PETER MANSBRIDGE: Mr. Secretary, have we – and I use the kind of collective we, the NATO we – have we outlived our welcome in Afghanistan?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: No, I really believe that the Afghan people for the first time are seeing the real possibility that they can govern and secure that country themselves, and they want to move towards that goal, and so do we. That’s the whole point here. This was about being able to ensure that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for al-Qaida and for their terrorist allies to be able to plan any kind of attack on the United States, or any place else in the world for that matter.
But to get that, you’ve got to have an Afghanistan that can secure and control and govern itself. Now we’re making good progress there. We really are.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: That seems so hard after these – especially the recent situations.
SEC. PANETTA: Oh, sure.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: We have the president of Afghanistan wanting NATO troops to withdraw from certain areas. You’ve got these incredible incidents that have taken place, including the – you call it the green on blue, the insider killings. In other words, the people – the NATO troops have trained Afghan security forces, turning against NATO troops.
You see that kind of thing and you see the level of unrest on the people who want to be left alone. They want foreign troops out. And that leads to that question, have we over-stayed our welcome?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, but they also want to be secure. You know, war is hell. War is not going to be a, you know, bowl of cherries every day. It’s hell and it involves fighting an enemy that has been committed to trying to control that country. We’ve actually – we have made a turning point. I mean, in comparison to what we’ve seen over the last few weeks there the level of violence is down. We have been able to weaken al-Qaida, al-Qaida and the Taliban significantly. As a matter of fact, the Taliban have not been able to conduct one organized attack to regain any territory that they’ve lost. They’ve lost that ability to do that.
Thirdly, the Afghan army is much more effective operationally. And lastly, the areas we’ve transitioned – and we’ve now transitioned over half of the Afghan population has been transitioned to their control and their security, and we’re going to continue that effort. So the whole goal here is in line with what the Afghans want. It’s in line with what President Karzai wants, which is a country that they secure and govern themselves.
That can’t happen overnight. We can’t just pick up and get the hell out of there. We’ve got to be able to do this in a way that guarantees that that country is going to be able to control and secure itself. And I think General Allen has laid out a strategy that will get us there and we’ve got to stick to that.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: What about the American people, the Canadian people, the British people, all of whom now, it seems, when you read the research data and the polling data, are saying it’s time to get out.
SEC. PANETTA: You know, after 10 years of war, everybody’s tired of war.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: But they don’t seem to be hearing the story you just told me, about the accomplishments that are happening.
SEC. PANETTA: No, I think – part of that is that everybody focuses on what happens that day and the incident that takes place, you know, that’s always a focal point. Good news has a hard time making it to the headlines these days, but the fact is there is good news.
The fact is we are on the right track and the fact is we’ve got to stay committed there because in the end, you know, the American people, the Canadian people, the British people, people of the world, I think, understand that the lives we’ve lost there – and we’ve spilled a lot of blood there – that those lives cannot be lost in vain, that the whole goal here was to achieve an Afghanistan that could secure and govern itself, and that’s what we’ve got to stay focused on and that’s the mission we’ve got to accomplish.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Why are the kind of incidents that are happening, happening?
SEC. PANETTA: I think, you know, my own view is that part of this is the frustration of the Taliban who’ve been unable to get back into the populations. One of the important things that happened in 2011 is that the Afghans themselves – because of the army, because of the police, because of the Afghan people themselves – basically have rejected the Taliban and what they’ve tried to do. And they haven’t been able to work their way back in, they haven’t been able to, as I said, conduct any kind of organized effort to regain any land that they’ve lost.
And so what do you do in that situation? You always turn to the kind of incidents that can try to undermine the population and the public support for this because of the impact of that particular incident. So the whole green on blue incidents that we’ve seen I think is in part a reflection of that, and in part it’s a reflection of certain individuals who, for whatever reason, decide to behave in that manner.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: You’re suggesting – I assume you’re suggesting that the Taliban has been successful in infiltrating small parts, but parts nevertheless, of the Afghan security forces.
SEC. PANETTA: I think we’re seeing incidents where they’ve been able to do that, but at the same time, you know, when you look at the overwhelming majority of the Afghan army and Afghan police, they’re out there doing the job every day. As a matter of fact, in response to every one of these incidents they’ve maintained order, they’ve maintained law enforcement in these areas, they’ve protected against the kind of demonstrations that have gotten out of hand. There have been no large-scale desertions. They’re doing the job that they’re supposed to do.
The overwhelming majority of Afghans who are in the service are doing the right thing. Yes, you’re going to run into a bad apple. Hell, we run into bad apples on our own side every once and a while that do crazy things. But that should not be the measure on which you decide whether or not your mission is being achieved. The measure has to be the success of that mission and that’s what we’re doing.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: It’s almost been a year now since the night you took out Osama bin Laden. What’s different because of that?
SEC. PANETTA: The world is safer.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Because of one man?
SEC. PANETTA: Oh, yes, absolutely. This man was committed to attacking the United States, committed to attacking other countries.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Does he still have the ability to control that?
SEC. PANETTA: I think there’s no question he continues to assert that kind of almost spiritual leadership that he had, and people continued to refer to that. He continued to try to assert that and did – one of the things we found by going through the material at Abbottabad, the compound he had there, is that he was continuing to make efforts, continuing to work with his leadership to be able to conduct further attacks.
And so he was clearly committed to that goal, and the very fact that, you know, he was the individual that put together the 9/11 attack I think made very clear that he was someone we absolutely had to go after, we had to get, and that the key to undermining al-Qaida and to undermining their effort to continue that effort was in large measure going to be getting rid of bin Laden.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: So his leadership was beyond spiritual. He still had direct connection through his people.
SEC. PANETTA: Oh, yes. He was still working through couriers to get his message across. Matter of fact, it was the couriers that ultimately led us to the compound. But he was continuing to use them in order to be able to get his message out and in order to be able to communicate with the other leaders within al-Qaida.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: But was al-Qaida still, and is still now, a significant force at that time? Because we were getting used to being told that, you know, it’s a spent force.
SEC. PANETTA: There’s no question that we have been very successful at going after their leadership, not only bin Laden but we’ve gone after a number of their other key leaders, and we made it very difficult for them to put any kind of command and control together or to put together the kind of plan that was involved in the attack on 9/11.
Having said that, they continue to be a threat. Continue to be a threat not just in the FATA, in Pakistan. They continue to be a threat in Yemen and Somalia and in North Africa, and so for that reason we just can’t stop continuing to put pressure on them to make sure that they never again have the opportunity to attack our country.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Now you mention how – you took a lot of material out of that compound and you’ve now had almost a year to go through it all. Have you been able to determine, in what you’ve seen, any direct connection with Pakistan for his ability to live and operate within a stone’s throw of Pakistan’s – one of its most important military installations?
SEC. PANETTA: I have not. And you know, there’s been a lot of material. They’ve gone through a lot of material. We haven’t had access to, obviously, all of the analysis that’s been done, but I have not heard any kind of evidence that involved a direct connection to the Pakistanis. Obviously the concern has always been how could a compound like this, how could bin Laden be in an area where there were military establishments, where we could see the military operating and not have them know.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: And how could it? How could it operate there without their knowledge?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, these situations sometimes, you know, the leadership within Pakistan [sic] is obviously not aware of certain things and yet people lower down in the military establishment find it very well, they’ve been aware of it. But bottom line is that we have not had evidence that provides that direct link.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Are you comfortable with the Pakistan military and intelligence community?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, it’s a complex relationship. It always has been and I suspect it always will be. In some ways we share a common – common concern and a common threat. Terrorism is as much a threat to Pakistan and the people of Pakistan as it is to us and to the people of Afghanistan. And the fact is that they lost an awful lot of lives because of terrorism.
And they continue to conduct military operations against the terrorists. So in many ways we have common cause, but the problem is that they view their position in that part of the world as one that is threatened, threatened by India, threatened by others, threatened by some of the terrorists, threatened by the concern about, you know, how they’re going to be viewed in that region, what kind of position are they going to have for the future.
And as a result of that, sometimes we get very mixed messages from Pakistan as to just exactly where they’re going to be. We’ve had ups and downs, but my view is it’s an absolutely essential relationship if we’re going to be able to, A, go after the enemy that we’re concerned about, and B, frankly, you can’t really have peace in Afghanistan until we’ve been able to ensure that we have peace in Pakistan with regards to the terrorists.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Now you never told the Pakistanis anything about the raid that was about to take place on bin Laden, for those fears, right? Fears that they wouldn’t keep it a secret?
SEC. PANETTA: The concern we had is that, you know, we had provided intelligence to them with regards to other areas and unfortunately, for one way or another, it got leaked to the individuals we were trying to go after. So as a result of that we were concerned that if we were going to perform a sensitive mission like this, we had to do it on our own.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Is the trust any deeper or better today than it was a year ago?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, we’ve – as I said, it’s a complex relationship. We’ve been through our ups and downs. We’re actually in a period now, after coming out of a couple of incidents, where I think they’re interested and we’re interested in trying to put this back on track. And as a result of that actually I think we’re making some progress, trying to re-open the blocks, the portals for our supplies. We’re making some good progress with regards to cross-border operations. They are taking some steps to go after terrorists.
So, you know, slowly but surely we’re trying to get things back in the right place, to try to ensure that both of us are working against terrorism.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Iran. The focus has been on Iran a lot this year, from a lot of different Western governments and we all know why. Can you share what you believe to be the latest situation on Iran’s nuclear capability?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, we obviously have common cause with the world really, all of our international partners, the international community. Many of the Arab countries are worried about what’s happening in Iran. I think all of us have common cause that we cannot allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. And you know, the best intelligence we have now indicates that obviously they continue to work at developing their – some of their nuclear capabilities but that they have not made the decision to actually produce a nuclear weapon. I think there’s consensus on that in terms of the intelligence community.
But having said that, there remains a lot of concern about just exactly, you know, how are they behaving, what are their motivations. They seem to be involved in spreading terrorism. They’re involved in providing weapons to groups that, you know, that are terrorists. They work with Hezbollah, they work with Hamas, they work with other terrorist-associated groups. And they continue to violate international rules and we can’t have that happen.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Why would a policy of containment not work, given that situation, and the fear that they may start to just, you know, to build a nuclear weapon? I mean, containment worked against the Soviet Union, worked against China. Why wouldn’t it work against a country like Iran? They’ve ruled it out, have you not?
SEC. PANETTA: That’s right. And the reason we ruled it out is that we cannot allow a country that supports terrorism to have a nuclear weapon. If they have a nuclear weapon and they’re basically providing weapons to terrorist groups around the world, imagine what that would mean in terms of the safety of the world.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Would not containment mean sealing that country off to prevent it, Iran, supplying any kind of weapon to anyone else?
SEC. PANETTA: What we’re trying to do now with sanctions we’re putting in place, both diplomatic and economic sanctions, is to isolate them and to make very clear to them that until they change the way they behave, they’re going to continue to be isolated. And they’re not going to be welcomed to the family of nations.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Do you have any evidence that they’ve stopped providing weapons, given the fact that they’re – those sanctions –
SEC. PANETTA: No, but you know, there is evidence that these sanctions are hurting, that it’s impacting on their economy, it’s impacting on their ability to govern themselves. It’s impacting on their relationships with other countries. It’s impacting on their position in the world, and we are weakening Iran as a result of that. We’re isolating them and I think we just have to keep that pressure on them until they recognize that they have to change their ways.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: But the bottom line, you have seen no reason to believe as of this moment that in their work on their nuclear capabilities that it is leading in any way towards the building of a weapon?
SEC. PANETTA: As I said, the intelligence analysis to this point has been that while they continue to enrich, while they continue to try to develop their nuclear capabilities, that they have not made that decision to actually proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: A couple of quick issues that impact on this country. The F-35, as you know, is an issue of some discussions here in this country. You’re 100 percent behind the F-35. Are you concerned, hearing the things that you’ve heard from Canada, especially in the last month, that the Canadian government is beginning the process of withdrawing?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I had good conversations with the defense leader – the defense minister, Peter Mackay, and I really feel that they are fully committed to proceeding with trying to obtain the F-35. In the end obviously Canada’s going to have to make their decision based on what they think is right for their defense.
The United States is committed to this because this is a fifth-generation fighter. This is the future. We’re in the 21st century. We have got to develop that kind of capability for the future, and yes, it’s – it’s not easy. This is all cutting edge technology. You’re going to have to test it, you’re going to have to make sure it works, and we’ve been through that.
We’ve got three variants on the fighter that we’re trying to develop. They’re all testing pretty well. We think we’ve gone through a lot of the difficult challenges, and at this –
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Are they testing well?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, they are.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Because, you know, from a distance you keep hearing things about cost overruns. That’s one thing. They’re significant. That the testing isn’t going as well, it’s not delivering on the kind of things that a fifth-generation fighter is supposed to be delivering on.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, let me give you – let me give you an example. The STOVL, which is the one that takes off this way.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Vertical.
SEC. PANETTA: Vertical takeoffs. It had five particular problems that concerned my predecessor, Secretary Gates, so he put it on probation, and I think it was about a year ago. And over this last year every one of those issues has been addressed to the satisfaction of the people in the procurement area, that we’ve now got this in the right place. So –
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Unfortunately, that’s not the one Canada’s buying.
SEC. PANETTA: No, I understand, but you know, the other planes have done the same thing. Questions have arisen, the concerns have been addressed.
Now, look, this is, as I said, this is cutting-edge technology. You’re dealing with the latest – it’s going to have to be fully tested. I have a responsibility to the American taxpayer to make sure that this is done in as cost-efficient a way as possible and we’re going to do that. And in addition to that, frankly, the industries that are developing this plane have a responsibility to hold the costs down as well.
If they want to be able to benefit from this, then they’re going to have to do their part in making sure that we try to hold this within cost limits. So we’re making progress. We’ve got to keep a steady pace on this, with proper oversight but also proper dedication to getting this weapon in place.
Mr. MANSBRIDGE: The name Omar Khadr. Does that mean anything to you?
SEC. PANETTA: (Inaudible.)
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Did that come up in any of your discussions –
SEC. PANETTA: Well –
MR. MANSBRIDGE: And what can you share with us on that? Has Canada asked for his –
SEC. PANETTA: We are negotiating to try to see if we can transfer that individual to Canada. Those discussions are ongoing. I’m confident that ultimately we will be able to work out the issue so that in fact he can be transferred to a Canadian jurisdiction.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Has Canada asked for a transfer yet?
SEC. PANETTA: Canada has expressed an interest in trying to work this through and we are working with them to make it happen.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: How long have those discussions been going on?
SEC. PANETTA: They’ve been going on a while, but we’re making good progress. And I’m really confident that we’re going to be able to do it this time.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: A quick word on the relationship with Canada, U.S., Mexico. We’re going finish here on time. Are you OK, or a couple of minutes?
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Well, if I get two minutes, I’ll go another way. (Laughter.)
You know, anybody who goes through your background and goes through the things that you’ve done in your career, decades of public service in a lot of different positions – you know, elected positions and appointed positions, leadership roles and very close – well, senior leadership roles. This is a question I ask as often as I can because to me it’s still one of the great puzzles. And that’s to try to understand leadership and what makes strong, good, responsible leadership.
You’ve been there. What is it to you?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I guess everybody has to – everybody comes to leadership from, you know, from their own backgrounds obviously, and my background is basically what committed me to public service. One, I had immigrant parents from Italy who came and got the opportunity to succeed and wanted to make sure they gave something back to the country.
Secondly, I was in the Army for two years and saw what it was like to work together with a group of people to accomplish a mission together and that impressed me as to that kind of duty.
And then lastly there was a young president who said it was more important to ask not what you’re country can do for you but what you can do for your country. All of that combined to interest me in public service and giving back to the country. That’s what I’ve done through most of my career.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: When you stand beside a president, serving that person – and I’m not asking for any particulars, what is it that makes a leader? What’s the one quality that you point to that says this person can lead; I would follow this person? What is it?
SEC. PANETTA: I think the one quality that I think is what the American dream is all about, and the Canadian dream is all about, is whether or not what you do improves the lives of our children. If you can say that what you’re doing helps improve the lives of our children, then you’re a leader.
MR. MANSBRIDGE: Mr. Secretary, on that note I’ll leave it. Thanks so much for being here. Nobody’s ever given that answer.