SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: All right. I had a very productive meeting with President Karzai, and appreciate his hospitality hosting me and others for dinner, in which we had some very interesting conversation about the situation here in Afghanistan and some of the concerns that he had.
I've had a -- I've enjoyed a positive relationship with him in my prior capacity as CIA director, and I indicated to him and he agreed that we would continue to maintain that relationship in my new capacity as the secretary of defense, that was it was important that we -- that we work closely together to establish a real partnership between the United States and Afghanistan in the effort to establish stability here in Afghanistan.
I assured him that the U.S. is committed to the long-term security of the Afghan people and that our goal here is to ensure that Afghanistan is stable in the future and can secure, defend and govern itself so that it can never again become a safe haven for al Qaeda or its militant allies. He and I agreed on the importance of the transition to a shared goal of an Afghanistan that would in fact become an independent -- a strong, independent country in charge of its own affairs and in charge of its own security.
I think, standing back, that we are moving in the right direction here in Afghanistan thanks to the strategy that has been put in place by our military forces, thanks to the resources that have been provide by the president. I do think that we have made significant gains with regards to our goals of dismantling al Qaeda and really providing the Afghans with the opportunity to establish their own independence free of Taliban influence. That's really a key point.
Together the Afghan and coalition forces I think have made some substantial gains here, particularly in the south and the southwest where our surge forces have focused on the effort to go after the Taliban and establish security. Because of that success I think obviously we are in a position where we can begin that process of drawing down our forces. I think we've got the momentum on our side. President Karzai is supportive of the president's proposal, and I think we were both confident that we can get this done in a way that not only protects the security of Afghanistan, but ensures that the Taliban will not return to this country.
I think the key here is that both of us recognize that we have to have an enduring partnership not only today, but for a long time in the future, and that we have to have a long-term commitment that we are going to continue to work together to make sure that Afghanistan is a strong, independent nation for the future.
The bottom line is I felt very good about the conversation we had. We had a one-on-one and then we had a continuing conversation at dinner with the others, and I felt very good about the discussion we had. We certainly both seem to be on the same wavelength with regards to what needs to happen in order to put this country on the right track.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you said earlier today that you thought with the new incoming team, the new U.S. ambassador, the commander and yourself as new secretary, that you thought there was a chance to establish a better relationship with President Karzai. Having met with him, had dinner with him tonight, do you still feel that way? And if so, why specifically?
SEC. PANETTA: I discussed that with him. I said, we've got a new team coming in with Ambassador Crocker. We've got General Allen coming in. I am now secretary of defense. He's familiar with some of the others that are operating in this area and that he's had a close relationship with, and I said it gives us the opportunity, it seems to me, to be able to put our relationship back on the right track. And he agreed with that. He said that this could be a real opportunity to be able to establish a stronger partnership between the United States and Afghanistan.
Q: Did you talk about the night raids with President Karzai? (Inaudible) -- had heated conversations with the president about this. Do you -- (unintelligible) -- agreement, any discussions?
SEC. PANETTA: We did not. We did talk about the strategic partnership, and he made clear that he wanted to ensure that both sides agreed with regards to what that strategic partnership would look like for the future. And he said, look, we need to have a close relationship for the security of this country, and I am willing to work with you in establishing that partnership through the agreement.
In talking about the long-term commitment, he also made clear that it was important that we work together on that longer-term commitment to ensure that once we get past 2014 we will make very sure that we will continue every effort to ensure that the Taliban does not return to power.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that the president brought up some concerns that he had. Was one of those concerns the rising number of civilian casualties?
SEC. PANETTA: He did not raise that. But one of the things that I mentioned to him is that I thought it was extremely important that when there were concerns that we try to resolve those concerns in private and not publicly. And I said that we've always had a relationship of trust and that I've always had -- I made clear that if we had differences that I would deal with him privately, not publicly, and he gave me his word that he would do the same thing with me.
Q: Mr. Secretary, what kind of leeway are you looking for in the strategic partnership agreement for the U.S. to continue to conduct operations in the long term within Afghanistan against militants that you see as a threat to the United States? What specifically are you looking for in that regard?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, obviously, we are -- we have a strategy that we've put in place. We are going to have -- once we do the initial drawdown in December, we'll still have 90,000 troops that will be there for a year, to the end of next summer, and then beyond that we'll have 70,000 troops that will be continuing this strategy and operation through 2014.
[Sic: following the media availability, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson clarified: There will be a drawdown between 2012 and 2014 of the 70,000 troops that remain after the surge forces depart. What the secretary wanted to make clear was that a plan is still to be developed as to how we’re going to do that.]
And my goal is to make sure that we can continue the effort to establish greater security in this country so that we can transition to the Afghans. One of the things we did discuss was the quality of the armed forces in Afghanistan. And the minister of defense was there, along with the general who was also there. And they were commenting on the improved quality of the army and their capability. What they're looking for is to improve their officer corps to improve their enlisted, some of the sergeants and that level of leadership within their military.
But bottom line was that they have an increasing confidence in their military to do the job. Interestingly enough, at dinner Karzai raised the issue of how did the United States maintain a military that was professional and apolitical throughout its history, and I said that began with George Washington making very clear that that's the way we ought to operate, and I said, it would be well if you do the same thing as president of this country. That would establish at least a clear invitation that that's the kind of military you have to have.
But the key here again is to try to make sure that we proceed with military operations that improve the security so that we can make the transition in 2014 to the Afghan military.
MODERATOR: The last questions will be Frank, Adam, David, (unintelligible). (Laughter.)
Q: One thing -- (unintelligible) -- about the 70,000 --
Q: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that having a new U.S. leadership team in place gives an opportunity to improve the relationship with President Karzai. If President Karzai remains in power, he said an awful lot of inflammatory things recently about U.S. role here. There's a lot of persistent concerns about corruption in his administration and the legitimacy of his election. Why are you confident that he can be a long-term, reliable partner for the United States?
SEC. PANETTA: He is the elected president of Afghanistan. And I think we have a responsibility to deal with him as the leader of this country. We deal with a lot of leaders throughout the world who have problems and have difficulties and have issues that we don't necessarily agree with, but nevertheless we have to deal with them. And I think that's the situation here. We have to respect him as president of this country. We've got to deal with him. There are difficulties. There are differences. But I think the indication of a strong partnership is the fact that we can work our way through those difficulties.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Just to clarify, when you mentioned 70,000 --
SEC. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: -- you see 70,000 staying in place until the end of 2014, or do you imagine drawdown continuing after December of 2012 until the end of 2014? I think that's what -- (unintelligible).
Q: That's not my question then.
MODERATOR: Actually, that was a question.
SEC. PANETTA: We're going to have 70,000 there through 2014, and obviously as we get to 2014 we’ll develop a plan as to how we reduce that force at that time. But I think for at least the next few years we're going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face.
Q: On the ANSF, did you offer President Karzai any assurances that the U.S., given its budget difficulties, would be willing to support the size of the ANSF that’s now projected so that Afghanistan can achieve the kind of self-stability and military that it needs?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think there are concerns about the ability to sustain that. But I think he understands that in building this military that Afghanistan is going to have a responsibility to be able to sustain it in the future if they're going to have a strong military. Obviously, we are providing significant support now and training and developing that force, and we will do that at least for the near future. But I think part of the transition is going to be not only to transition to the military to accept the responsibility of providing security, but it's also going to be the transition for the Afghan government to be able to maintain that.
Q: Now, Mr. Secretary, how would you respond to critics on the Hill and elsewhere who think that a faster withdrawal is necessary -- that they had expected that even after December of next year there will still be gradual withdrawals from 2014. I think this is going to come as quite a surprise to all of them that we're going to keep this full force until 2014.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think part of the Lisbon agreement with all of our allies that are operating here, the basic thrust of the Lisbon agreement was to ensure that we would work towards a transition in 2014, and I think that's what everybody understands to be the case. And I think Congress understands that that's the purpose here is to make sure we have an effective transition of power to the Afghans. We've taken them very successfully halfway up the hill. We now have to transition to the Afghans to be able to take their country the rest of the way.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.