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Town Hall Meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
March 14, 2012

         SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Thanks very much.  Thank you very much, General.  Thanks to General Malouk, the commander of the ANA [Afghan National Army] 215th Corps.  

         This is a real honor.  It's an honor for me to have a chance to come out and see all of you and see Helmand province, where we've had so many -- so many countries that are involved in this effort.

         This is probably the broadest and the deepest international military coalition that we've seen in a long, long time.  Fifty nations that are working together to bring together a very strong international effort to try to bring some peace, some justice and hopefully some security to Afghanistan and to the world.  

         I'm really proud -- can't tell you how proud I am -- of the partnership that we have that's working here, the partnership to try to build the kind of stability that's so important.  This was the Taliban's stronghold and, because of your work, because of your dedication, because of the tremendous sacrifice that you're making,    the reality is that we are achieving greater stability and greater security in this area.  

         We're obviously working to try to stand together with the Afghan people.  We're fighting for a common cause: to try to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven from which terrorists can launch an attack against our country.  

         9/11 was an attack against all of us.  It was an attack against all who believe in freedom and in democracy, and the reality is that all of us stepped forward to try to ensure that what happened on 9/11 does not happen again and to try to build an Afghanistan that ultimately can secure and govern itself.  That's the mission that we're involved with, the mission not only to make sure that we go after al-Qaida and their terrorists allies, that we go after all of those that would support that kind of terrorism.  And the key to that is an Afghanistan that can secure and govern and control its own country, to give it the sovereignty and independence and capability to do that.  That's what this is all about.

         So let me first and foremost thank you.  Thank you for your service.  Thank you for your dedication.  Thank you for your sacrifice.  This is not easy.  These assignments are not easy.  You're away from family.  You're away from loved ones.  And I realize what a tremendous sacrifice it is to be so far away from all of those you love, and yet you do it.  That's what service is all about.  I'm a great believer in public service, and one of the things I've seen as secretary of defense is that I represent men and women in uniform that are committed to public service, committed to giving something back to this country, committed to making sure that duty to country is what it's all about.  And I appreciate that service.

         I'm -- as I've often told people, I'm the son of Italian immigrants who came to the United States like millions of others:  not much money in their pocket, not much language ability, few skills. They came thousands of miles to a strange country.  

         I used to ask my dad, why would you do that?  Why would you leave the comfort of family?  Yes, it was a poor area in Italy, but why would you leave the comfort of family and travel thousands of miles to a strange country?  And my father would say, the purpose was because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life.  

         And that, in many ways, is the American dream.  It's the dream we all have.  It's the dream that this country has for their children. It is in many ways the world dream, that all of us struggle to make sure that our children will have a better life.  It is the fundamental bond that we all share and that we all hope to achieve.

         And that's what you're all about.  That's what you're doing here. Achieving that dream depends on men and women who are willing to make the sacrifices to step forward, to work with fellow citizens and to forge a better and more secure life for our children.  Together, shoulder to shoulder, all of you are bringing that dream together. And you're putting your lives on the line every day.

         And I know that it hasn't been easy.  The toughest job I have as secretary -- toughest job is to write notes to the families of those that have lost their lives in battle.

        And we've had a few from this area that I've had to be able to assume that very difficult burden of writing to those families.  And to all of them I say how sorry I am for the loss -- the terrible loss that they've endured.  The only comfort is that their loved one not only loved them, but loved this country and loved life and gave that life for all he or she loved.  That makes them a hero and a patriot, and we will never forget them.  

         And I say that to all of you, that you are heroes and patriots, and we will not forget the sacrifice that you are involved in.  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. That's the nature of what war is all about.

         And these last few weeks have been a challenging time in which we've had to confront those kinds of issues.  We've had protests and violence.  We've had the burning of the Quran and of the Islamic religious texts.  We've had ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces] forces that have been targeted for killings, murdered.

         And last weekend we were shocked to learn about the tragic event that took place in nearby Kandahar province that resulted in the death of so many Afghan civilians.  

         Each of these incidents -- each of these incidents is deeply troubling.  And we have to learn the lessons from each of those incidents so that we do everything possible to make sure that they don't happen again.

         But none of this, none of this is reflective of the overwhelming majority of troops -- ISAF troops, Afghan troops -- who day to day are doing the job of trying to protect this country, and doing it in outstanding fashion with courage and with dedication.  It was your partnership and the effectiveness of the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] that served to promote calm and restraint, your skill and your trust in each other, and your professionalism, that has always been the key to our ability to overcome any challenge and to keep our eye on the mission that we're here for.

         The key to our success is to make sure that we never lose sight of the mission that we're here to achieve, never lose sight of that mission. Whatever the event, whatever the incident that we have to confront, never lose sight of the mission that we're here to achieve.  

         We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve to that mission and to sticking to the strategy that we've put in place.  

         It's a successful strategy.  It's one that you've made possible by virtue of your sacrifices, and we are going to stick to that strategy and make sure that we achieve the mission that we're here to achieve.

         As tragic as these events of violence have been, they do not define the relationship between the coalition and Afghan forces and the Afghan people.  What you are doing out here every day determines that relationship.

         Afghan forces are doing an outstanding job throughout Afghanistan because of the partnership that you've built here.  You train, you fight together, and you're willing to put your lives on the line together.  Afghan forces continue to take charge, to head up operations, and you've made that possible by working with them, by training them.  More than 90 percent of the operations are now partnered with ANSF.  That's a remarkable achievement.

         Thanks to your efforts, our strategy is working.  And I believe last year was a very important turning point here in Afghanistan.  In 2011 violence levels were down throughout the country.  In 2012 attacks are down 24 percent compared to this time last year.  Here in RC [Regional Command] Southwest, violence levels are down 31 percent.  And I was just talking to the British commander here.

         There are areas that are down close to 80 percent because of the great work that has been done in this province.

         All of you have the opportunity to make 2012 a decisive year in this campaign.  The United States is also working to forge a strategic partnership with Afghanistan.  And we continue to make significant progress on these discussions with the Afghan government.  The strength of this partnership -- the strength of this partnership is judged by how we respond to challenges and whether we stay determined to achieve the goal of a secure and a stable Afghanistan and, with that, a safer world for our children.

         We will be tested.  We will be challenged.  We'll be challenged by our enemy.  We'll be challenged by ourselves.  We'll be challenged by the hell of war itself.  But none of that -- none of that must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve.

         That mission is the dream that I talked about, the dream of making sure that we can provide our children -- we can provide children of Afghans a better life for the future.  Because of your sacrifice, because of what  you've been able to do, because you've responded to everything we've asked you to do, we are closer to securing that dream here in Afghanistan.

         Thank you for your commitment to that effort.  

         Thank you for your willingness to fight and to sacrifice for a better future.  Thank you for the service that you are providing to your country and to the Afghan people.  

         We will not fail.  God bless you, and may God bless all of the great nations that are working to achieve that mission.

         Thank you, guys.  (Applause.)  

         All right, you got the secretary of defense, and I've -- I got time for a few questions.

         Yeah.

         Q:  Master -- (off mic).  I'm just wondering, sir -- (off mic) -- as far as our armed forces -- (off mic) -- going to Australia.  I just wanted to know -- (off mic)?  (Laughter.)

         SEC. PANETTA:  You looking for other places to go?  (Laughter.)

         We are -- you know, we're obviously -- as we go through this budget cycle that we're on and as you know the Congress handed me -- (audio break) -- $487 billion in savings that I have to achieve out of the defense budget over the next 10 years -- and thankfully because of all the service chiefs working together, we decided what -- the best way to do this is to establish a strategy for the kind of defense that we want not just now, but in the future.  And working together, we've defined what that strategy is. 

         Just to give you a few of the ideas out of that strategy -- you know, we'll be a smaller force as a result of coming out of Iraq and, hopefully, eventually, out of Afghanistan.

         But we have to be agile.  We have to be deployable.  We have to be flexible.  We have to be technologically advanced.  I mean, in many ways, the troops here understand what that's about, because you are agile.  And that's what we need in the force not only for today, but tomorrow.

         We're going to be focused on two key areas because those are where the problems are.  We focused on the Pacific, Asia-Pacific, and we'll be -- we'll be focused on the Middle East.

         In the Asia-Pacific, you know, we'll have a force structure that's out there.  We've got Navy presence out there.  We've got Air Force presence with our bombers.  But we'll also have a troop presence from all of the different services.  We got the Army, obviously, located in Korea, but elsewhere as well.  And the Marines have always maintained a large presence throughout the Pacific, in Japan, Okinawa, elsewhere throughout the Pacific.

         One of the things we want to do is to develop a rotational presence so that we'll have a presence not only in the Pacific and in the Middle East, but everywhere in the world, in Latin America, in South America, in Europe, so that we'll be able to rotate in to train, to advise, to exercise and to show we have a presence.

         And that's exactly what we're doing in Australia.  We've established a rotational presence with regards to Australia.  Our hope is to develop the same kind of presence in the Philippines and elsewhere to be able to develop that important presence that is so important to showing the world that we are a Pacific power, we're going to remain a Pacific power, and we're going to be there for a long time to come.

         So yes, we are.  We've developed that with the Australians.  And you know, if you're lucky enough, you'll be one of those rotating out of Australia sometime in the near future.

         Other questions.  Yes.

         Q:  (Off mic.)  Judging from your recent meeting with Kyrgyzstan leadership, do you foresee any obstacle -- (off mic) -- contract beyond July 2014 for the use of Manas transit center?

         SEC. PANETTA:  Hey, that's a damn good question.  You been -- (laughter) -- have you been talking to the press here?  (Laughs.) 

         But that's the whole purpose of my trip to Kyrgyzstan, was to make very clear how important that relationship is.  I mean, as you guys know, Pakistans -- the Pakistanis have shut down our portals, and, you know, we're hoping at some point to reopen those.  But in the meantime we're dependent on this northern distribution network, which goes right through Kyrgyzstan.  

         And frankly, it's been extremely important.  We haven't missed a beat, because of that.  We've been getting our stuff in here, we've been getting our troops in here, and that base at Manas is extremely important to that effort.  Our agreement goes through about mid-2014, and the purpose of my visit was to indicate how important that relationship is and that we would like to be able to extend that relationship in the future.  

         We're going to have an enduring presence here in Afghanistan. Even as we ultimately draw down by the and of 2014, we'll continue to have missions here that we're going to have to perform, counterterrorism missions.  We'll have to continue to advise, to train, to assist and to provide enablers in the future.  And in order to do that -- and that was -- frankly, that's encouraging news to Kyrgyzstan, which is interested in a stable Afghanistan.

         So what I -- what I proposed to them is that we discuss that kind of long term relationship and the maintenance of that very important transit center at Manas.  And I have to tell you that I received a very welcome kind of enthusiasm to try to engage in those discussions. So I'm pretty confident that hopefully we'll be able to maintain that relationship for a long time to come.

         STAFF:  (Last question ?).

         SEC. PANETTA:  Last question.  (Pause.)  Anything else?  All right.  If -- yeah, go ahead.  

         Q:  Sergeant -- (off mic) -- from Dallas-Forth Worth -- (off mic) -- Company.  I'm getting ready to redeploy home with my Reserve unit -- (off mic).  I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.  What do you hope the greatest lesson I can share with my children is, not only about what we've been doing in Afghanistan but why Afghanistan and why their father and my wife's husband left them -- (off mic)?

         SEC. PANETTA:  You did it because of that dream that I talked about:  the dream of giving our children, those children, your children, a better life for the future.  I mean, the reality was, look, the United States of America was brutally attacked on 9/11, attacked by al-Qaida terrorists, whose goal continues to be to try to attack the United States of America.  And the reason you're here is to make damn sure that never happens again.

         And we have -- day in and day out, because of sacrifices by you and everybody else, we have made significant progress in that effort.

         You've seen it here in Afghanistan.  Violence levels are down. The Afghan army is engaged in greater operations, showing that they can do the job.  We've transitioned key areas to Afghan control and security, and that's going to be the key.  The key to making sure that the Taliban never again finds a safe haven here is to have an Afghanistan that is secure, that can govern itself, that's a sovereign and independent country that'll make sure the Taliban never returns. And that will -- that will help ensure the dream for your children as well.

         In addition to that, we have, because of targeting efforts, significantly weakened al-Qaida.  The operations we've conducted against al-Qaida not just here, but across the border -- we have undercut their key leadership, not only going after bin Laden, but going after the -- their top leadership.  And the result is that they're on the run.  They have been unable to come together in any kind of command and control capability to put together the kind of plans that were involved in 9/11.  Why?  Because of men and women dedicated to going after those guys.

         And we have been successful in doing that.  Are they still a threat?  You bet they're still a threat.  And we're going to continue to put pressure on them.  In the FATA, in Yemen, in Somalia, wherever the hell they go, they're not going to have any place to hide because we're going to continue to go after them.

         So it's because of what you're doing, it's because of the sacrifice you're making, it's because of the sacrifice of thousands of others who have been willing to put their lives on the line that we are able not only to go after terrorism wherever the hell it's at, but ensure as a result of that that our children are going to have a more secure life for the -- for the future.

         You have more than earned their thanks for giving them that better life in the future.

         OK, guys.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

         What I'd like to do is to be able to give each of you a coin and to thank you individually.  The coin isn't worth a hell of a lot of money, but you never know, you know?  You might -- you might be able to get a drink using that coin sometime in the future.  (Laughter.) In any event, it'll be my honor to be able to give you the secretary's coin and to say thank you, not only from myself, but from a grateful country.

         OK.