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Remarks by Secretary Carter at a Troop Event in Kandahar, Afghanistan

STAFF:  Sir, on behalf of all CAP, and members here in TAC-South, assembled airmen, and soldiers, sailors, we have the honor of the first trip from the 25th secretary of defense, the Honorable Dr. Ashton Carter. 

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Thank you.  Please sit down.

Thank you, colonel (off mic). 

How wonderful it is to be here, for me, in Kandahar.  As Colonel (off mic) said, this is the first thing I wanted to do as I became -- towards the end of this week, as your secretary of defense, is to come here to Afghanistan to you because I want you to know that you're the most important thing to me.

You're what I wake up to every morning.  I never forget for one minute that you're here, and what you're doing, and the sacrifice that being here entails, and the risk that it entails for you. 

And I want to say thank you for doing that, and thank you not only on my own behalf, but on behalf of the department and the country. 

I have been coming to Afghanistan over the years, many times, and the mission you represent and the progress that you are making here is extremely impressive, more on that in a moment. 

But the real reason to come here is to say thank you to you.  And so I want you to do something this afternoon or tonight.  And that is when you have a chance, to make a phone call or send an email. 

And you're doing that with whoever is close to you, whether it's a spouse or parents or children or a close friend, whomever you count on, tell them you were thanked today for what you're doing here by the secretary of defense on behalf of a grateful country.  Please do that for me. 

The second reason that I am here is to assess progress being made here so that I can best determine what we should do here in the future, make those recommendations to President Obama, share with him my impressions of the progress being made here, where we still have work to do, the impressive work that you're doing here, and what you are doing right here in Kandahar, the TAA mission.

It is now becoming the heart of the effort in Afghanistan that will make the success that we have been aiming for all these years, and have sacrificed so much for, stick. 

That's what TAA is about, is making sure that when we're not gone, because we'll never be gone from Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is an important country in the world, but when our presence here is reduced to something much smaller than today, we want to make sure that the Afghans themselves are able to preserve the environment which our forces have created over the last few years, one of relative security and stability.

And they can't do that without you.  And it's not that the Afghans aren't good at fighting, they are.  But just a few years ago there really was no Afghan national security force at all.  That we built with them and some other countries in the international community, an entire coalition.

And they're getting on their feet now, and they're beginning to do the things alone that we used to do for them, then we did with them, and now we're doing -- they're doing in a way where we assist, but are not actually carrying them out. 

That's what TAA is all about.  That's what you all are doing.  And without that, we can't make the success of the last few years stick.  And, of course, that's what we want.  We want it to be permanent and enduring. 

And that can only happen if the Afghan security forces themselves get strong and powerful. 

The -- I had the opportunity yesterday to speak to President Ghani, and to Abdullah Abdullah -- Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer of the country.  I've had a chance to speak to our commanders here, General Campbell, our superb commander of the overall effort here who is so well respected by everybody in the United States and certainly in Washington, and our ambassador here, and the rest of the team.

I also had a chance to meet, as I said, with President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.  There's one thing that President Ghani said that I want to share with you.  He said, and I think he would want me to say this to you, in fact he said that:  Would you please tell your people that I appreciate the sacrifice they have made for my country. 

Just think about that, remember that.  He said how much he appreciates the sacrifice we have made for his country. 

Now I think we have made tremendous sacrifices for his country.  But I was -- I told him that I was very glad to hear him say that, and that I knew that all of you would be glad to hear him say that, and that everybody back home would be glad to hear that he had said that, because we have sacrificed so much. 

We've given so much to create the conditions here that you now see in front of you where the Afghan security forces stand a real shot at making success stick.  But it's still not done and it won't be done without what you are accomplishing here in Kandahar with the TAA mission. 

The -- I will have the opportunity when I go back to Washington to also think about the future of our military, and our force, in other words, the future of you as well as what you're doing now. 

We'll have a chance in a few moments for you to ask me questions or make whatever observations you have about that.  But you should know that in addition to my daily uppermost concern for your welfare and your safety, next to that is my commitment to the future of our force.

To those of you who I hope will stay with us and stay in, and those who will come after you and make sure that we continue to be the finest fighting force in the world, which we certainly are today, and that's a credit to you.

So, once again, thank you.  Please make sure that your families back home know how much we appreciate what you're doing out here. 

I'm going to take some questions now.  And then I'm going to give you a coin.  And before I do that, let me tell you a little bit about the coin.  It doesn't have my name on it, because I'm so new they haven't made any coins with my name on it yet. 

So I'm sorry about that.  It's a more generic secretary of defense coin.  It may not be as valuable on eBay as -- (Laughter) -- an Aston B. Carter coin, but you can trade up later. 

But it will give me a chance individually to look each of you in the eye and thank you.  And we'll get a picture of that.  And you can send that home.  And that will be proof of how grateful we are for what you're doing out here. 

Let me take some questions.  And they can be of any subject at all.  Don't stray too far from things affecting the secretary of defense or I won't know the answer.  But any --



Q:  (off mic)

SEC. CARTER:  Very good.  Thank you.  I'm sorry -- there we go. 

Okay.  So the question, I'm not sure everybody could hear that, but, yeah, one of my priorities, as I mentioned, was building the force of the future.  And the question was about the cyber dimension of building a force of the future, which -- and cyber has to be a part of building the force of the future, is in fact that part of the force of right now.

One of the reasons we are the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, besides you, which is the fundamental reason, is because of the way we leverage technology, and especially information technology. 

But that's a field that's exploding, and it's a field that's everywhere in the world.  And that means that if we don't change and we don't keep up, we can't keep our position as the best in the world. 

We're determined to do that.  We have a substantial lead now.  There's no reason why we can't keep it.  But, you know, you don't get to be the greatest in life by resting on your laurels. 

The reason we'll stay the greatest is that we'll keep striving to be at the forefront.  And in today's world the only way to be excellent is to be open to ideas from the outside.  You can't think of everything yourself and you can't do everything yourself. 

So we have to be an open institution in the future, open to ideas, open to new technology in order to stay good.  And so we value our traditions in the military.  And that's a wonderful thing. 

But in our military we've always managed to have both tradition and change.  And that’s been the great combination that made our military the best.  We'll always have the tradition- the tradition.  We've got to keep up with the change, and cyber is going to be an important part of it.

Another question?

Q:  Sir, I'm Lieutenant (inaudible) Battalion. 

I have a question about military retirement.  So recently a congressional commission has suggested changing military retirement.  What is your opinion of the current 20-year military retirement plan?  And what do you suggest we do in the future with military retirement?

SEC. CARTER:  Great.  Question was about the military retirement system.  And let me begin by saying that I'm, of course, open to reconsidering the military retirement system.  It has been around for a long time.  It makes sense to take a look at it. 

This commission did.  They have sent their report to me.  I'm studying it.  Ultimately under the law I'm required to then tell President Obama what I think about it.  And I haven't had a chance to do all that yet, and absorb it. 

But I'll tell you where my starting point is, as I do that.  What's critical here is that we have a system that attracts -- that will keep the all-volunteer force healthy in the future, that is, that continues to be a retirement structure that is attractive to people to get in, and appropriate -- gives them appropriate incentives along the way to either stay in or retire at a time that is best for them and best for the force. 

So the -- that's the only—that’s the criterion that I will principally apply in considering these things.  It's not about money.  It's not about anything else.  It's fundamentally mostly about the health of the force in the future. 

And that's the lens through which I will look at it.  It obviously has financial implications for each and every individual service member, and for the country as a whole. 

But thing one is making sure that we have the right people.  And there's one other thing I should say, which is -- and this is in-line in what the commission said, is that any change we make be one that those who are already in service don't have to make if they don't want to. 

Because I don't want to breach our understanding with you at the time you joined, that's not fair.  But we can make other alternatives available to those who may join in the future, and also available to those who are in now. 

But if we made a deal with you when you first got in, I think we ought to keep that deal.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being here.  I'm Lieutenant Commander Jesse Ehrenfeld.

It means the world to me that in your first week on the job you came to spend the time with us, to thank us for what we're doing, so that -- I just want to thank you for that. 

Quick question for you:  What are your thoughts on transgender service members serving in an austere environment like this here in Kandahar?

SEC. CARTER:  I come at that from a fundamental starting point.  It's not something I've studied a lot since I became secretary of defense.  But I come at this kind of question from a fundamental starting point, which is that we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country.

And I'm very open-minded about -- otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us.  That's the important criteria.  Are they going to be excellent service members?

And I don't think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.

Q:  Sir, I'm Lieutenant (inaudible).  I'm the (inaudible). 

I'm wondering what your thoughts are on efforts within the Japanese government to amend the self-defense clause of the constitution that have potential impacts on our defense policy in the region.

SEC. CARTER:  The question was about the Japanese changes being made in their self-defense policy, and the significance of that going forward.  It is very significant. 

And just to -- for those of you who don't know the background, after the Japanese defeat in World War II, it was written into their constitution that their -- the use of their military shall be strictly circumscribed to the defense of the Japanese islands themselves.

The Japanese are now contemplating, as I think is appropriate, a wider role in their region and the world where they can play a positive role around the world the way the United States military plays a positive role around the world, and in their region.

And so they're debating that and they're thinking about how they can do that and so forth.  And I think that's going to have a very positive effect on the security situation in East Asia and the Pacific.

I think Japan can, despite the background of history, that that can be surmounted by the region, and that they can make a very positive contribution and a growing contribution. 

They have a substantial military, a powerful military.  They've spent a lot on it over the years.  They are proficient.  They are well-equipped.  And they can make an important contribution to international security. 

So I'm very open to their doing that.  And I expect in the course of my having this role soon, actually, to be discussing that with Japanese colleagues.  It's an excellent question, very important development.

Q:  Sir, (inaudible) from (inaudible) Company, Task Force (inaudible).

My question is, sir, during your congressional hearings you mentioned something about the micromanagement of DoD.  What was your meaning?  And can you explain?

SEC. CARTER:  Right.  So the question was, what about micromanagement of DoD by the White House? 

So let me tell you my take on that, very, very, very fair question.  So we have two things that we owe our elected leadership as an institution.  The first, of course, is excellent carrying out of their policies and orders, which you do so magnificently.

The second is advising the president, our elected leadership, on what they ought to ask us to do.  And on that first part I'll just tell you where I come from, which is I think that the president deserves from me, and I pledge to him and then I did in my confirmation hearing which, as you've indicated, my most candid advice.

I'm not going to pull any punches, I'll say it exactly the way I see it.  That's what he wants.  That's what he deserves.  He won't necessarily do what I recommend, okay?  Fair enough.

He's the president, I'm not.  But he deserves to hear what I say and what I think.  And that's one of the reasons that he hired me. 

At the same time, also importantly, I, as secretary of defense, have a responsibility to ensure that the president receives professional military advice also, which is another source of tremendous experience and expertise. 

I mean, think of the experience and expertise represented in this room.  Think of the experience and expertise of General Campbell and many others in this room.  That's very valuable also. 

And so my view is that I know the president, I think he is somebody who really wants to think through problems, and who also is quite aware of how many issues there are around the world that bubble up every day. 

One person, no matter how able they are, couldn't possibly get on top of all those things.  He needs help.  And one of my jobs is to help him, and then to carry out those instructions with the excellence that we have.

And I think we're capable of doing that.  I think we've shown abundant evidence that we can do that and will continue to do that.  So to me it's that simple.  I'm going to play it absolutely straight. 

That's the kind of person I am.  That's the kind of secretary of defense he has told me he wants.  And that's the kind of secretary of defense I'll be.  So it's as simple as that to me.

Q:  Sir, Kevin (inaudible) commander, (inaudible). 

Sir, with the current military obligations worldwide continue to unfold, does the downsizing of the military hold the same priority level, sir?

SEC. CARTER:  The question was, with all that's going on in the world, does the downsizing of the military, is that concerning to me, I guess, is the question?

Q:  Yeah.  Priority level to downsize the military with everything going on, sir.

SEC. CARTER:  The -- I'm going to be very upfront with you.  I'm somebody who is adamantly opposed to sequester.  And that is a process that is unwise.  It's unsafe for our security going forward. 

And we -- and I've said this ever since I started this job, and it hasn't been that long, but I'm going to keep saying it and say it very insistently, we've got to spend enough money on defense to protect our country and protect our interests. 

And we just can't have a mindless mechanism that decides what the defense budget is.  The sensible way to decide what the defense budget is is to decide what the country needs to protect itself and its interests and its allies, and then do that.

And I'll just add one other thing to that answer, which is also important.  I think that if we're going to be persuasive to our fellow citizens so that they give us what we need to protect them, we have to also be able to show that we've put every dollar to good use.

That's the other part of the contract.  And my reaction every time somebody says, hey, wait, how are you spending your money?  Fair enough.  Fair enough.  It’s fair enough to be challenged and make sure that we're using all that money that we are given to the best possible (inaudible).

That said, we need enough to protect ourselves.  And sequester is a way of deciding what the defense budget is without thinking.  And that is not safe. 

Okay.  I'm getting the hook here.  But let me go back to where I started, which is, thank you for what you do.  I'm now going to get a chance to look each of you in the eye and say exactly that to you. 

And I really mean it.  Call somebody up and say that, you know, here I am over here, you know I'm over here.  Maybe they don't know why you're over here, maybe they don't follow these things very closely or whatever.  Maybe they follow it extremely closely, because you're their loved one and they're constantly concerned for you.

But one thing they can rest sure of tonight is that your country appreciates what you're doing. 

 So come on up here and let me say that to you each, individually. (Applause.)