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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - 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.

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