I’ve just returned from an extraordinary week-long trip that took me to Djibouti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Libya. This trip gave me the opportunity to personally meet and thank more than 1,000 troops serving in harm’s way for their hard work and sacrifices, and to wish them all of the best for a Happy Holidays, including a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
I wish I could have had the opportunity during my first Holiday Season as Secretary of Defense to personally meet and thank each and every one of you who serves in this Department for everything you do to keep our country strong and safe. With this message, I want to extend my very best for a warm, joyous, and safe Holidays to you and your families on behalf of a grateful nation.
As this year draws to a close, it is an opportunity to reflect on the significant progress we have made over the last twelve months in our mission to protect America and her interests – from the mountains of Afghanistan to the shores of Tripoli. During my recent trip, I had the chance to see first-hand how, because of your efforts, this year has been a turning point for our nation, and our military, after a decade of war. All of you are truly part of the next greatest generation that has bravely served this nation in battle.
We have dealt heavy blows to al Qaeda and its militant allies this year – taking down Bin Laden, Awlaki, and other top leaders and significantly degrading their ability to launch another attack on our homeland. At Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, I had the opportunity to thank those serving in one of the central locations in our fight against violent extremism. Living in austere conditions far away from home, our men and women serving in Djibouti are helping to ensure that al Qaeda and its allies have no place to hide in that part of the world.
The continued progress of our campaign in Afghanistan is also helping to ensure that al Qaeda does not regain a foothold in the country where they plotted the 9/11 attacks. During my visit to Afghanistan, I had the honor of visiting with the soldiers of Task Force Blackhawk at FOB Sharana in Paktika Province, an area of growing focus for our campaign against the Taliban insurgency. In tough conditions in the dead of winter, these men and women are taking the fight to our enemies and building up the Afghan National Security Forces. In my conversations with these soldiers, the sense of progress was palpable. I came away inspired by their profound commitment to this effort – a commitment matched by the dedicated leaders of the civil-military effort, General Allen and Ambassador Crocker.
Thanks to their efforts, we are on track and are making progress in the transition to Afghan security lead throughout the country. Indeed, with President Karzai’s recent announcement of a second tranche of areas to complete transition, more than 50 percent of the Afghan population will soon live and work under the blanket of Afghan protection. I truly believe that 2011 will be seen as a critical year, having brought us closer to the common goal of an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself.
From Afghanistan I traveled to Iraq, where the dream of an independent and sovereign nation has now been realized. In Baghdad, I had the profound honor of presiding over the End of Mission ceremony, where we cased the colors of the U.S. Forces-Iraq flag and brought the war to an honorable and responsible end. In the company of General Dempsey, General Mattis, General Allen and Ambassador Jeffrey, the ceremony paid tribute to the nearly 4,500 Americans who gave their lives so that Iraq could be free, and to the sacrifices of the more than 1 million men and women in uniform who have deployed to Iraq. This was a day to honor them, and to celebrate the new chapter in the history of Iraq and the United States – a chapter that they wrote oftentimes in their own blood. Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, but they now have the opportunity to forge ahead on the path to security and prosperity. For our part, the United States will now focus our energies on developing a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq, one based on mutual respect, friendship and shared interests in the region.
This has been a year of profound change not only in Iraq, but in the entire Middle East and North Africa, where the Arab awakening has brought with it the promise of democratic change and the prospect of turmoil and uncertainty. From Baghdad, I traveled to Ankara to meet with the leaders of Turkey, who have been among our most important partners in supporting the change sweeping the region. Turkey is a key NATO ally, and I had very productive conversations about a wide range of topics, including our efforts to support change in Egypt and Libya, to confront the Assad regime in Syria, and to better equip the NATO alliance to meet emerging threats.
The final stop of my trip, Tripoli, gave me an opportunity to visit the very heart of the Arab awakening, and to pay tribute to the successful efforts of the U.S. Armed Forces, working through NATO, to protect and support the Libyan people in their efforts to achieve freedom from a tyrannical regime. It was a deeply moving experience to be the first Secretary of Defense to visit Libya, and to do so at such an important moment of transition and hope for the Libyan people. I offered them the support of the American people in their efforts to achieve representative government, and conveyed that message directly to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. My experience in Tripoli, coupled with my visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, left me encouraged that after ten years of war, the United States is making gains diplomatically and militarily that strengthen the view that the best course is to encourage and entrust nations to determine how best to govern and secure themselves.
While in Tripoli, I also had the opportunity to visit the cemetery where the remains of American sailors from the Intrepid who served in the Barbary Wars more than 200 years ago are interred. The final resting place of these heroes overlooks the shores of Tripoli – a location far from home that has long been emblazoned in our nation’s conscience.
Looking over the bustling Tripoli harbor, my thoughts turned to the profound change that has occurred in the past year, and the essential role that all of YOU played in helping bring these changes about. Thanks to your efforts, and your sacrifices, the American people can gather this holiday season knowing that the world is a more hopeful and safer place.
May God bless all of you, and the nation we serve, and may all of you and your families have the happiest of Holidays and a Happy New Year.