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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta en route to Manas Transit Facility, Kyrgyzstan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
March 12, 2012

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Okay, everybody set? 

            They tell me this is my seventh trip overseas and the third trip to the -- to Afghanistan.  And we’ll first go to Kyrgyzstan.  The purpose there is to confirm our relationship with Kyrgyzstan, particularly with the transit center and the importance of that transit center to our whole northern distribution network.  And it’s been obviously extremely important in recent months, so since our LOCs have closed in Pakistan.  And so I want to thank them for their cooperation and to ensure that that relationship can continue into the future as well. 

            We then go to Afghanistan and in Afghanistan, I’ll be thanking the troops, as I do meeting with the leadership there, President Karzai, and then getting a chance to go to some areas where I can not only thank the troops but thank some of the international forces that have played an important role in the mission there.

            And then we wind up at the UAE and they’re, again, a very important ally in that region, have been very supportive with the United States, the missions in Libya and working with us on the Syria issue as well.  And I look forward to having good discussions with them about regional issues but also the importance of our relationship with the UAE, particularly at this point in time.

            Let me say a few words about the Afghanistan situation.  Obviously we were all deeply shocked and saddened by the event that occurred there, and again I want to express our deepest condolences to the families, to the Afghan people, to the villages that were impacted by this event, and the terrible loss of life that took place. 

            I’ve talked to General Allen, just had a conversation with him, and he again confirms that this was the work of a lone gunman who was involved in a criminal act, and we’re not sure why, or what the reasons were, but he is in custody, and I’ve assured President Karzai that he will be brought to justice and held accountable.  That investigation is ongoing, even as we speak.

            We’ve been through a series of challenging events over these last few weeks in Afghanistan, and as I’ve told President Karzai when I talked to him, we seem to get tested almost every other day with challenges that test our leadership and our commitment to the mission that we’re involved in.  But I think we all agree that we have to keep our eye on the mission, and the fundamental mission there is to ensure not only that we defeat al-Qaida and their militant allies, but that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to conduct attacks on this country.

            To do that we’ve got to have an Afghanistan that can control and secure itself, govern itself in the future.  And as you know, we’ve made progress on that.  The level of violence is down, down significantly over these last five years.  It’s at its lowest point.  It’s about 24 percent down just this year alone, so we are seeing reduced violence. 

            We’re seeing the Afghan army engaged in operations and doing very well.  Even with this incident, as General Allen said, the Afghan army is taking charge and maintaining order, and they’ve done that with regards to the events we’ve been through in the last few weeks.  The Afghan army and police have performed very well in maintaining order, and that’s a good sign. 

            In addition, as you know we’ve gone through these tranches.  We’re in the second tranche, and we’ve got over 50 percent of the Afghan population in transition, and we want to continue on that effort.  And NATO, all of the countries involved in the NATO operation and ISAF are agreed with regards to our strategy for the future, and that we want to be able to continue that effort, to work to a point in 2013 where the Afghans can take the lead in combat operations with our support and then ultimately be able to meet our drawdown at the end of 2014.

            So we’ve basically laid out that strategy, and we want to hopefully stay on that strategy.  It is important that all of us -- the United States, Afghanistan, the ISAF forces -- all stick to the strategy that we’ve laid out.  War is hell.  These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place.  They’ve taken place in any war.  They’re terrible events, and this is not the first of those events, and it probably won’t be the last, but we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy or the mission that we’re involved in.

            We need to learn from these tragic events and we need to do everything possible to make sure that they don’t happen again.  But having said that, it’s important that we push on and that we bring this war to a responsible end and achieve the mission that all of us are embarked on.

            STAFF:  Questions? 

            Questions?

            STAFF:  Phil.

            Q:  (Inaudible) are you trying to draw a line between this singular incident and the overall campaign plan, but there’s a perception that these incidents, these series of incidents, are having a much bigger effect in Afghanistan, that they’re eroding years of work to win over a population.  How do you respond to critics who say that these events are more important than the battlefield victories?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I think -- I think the test has to be whether or not Afghanistan is working with us to maintain the strategy that we’re embarked upon.  And despite these events, the fact is that President Karzai continues to cooperate with us.  We just completed the detention MOU that was very important -- very important step in the transition.  We’re continuing to work on the additional MOUs on the night raids.  And we’re developing, you know, a very good approach with regards to our strategic partnership declaration, which we ultimately want to put in place.  So we’re making good progress with regards to, you know, the transition. 

            In addition to that, as I said, the Afghan army has really performed in an outstanding fashion.  As a result of these incidents, the Koran burning, you know, the violence that we saw with regards to our own forces, and this event, the Afghan army is doing very well in maintaining order.  We’re not getting large-scale desertions; we’re not getting any kind of disruptions.  They -- they recognize what they have to do, and they’re doing it.  And I think all of that indicates that, you know, what we’ve been able to accomplish up to this point is beginning to pay off.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, you said you’ve laid out a strategy and hopefully will stick by that strategy.  But what about the political pressure at home?  There’s these incidents over the last several weeks have increasingly made people call out for a faster withdrawal.  What do you say to them?

            And is there any way at this point to do anything more quickly?  Is there a way to accelerate this any more than you already have?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, look, you know, I understand that, you know, that questions are going to be raised as a result of going through these difficult events of these last few weeks, and particularly what just happened.  But I think it’s -- I think it’s very important for policymakers to again keep your eye on the target, which is, what is -- what’s the purpose of our mission in Afghanistan?

            And the purpose of our mission is to ensure that we defeat and disrupt al-Qaida, their terrorist allies and that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven from which to launch attacks on the United States.  That’s the fundamental mission of our effort in Afghanistan, and to accomplish that we need an Afghanistan that can secure and control itself.

            So we have laid out a strategy that hopefully will get us to that goal.  You know, we’ve been able to accomplish a great deal.  2011 I think was an important transition point, you know, with regards to the violence, with regards to the Afghan army and their operations, and with regards to transition.  We’ve now laid out a strategy to accomplish that transition hopefully and complete it by 2013.  That will give us, you know -- that will give us a significant step towards transitioning to Afghan authority as we begin the process of drawing down in 2014.

            I think we’re on the right path now.  I think we’ve laid out the right strategy, and what we’ve got to do is convince people that despite these kinds of events we ought not to allow these events to undermine that strategy.

            Q:  I want to, Mr. Secretary, ask the sort of opposite question of Lita, which is, these events have at least raised the prospect that there will be more tensions between the Afghan forces and U.S. forces.  We saw that after the Koran burning.  Does any of these recent events give you pause about exactly the pace of the drawdown?  You said the strategy will stay the same, but might you do a slower drawdown between now and 2014 in order for essentially force protection?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, in the discussions I’ve had with General Allen, he feels that we are on the right track.  We are going to be drawing down the rest of the surge between now and the end of September, and that process, the planning for that process is now in place.  And we will continue obviously to develop plans beyond that for the ultimate drawdown that will take place towards 2014 -- the end of 2014.

            So you know, I do not believe that there is any reason at this point to make any changes with regards to our strategy and for the process of drawing down.

            Q:  If I could just follow up real quick.  If there were, if this happened at a -- not with a special operations member but somebody affiliated with that base -- do you think this is going to undermine the Afghan population’s confidence in the Afghan local police, the village stability program?  That’s a cornerstone going forward, even after 2014.  Is that program compromised?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I don’t think so.  I think it was an Afghan soldier who noticed that this guy was missing.  He reported it.  They did a bed check.  They had prepared a search team to go out and try to find out where he was, when ultimately they got the news of what had happened, and this individual then turned himself in.  What I’m sensing right now from talking to General Allen is that the army there is doing everything necessary to maintain order, and at this point it’s very quiet. 

            Now is the Taliban going to try to take advantage of this?  I would expect that they will, but for now things are relatively quiet, and I think it’s a tribute to the Afghan army that that’s the case. 

            STAFF:  David.

            Q:  Thanks.  Mr. Secretary, could you fill out the picture for us.  What have you learned in the last day about what actually happened in this village?  There have been reports of bodies being burnt.  Obviously children have been killed.  That’s been confirmed.  And then--but tell us what you know about what happened there that we haven’t heard in the press.

            And secondarily, the accountability part of this.  Do you have plans to hold -- does the department intend to hold a court martial in Afghanistan, in the United States?  And is capital punishment a possibility here?

            SEC. PANETTA:  With regards to the incident itself, as best as we can determine -- and obviously all of this is under investigation, but as best as we can determine, this individual went out on his own in the middle of the night.  I think it was around 3:00 a.m. in the morning that he went out.  And went into these homes and started shooting.  And the end result of it is 16 dead.  We think somewhere between eight or nine are wounded.  The wounded are being cared for, and that’s the most that I know right now with regards to the incident itself.  As I said, it is -- it will continue to be under investigation. 

            With regards to the individual, he is in custody.  There is -- we are following the procedures that we follow in these situations to review the case and then bring appropriate charges against him.  And right now our goal is to bring him to justice under the Code of Military Justice.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  Pardon me?

            Q:  Is capital punishment a possibility?

            SEC. PANETTA:  My understanding is that in this instance -- these instances that that could be a consideration.

            STAFF:  Brian.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, to follow on that, you talked about learning from incidents like this.  Given what you do know -- and I understand you don’t know everything -- what is the lesson as far as our troops and making sure that they’re prepared for this mission?  We’ve heard that this was his fourth deployment, three to Iraq, this was the first one to Afghanistan.  So if you can give us some sense of what you’ve been thinking or been briefed about what may have led to this or what signs you need to look for.

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think it’s important to allow the investigation to go forward and to try to review just exactly what was involved in this tragic situation.  And then as a result of that, depending on what the investigation determines, we need to see whether, you know, there are factors that we need to pay attention to that could help avoid that kind of situation in the future.

            But what I want to do first and foremost is await the results of this investigation to determine exactly what was -- what happened here and why this soldier did the terrible thing that he did.

            STAFF:  Elizabeth.

            Q:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.  I wanted to follow up on something you said earlier about what -- the incident.  You said that he turned himself in, the subject.  Can you tell us more about that?  And then I had a follow-up about al-Qaida, if you could tell us how many al-Qaida insurgents you think are still in Afghanistan at this point.

            SEC. PANETTA:  I’m sorry.

            Q:  You said you -- about the number of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.  But before that you said that he had turned himself in.  Just give us some more details on that.

            SEC. PANETTA:  As I understand what happened, at least up to this point -- and again, you know, we’ll let this investigation determine the facts -- but that he went, he went out in the morning, early morning and went to these homes and the -- you know, fired on these families.  And then at some point after that came back to the forward operating base and basically turned himself in, told individuals what had happened.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  I suspect that, you know, that that was the case.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  How many?

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yes, I think that -- I honestly haven’t seen the latest intelligence estimates as to how many are left, but clearly they’ve -- their numbers have diminished as a result of the operations that are ongoing in Afghanistan.  But you know, I’m not going to tell you a number right now, but, other than to say that we think that the operations being conducted both by the United States and the Afghans have diminished their numbers.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, no, I mean, obviously the whole purpose of the drawdown between now and the end of 2014 is to secure the gains that have been made, to make sure that al-Qaida doesn’t return, to make sure that the Taliban doesn’t reassert itself and that, you know, we don’t have to worry about them establishing another safe haven.  And you know, we think that we have had very important progress in that effort.

            And as a result of that, that’s why I think we can stay on the path we’re on.  John Allen feels very confident that right now we’re on the right path towards finishing the transition to Afghan control and security and completing the drawdown by the end of 2014.

            STAFF:  All right.  Time for just a few more questions.  Chris?

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, as you know there have been a sort of steady drumbeat of these kinds of incidents, with this perhaps being the most grievous from our standpoint.  Do you think this indicates a -- you know, that the U.S. force in Iraq is reaching some kind of breaking point?  Does it add up to anything?  Or is it just a kind of random occurrences?

            And secondly, can you give any more detail on the post-September drawdown timetable?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, again I, in talking with General Allen, I think he’s convinced that these are isolated incidents.  This was the, you know, the, the act of a lone gunman who, you know, for whatever reason decided to do what he did, and that that combined with the events over the last few weeks, I think -- you know, he’s still convinced that, you know, as terrible as these events are, and I don’t think we can, you know, just simply throw them aside.  We have to think about what lessons we draw from these kinds of events in order to make sure they don’t happen again.

            But having said that, when you stand back and look at the larger strategic picture, the situation throughout Afghanistan and the large numbers of troops, the large numbers of U.S. forces, Afghan forces that are there doing their job, completing the mission that they’re involved with, that you know -- I think when you look at that larger picture it does make clear that these kinds of events are isolated and don’t represent what’s really happening in Afghanistan.

            STAFF:  And finally --

            SEC. PANETTA:  You asked another question.

            Q:  The pace of the drawdown.

            SEC. PANETTA:  On the drawdown right now, what I’m awaiting are General Allen’s plans with regards to taking down the remaining 23,000 from the surge and, you know, we’ll review those plans.  And as I said, the goal is to complete that drawdown by the end of September.  And then beyond that we’ll then determine what plans we’ll put in place in order to finish the final drawdown between 2013 and 2014.

            STAFF:  All right, we’ll complete this gaggle with the gaggle caller.  Dan?

            Q:  I know we’ve sort of asked this of you already, but if I could ask one more time.  Is this some kind of a turning point or potential turning point if it’s not handled well?  In other words, these series of incidents, which you acknowledge are not insignificant, got concern in Washington, concern in the European capitals, and then a huge reaction obviously in Afghanistan.

            If this isn’t handled right, are you worried this could become a turning point in the wrong direction, the progress you’ve made is threatened or jeopardized if you don’t manage this the right way?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I -- I think that we have a responsibility to be vigilant to these kinds of events, to learn what we can from these events, to keep our eye on the fundamental mission that we’re involved with to make sure that it doesn’t undermine that mission.  But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pay attention here.  I think we should pay attention, and we need to ensure that what happened over these last few weeks does not happen again because these are serious matters and they shouldn’t be -- you know, we shouldn’t overlook them. and we shouldn’t pretend that they’re not serious.  They are serious. 

            I treat them as serious, and I think for that reason we just need to do everything we can to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

            STAFF:  Thank you, everyone.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

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