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Remarks by Secretary Panetta to International Security Assistance Force Joint Command (IJC) Troops in Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
June 07, 2012

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Good to be with you.  This is -- this is my fourth trip to Afghanistan as secretary of defense.  And as always, the greatest -- the greatest thing that I experience in this job as defense secretary is the chance to be able to go out and to see the men and women in uniform that serve our country.  You guys are the best.  And I want to thank you. 

            On behalf of the American people, I want to thank you for your service and for your sacrifice.  You've done everything that your country has asked you to do.  And the result is, frankly, that after 10 years of war, you know, we are at a turning point.  And it's because there have been those that have been willing to put their lives on the line.  That's been the key to our ability to move forward, to bring the mission in Iraq to an end and to now, hopefully, be able to accomplish the mission here in Afghanistan as well. 

            One thing that I've seen is that because of the great leadership here -- General Allen, Ambassador Crocker, all of the fine commanders that are here and all of you -- we put a very good plan into place to try to accomplish this mission.  And you know, we -- we've been able to put what was a difficult and, in some ways, impossible challenge -- we've been able to put this country in the right direction. 

            The reality is we have weakened the Taliban.  There's an uptick obviously, as we all expected, but the level of violence still remains down from the past.  The reason for that is that we've taken the battle to them.  And that's what you have to do.  And you've done that.  We've been able to get the Afghan security force to engage, to be a part of the operations, to assume responsibility for security and to be able to provide what is absolutely important for this country:  a force that can help secure this country. 

            We've been able to transition areas to Afghan security and control.  We now have 50 percent of their population under their security and control, and the next tranche of areas is going to have about 75 percent of their population under Afghan security control.  So we're headed in the right direction, and it's because of great leadership, but more importantly it's because of you and what you've been willing to do on behalf of our country. 

            I know this is not -- this is still not going to be an easy fight.  We still have a lot of challenges to confront.  We've got a resilient enemy that's going to try to use any tactic they can to come at us.  We're also dealing with a safe haven in which Haqqani forces can move across that border and then go back into their safe havens.  And very frankly, we have every responsibility to defend ourselves.  And we are going to make very clear that we are prepared to take them on.  And we've got to put pressure on Pakistan to take them on as well. 

            What happened the other day in Salerno is an indication that they're going to continue to try to come at us.  Let me be very clear, they're -- anybody who attacks U.S. soldiers is our enemy, and we're not going to take it.  We have got to be able to defend ourselves.  What you're -- you've been doing, you take the battle to them, and that's what counts.  And we've got to make sure that we continue to put pressure to move this effort forward so that we accomplish the mission here. 

            Now the mission is an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself so that the Taliban and terrorists and al-Qaida never again can establish a safe haven here from which to attack our country.  And let me be very clear with all of you.  You know, it's -- I know, you know, there's a lot of sacrifice and service that's involved here.  This is not just about Afghanistan.  This is about protecting the American people, protecting those we love so that they are never again attacked by a terrorist enemy that would go after our country.  We sent a very clear message:  Nobody attacks America and gets away with it.  Nobody attacks America and gets away with it. 

            And because of you, because of what you've been willing to do, because of your service, because of your sacrifice and because, frankly, of the sacrifice of your families that have provided the necessary support for all of you to be able to do what you do, that is our great strength.  I'm very proud of our military.  We have the strongest military in the world.  I've got -- we've got great weapons.  We've got great technology.  We've got great services.  We've got great capabilities.  But the strength of the United States military are the men and women in uniform that are willing to serve our country.  That's our great strength, and that's what makes us the strongest military power in the world.

            Everywhere I've gone this trip -- and I've gone to a lot of interesting places; I went to Singapore to talk to the -- the conference there, the Shangri-La Dialogue, to talk about our strategy for what we're doing and where we intend to go in the 21st century.  I went to Vietnam, was in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam -- first secretary of defense to go into Cam Rank Bay since the war -- sit down with the Vietnamese and talk about an effort to see if we can move forward together, develop their capabilities.  I just was in India talking about the same issue.  Everywhere I go, I have to tell you, there is tremendous respect for United States military because of our ability to get the job done.  We keep our focus, we keep our eye on the -- on the objective and we get it done. 

            And so I just want to say thank you.  Thank you for what you're willing to do.  I thank your families for what they're willing to do.  I've told you what this fundamental mission is all about.  It's about not just giving Afghanistan the opportunity to have a better life for their children, it is about making sure that we give our children a better life for the future.  So thank you for your service, thank you for your sacrifice.  God bless you for what you're doing.  Thank you. 

            Let me do this.  Let me throw it open to questions for those that have any questions for the secretary of defense.  You've got an opportunity to ask me whatever the hell you want.  (Laughter.) 

            Q:  Sir.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah.  Where are you?

            Q:  Oh, here.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, go ahead.

            Q:  (Off mic) -- United States Navy.  Thank you for your speech and your service.  My question is, recently I’ve seen -- (inaudible) -- could you elaborate on that for us? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah.  Look, let me -- let me just put this in context.  We are, as I said, at a turning point after 10 years of war.  I'm  also, obviously, at that turning point facing budget constrictions in the United States.  We're running a record deficit and a record debt.  I was handed a number by the Congress of $487 billion to reduce defense over the next 10 years.  And we have -- obviously, we have a part to play in that as well.  I understand. 

            But at the same time, we are facing some significant threats in today's world.  We're still fighting a war here.  We're still confronting terrorism.  We -- you know, we've made significant progress against terrorists, taking down their leadership.  We just took down another leader in al-Qaida the other day.  The worst job you can get these days is to be a deputy leader in al-Qaida -- (laughter) -- or for that matter, a leader. 

            So we are making -- you know, we still are confronting terrorism in Yemen, in Somalia and North Africa.  We're still confronting unpredictable regimes in North Korea and Iran that threaten instability in those regions.  We have turmoil in the Middle East that -- you know, that obviously involves greater instability in the world and in that region.  We're confronting now the whole threat of cyberattacks.  And we're -- you know, we're the target of a lot of cyberattacks.  I said this is probably the battleground for the future, because it can virtually cripple our nation.  And so we have to confront that threat as well.

            And you know, we're looking at the whole issue of, you know, how do we -- how do we deal with issues that involve the Pacific, trade, sea lanes, maritime routes, piracy.  I mean, we're dealing with a lot of threats and we're dealing with a lot of issues.  So my goal was, how do I do this in a way that maintains the best military in the world and meets our responsibility on the fiscal side as well?

            So what we did -- what I did with the help of all of the service chiefs, all the service leaders, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Staff, all the undersecretaries, is we said, OK, what kind of strategy do we need for the United States of America not just now but in 2020 and beyond?  And so we developed a strategy that involves five key elements.  We know we're going to be smaller, we know we're going to be leaner, but we have to be agile, we have to be flexible, we have to be quickly deployable and we have to be on the cutting edge of technology.

            Secondly, we've got to focus on those areas where we face the biggest problems.  The Asia-Pacific region is one of those areas, because of what's happening with North Korea, because of, frankly, an area that is going to play a large role in terms of our future security and our future prosperity.  And so for that reason, it's important for us to emphasize that region.  That will be a major focus.

            By the way, another area of major focus will be the Middle East, because there are potential problems there that we have to confront as well, with Iran and with the instability that we see in that region.

            So this whole rebalance is going to be based on looking at those areas that we think are important for the future.  And so we will take about 60/40 of the naval force and move it towards the Pacific in terms of the ships that will be there, but we are going to maintain our manpower presence there as well.  We already have a large presence in South Korea.  We've got presence throughout that area, and we'll continue to do that, continue to strengthen that as well.

            Thirdly, we've got to have our presence elsewhere in the world as well.  We're the United States of America.  We've got to maintain a presence everywhere in the world.  So we're going to do that with a very creative rotational presence that both the Army will implement -- the Marines implement now.  We've got special forces that implement that as well -- rotational forces that go in, that train, that exercise, that build alliances, that build partnerships for the future.  We're going to do that in Latin America, we're going to do that in Africa, we're going to do that in Europe and we'll do that in the Pacific as well.

            Fourthly, we've got to be able to defeat more than one enemy at a time.  That means we have to have the capability not just to confront the possibility of a war in Korea but then at the same time be able to deal with problems in the Straits of Hormuz.  We have that capability, and that's -- we're going to maintain that.

            And then lastly, we have to invest in the future as well.  We've got to invest in cyber.  We've got to invest in space.  We have to invest in special forces.  We have to invest in unmanned systems.  We have to invest in the ability to mobilize quickly if we have to, for the future.

            So those are the elements of the strategy that we've put in place.  And it's a comprehensive strategy.  You know, I think most people that have looked at that strategy feel that it's the right direction for us to take as we move into the future.  And you know, I'm confident that we've put the right strategy in place.  What I've got to do is make sure that we can put these pieces in place, get the support of Congress to follow our recommendations in each of these areas and that, ultimately, my goal is to make damn sure that the United States maintains the strongest military power in the world.  That's what this is all about.

            Other questions?

            Q:  (Off mic.)  Mr Secretary -- I’m part of the (off mic.) program and the Afghan soldiers I work with down to the lowest level are all concerned about the coalition presence (off mic.) 2014. What is the best message I can give to a rank-and-file Afghans regarding our mission -- (off mic)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  That we're not going any place.  We -- you know, we're committed to an Afghanistan, as I said, that can secure and govern itself.  And what was agreed to in Chicago within in the last few weeks, by all 50 nations that are part of the ISAF force, was a plan that would move us in that direction.  And it's a plan that General Allen, that the ambassador worked on, that basically have us moving forward, implementing the transitions that have to be implemented, eventually moving combat operational capability to the Afghans sometime in late 2013 and then continuing a drawdown through the end of 2014 -- but then maintaining an enduring presence.

            We signed a strategic agreement with Afghanistan that has us maintaining an enduring presence here past 2014.  What the size of that presence is will depend on the missions.  And obviously, you know, the command will make recommendations with regards to that.  But the missions that we're going to have to focus on are CT.  We've still got to combat terrorism.  We've still got to make sure that we go after those that would try to undermine Afghanistan.  And so we'll maintain that mission.  We'll maintain a mission of training, advising and assisting the Afghan force.  That's an important mission to maintain.  And we'll continue to provide support for ISAF and for others in that process.

            So we are here for the enduring future to make sure that the mission that this is all about will be achieved and that we will have an Afghanistan that ultimately can move into the future, protecting its own people, securing its own people and achieving the kind of sovereignty and independence that this country should achieve.

            Hell, we've lost a lot of people in battle, and we continue to lose people.  And one thing we have to make damn sure of is that those lives were not lost in vain.  And that's what we're committed to doing.

            Other questions.

            STAFF:  (Inaudible) -- last one, Mr. Secretary.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Last question.

            Yeah, go ahead.

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- the drawdown between now and the end of 2014 of the combat forces.  We'll still have in place those advisers, advisers to help the Afghan national security forces.  How do we plan to secure their safety?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah.  Well, as always, we've got to make sure that we provide security for our people.  And we will do that.  We'll do that.  The advisers that'll be there, those that are providing training and assistance, will have the protection they need in order to be able to do the job; I can assure you of that.  We are not going to put people in a situation where they can't protect themselves.  That will happen.

            But I think -- you know, the one thing that's reassuring right now is that I am -- and I just got a briefing on this again, which confirms my confidence -- is that the Afghan army is developing a very important capability here.  Ultimately, that's where it's got to be.  I mean, let's face it; if you're going to make a transition, if we're going to make the transition to Afghan governance, they have got to be able to secure themselves.

            And one of the things we've invested in, ISAF has invested in, is a -- you know, an Afghan army that is operational, that takes on the job, that provides security.  It is securing areas now, it's taking the battle to the enemy, and it's doing a fine job.  We have just got to continue to make sure that that happens.  I've got a good relationship with Minister Wardak.  I'm going to continue to emphasize how important it is to have good command, to have good officers, to have good men who are willing to carry that mission forward.  And so a lot is going to be dependent on that, but we are going to be there to continue to provide advice and assistance and make sure that they are able to do -- to do the job effectively that has to be done if we're going to secure this country.

            You have all done a great job.  You know, let me just assure you that the United States of America looks at what is going on here and is very proud of the job that you've done.  This has not been easy.  This has been tough.  And as I said, you know, we've lost good men and women in these operations.  But the mission, the mission that this is all about is being achieved because of the sacrifice that all of you are doing every day.  Don't forget that.  Don't forget that.  And someday, history will look back at this mission.  History will look back at this mission and say because of the sacrifice the United States of America made, Afghanistan is not only a more secure country for the future, but America's safer, and that's what counts.

            Thanks very much, guys.  (Applause.)

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