SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Ladies and gentlemen, it was my honor to be able to welcome Minister La Russa from Italy here. As a fellow Italian, it's nice to have another Italian visit in that capacity. I had the opportunity to meet with him in Brussels, and I think we enjoy a very warm friendship.
We had some very good discussions. Italy is one of our most important partners and allies, and I think it's obvious by virtue of the missions that they have helped us with time and time again. In Afghanistan, they have a large presence in Afghanistan in the -- what's called RC West, in Afghanistan. They've done a remarkable job there. They continue to provide security and training in that part of Afghanistan.
And we view them as one of our NATO partners that has really assumed responsibility, hopefully, for ensuring that Afghanistan heads in the right direction. So we really appreciate not only what they're doing, but the sacrifice that Italians have made. We know that lives have been lost, and we share in the agony of those lost lives. But we really appreciate the mission that they're conducting.
In Libya, frankly, if it were not for the Italians, we really don't feel that we could have completed this mission. They provided bases, important bases: Aviano, Sigonella and Naples and elsewhere. And as a result of that, NATO was able to conduct important missions into Libya. So Italy has been again a very good partner with regards to that effort as well. I had the chance to visit there recently -- visited Naples, visited Sigonella and at that time expressed my greatest thanks to Italy for all of the support that they've provided us.
So bottom line here is that Italy is a good partner and a good friend and a good ally. And we continue to work together to try to make sure that we can advance the common causes that we are involved with. So in Italian -- (in Italian).
MINISTER LA RUSSA: Grazie. (Sentence in Italian.) Grazie.
(In English.) I prefer to speak Italian because, how I told him is he can understand me better when I talk Italian -- (chuckles) -- than when I talk in my horrible English. (Chuckles.) So I prefer to go on with Italian.
(Through interpreter.) My most heartfelt thanks to Secretary Panetta. We have confirmed how close our relation are. I also -- in several other fields, we want to strengthen this collaboration both in the political and military field and, if possible, also, thanks to the origins of Mr. Panetta has and of which he's very proud as a secretary of defense, we want to take a positive approach to the several problems on the table, namely Libya and Afghanistan.
We have tried to understand how to possibly develop farther collaboration in this field so that progression can be achieved. We have considered the possibility of putting an end to our military operations in Afghanistan by 2014, also based on the condition on the field, but also we have examined the possibility to continue our presence in the area under other forms, namely training or other forms -- nonmilitary support.
We reaffirmed that we want to go on. We have assessed a common way to help the transition in Libya, but also what to do when the combat in Sirte will be over. We have also discussed about our military industry collaboration, and we want others in the several programs ongoing, for example the air ground surveillance program having its center in the base of Sigonella, to go on. This is a very important issue we have discussed and upon which we have total agreement, as we have other agreements in several other fields.
STAFF: Thank you.
We will have time for just a couple of questions. Jennifer.
Q: Secretary Panetta, are you frustrated there's no agreement right now with the Iraqis for U.S. troops to stay beyond December? Would you describe the talks as at an impasse right now? Is there a drop-dead date for them to make a decision? For instance, could they make a decision on December 31st?
SEC. PANETTA: At the present time, you know, I'm not discouraged, because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis. General Austin, the ambassador, continue discussions with the Iraqi leaders, and we're hoping ultimately that they'll be able to find an agreement here.
So at this stage of the game, you know, I think our hope is that the negotiators can ultimately find a way to resolve this issue in terms of what are the Iraqi needs and how can we best meet them once we've concluded our combat operations.
(Off-mic exchange. Translation)
It always -- it always sounds better in Italian. No, there is no -- there's no drop-dead date at this point. We're continuing to negotiate.
STAFF: We have a question from Missy Ryan and then from Jordan Foresi.
Q: Secretary Panetta, could you tell us what the -- whether the Americans -- American weapons experts who were dispatched to Libya have had any success in tracking down any of the missing missiles or weapons in Libya? And are you concerned about reports that some of those missiles have surfaced in the Sinai and may be in danger of falling into hands of American adversaries?
SEC. PANETTA: I am -- I'm very concerned about the reports with regards to the potential of these weapons coming out of Libya to have made their way into other countries and into the Sinai. And we have -- we've dispatched a group there to determine what the situation is and have yet to get a report as to what the status is. But I do remain concerned about the reports of these weapons being out there.
STAFF: Jordan Foresi.
Q: Mr. Secretary, good afternoon. There have been some conflicting reports regarding the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Inside this scenario, I wanted to know if you can comment on the fact that many countries, including Italy, are slowly bringing down their forces, starting from 2012.
And regarding to Libya, you thanked Italy for its efforts, but if you can please go into the specifics or any new strategies going on inside the Libyan scenario.
Thank you very much.
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to Afghanistan, I just returned, as did the minister, from a meeting in Brussels where all of the NATO countries that are involved, I think, share a common goal here that we continue this effort and that together we will move towards the 2014 date when, hopefully, we will be able to take down our forces gradually over that period of time.
We're continuing to talk about, obviously, a strategic relationship with Afghanistan and what kind of presence might take place beyond that, but we're still in discussions on that issue.
With regards to Libya, there again we are looking for our commanders to ultimately recommend when they believe that the mission comes to an end. As you know, there's still -- there's still fighting going on in Sirte, and as long as that continues to be the case, our commanders feel the need for us to maintain our presence.
As to a future relationship, we really haven't discussed that within NATO.
STAFF: (Inaudible.) Jordan Foresi.
Q: (Through interpreter.) Minister La Russa, have you spoken with your counterpart about cuts to the defense budget and if they may have an influence to international military missions?
MIN. LA RUSSA: (In English.) We can wait a moment, but it's too late for you, I mean, because you say -- (continues in Italian) -- (in English) -- it was better before the translation.
(Through interpreter.) Yes, what he said before the Congress is very similar to what I will say before the Italian Parliament. We are living similar situation. We both know that cuts are expected vis-a-vis the defense budget. And of course, these cuts are proportional to the -- to the -- to how large the countries are.
On one thing we have a strong agreement. It is not possible to affect the efficiency and the capability of military forces through these cuts. If cuts are required, we will both work in order to stand the cuts -- we will both work in order to stand the cuts, and we hope in Italy that something will change related to the cuts.
But what Italy -- Italian and U.S. forces cannot stand is a reduction of their efficiency because this would be detrimental to the security they can ensure.
Of course, if a reduction is needed, we can consider the possibility of reducing the number of forces, but this is not at the moment considered as an option.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Minister, thank you very much.
SEC. PANETTA: Thank you very much.
MIN. LA RUSSA: Grazie -- (in Italian).
SEC. PANETTA: Grazie.