STAFF: Secretary has a bit of time before dinner, probably 15 minutes or so. So I’ll open the floor to him.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: All right. Let me – let me just give a kind of summary of some of the discussions that we’ve had today, so that we kind of know some of the background as to where we are. First of all, I had a good series of meetings today. I met with the – with the 27 NATO defense ministers. I also had a meeting with Secretary General Rasmussen to talk about the issues involved with – you know, with NATO – a number of issues that we discussed. I also met with my counterparts from Italy, Georgia, Spain and the Baltic states, and talked with them about issues that were important to them and to us.
And then I also met with the 13 key ISAF contributing nations to again discuss the issues involved with Afghanistan. We covered a – as I said, a number of key topics – not only Afghanistan, but we talked about smart defense, and we also talked about NATO reform.
General Allen gave a progress update about the winter operations and where they’re at, and the need to keep up the fight in Afghanistan. And I think, as you’ve seen, we have – we have all agreed on a very clear message here, as the secretary general made clear at his press conference – the elements of the message that all of us are agreed to. And the agreement is largely because this reflects what Lisbon was all about and the strategy that was developed at Lisbon, which all of us believe is being fully implemented.
First, as an alliance, obviously we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework: in together, out together. We’re committed to a transition to Afghan control. As the president has said, by 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security. As – and thirdly, as transition is already under way in Afghanistan, our consultations included considerations of how ISAF will evolve from its lead combat role to a support, advise and assist role, in the Afghan security forces, as the Afghan security forces move to the lead in these areas.
Our goal all along has been to help the ANSF take the lead for security, and that’s the process we’re involved in right now as we speak. As I indicated yesterday and as I stated to our allies today, we hope that the ANSF forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. Obviously, we will have to continue consultation with our allies and our Afghan partners about the best way to accomplish that goal.
The fact that we can discuss this now is a sign of progress, and it’s a recognition that our strategy is working. But I want to be clear: Even as Afghans assume the security lead, ISAF will continue to have to be fully combat-ready, and we will engage in combat operations as necessary. We’re going to have to have – you know, our troops are going to have to defend themselves. They’re going to have to deal with, you know, some special operations. They will have to deal with extremis situations that might develop. But clearly they will have to continue to be combat-ready in that period as I – as I also mentioned yesterday.
We also discussed the need to be – to an ensuring partnership and a presence in post-2014. I think we all acknowledged that this is an area that we have to continue to discuss and to have consultation on as to what that role will be, what missions we have to implement at that time. So that’s something that we’ll continue to be discussing with our NATO partners as we move towards Chicago. We’ll also be discussing ‘how do we sustain the ANSF with international support.’ You know, funding the size of the ANSF is something that we also felt that we had to continue to discuss and consult on.
There – there’s much hard fighting ahead here. We need to keep the momentum up, and we need to keep the enemy on its heels. That – General Allen made clear that we – this is no time to let up on the pressure. We have to continue the pressure on the enemy. These consultations with our allies will continue here tomorrow, and the final plan will be decided obviously by heads of state and by our head of state, President Obama, at Chicago, when we get to Chicago.
I also should mention that I again reaffirm that as part of our strategy, one of the pillars in our strategy is to maintain our strong partnership with NATO and that we will continue to do that. We are, as I mentioned to all of you, in addition to the two brigades that will remain here, are developing a third brigade from which we will have battalions come to Europe and do exercises twice a year. And I think it’s fair to say all of – all of our NATO allies expressed great thanks for the commitment that we are making with regards to our presence in Europe.
Q: Secretary, on your point earlier about saying that today you did raise the possibility of making a transition from a combat role to a support role sometime in 2013, did you get any – did you get – what sort of agreement or disagreement did you get from other – your counterparts, who suggested to us earlier today by a NATO official that there was a division of opinion on that point?
SEC. PANETTA: There was certainly no division of opinion in any of the meetings that I attended with our ISAF partners or in the main NATO ministerial.
Q: What about 2013?
SEC. PANETTA: Everybody understands that there is going to be a transition here as we move towards Afghan control in these areas, and that as we make that transition, that obviously our role will obviously become one of support. And you know, the Afghans will be in the lead, but we’ll continue to provide support for that effort.
There was – there was consensus on this. And I think the reason there was consensus on this is that, you know, going back to Lisbon and the strategy that General Allen developed, this is exactly the way we were looking at being able to implement his campaign plan and get it done. And everybody agrees that we’re on the right track with that campaign plan and that we’re headed in the right direction. The transitions we’ve made this year and the fact that these tranches, you know, are working and the security by the Afghans is working there tells us that we’re on the right track as we go into 2013 and then 2014 – (inaudible).
Q: And just to be clear you say there was a consensus on that point that you made about -
SECRETARY PANETTA: Yes, indeed.
Q: -- 2013, it’ll be disbanded – (inaudible).
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, everybody understands that there’s that – that the final tranche of transition occurs in that year. And for that reason – when the tranche occurs, clearly at that point, the Afghans will be in control of most of those areas.
Q: (Inaudible) – two questions. Can you define “combat lead” and what that means? In other words, what that would look like on the ground?
SECRETARY PANETTA: It’s basically that, you know, the Afghans themselves will be in charge of combat operations. Obviously, we’ll be there. We’ll provide support. But they’re going to be the lead in terms of operations.
Q: Will they be sending tactical uh –
SECRETARY PANETTA: They’ll – you know, they’ll decide – obviously, patrols, tactics, what, you know, enemy targets. You know, again, we’ll be there for support. We’ll be there for guidance. But they’re the ones that are going to be in the lead and conduct the operations.
Q: All the allies – do all the allies agree to continue combat missions in this space of combat support?
SECRETARY PANETTA: Yes.
Q: Yeah. Including the French?
SECRETARY PANETTA: Even the French acknowledge that, you know, there’s going to be a need to – in the areas there that continue to be, you know, contested – that there may very well need to be combat operations there by ISAF and U.S. forces.
Q: And the U.S. – the U.S. ground rules for U.S. troops during this period that are there, is it – is it just they are supposed to have a capability to defend themselves? Or are they going to be conducting their own offensive operations? Or they would not conduct any offensive operations of their own?
SECRETARY PANETTA: The Afghans will be in the lead. And obviously, any kind of combat operations that we’re involved in will be in a support role. And operations that – you know, that involve obviously defending our forces and, you know, operations where we try to work with them in – you know, in going after some enemy targets that, you know, that we may be there, but they’re going to be the lead. But clearly, there could be combat in those situations, and we have to be prepared to engage if we have to.
Q: Was there any concern about whether the Afghan security forces would be ready to take that on by the end of – fully by the – if not full responsibility, but lead responsibility by the end of 2013? And were there variations on the timeline, the steps were depending on the conditions?
SECRETARY PANETTA: All right, I think – I mean, I – General Allen made clear that obviously the key to all of this is the ability of the Afghan army and the NSF to be able to take control and secure these areas. And what gives him confidence that this is going to work are the tranches that have already been put in place, and the fact that in those areas, some of which are – you know, weren’t the easiest, that the Afghan army has stepped up to it and are doing the job and are providing security.
And so his goal, very frankly, is to make sure that we continue the training, continue to build the ANSF so they have that capability to be able to take over these areas that are going to be involved in the next tranches. There’ll be some additional tranches this year, and then obviously the final tranches will take place in 2013. But the key is going to – is clearly going to be a capable and operational ANSF.
STAFF: We have time for probably two more questions. David (unintelligible) –
Q: Mr. Secretary, our colleague David Ignatius reported today a column saying that you believe there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June. And this is before Iran could enter a zone of immunity to build a nuclear weapon. Is that accurate? And if so, are you becoming increasingly concerned that Israel is, in fact, preparing to take action?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, I – frankly, I’m not going to comment on that.
Q: Why not?
SEC. PANETTA: Because that’s something that, you know, is – David Ignatius, you know, can write what he will but, you know, with regards to what I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else.
Q: OK. But, I mean, obviously your thoughts carry a great deal of weight in our country. (Laughter.)
SEC. PANETTA: No, I understand.
Q: Are you disputing what he’s reporting?
SEC. PANETTA: No, I’m just not commenting.
Q: Can you just give a sense of something general about your concerns about Israel’s position right now? I believe someone said – who was it who said –
Q: Barak said today that they’re stepping up their rhetoric about a strike on Iran. So can you just address what’s out in public right now about Israel and its views about Iran?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think – I mean, I – there’s not – you know, there really isn’t that much to add except that, you know, Israel has indicated, you know, that they’re considering this and, you know, we have indicated our concerns.
STAFF: And finally, David, did you have a question or –
Q: I wanted just to follow up on Gale’s (sp?) question about whether this transition strategy that you discussed – (inaudible) – yesterday and discussed here, is conditioned based. I’m unclear about that.
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah.
Q: Would you say that is going to begin the second half of 2013 – (inaudible)?
SEC. PANETTA: Only thing – I didn’t hear that.
Q: (Inaudible) – added the phrase you have not used either yesterday or today, which is –which is conditional.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think – you know, I think when you’re in combat, when you’re in war, every step that you take is conditions based.
STAFF: All right. Thank you.
Q: (Inaudible) – comment, just to make sure, when you said Israel has indicated that they’re considering this, you mean has indicated to you that they’re considering –
SEC. PANETTA: No, they’ve indicated it publicly.
STAFF: All right. Thank you.