DAOUD SULTANZOY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: It's a difficult time for both countries, and you've come at a very important juncture of -- in this time. Afghanistan and the United States have come a long way, and yet some tragic incidents and situations can hamper a good opportunity that both nations have.
What is the latest finding that that you have about this brazen cruelty in Kandahar?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, my understanding is that the investigation is proceeding. It's going forward under our procedures of military justice, and I've urged them to do a thorough and expeditious investigation that will determine what charges are to be brought against this individual. And once those charges are brought, I can assure the Afghan people that he will brought to justice swiftly.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: The American government's sentiment is always reflected in the media, but the U.S. public sentiment is very rarely reflected. You have been a very distinguished politician in the country, a representative. Can you tell us how the American people feel? And the Afghan people would like to know that.
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think that in many ways there are -- there are similar feelings here. I think the Afghan people have been through many years of war and are tired of the conflict and the loss of life and, I know, want to have a peaceful, sovereign, independent Afghanistan in which they can raise their families in peace and hopefully give their children a better life.
And I think that's how the American people feel. This has been 10 years of war that the American people have been involved -- and a lot of our sons and daughters have gone to war, and many of them have been killed. And so there's -- you know, there's some exhaustion --
DAOUD SULTANZOY: Yes.
SEC. PANETTA: -- with these long periods of war.
But at the same time, the American people believe that when we engage in war and when our sons and daughters pay with their lives, that it is important for us to accomplish the mission -- that we are involved with, that that mission is to establish an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself. That's our mission. That's our goal. And I think the American people want that to be accomplished.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: The United States was attacked -- 2001, and you came here to make sure that your security is assured. And yet the war has to be fought outside our borders, and if the war was fought there, we won't be facing tragedies as such as we did.
How are you going to resolve that issue of outside our borders? The war emanates from those areas.
SEC. PANETTA: That -- it's one of the challenges that we obviously face; that, you know, we know that terrorism and the terrorists often find safe haven across those borders and then cross into Afghanistan to create havoc and take lives; and that we think it is important that that be addressed; that, you know, we can fight and we can achieve the goals that we want to achieve in Afghanistan, but to ultimately have a true peace for the future, it is extremely important that we deal with terrorism wherever it exists. And terrorists cannot be the friends of any country. Terrorists are terrorists.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: OK.
SEC. PANETTA: And they need to deal with that.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: I -- when I was growing up, I remember Kandahar being one of the most pro-American cities in this country, because America was engaged in nonmilitary development activities. And most Kandaharis knew English in those days.
And they were prospering. And I think America can do that again, you know, paying attention to development and to post-2014, the drawdown. I hope the drawdown is not embroiled in election fervor. Usually every two years in America this fervor goes up.
And the drawdown at one point was 23,000, now latest reports are saying that an additional 20,000 will be removed from -- in 2013, and then the British prime minister said that they will end everything in 2013 -- very conflicting messages. The people here in the region are confused.
SEC. PANETTA: No, I understand. The press often plays up these issues, and it can be confusing. But I want to assure the Afghan people that having participated in the ministerials with our NATO allies, that the United States and our NATO allies are committed to a very firm strategy here, a strategy that will mean that we will -- obviously, we will gradually transition areas to Afghan control, and we've already begun that process.
We have made good progress here in Afghanistan. I think 2011 was a real turning point. Levels of violence are down. We've weakened the Taliban. We've been able to develop an Afghan army and police that are assuming good operational competence, taking over in areas. And that's extremely important. It's a tribute to the Afghan leadership that that's happening. And in addition to that, we are successfully beginning these transitions.
We'll continue that process through 2012 and 2013. And our goal right now is to not in any way expedite that kind of drawdown until we reach the end of 2014. Our goal is to draw down by 2014. That's our path, that's our goal, and we're going to stick to that.
More importantly, we're going to maintain an enduring presence here. And I think the Afghan people need to know that, that the United States is not going anywhere. We're going to continue to be here to assist the Afghan people in development, in training, in assistance and ensuring that this country is strong and independent for the future.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: Which is very important, you know, 2014 -- post - 2014, American footprint, U.S. footprint in Afghanistan -- can you tell us a little bit about that? Of course, military footprint is one thing, but the upkeep of the military and police and other security forces in Afghanistan is also a matter to address.
SEC. PANETTA: That's true. That's true.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: And both these issues are not that clear to us.
SEC. PANETTA: We've been -- we've been discussing these issues with our NATO allies. And obviously, in Chicago, the leadership of these countries will come together to following up on the Lisbon agreement, kind of lay out the strategy between now and 2014 and beyond.
I think they'll want to discuss how we continue these transitions. They'll want to discuss the level of the Afghan army and police that is sustainable for the future, one that all of us can, in working with the Afghans, be able to assure the Afghan people that they will have a strong and stable army and police that'll be able to maintain order in the future. That's being discussed as well.
And then lastly, the question of what missions are we going to perform beyond 2014: I think the key missions that we can see right now are we have to continue to counter terrorism and go -- continue to go after those that would try to disrupt this country and those terrorists who would continue to try to plan attacks on our own country. We have to continue to operate against them. We have to continue to advise, assist, train the Afghan army and be able to support them. And I think we have to continue the development side of this, to give the Afghan people the opportunity and development that will create a stable economy and future for this country.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: The strategic partnership, what is that we don't know in this partnership? You mentioned the military side, the development side and also the American security -- as far as its concerned, your role in the region -- what is that? What else is there that we are still not -- unaware of -- from the American point of view?
SEC. PANETTA: I think the most important thing for the strategic partnership agreement is that it will be a decision between the Afghan people and the international forces that have been here -- the NATO forces, the ISAF forces and the United States -- to establish not just a relationship for now but a relationship into the future.
And it will provide the Afghan people with a clear indication that the mission that we are trying to accomplish here is not something that we're going to walk away from, but is a mission that we'll continue to work at into the future.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: The ugly incidents from both sides sometimes puts both governments and both nations in a weaker situation when -- especially when it comes to talks with the Taliban. Are we in a weaker position now in the -- in the, supposedly, talks with the Taliban, peace talks, both the Afghan side and the U.S. side?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, the most important thing that we need to do to be in a strong position in those discussions is to continue to do what we're doing now, to continue to keep the levels of violence down, continue to confront and weaken the Taliban wherever they are, continue the process of transition, continue the process of developing a strong Afghan army, a strong Afghan police. If we do that, that puts us in a strong position. That's where we are now, and that's where we have to stay.
I think that these incidents -- you know, as I've said, war is hell. We'll see these kind of incidents take place. They are tragic. We need to learn from them. We need to make sure they don't happen again. But we cannot allow those incidents to undermine the strategy that the Afghan people and the United States and our NATO partners are engaged in.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: As strategic partners, if Israel attacks Iran, the United States -- if -- and if Iran retaliates against the United States in Afghanistan, what would be your position?
SEC. PANETTA: I think, as the -- as the president has made clear, we have -- we have common cause here and a concern that Iran should not develop a nuclear weapon. And this is not a policy of containment; this is a policy of prevention.
And that -- right now the international community is unified in putting pressure on Iran not to do this. We've applied strong diplomatic sanctions, strong economic sanctions. They are isolated. They are, I think, being severely penalized for their behavior. And I think the feeling of the president and the international community is -- now is the time to continue that pressure. And we would hope that Israel would work with us in continuing that kind of diplomatic pressure. This is not the time to take military action. This is the time to allow diplomacy and these sanctions to take effect and to hopefully change the behavior of Iran.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: As partners, we have always talked about community issues and development, but rarely have we been very straightforward about talking about civil society and developing a political process in this country beyond 2014. Very little attention is paid to development of political parties in this country that are -- that are pluralistic, that are nationwide. This is something that we would like our partners to talk about. What is your position?
SEC. PANETTA: Dauod -- Afghanistan has the opportunity to develop a strong democracy for the future. This is a tremendous opportunity for the noble people of this country to have the ability to be able to govern themselves. That's not easy. It's a challenge. You have to deal with the institutions of government. You have to -- you develop a strong parliament; you have to develop a strong judicial system. You have to develop the kind of rights and reforms that allow the people to express themselves in elections. And you have to develop the leadership both at the local level and at the national level that can provide the important guidance for this country as to the path that needs to be followed.
This is not going to be easy. I mean, we're seeing a lot of this in the Middle East with the turmoil that going on out there as these countries are striving to put the institutions of government together. But the Afghan people have that opportunity. What a rare and great opportunity it is to develop a country that can truly give their children a better life for the future. To do that demands sacrifice, it demands dedication, and it demands help from countries like the United States to be able to assist you to develop those strong institutions that can support a strong Afghanistan for the future.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: And it also demands a level playing field for those Afghans who have no arms and no guns and --
SEC. PANETTA: That's right.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: -- they are outside the mafia circles.
SEC. PANETTA: That's right.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: The election of 2014 in Afghanistan, if the present leadership would want to extend its term, what would be the U.S. position on that?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I have to take President Karzai at his word that he's not going to run again. And if that's the case, then obviously there will have to be new leadership that is willing to take on the burdens of governance in this country. That's one of those tests --
DAOUD SULTANZOY: Right.
SEC. PANETTA: -- for the future as to whether Afghanistan can become a strong democracy. To do that, you need to have people who are willing to step forward and provide that leadership and who are willing to bring the country together. I mean, this is a country that has a rich and diverse history and one that the Afghan people should be very proud of. But it does mean that people have to work together and to work in a unified way to walk in the right direction for the future. That's not always easy.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: As a very seasoned politician, you've been both elected and you've served in academia and also in the CIA and now the Defense Department. What is your prediction about the U.S. elections?
SEC. PANETTA: (Laughs.) You know, I've -- in 40 years of experience in politics, the one thing I've learned is never to predict anything. You know, democracy and elections are a dynamic process. And, you know, there will be, as we've always had, a very rich debate about the future, both parties competing to try to convince the American people about their platform. I believe, since I'm a Democrat, that the president has provided strong leadership and that we provide a strong platform for the future. But it's going to be up to the American people to make that decision. And you know? That's the way it should be.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: Do you think the Republicans will have a -- better relations with Mr. Karzai?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that whatever party is ultimately empowered by the American people will have to maintain a strong relationship with President Karzai and whoever follows him, because the future of Afghanistan will determine whether or not the price that we pay -- not just the United States, but the Afghan people -- whether that price was worthwhile.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your time.
SEC. PANETTA: Thank you very much, Daoud.