SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: (Off mic) – supreme allied commander of Europe – (off mic) – and also the commander of the ISAF forces there as well. This has been an honor and a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to participate in my first NATO defense ministerial since becoming United States secretary of defense.
As someone whose roots are in the legislative process, I deeply appreciate forums where everyone can express their views and ultimately try to find consensus. That’s the nature of the process that I’ve been born with, and it takes place here at NATO. And the fact that NATO really has performed, I believe, as the strongest coalition in history, has proven itself both in Afghanistan and Libya.
I’d like to thank my fellow ministers for the welcome that they’ve shown me here in Brussels and for their efforts to help make this such a productive session. Before taking your questions, what I’d like to do is to walk through some of the key issues that we’ve addressed over the course of this ministerial.
This morning I participated in a meeting of ISAF and the contributing nations to ISAF to discuss the war in Afghanistan. General Allen presented a briefing of the situation in Afghanistan to that group. We reviewed the significant progress that we’ve made in NATO’s largest effort. It was amazing to look around that room and see all the nations that have contributed to this effort. I think it’s one of the largest coalitions that has come together in this kind of effort.
And we also looked at the ongoing transition that’s taking place to Afghan security. General Allen’s briefing made clear that although hard fighting lies ahead, last year’s surge in forces has created the right condition for transition. And we continue to make great strides in developing and strengthening the Afghan national security forces.
I sent a strong message to my fellow ministers that even as the United States draws down its surge forces, we will maintain the important enablers: medevac teams, helicopters, intel, ISR, other support, particularly in the north and west, that our allies continue to depend on in order to be able to complete their mission.
In listening to my fellow ministers I was really struck by their shared commitment to carry forward this mission and to build on the significant progress that we’ve made. Going around that room last night, every representative there, every minister there was committed to continuing this mission, and it is clear that no one is rushing to the exits. To the contrary, there is a real commitment by all in that room to a long-term enduring relationship with Afghanistan and with the Afghanistan people.
There is also, I think, consensus that we are on the right path. We’ve made good progress. There are hard times ahead but we remain unified in the goal of achieving a stable Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.
Another session today focused on the effort in Libya, which is nearing its conclusion with the fall of the Gadhafi regime. This was a remarkable achievement and there is no doubt that this alliance has emerged stronger as a result of this effort. Later today I’ll head to Naples to meet with NATO commanders involved in Operation Unified Protector and receive briefings on that effort.
While this campaign has achieved its goals and demonstrated NATO’s effectiveness, we all must come away from this experience determined to build on these successes and address some of the shortcomings in military capability that were exposed. For that end, the major theme of this session has been the need to ensure that NATO has the military capabilities that we need to successfully operate in the 21st century, even at a time of growing budget constraints.
Looking ahead to the Chicago summit next year, I think that the alliance needs to identify, protect and even strengthen those core capabilities NATO needs to meet the most likely missions over the next 10 years. One example of such a capability is missile defense. And I was proud to be able to join President Zapatero of Spain and Secretary General Rasmussen here yesterday in announcing the agreement to station United States Aegis ships at Rota naval base in Spain.
Alongside important agreements recently concluded with Romania, Poland and Turkey, this agreement represents a critical step in implementing NATO missile defense. As our leaders agreed to, this is an important effort. It was agreed to last November at Lisbon and we are making good progress in implementing that mission.
We also welcome the decision recently announced by the Netherlands to upgrade their ship-based radars to support missile defense. While this progress in missile defense is notable, there remain many areas where we have more work to do, particularly those areas that address the growing gaps in military capability within the alliance, particularly the enablers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
One of the most important efforts in this regard is the Alliance Ground Surveillance program, the so-called AGS program, which is critical to boosting the ability of the alliance to have strong ISR capabilities. Although we have not resolved that issue of how to fund infrastructure and operations costs, I will leave Brussels hopeful that we can reach an agreement to proceed with this program. Steps have been put in place that make me hopeful that we can reach agreement.
Resolving this kind of issue is important not only so that we can move ahead with AGS but also because it is a crucial symbol of alliance cooperation and it’s the failure of this – the failure of this I think could hurt the drive for similar cost-effective multinational approaches kind of smart defense that the secretary general wants to try to implement for NATO.
As I said in a speech yesterday, security in the 21st century will not be achieved by each nation marching to its own drummer. Fiscal austerity our nations are facing and the pressure that these budget constraints are putting on defense spending will make it all the more essential that we have alliances like NATO. I appreciate the willingness of my fellow ministers to fight together to defend our common security interests, and I believe that together we can build a stronger and more effective alliance for the future. Thank you.
MR. LITTLE : The secretary will now take your questions. Gillian?
Q: Mr. Secretary, there were reports in the Los Angeles Times about divisions within the alliance on when to end the Libya campaign. At this point what’s your position on when the operation should be ended and, you know, can the alliance do more to protect civilians in Libya or is that mission over?
SEC. PANETTA: We discussed that in the working lunch that we just concluded, and I think there was a pretty clear consensus as to how we move forward on that issue. There are some important guidelines to look at in terms of the situation there in Libya. Number one, what happens in Sirte. Number two, does the regime maintain the capability to attack civilians. Number three, does Gadhafi maintain any kind of command capability with regards to those forces. Number four, what is the state of the opposition forces to be able to provide security there and to be able to confront any challenges that they may have in these areas.
And so the decisions there will depend a great deal on the recommendations of our commanders, who I think will review all of those guidelines and then come forward with their recommendations as to when the mission ought to conclude. But ultimately it is the decision of the political leaders there – all the political leaders that are involved, to make the decision when in fact the mission will come to an end. But for now I think those are the guidelines and those are the issues that we will look to, and ultimately we await the recommendations of our commanders as to when that mission ought to be concluded.
MR. LITTLE : Yes, sir?
Q: Thank you very much. My name is – (inaudible) – from Georgia, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that your country won’t leave Afghanistan until the mission is not accomplished, but there is one tiny country, Georgia, who want to double its commitment in Afghanistan. Up to 2,000 soldiers, Georgian soldiers dying and sacrifice all together, side by side with American, French, German and others.
But there is a little bit different point in Georgia that maybe NATO countries don’t understand what desire has Georgia to, and why have desire to be part of NATO. You will host Chicago summit, Mr. Panetta. Can you predict – I don’t know if predict is not term which I can use. (Laughter.) Georgia one day will grant membership action plan. If Georgia deserve to be member of NATO. Thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: You know, that’s a decision obviously for the NATO members to make, and you know, obviously, you know, there are a number of issues that we’ve got to deal with in Chicago, situation in Afghanistan, looking forward to what our post-2014 presence will be, issues related to Libya. But you know, I’m sure that Georgia, that makes its application, that the process in NATO will be able to deal with that fairly.
MR. LITTLE: Lita?
Q: Mr. Secretary, Lita -- (inaudible) – from the Associated Press. You mentioned a few things about Libya but you didn’t talk about sort of to the extent to which some of those things have to be accomplished. Can you fill us in a little bit on do the rebels have to have complete control of Sirte before U.S. forces and other forces would leave, and does Gadhafi have to be either taken out of the country? Also, does the opposition need to have some sort of governance there? What extent do you have to reach those capabilities before the mission is ended?
SEC. PANETTA: I’ve got Admiral Stavridis here. Let me ask you if you could comment on that.
ADMIRAL JIM STAVRIDIS: I’d be glad to. Admiral Jim Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander. What I would say, Lita, is that it will be a confluence of all those things. We’re not trying to establish a discrete set of specific metrics in each case. Our commanders in the field, notably Lieutenant General Charley Bouchard, a Canadian general, and our Italian Admiral Rinaldo Veri, who head up the air and sea portions of this respectively, will be working their way through this confluence of factors that I think the secretary mentioned quite clearly.
We’ll then bring that together with Admiral Sam Locklear, who’s the commander down in Naples, that we’ll be visiting with tonight and tomorrow. We’ll have a chance to present some of our commander’s views at that time. And then that will be moved into the political sphere here in NATO.
And the thought I want to leave you with, it’s not a set series of precise metrics. It’s rather a sense of the situation and it will follow the lines that the secretary laid out. Thank you.
MR. LITTLE: All right.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you also said in addition to those criteria for ending operations in Libya that you would require a political decision from the opposition forces and the government in Libya. How is that going to play out? Are they going to say now’s the time and you would honor that?
SEC. PANETTA: Let me make that clear. The decision on whether the NATO mission concludes rests with the political leaders in NATO. Obviously they’ll listen to the views of the opposition, they’ll consider the situation on the ground, as the admiral pointed out. But the final decision rests with the political leaders of the NATO countries.
MR. LITTLE: Yes, sir.
Q: (Inaudible). I have a couple question. You have been in the Middle East recently. Can you tell us, are you – how far are you worry about the tension between Israel and Egypt along the border, and the picture of the Camp David agreement? And can I ask you on Syria, after the debate in United Nations and the failure of U.S. and European Union to get an international consensus on that, how do you foresee the situation in Syria, since Mr. Assad is continuing his repressive policy of his own people? Thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, obviously I think the United States was disappointed by the decision of – in the U.N. that involved the veto of the resolution with regards to Syria. But nevertheless, I think the United States and the international community have spoken pretty clearly that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy by virtue of killing its own people and continuing to kill its own people, and that ultimately it must step down and it must allow the Syrian people to be able to achieve, I think, their dreams for universal rights and for political and economic reform. And I believe the international community, with or without the U.N. resolution, will continue to push for that result that I just said.
I had the opportunity to visit Israel and Egypt before coming here and obviously I think it’s extremely important that those two nations continue to work together and to communicate with each other to deal with some of the security challenges in that region. We are very concerned, all of us are concerned about the security in the Sinai. None of us want to have an incident occur there that could damage peace in that region, and so for that reason I urged both sides to develop the ability – which both of them have; they just need to continue to push, to communicate with one another, to have mil-to-mil relations, to share intelligence and to do everything possible to make sure that any threats in that area are dealt with.
MR. LITTLE: Yes.
Q: Mr. Secretary, just one more on Libya. I understand the factors that are going to go into this decision, but I’m curious to what extent are you concerned that if this campaign is ended too quickly it will embolden the remaining pro-Gadhafi forces and could potentially lead to sort of continuing instability.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think for those reasons that it is very important that we make the right decision here, particularly with regards to timing, that we take into consideration all these factors, that we take into consideration the recommendations of our commanders. But obviously I don’t think our commanders would make that kind of recommendation if they thought that the security situation in Libya was not at a point where this mission could end.
If there, you know, if there continues to be serious fighting, if there continues to be threats to the civilian population then I’m sure that this mission will continue.
MR. LITTLE: Yes.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I had a question about Iraq. As you know, there’s been discussion there that Iraqi politicians have said they will not give U.S. service members serving after 2011 immunity. I’d like to know if you feel the minimal level of legal protection that U.S. service members must have to stay in Iraq beyond 2011.
SEC. PANETTA: These issues are still very much in negotiation. General Austin, the ambassador there have been in negotiations with the Iraqi leaders, discussing their needs and what they would require in terms of a future presence and so I’m not going to comment specifically with regards to those negotiations.
I think I can say very clearly that any kind of U.S. presence demands that we protect and provide the appropriate immunities for our soldiers if we’re going to be there.
MR. LITTLE: Yes, sir.
Q: (Inaudible) – from Turkey. Sir, I would like to ask you two questions very quickly. One is about there is growing concern in Turkey that the missile defense system is also being built for the protection of Israel. Will there be – the NATO made it clear that there will not be spontaneous data giving and taking between Israel and NATO, but bilaterally will the U.S. be doing that?
My second question is that can you give any data or the latest situation the Predator UAVs that Turkey asked from U.S. to fight with – (inaudible) – organization? Thank you very much.
SEC. PANETTA: First of all, with regards to missile defense, I want to make clear that the missile defense system is not aimed at missiles from Israel. It is aimed at potential missiles that would come from Iran into that region. And the information on the missile defense system is available to all members who participate in missile defense. This is – we do not withhold information. It is shared with the members who participate in that system and it will be with Turkey as well as with others.
Q: Also Israel? With Israel?
SEC. PANETTA: Israel – if it participates in this process, they too would have access.
Q: But it’s a NATO project. Israel is not a NATO member.
SEC. PANETTA: Clearly the NATO members are the ones that will participate in that information. Israel obviously is – doesn’t participate in that system and for that reason would not have access to that information.
Q: And the UAV Predators?
SEC. PANETTA: On the Predators, I frankly don’t know the status of the Predators with regards to Turkey.
MR. LITTLE: We have time for one more question. Viola.
Q: Viola – (inaudible) from Bloomberg news. Mr. Secretary, the NATO secretary general said a few minutes ago that he didn’t foresee a major role for NATO in Libya in the aftermath of a decision to end Operation Unified Protector. But what sort of role do you see might be possible for NATO if there’s a request for a role from Libya and possibly from the United Nations? What are the possible options?
SEC. PANETTA: If – I mean, if there’s a request and if there are needs that can be met, I think all of us in NATO I think would have to give that serious consideration as to, you know, what kind of assistance, what kind of advice, what kind of training could we provide to try to assist them in terms of ensuring that they can provide security.
I think – look, we’ve accomplished, I think, a very important mission there and I think we’ve shown the world that NATO can be extremely effective in these kinds of missions to not only protect a civilian population but ultimately to give opportunity to the Libyan people the goal of achieving democracy. And if they are to succeed then I think the international community in general owes it to them to provide whatever help and assistance is necessary in order to guarantee that they succeed in this effort.
Their success will be an extremely important signal to other countries in that region that as a result of the Arab Spring that countries can move in the right direction to secure human rights, to secure political and economic reform, and to establish a better future for their peoples.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone.
SEC. PANETTA: OK, thank you.