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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
December 14, 2011

             AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER:  (In progress) -- selfless service to a great nation.  No public servant I can think of who has served longer in more varied and important positions than Secretary Panetta, so I have to take a minute to retell the list, Mr. Secretary, so bear with me.  

            Of course we all know him now as the secretary of defense.  We all know that previously he was director of Central Intelligence.  Prior to that, he and his wife spent 10 years establishing and co-directing the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, whose mission it is to instill the values and virtues of public service in young men and women. 

            He was chief of staff to President Clinton.  He was director of the Office of Management and Budget, a position for which he was uniquely qualified because during four of his 16 years as a member of Congress he was chairman of the House Budget Committee.           

            He has also served as an executive assistant to the mayor of New York and to the secretary of Health and Human Services.  He has been the director of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.  And, oh, by the way, he has also worn a uniform as an Army intelligence officer.  About the only thing, sir, that you have not yet been is a judge, and I guess there's time for that.  

            So, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming a great American and a great public servant.  (Applause.)  

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much, Ryan, for that very kind introduction.  

            I really appreciate having Ryan Crocker introduce me because he too has a distinguished background.  I'm sure many would question our sanity for coming back into public service after having served with distinction in the past, but it's because public service is in our blood and because we deeply believe in how important it is to give something back to the country. 

            I am -- I've said this before but it bears repetition.  I'm the son of Italian immigrants.  And, you know, my parents, like millions of others, came to this country.  My father was the 13th in his family.  He had a bunch of brothers who came to the States.  When my mother and father came, they had to basically take the time to visit his brothers.  

            He had one brother who lived in Wyoming, another brother who lived in California.  And they visited the older brother in Wyoming, spent one winter in Sheridan, Wyoming, and my mother said it was time to visit the other brother in California.      

            And they did that.  And my father started a restaurant in Monterrey, and my earliest recollections were washing glasses in that restaurant as a young boy.  My parents believed that child labor was a requirement in my family.    

            And then, another interesting story, my father started a farm in Carmel Valley, where we live now, and planted walnut trees.  And for those of you that are not familiar, in those days my father used to go around with a pole and hook and shake each of the branches, and my mother and I used to be underneath collecting the walnuts. 

            When I got elected to Congress my father said, you know, you've been well-trained to go to Washington because you've been dodging nuts all your life.    Some truth to that.  So it was great training for Washington. 

            Listen, I'm honored to have a chance to come here and greet all of you.  The purpose of this trip is -- this is a long trip.  We went to Djibouti and came here to Afghanistan and are going to Iraq for the final ceremonies in Iraq, then to Turkey and then to Bolivia.

            But the main purpose is to visit our troops and to visit all of you, and to wish you the best of holidays, and a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  This is a difficult time to be away from your families.  It's a difficult time for our men and women in uniform to be away from their families. 

            And I guess I want all of you to know that not only on my behalf but I think I speak for the American people in expressing our deepest thanks to all of you for your dedication, for your service, for your willingness to be a long way from home in order to be able to serve this country, and I deeply thank you for that service. 

            Our democracy simply would not be able to survive were it not for the dedication of men and women who felt it was important to give something back to this country.  My parents appreciated the opportunity that America gave them to succeed, but always made clear to my brother and I that, as a result, we owed something back to the country.           

            And I think that goes to the heart and soul of what America is all about.  Our forefathers -- we were blessed that our forefathers established this wonderful democracy called America.  But the key strength in that democracy was the willingness of individuals, regardless of their background, to give something back to the country, to reflect a sense of duty that we owe it to this great nation of ours that has blessed us with freedom and opportunity and the ability to achieve whatever we want. 

            We owe it to this great democracy to make sure that it remains strong and that it forever fulfills the promise of our forefathers that everyone would have an equal chance to succeed.  And that is what makes America strong.  It's what makes our country strong is the men and women that serve under the secretary of defense, men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line every day, who are willing to fight and die for this country every day. 

            And the same thing is true for our diplomatic force.  You may not serve in uniform, but the fact is that you put your lives on the line just like our men and women in uniform.  You put your lives on the line because you care about our country and you care about the promise of our country, that people can live a better life.  And for that reason I want to express again my greatest thanks to you for that service and for that dedication because it really -- this really goes to what makes America strong.  

            And I think, you know, in many ways, you know, this is a time when -- you know, as we see the political campaign unfold in America and people criticize and people attack and people kind of sometimes tear down what our country is all about.  But the fact is that because of the service of people like you, because of the service of our men and women in uniform, the reality is that we are at a turning point after 10 years at war, and my trip in many ways reflects that. 

            In Djibouti -- the fact is that Djibouti represents kind of a place where we are joining with the partnership of that country to confront the remnants of terrorism that have now fled to the nodes, places like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.  

            The reality is that we have been very successful in the effort to go after al-Qaida, to go after al-Qaida's allies.  And we have taken down their key leadership.  We have decimated their leadership in many ways.  We've made it very difficult for them to be able to come together to organize the kind of attacks that we experienced on 9/11.  And in many ways, as a result of both the military, diplomatic and intelligence communities, we have helped make America safer as a result of that.  

            The challenge isn't over.  We've got to confront al-Qaida and the remnants of al-Qaida wherever they are.  We've got to make sure that they have no place to hide.  But we have achieved a great deal since 9/11 in confronting that enemy that attacked our people. 

            I'll be going to Iraq after this trip to encase our flag there and go through the final ceremonies as we mark the end of the mission in Iraq.  It's a mission whose goal was to establish an Iraq that could govern and secure itself.  And we have done that.  We are giving Iraq the opportunity to be able to govern itself and to secure itself into the future, and to enjoy, hopefully, the benefits of a democracy. 

            It won't be easy.  There will be challenges.  They'll face the challenges of terrorism.  They'll face the challenges of those that would want to divide that country.  They'll face the challenges, the test of democracy, the tough challenge of trying to make democracy work.  But they have the opportunity to be able to do that.  And because of the blood that was spilled by Americans, because of the blood that was spilled by Iraqis, they now have that chance. 

            In many ways I think we can all take some satisfaction -- regardless of whether you are for or against how we got into Iraq, the fact is we can take some satisfaction in the fact that we are now heading them in the right direction.  

            And that's true here in Afghanistan as well.  I mean, I think 2011 will go down as a turning point here in Afghanistan.  We've weakened the Taliban.  We've been able to secure more areas here in Afghanistan.  The Afghan army is asserting itself, becoming more operational.  We're transitioning areas.  Over 50 percent of the population has now been transitioned to areas of Afghan governance and security.  

            It's not to say there aren't challenges out there.  Of course there are challenges.  It's not to say that this mission is by any means accomplished.  It's not.  There's a lot more work that needs to be done.  But we're headed in the right direction.  Why?  Because of the sacrifice of people like you and our men and women in uniform.

            It was interesting to pick up The Economist just, I guess, a couple of weeks ago.  And The Economist had an article about the success -- some of the successes that have taken place in Afghanistan: the economic successes, the educational successes, the ability of women to be able to enjoy some of the rights that they're entitled to under any democracy. 

            The fact is, this country is beginning to move in the right direction.  And that's what this is all about, the ability to give the Afghans the opportunity to be able to govern and to be able to defend themselves, and to ensure that the Taliban and al-Qaida never again find a safe haven here.  We're working in the right direction.  And, again, it's because of all of you.  

            And then, finally, to go to Libya and -- in the heart of the "Arab spring," go to a country in which the Libyan people, working with NATO and the NATO mission -- incredible mission that brought together a number of nations that were willing to work together to be able to assist the Libyan people in that effort, and it was a remarkable achievement. 

            And so, the Libyan people themselves now have the opportunity to be able to establish the institutions of democracy and give their people the opportunity to vote and elect a representative government in the heart of what we've known to be a whole change -- changing world in the Middle East.  

            So, you know, the fact is that because we are working together, because we're committed, because we're dedicated, you know, we are seeing a turning point in many ways after 10 years of war.  

            Now, one of the things that we're facing as well -- a lot of you on the diplomatic side will face -- is budget restrictions as a result of that.  You know, after 10 years of war we have virtually a blank check with regards to our budget, and now we're facing limitations. 

            On defense alone, I've got to reduce the defense budget by well over $450 billion over 10 years.  And, you know, we've rollup up our sleeves and I'm working with the service chiefs and working with the undersecretaries to be able to do that in a way that does not hollow out the force, that protects the best military, that looks at all areas, but most importantly that maintains trust with the volunteer force and doesn't break faith with those that have served time and time again. 

            I think we can do that.  We're confident we can do that.  But, you know, I have to tell you that the one thing that is important to our national security is not just a strong military.  We need a strong diplomacy.  We need to have a strong economy.  We need to have a good quality of life.  All of that makes up our national security for the United States of America, and all of that has to be protected for the future. 

            So we're all going to have to work together to ensure that if the United States is to remain strong, we've got to remain strong in all of these areas in order to make sure that we not only are true to our promise, but that we can provide the leadership that's necessary in the world to confront the threats that are out there. 

            I oftentimes now have to -- I go to Bethesda to visit the wounded.  I go to Arlington to visit with families.  I visit with wounded warriors.  I guess one of the most difficult challenges I have is to write notes to the families that have lost loved ones.  

            And every meeting and every note I usually make the point of saying that -- you know, understanding the sorrow that that family I'm sure is going through; that in the end they should take some comfort in the fact that their loved one gave his or her life for the country that they loved, and that there are those that are willing to serve, that are willing to put their lives on the line in order to make America safer for the future. 

            And I usually write a note that says, your son or daughter is true hero and a true patriot who will never be forgotten.  And let me say to all of you that as much as our men and women in uniform are patriots and heroes, so are you.  You don't need a gun.  You don't need a uniform.  But by virtue of what you do and how you serve, you are, in my book, heroes and patriots for America.

            So thank you for your service.  God bless you.  God bless America.  And merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you.  Thank you.