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Press Gaggle with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
March 16, 2012

             SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  All right.  I just completed a very important and at the same time a very encouraging visit to Afghanistan that comes at an extremely important time in our shared effort here.  Over the last two days I've had the opportunity to consult with a wide range of military and civilian leaders, in Helmand province as well as the capital, Kabul.

             I visited the troops and commanders of the U.S. coalition and Afghan forces at Camp Leatherneck, and also had a chance to visit with the Georgian 31st Battalion at FOB Shukvani.  Also met with Afghan government leaders, including the provincial leaders in Helmand, the interior minister, Mohammadi, Defense Minister Wardak, and I just completed a meeting with President Karzai.

            There's no question that we've all been tested by recent events here and that I think all of us express concern about those events and the need to do everything we can to make sure that those events don't happen again.  But we are also very unified in our focus in achieving the mission here.  We haven't lost sight of our goal to ensure that al-Qaida and their terrorist allies do not find a safe haven here and that that goal -- in order to accomplish that goal, we need an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself.

            In the discussions that I just completed with President Karzai and also with the other Afghan leaders, we really did focus on the strategy for the future and what needs to be accomplished as we move towards the end of 2014 and then, beyond 2014, the missions that we need to focus on to maintain an enduring presence.  We focused on the future.  We focused on the kind of enduring partnership that the United States and Afghanistan need to have not only now but in the years ahead.

            These discussions really convince me that ISAF and the Afghan government are indeed responding positively to recent challenges.  I commended President Karzai, I commended Minister Wardak, Minister Mohammadi in the way that they've responded to these recent events, in maintaining order and in being able to assert the kind of control that is so important to the future security of this country.

            And I think everyone also agreed that we need to stick to the strategy that we've laid out for the future.  The campaign, as I've pointed out before, I think has made significant progress.  All the leaders agree.  We have seen levels of violence down by almost 24 percent.  Fifty percent of the population is now in transition areas.  Those transitions are going well.  And the Afghan army and police are very involved operationally in the security of these key areas, and they're improving in those operations and improving in the way they are providing security for this country.

            I commended the Afghan leadership on the growing strength and capability of the ANSF.  Their effectiveness and professionalism is absolutely key to everything we're doing and essential to an effective transition to Afghan control and security.

            There's no question we're going to be tested.  We will continue to be tested in months ahead.  This is a war.  We'll continue to, I'm sure, see incidents of violence of one kind or another.  but the key is how we respond and how we are able to confront those kinds of challenges and how we are able to maintain the forward movement and forward progress that we've achieved.

            This is my sixth trip to Afghanistan, and I have to tell you that in past trips I was 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 we've outlined with our forces and the NATO forces and ISAF to proceed with these transitions to 2012, to complete the transition by the fall of 2013, to begin to change over the mission with regards to combat operations to the Afghanistan army so that they will have control of those operations, to provide support, and then to ultimately begin the ultimate drawdown by the end of 2014, and to then talk about what kind of enduring presence we maintain beyond there.  Everybody is absolutely committed to that kind of strategy.

            And ultimately, I believe that as a result of that, that we have a very good chance of succeeding in this mission, because this visit has shown me that the United States and our coalition partners and the Afghan government are fully committed to working together to build a stable, secure and peaceful Afghanistan.

            OK.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, during your meeting with Mr. Karzai, did he bring up the transfer of the staff sergeant who was accused of civilian deaths last weekend -- the transfer of that individual out of this country?  And what else was -- how did that conversation about that incident between you and the president go?

            SEC. PANETTA:  He did not -- he obviously reflected concerns about the incident and what happened and the terrible loss of life of Afghan civilians that were involved.  And I assured him that -- first and foremost, that I shared his regrets about what took place, that we extended our deepest condolences to the -- to the families, to the villages and to the Afghan people over what occurred.  And I again pledged to him that we are -- we are proceeding with a full investigation here and that we will bring the individual involved to justice. 

            And he accepted that and the hope that it could be a transparent process so that the Afghan -- Afghanistan people would see that the United States is indeed going to not only prosecute this individual but ensure that he's held accountable.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, two questions:  Could you tell us, please, in your words, why the delay in naming the suspect in the shooting?  This is taking longer than necessary -- than usual -- (inaudible).

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I'll let General Scaparrotti speak to this.  But the investigation is being done pursuant to the military code of justice, of military justice, and that it is following the procedures provided under that code.  And they are now in a -- in a pretrial process that, I believe, needs to be completed before charges are brought.  And at that time, when charges are brought, the name of this individual will be made public.

            Q:  (inaudible) --

            SEC. PANETTA:  Is that correct?

            LTG Curtis Scaparotti:  That's correct, sir.

            Q:  (inaudible) -- how much -- what were you aware of yesterday when your plane was landing and there was a car -- (inaudible) -- (chuckles) -- heading towards a ditch and -- (inaudible) -- and so forth?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I was at the time just -- it was indicated to me that there was a delay in our ability to depart the plane because of the disturbance on the -- on the airfield, and that there was a vehicle involved, but that I was later told that they had been able to secure it, and we were able to proceed.

            So I was not aware of the other details at that time as to what had taken place.

            Q:  I guess to follow up on that, do you believe that it was someone who may have been targeting you?  What was -- what were --

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah.

            Q:  -- the thoughts going through your mind about the threat to you?  And what does an incident like that, again, another incident of Afghans attacking at least the Marines who were there, what does that tell you about the concerns you might have about the safety and security of your troops?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, first of all, I had absolutely no reason to believe that any of this was directed at me, that -- from the evidence that I've been told so far --

            LTG Curtis Scaparotti:  That's right.

            SEC. PANETTA:  -- that this individual basically -- whatever happened here was directed at others that were there on the field and not me or my plane or anything associated with me.  So that -- you know, I -- you gotta -- you gotta look at whatever this -- the investigation shows with regards to this individual's motivations.

            Having said that, you know, look, as I said, this is a war area.  We're going to get these kinds of incidents.  You know, this is the sixth time that I've come to Afghanistan, and almost each time involves, you know, an incident, whether it's stuff -- I once came here and rockets were landing on a field that I was involved in.  And I've been to forward-operating bases where, you know, firings would take place -- had taken place soon before I got there.  That's the nature of war, and these incidents are going to take place. 

            We have to obviously pay attention to those kinds of situations, make sure that, as I said, we learn lessons, and that they don't happen again.  But none of this -- none of this should undermine our ability to stay focused on the mission.  And I feel -- I feel -- felt that way before yesterday and I feel that way today, that, you know, we can -- we can take on these kinds of situations, deal with them, but keep our eye on the primary mission of being able to transition to Afghan control and security.  And I think ultimately that's what the ultimate answer here -- is to complete that transition process so that Afghanistan can take control of these kinds of situations. 

            LTG Curtis Scaparotti:  (Inaudible) -- on that note, with the green-on-blue or blue-on-green incidents, we take that seriously in terms of the force protection.  It's also a partnership issue in a sense that they take it seriously, and both the Afghans and the coalition forces have worked together to protect our soldiers because actually the Afghans have had Afghan-on-Afghan incidents as well.  So we're working the issue together.  We take it seriously. 

            In context, I would remind you that while we had an increase each year in the numbers, those are relatively low numbers when you consider that we have over 100,000 coalition troops working with over 300,000 Afghan troops, side by side, day to day, in these operations.  And together I think we're certain we're a strong relationship yet, and we're moving on with our focus on the objectives day to day that we have to get done. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yes, sir.

            Q:  General Allen is drawing up a plan that would draw down to 23,00 surge troops by the end of September.  Do you have that plan yet?  If not, do you have a deadline when you'd like to see that plan so the -- (inaudible) -- can be -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  General Allen has indicated in this -- actually a few months ago, when we were talking about the completion of the drawdown on the surge, that he would present a plan to me sometime in April that would lay out the formal plan for how we would complete that drawdown by the end of September.  And so I'm awaiting that plan at that time.  I have full confidence that he'll present me a very good plan as to how we accomplish that drawdown of 23,000. 

            STAFF:  Last question ?

            Q:  As a follow-up, was there any discussion about some of the elements of that plan during your visit here? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  No, no, I'm leaving it in his hands.

            This is a -- I will say this, this -- you know, this is a big logistical challenge here.  We've got a number of bases here. 

            We've got a number of troops here.  We've got, you know, a huge amount of equipment that's located here.  And the process of being able to plan any level of drawdown is -- presents a logistical challenge to do it and to do it right.  And so that's the reason we need a plan.  And once we put a plan in place, as we saw in Iraq, we'll accomplish that plan.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, did you discuss with President Karzai at all on the issue of night raids?  Are you closer to reaching an agreement on how to go forward?

            SEC. PANETTA:  We talked about the importance of putting a strategic partnership declaration in place, hopefully before Chicago, and that we've made good progress on the -- obviously, completing the MOU, memorandum of understanding with regards to detentions.  And I commended him for the effort to get that done.  And he also expressed confidence that we would be able to work out an MOU on the night raid issue as well.  So I'm feeling -- I'm feeling very confident that these issues are in the right place and that hopefully, we can accomplish that before Chicago.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, just to follow up on that, are there some areas in terms of the night raids that you're not comfortable going into, in other words, some restrictions that President Karzai might want that American commanders and even yourself might consider too much of an intrusion on the ability to conduct special operations raids and military operations in general?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, the good thing -- and I -- the general could probably speak to this, but I think the good thing is we've really begun a process here of moving a lot of this capability to the Afghans themselves so they have -- they develop a strike capability to do these kinds of raids on their own and to put an Afghan face on that.  And in addition, the ones that we conduct now do include Afghans as part of that process.

            And so I think the elements that concerned President Karzai and the elements that concern us -- that there have been very good discussions that tell me that there's a way to get this done that can satisfy his concerns and also meet our needs as well.

            Make no mistake about it:  It is important that we continue these operations.  They've been extremely important to our ability to go after the terrorist leadership that try to destabilize this country.  We need to continue to do that.  And we'll continue to do it with the Afghans.  And that's going to be the key to the future.

            GEN.    :  Yes, sir, I think primarily both of us are looking at the effectiveness of these operations because there are -- they're a significant portion of our momentum.  And we want to do the transitions and the change of processes in a way that we can continue that effectiveness and then ensure the protection of both the Afghan forces and ours who take part in them.  And I think we're moving forward, and we'll -- we will -- we will come to an agreement here and a good way of doing this -- (inaudible).

            STAFF:  Yeah.

            SEC. PANETTA:  (Inaudible) -- right behind.  Go ahead.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)  My question is about the -- (inaudible) -- between -- (inaudible).  Do you believe that the -- (inaudible) -- solution will be transparency?  And this is not the first time that these -- (off mic) -- in Afghanistan.  Many times these things happen.  But do you have any -- (off mic)?  Because this incident -- (off mic)?

           SEC. PANETTA:  Well -- yeah.

            Q:  When you -- when you were talking to President Karzai, did you in fact believe -- (off mic)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Again, my commitment to him was that we will -- we will move forward with this investigation, we will complete it, and we will hold the individual that was involved here accountable and bring him -- bring him to justice.  That's something that I pledged to do with him.

            I also indicated to him that we take these kinds of incidents seriously and that we need to look at just exactly what was involved here that resulted in this kind of terrible crime.  And you know, I think what we have to do is pay attention to what were the circumstances that led to what happened here and then take steps to make sure that we don't repeat that.

            You know, was it related to combat stress?  Was it related to other factors?  I mean, those are the kinds of things I think we need to pay attention to to make sure that it doesn't happen.

            Q:  But people -- Afghans want to punish him -- (inaudible).

            SEC. PANETTA:  That -- let me assure you and let me assure the Afghan people that he will be held accountable and duly punished under our military code of justice.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, according to the -- (off mic).  Back at home, some of your former colleagues -- many of your former colleagues in the Congress are growing extremely wary of the American involvement here.  Certainly the public, polls show, is less and less supportive, doesn't quite understand what we're achieving and how it will be sustainable.  What do you say to them as to why the American people need to stick this out for at least another three years, what will obviously -- (off mic) -- more violent?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, look, the Afghan people are tired of war.  You know, 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 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 are very close to accomplishing that.

            But the key right now is to stay on that mission and to not allow these events to undermine that strategy, not allow our frustrations and, you know, whatever concerns we have to undermine the principal goal that we're here to achieve.

            We are -- we're on the right path.  I'm absolutely convinced of that.  But the key right now is to stick to that path.  And if we -- if we do anything precipitous to back away from that, I think that, in my mind, would -- could very well jeopardize our mission.

            STAFF:  Two more questions.  Dan ?

            Q:  Just on the strategic partnership agreement:  You said you were optimistic.  Can I ask you what is the risk that doesn't come about, there's not an agreement?  What -- (off mic) -- proxy civil war situation?  And then if there is a strategic pact, what kind of role would the U.S. military possibly have?  You mentioned logistics, air power, counterterrorism; is that still -- (off mic)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, I -- first of all, I'm very confident we're going to get a strategic partnership agreement.  I -- in the conversation I had with President Karzai, I certainly got the very clear indication that he was very interested in being able to complete negotiations with regards to that agreement.  That agreement will basically set a framework for what our relationship will be, not only through 2014 but beyond.  And so I'm very confident that we'll be able to get that achieved.  And I'm also confident that it will set the framework for what -- you know, what the United States and the -- and Afghanistan need to do between now and the end of 2014 and beyond.

            There are clearly some missions that we will have to continue here as part of our enduring presence.  We'll have to continue to focus on counterterrorism, and President Karzai agreed with that, that we have to continue to make sure that the terrorists do not in any way regain any capability here, and that's important; secondly, to continue to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces and try to make sure that they maintain a level of operational skill to ensure security here; and then to provide some kind of enabling capability as well to assure that these forces are fully supported.

            I think -- I think there is a consensus on what the needs are here.  We'll have to continue discussions as to what level of support will be required to fulfill those missions.

            Q:  And the danger of this president -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I -- you know, I think -- I guess -- it's not a danger that I see as being very realistic at this point just because I think both President Karzai as well as the United States recognizes that, you know, we've come a long way, and our ability to now lay the groundwork for what we need to do from here to 2014 is in their best interest as well as ours.

            STAFF:  Last question, from Larry.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, reports are coming out on the East Coast this morning that the jobless rates for Iraq and Afghanistan vets have dropped below the national unemployment rate, a drop of nearly 5 points in the last 12 months.  I'm sure you have a reaction to that.  And is there any particular program or change in trying to improve that situation, which has been so bad in recent years, that you think is doing the most to help put these veterans who leave these war zones back to work?

           SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, you know, I've - I heard the report and obviously was relieved that, you know, we're moving in the right direction there, mainly because I have to tell you that over these next few years as we begin the transition as a result of the -- having to put in place 487 billion [dollars] in savings over these next 10 years, we're going to be transitioning more troops.  And it's very important that we be able to do it in a way that gives them the ability to find a job, to find a decent education, to be able to start a business and not simply wind up on the unemployment rolls.

            The key to that is not only the programs that each of the services have in place, but getting the private sector to put together a jobs profile that gives people coming back an opportunity to be able to get a job.  I have to commend the private sector because they really have put together a large number of jobs that are available to veterans when they come back.  I think that's been one of the important things.

            I think secondly, the public campaign to make that kind of -- to make the American people aware that we've got to be able to provide these opportunities to veterans -- what the president has done, what the secretary of the Veterans Administration has done, Secretary Shinseki, what we have done at DOD to kind of get that message across to the American people -- I think all of that helps pay off as well, plus an economy that is doing better.  I think all of those things are combining to hopefully address that need.

            STAFF:  Thank you all very much.

            SEC. PANETTA:  OK.