(Note: Minister de Maiziere's remarks are provided through an interpreter except where indicated otherwise.)
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Good afternoon.
It's my privilege and my honor to welcome the minister of defense from Germany, Minister de Maiziere, to the Pentagon. We had the opportunity to meet earlier this month in Munich, and before that in Brussels, and I was pleased to be able to engage again today in another very productive discussion with him here.
In our meeting, I thanked the minister once again for his leadership and for Germany's very steadfast support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The fact is that Germany has been with us from the very beginning. They have been a great ally. The German military plays a very important role as the lead for ISAF Regional Command North. Germany is also one of the few nations that is both a top troop contributor and a top contributor of funding for sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces.
The German people have truly demonstrated a commitment and great resolve here over this past decade of war. Germany has lost more than 50 troops fighting in Afghanistan, and our condolences go out to those families that have had those losses.
They've sacrificed a great deal for this mission. And despite these hardships, today thousands of German troops are fighting courageously alongside United States coalition and Afghan forces. They have worked to establish security in Mazar-e Sharif and in Herat. And they continue to keep the pressure on the enemy. The partnership and mentoring German forces have provided the 17 nations in RC North are a tremendous force multiplier for us.
I also want to highlight the minister's determination to ensure that NATO meets the commitments our leaders made in Lisbon. He played a very critical role at the recent NATO ministerial in bringing the alliance together around our shared goal of transitioning to an Afghan combat lead in 2013 while remaining in a strong support role, fully combat-capable, through 2014. We have joined in the commitment of "in together, out together," which is the bond that holds us in a cooperative relationship coming out of Lisbon. So I'm grateful for that and I'm particularly grateful for his leadership in helping us achieve that common path.
Mr. Minister, we have the opportunity to also discuss the changes to U.S. troop presence in Europe. In particular, we talked about the two U.S. Army heavy brigades that will be leaving Germany in the coming years. But despite these changes, as I made clear in Munich and I made clear today, over 40,000 U.S. troops will still be based in Germany, training at state-of-the-art facilities and boosting their ability to partner with NATO allies so they are prepared to deploy for international operations.
I am very grateful, as are all American people, for the very warm hospitality U.S. troops and their families enjoy in Germany. Germany has been an incredible host for our troops and their families. The Minister understands the necessity of the shifts we are making as we work to implement our new defense strategy while meeting our fiscal responsibilities. He has been truly understanding of the challenge that we face here in this country having gone through his own challenges in Germany, and I really appreciate that kind of support. In fact, we also discussed the transition the Minister is overseeing with the German armed forces, which are moving toward an all-volunteer force that will be smaller, but more agile and more capable than ever.
I applaud the minister's efforts and look forward to watching these developments and continuing to learn from each other as to how best to advance those goals. As I said in Munich, earlier this month, the new U.S. defense strategy reaffirms the lasting strategic importance of the trans-Atlantic partnership with NATO allies such as Germany.
Thomas, I want to thank you for your friendship. I want to thank you for your leadership.
As some of you may know, we share some common backgrounds. He comes out of politics, as do I. He was a former finance minister there and, as you know, I was an OMB director.
But more importantly, both of us played the piano. And he dropped the piano because he was interested in soccer, and I dropped it because I was interested in basketball, so -- (laughter) -- we have some ties here.
It is -- it is in that -- in the spirit of that friendship that I look forward to a long and productive relationship with the minister, one that reflects the strong bonds of friendship linking our two countries together and one that reflects that important leadership that both Germany and the United States must continue, must continue to provide not only for a more secure and a more secure United States, but a more secure Europe.
Thank you very much.
MINISTER THOMAS DE MAIZIERE: (In English.) Well, Leon, thank you very much for these remarks, especially on our relationship. I appreciate that. I'm -- I give the compliment back to you. There are so many formal wordings among ministers and diplomats and in conferences, and we both are used to speak honest and frank. And this is a good basis for true partnership and real friendship. So thank you very much.
(Through interpreter.) In preparation of the Chicago summit in May of 2012, we spoke about our joint mission in Afghanistan and, for us, it is without a doubt that the period of -- through the end of 2014 will not only be the time to transfer the responsibility for security to the Afghans; it is also the time to implement the strategy change that has been agreed upon. This means, mainly, that we will move from combat to support in increments, and thus we will also withdraw -- withdrew -- withdraw our troops in increments. However, our troops will remain protected. We will remain combat-ready.
I'm pleased that my colleague, Leon Panetta, presented me with the detailed plans for the withdrawal of American troops from Germany today. And let me tell you the following: The procedure has been transparent from the very beginning, and I believe the impact will be moderate. It is without a doubt that Germany will remain the country where the bulk of U.S. troops will remain stationed, and this underscores that Germany is a strategically valuable along with a strategically indispensable location for our American friends, and this will remain the case in the future. This is also underscored by the fact that we will see high-value units remain in Germany.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany is therefore no reason to complain to me, because a lot of U.S. troops will remain in Germany, and every force member, every civilian employee and their families will always be welcome in our country.
The objective to move from quantity to quality, which of course entails the reorientation of capabilities is a step that in particular understand, since it is exactly the course we take in the restructuring of our own armed forces. And I cannot criticize the United States of America for doing something that we ourselves do.
(In English.) So thank you very much for this important meeting. We meet quite often. We will meet in Chicago, probably, next time.
And I would like to end by congratulating the government of America and the American people for the leadership of Leon Panetta on his duty.
SEC. PANETTA: Thank you very much, Thomas. Appreciate that very much.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on Afghanistan, what significance do you see in the statement by President Karzai that U.S. and Afghan officials are now -- or have very recently held peace talks with the Taliban in a three-way setting? Is this an indication that the process of pursuing a political settlement is now finally advancing?
SEC. PANETTA: It's always been important for us to make clear that reconciliation has to be Afghan-led. And what President Karzai's statement confirmed is that Afghanistan is now very much involved in the process of reconciliation. And that's extremely helpful and important to determining whether or not we are ultimately going to be able to succeed with reconciliation or not.
Q: Are there more such three-way talks planned, do you know?
SEC. PANETTA: I don't know; I'm not directly involved with regards to that effort. But the news that Afghan has joined those reconciliation discussions is important.
MIN. DE MAIZIERE: (In English.) May I comment? Just one sentence. These talks will be better the less we talk on them.
Q: Mr. Secretary, James Clapper testified today that al-Qaida in Iraq has infiltrated the opposition in Syria. What does that mean for U.S. options?
SEC. PANETTA: It means that I think we have to continue to work with the Arab League and determine what steps should be taken to try to deal with the situation in Syria. It does raise concerns for us that al-Qaida is trying to assert a presence there, and that means that, you know, frankly, our concerns, which were -- which were large to begin with because of the situation, the deteriorating situation in Syria -- that the situation there has become that much more serious as a result of that.
Q: Can the --
Q: Could I --
SEC. PANETTA: (Inaudible) -- he is -- yeah, go ahead.
Q: Can the U.S. support an opposition that includes al-Qaida?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think a lot remains to be seen as to exactly what their role is before we come to that conclusion. I think, you know, just the fact that they're present concerns us. As to what their role is and how extensive their role is, I think that still remains to be seen.
Q: (Inaudible) -- a question to both of you -- (inaudible) -- the tensions between Iran and Israel reached a point where some sort of military action seems to me almost inevitable. How do you evaluate this situation?
And of course, I would like to ask my minister what would be the role of Germany if there are really -- if we are going to see some sort of -- (inaudible) --?
MIN. DE MAIZIERE: (In English.) OK. (Through interpreter.) Well, of course, we view the developments with great concern, but I also believe that maybe the focus of the discussion is too much on Israel and not enough on Iran, because Iran is the recipient of sanctions, and the sanctions, which were also brought about with the assistance of Germany, are currently as strong as never before.
There are also indications for new talks, and I think we have to use every opportunity for a peaceful solution. That is to say I hope that Israel will join the efforts of the international community and will not resort to unilateral action. Germany would also stand by Israel. What this means in concrete terms will then remain to be seen.
SEC. PANETTA: As I've said very often, that we have a common cause here with the international community and with Israel with regards to Iran and our concerns about Iran. We've made very clear that we will not tolerate their having a nuclear weapon. We've made very clear that they should not close the Straits of Hormuz.
And I think the international community has joined together effectively implementing a number of economic and diplomatic sanctions that have made very clear to Iran that they cannot continue along that path, that they should take action to join the international community and to engage with the international community in a way that can, hopefully, resolve these issues.
The letter today is something that, obviously, we need to consult with the P-5 plus one in order to determine what the next step should be, but we have always maintained that it's in our interest to try to resume talks with Iran, assuming that those talks are constructive.
As the president has said, there is a -- there is time and space for diplomacy. But in order for that to happen, Iran has to meet its international obligations. It has to join the international community, and it has to engage in a sincere and constructive way to achieve a diplomatic resolution.
STAFF: Last question.
Q: (Inaudible.) Mr. Secretary, could you give us an update on the American commitment to the MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) air defense system? The U.S. seems reluctant lately to stick to the project till the end of the development phase.
And maybe -- (continues in German).
SEC. PANETTA: This came up in our discussions. And I raised it with the minister because, you know, our effort here is to fulfill our commitment with regards to the MEADS system. Germany has invested a great deal in that system. And we made the obligation that we would -- we would also participate. We have included in the FY '13 budget sufficient funds to meet our obligation, and I think that would be far preferable than having us fail and then have to pay a penalty for not fulfilling our commitment.
So that -- I made clear to the minister that we're going to do everything possible to work with the Congress to make sure that we are able to get those funds.
MIN. DE MAIZIERE: (Through interpreter) - We both agree on this issue. The governments -- both our governments agree that unilateral steps to abandon the project would be clearly more expensive than to meet your obligations, obligations that were only made in October of last year, in October of 2011, and maybe there's an argument that might convince Congress. So I'm glad that we both agree on this matter and that we -- that we basically seek to fulfill the same objective.
MR. : Minister and Mr. Secretary, thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: OK. Thank you very much.
MIN. DE MAIZIERE: (In English) - OK. Thank you.