I've recently returned from my seventh international trip, and my third trip to Afghanistan as Secretary of Defense. As I always do upon returning from international travel, I wanted to share some observations and reflections on the trip directly with you, the men and women of the Department of Defense.
Left to right, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Taalaibek Omuraliev, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Busurmankul Tabaidiev, secretary of Kyrgystan defense council pose for photos after a counterpart meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgystan, March 13, 2012. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
My first stop was Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, which is also host to the International Transit Center at Manas. The visit to Bishkek gave me the chance to meet with Kyrgyz leaders for the first time, and my goal was to affirm our relationship and thank them for their support of the Manas Transit Center. That transit center is critical to sustaining our efforts in Afghanistan, and provides us with the ability to move personnel in and out of the war zone, to execute aerial refueling sorties, and to transport air cargo in and out of theater. Kyrgyzstan and its Central Asian neighbors serve as key links in the logistical supply lines into Afghanistan known as the Northern Distribution Network, which has proven extremely important in recent months. For me the visit underscored that the United States shares a number of important interests with our Central Asian partners, chief among them a secure and stable Afghanistan so that the broader region can be peaceful and benefit from expanded trade and development.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta greets service members at transiting into or from Afghanistan at the Manas Air Base Transit Center, Kyrgyzstan, March 14, 2012. Panetta met with counterparts and troops during his visit in the country. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
We had dinner at a local restaurant and stayed at a hotel in downtown Bishkek. The next morning, I was able to greet American troops at the Transit Center who were waiting for flights home or into Afghanistan. As I met with each of them individually, I was on the lookout for anyone bound for California and managed to greet a few from my home state. I was energized to meet doctors and nurses who had volunteered for service at the war front. I thanked all of the men and women I met for their dedication and sacrifice to their missions. Each received Secretary of Defense coins in recognition of their excellence while serving our nation in uniform.
I departed Kyrgyzstan from Manas in a C-17, traveling onward to Southwest Afghanistan, where I landed at Camp Bastion Airfield in Helmand Province. My trip to Afghanistan took place against the backdrop of a series of challenges that have tested our relationship with our Afghan partners as well as our resolve to focus on achieving the mission there. An unfortunate incident at the airfield as I landed only served to heighten tensions but as I told the press, this is a war zone and it is important to keep our eye on the mission.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta holds a meeting with Afghan provincial leaders at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, March 14, 2012. Panetta is on a four day trip to the region meeting with counterparts, leaders and service members. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
We are making strong progress in our military campaign by reducing violence and continuing a process of transitioning security responsibility to Afghan lead. Enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan in early 2012 are down about 24 percent compared to last year, and half of the Afghan population now lives in areas that are transitioning to Afghan-led security control.
My basic message to U.S. and coalition troops and to our Afghan partners was that we all needed to stay focused on our fundamental mission 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 the United States or our allies. To do that we must support efforts that will enable Afghanistan to secure and govern itself.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Marine Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, commanding general, NATO Regional Command-South West exit a U.S. Marine V-22 Osprey at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, March 14, 2012. Panetta is on a four day trip to the region to meet with counterparts and visit troops. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
After a short ride over to adjoining Camp Leatherneck, I was honored to meet with several Afghan provincial government leaders, including the Governor of Helmand, as well as commanders from the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. I told Governor Mangal that on my way from the United States to Afghanistan I had been reading more about the rich history of Afghanistan. I said that I appreciated how in many ways the history of Afghanistan is the story of leaders seeking peace and stability in the face of conflict.
At the same meeting I also heard from Major General Malouk who commands the Afghan National Army 215th Corps in Helmand Province. He told me his men know how to fight and are willing to take risks against the enemy, but that they also continue to need help from the international community as they mature into a professional force. I assured him that the U.S. is committed to assisting him and his units as we work together toward transitioning security responsibility to them. I came away from this discussion encouraged that Afghan forces are truly taking charge of operations and leading them in this part of the country, and that Afghanistan has brave leaders who are determined to build a better future for their country.
After meeting with these local Afghan officials and military commanders, I had the opportunity to address U.S. Marines, and other ISAF and Afghan troops. I emphasized my message to focus on the mission even in the face of challenges. As these troops know well, we have been tested, time and time again, over a decade of war. That's the nature of war: to confront every obstacle, to face every barrier, to fight through every challenge in order to accomplish a mission. It is important that all of us – the United States, Afghanistan, the ISAF forces – all stick to the strategy that we've laid out.
It was an honor to meet with this motivated group of Marines, Afghan, and international troops, for it's their dedication that offers the chance at a better life for us and our children, and for the Afghan people and their children as well.
We then boarded an MV-22 Osprey and flew from Camp Leatherneck to Forward Operating Base Shukvani, the remote and dusty operating location for the Georgian 31st Battalion and their U.S. Marine Corps partners.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addresses Georgian soldiers at deployed to Forward Operating Base Shukvani Afghanistan, March 14, 2012. Panetta is on a four day trip to the region meeting with counterparts, leaders and service members. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
At FOB Shukvani, I thanked the Georgian troops for their important contributions to the campaign, and read them a letter from their former commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Alex Tugushi, who was grievously injured during operations in December 2011. In the letter Lt Col Tugushi called the troops "Georgian heroes" and said it was a great honor for Georgian troops to partner with American and international troops in Afghanistan. I told the Georgian troops that Lt Col Tugushi's letter reflected my feelings exactly: the U.S. is privileged to stand together with Georgia.
That afternoon, we flew to Kabul for meetings that night with my friends and colleagues Minister of Defense Wardak and Minister of Interior Mohammadi. The focus of our discussion was on the progress being made by the Afghan National Security Forces. Minister Wardak hosted me at the ministry for a traditional Afghan meal, and I was grateful for his hospitality. Both of my meetings with the ministers went very well, reaffirming our shared commitment to the mission, progress in achieving greater security in Afghanistan, and the continued development of Afghan security forces.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta speaks with Afghan President Hamid Karzi after counterpart talks in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 15, 2012. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
The following morning I met with President Karzai at his palace. President Karzai and I have met several times over the years, and I told him that we seem to get tested almost every other day by incidents that challenge our leadership and our commitment to our shared goals. I know that tragedies like the incident in Kandahar weigh heavily on President Karzai's heart and create problems for him as the leader and the protector of the Afghan people. They weigh heavily on all of us. That's why I told him that we are sparing no effort to hold those responsible accountable and to make sure this does not happen again.
Still, our discussion largely focused on the future as the United States and Afghanistan seek to build an enduring partnership. We have made significant progress on reaching this kind of agreement, and were recently able to sign an MOU with Afghanistan that establishes a way forward to transferring detention operations to Afghanistan. In spite of recent challenges, I am confident that we will reach an agreement with President Karzai on a strategic partnership.
After finishing this meeting and heading to the Kabul Airport, I reflected on the fact that in past trips to Afghanistan, whether as CIA Director or Secretary of Defense, I was invariably concerned about the differences with regards to the strategy ahead and how to try to get better agreement on how we would proceed in the future.
In this trip, everyone I talked to absolutely agreed with the strategy that NATO nations and the Afghan government have laid out: to support an Afghan-led transition process leading to Afghan responsibility for security across the country by the end of 2014. As the Afghans increasingly take on leadership through the transition process, we expect ISAF to shift naturally in 2013 from a primarily combat to a primarily support role, while remaining fully combat capable. At the same time, we will continue to talk about the kind of post-2014 presence we need to maintain. Everybody is absolutely committed to this strategy.
There is no doubt that the Afghan people are tired of war. They've suffered through years of conflict, and they're hoping for peace and the opportunity to raise their families so that hopefully their children will have a better life. The American people share some of that tiredness after 10 years of war as well, and all of that's understandable.
But I think the American people also understand that we came here with a mission to accomplish. The mission was to make sure that those that attacked our country on 9/11 will never be able to use Afghanistan as a base to do that again and that Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself. That's our mission, that's our goal, and we have never been closer to accomplishing that.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to meet with counterparts, March 15, 2012. DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley
From Afghanistan I continued on to the United Arab Emirates, which is a very important partner in the Middle East. The U.S. continues to work closely with our Emirati partners, including the missions in Libya and working with the international community on Syria, as well. I had good discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed about regional issues and also the importance of our relationship with the UAE, particularly at this point in time.
As I headed home from this trip, I reflected on the fact that our troops are heroes and patriots, and that we can never forget your sacrifices. Those of you in uniform are doing the job of trying to protect this country, and doing it magnificently with courage and with dedication. Your skill and mission focus have always been the key to our ability to overcome any challenge – and that enables all of us to pursue that fundamental American dream of giving our children a better life.
Leon E. Panetta
Secretary of Defense