make clear that we have the authority to defend our people.  I would like for Iraq to exert more of an effort to go after those that -- those extremists that are making use of these weapons -- that if we are going to be partners they have a responsibility to be able to protect against that kind of attack occurring.  It’s in the interest of Iraq to provide for their own security in this situation, much less provide for the security of the U.S. in that situation.  They have a responsibility.  They have to --

            Q:  Does the -- does the U.S. -- would the U.S. really -- would that be the option of first resort here?  Unilateral -- taking unilateral action or is this something you’re holding out that if the Iraqis don’t act this is what will happen?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think -- we’ve had a pretty close relationship with the Iraqis with regards to security issues there.  That’s why we’ve made as much advances as we have with regards to the situation.  So it really ought to be a partnership approach to dealing with what I think is a real threat not only to our forces, but to theirs as well.

            MR. WILSON:  Matt, we’ll take one more.

            Q:  What can the U.S. can do to prevent Iran to provide weapons and to sell weapons to Shiite extremists?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, I think -- the most important thing we can do now is to make sure that these weapons that are -- they’re pretty effective.  They are -- they are assembled and put together but when those things fire off, they can have some pretty devastating power.  I think the key right now is to go after them in Iraq and do what we can to prevent those weapons coming into Iraq and go after those groups that would make use of those weapons.  That’s what the principal focus has to be on. 

            Q:  No diplomatic message to Iran to prevent --

            SEC. PANETTA:  Obviously, whatever we can do diplomatically to send that message, we ought to do that as well.

            MR. WILSON:  Last question.  Jimmy.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, if I can just go back to Afghanistan for a second.  In all of your conversations with the troops, did any of them ask you for anything?  Is there anything that you can do for them that they need?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I asked that question especially to the group of captains around the table.  I said, look, you’ve got the secretary of defense.  If you have a chance to ask for something, now’s the time to do it.  And they basically said just make sure that we accomplish our mission here.  That’s all they really asked for.

            MR. WILSON:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.