[The following interview occurred while Secretary Panetta was traveling in Iraq.]
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Thanks for joining us, Mr. Secretary. Just today, three or four rockets landed in the Green Zone. Fifteen American soldiers were killed last month. I mean, it sounds like the war is back on. What's going on?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, there's some concerns, obviously. We did lose an awful lot of troops last month, and we’re continuing to see attacks. And a lot of this that we think can be tracked to Iran and their supplying of weapons to insurgents here who are conducting these kinds of attacks. That raises a lot of concerns.
So my view is that, bottom line, it's they have the responsibility and the authority to ensure they do everything necessary to protect the troops -- and that leaves us, if I ask the Iraqis, as a partner in this, to go after those who are attacking troops, that we want to be partners with them in that effort and conduct those kinds of operations. But we have a responsibility to defend our soldiers, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Mr. Secretary, I talked to soldiers this morning who told me, they're coming after us again. But yet, they feel like their hands are somewhat tied because they don't feel the Iraqis have actually done enough, and in fact, are not willing to do enough, according to some soldiers. So what can the U.S. do if that’s going to be the case? How are you going to protect those soldiers?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, the point I have to make to the leadership here is that this is not just about protecting our soldiers; it's about protecting your country. And when these kinds of attacks are happening, it weakens Iraq.
And if you allow this kind of violence to go on, then it sends a signal to the world that you haven't developed the kind of security that needs to be done. So they have a responsibility. They have to respond to these attacks, as well. And that's the message that we're sending them. And it's also the responsibility that they're going to have to take on if they're going to be able to have a country that they can secure and defend.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Now, the U.S. troops have the authority to defend themselves, but does that include unilateral action, if necessary? That is, can the U.S. respond unilaterally against that threat?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I don't want to go into the particulars of what steps we would take in order to do that, but what I'll tell you is I do have the authority and the responsibility to defend U.S. soldiers. And if necessary, we will take what actions are necessary to do that.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Iran has been thumbing its nose at the U.S. for years on any number of fronts. You know that very well. So what possibly could the U.S. to do to prevent Iran from shipping those highly lethal weapons to Iran?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think -- I think it's very important to let them know that, you know, we do not appreciate their support for terrorism, here or anyplace else in the world. And they've been in engaging in basically not only equipping terrorists but supporting them.
And you know, that's not just a responsibility that we have; I think it's a responsibility that the world has to send the signal to Iran that we're not going to tolerate that -- they can't just go around supporting terrorism in the world. The world is going to respond to that kind of behavior. If they want to be a member of the family of nations, they've got to act like it.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: The Iraqis have to make a decision sometime soon on whether they want additional U.S. troops to stay here in the country after the deadline for withdrawal at the end of this year. You said this morning, “Damn it, make a decision.” I mean, that's pretty tough talk, no?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think the time has come to make a decision. You know, obviously, there's been a lot of sacrifices made by U.S. men and women here and there have been a lot of casualties, but I think we've also put this country on the right path towards the future.
They are, in fact, able to secure and defend themselves and they are governed, at this time. But if this is going to continue -- continue on the right path -- then I think that partnership has to continue. And one of the keys to that is making the tough decisions that you have to make when you govern a country. If they want our support in the future, then they've got to ask for it.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: And one of those tough decisions for President Obama was, do we keep additional forces here? Is the U.S. leaning to doing that to help the Iraqis in terms of security and training?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, right now, we are on track to withdraw our forces -- pursuant to the agreement -- to withdraw our forces by the end of this year. That's the track we're on, and we're going to begin that process in August. And we will follow that. If they do make a request, then obviously, the president –has indicated we will consider it. But the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is to consider it because, frankly we'd be on the way out.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Let's switch back to Afghanistan. What did you see there in terms of progress and lack of progress, in terms of that surge operation and the ability of U.S. troops to start to draw down?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, Jim, I really got the sense that we are on the right path there and that we are making progress. And I got that not only from our own troops, from talking to them, but talking to the leaders there in Afghanistan, talking to our top commanders, and also just getting a sense from what I've seen in the past that in fact progress is being made.
And the key right now is to make sure that we continue on that path. And as we do draw down, it is extremely important now that we build up the Afghan army and the Afghan police so that we can make the kind of transition that can take place by 2014 so that, again, we have a country that not only can be stable but that can secure and defend itself.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: 2014, that's still two-and-a-half years off. For a lot of Americans -- and you've seen the polls -- they're tired of this war we've fought nearly 10 years now. What do you tell them as to why American troops need to remain there? Why is it worth it?
SEC. PANETTA: We owe it to every American who died there, we owe it to every American who's fighting there to make sure we stay on the right path, that you know, the price that they paid in fighting for Afghanistan and fighting against al-Qaeda and their militant allies -- to ensure that that sacrifice was not in vain, we owe it to the American people and to the Afghan people to keep us on the right track.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: But you hear the argument, why not cut our losses and get out now?
SEC. PANETTA: Because we are on the right path. Because, you know, we've taken Afghanistan halfway up the hill towards becoming an independent country that can secure itself in the future. This would be the wrong time to back off, because we're almost there. We've got to continue on this path. If we do, I think we can ultimately achieve an Afghanistan that is stable enough to make sure that it never becomes a safe haven again.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Pakistan's a large part of that equation. The U.S. has decided to withhold $800 million in military aid to that country. We need their cooperation. What's that all -- why is that expected to have a positive effect?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, Pakistan is -- it's always been a critical country for us. It's always been a difficult relationship that we've had, but the fact is, we need to maintain that relationship. We're fighting a war in their country. We're fighting al-Qaeda in their country. We need those -- strategically, they're an important country, particularly because they have nuclear arms. So for all those reasons, we've got to maintain the relationship.
But we have to show that this is a two-way street, not just a one-way street. They have some obligations. They've got to help us be able to go after some of the targets we've assigned them; they've got to be able to give us their cooperation. And they've got to know that we're not going to give out a blank check until they show that this is a two-way relationship.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Talking about al-Qaeda, you said again today and you indicated that your focus is on al-Qaeda. And today, you indicated that is your top priority -- ultimately defeating al-Qaeda. Really? I mean, is al-Qaeda that much of a threat that it's your top priority?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I look at 9/11 and the fact that this country was attacked by al-Qaeda, and we lost 3,000 people as a result of those attacks, and that they continue to plan attacks on our homeland is one of the major threats to the United States. Because of that, they remain our primary enemy, and because of that, we've got to do everything possible to disrupt, dismantle and defeat them.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: And you've only been in office a little over a week. Your blunt, plain-spoken style has really stirred -- are we going to hear more of that?
SEC. PANETTA: Hey, I'm Italian, what can I tell you? (Laughs.)
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: One last question, one final question. And dare I go there, but you're 73. You've already proven yourself, in terms of your commitment to public service. You're saddled with three wars, if you count Libya, a budget battle over the upcoming cuts at the Pentagon. Why? Why have you chosen to do this?
SEC. PANETTA: For the same reason you're still asking me questions: Because both of us love this job and love the work that we're doing.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.