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September 27 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - September 27, 2012

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Good afternoon. Since General Dempsey just returned from the war front, we thought it would be worth making some comments on Afghanistan. And then, I'll invite General Dempsey to share his perspective as well. 

            Last week, as you know, we completed the drawdown of 33,000 surge forces that the president ordered to Afghanistan in December of 2009. As I said in announcing this milestone last week, it is clear that the surge allowed us to turn a very important corner in 2011. It accomplished the primary objectives of reversing the Taliban's momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increased the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces. 

            To fully understand the impact of the surge, I think it's a good thing to remind ourselves where things stood in mid-2009. At that time, the momentum was clearly on the side of the Taliban. The insurgency was steadily retaking key parts of Afghanistan. Any time that the -- that our forces would clear an area and then leave, it was immediately taken back by the Taliban. 

            There were -- there were no areas that were transitioned, mainly because the Afghan national security forces were not capable to provide security on their own or counter the Taliban. 

            And the result was that Afghanistan faced the real prospect that the Taliban would take over large parts of the country, which ultimately would have strengthened Al Qaida's hand and provided it again with a safe haven from which to attack -- from which to plan attacks on our homeland. 

            In short, in mid-2009, I think there was a real risk that the mission in Afghanistan might very well fail. Thanks to the efforts of U.S. and Afghan forces and our ISAF partners, I think the situation today is considerably different and improved. 

            The Taliban's gains on the battlefield have been reversed. They've been unable to regain any of the territory that they've lost. Violence levels in populated areas have decreased significantly. Al Qaida has been denied safe haven, and obviously its leadership has been decimated. The Afghan national security forces have become more capable and expanded dramatically, growing from roughly 150,000 in November 2008 to more than 330,000 today, with the goal of going to 352,000 very soon.

            Most notably, we have begun the transition to Afghan security and responsibility. And we've moved decisively toward an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself. And that is the fundamental mission that we've sought to accomplish. 

            With the announcement of the third tranche of transition earlier this year, more than 75 percent of the Afghan population lives in areas that are undergoing or entering the transition process. Under the leadership of General Allen, NATO agreed in Chicago to a plan that he designed that has been put in place, and we remain very much on track with that plan to complete the transition by the end of 2014. And I think there is strong international support in order to accomplish that effort. 

            Having said all of that, I also want to make clear that even as we recognize these many positive trends, that we cannot and will not ignore the significant challenges that remain. The enemy we are dealing with, as we have said before, is adaptive and resilient. Their focus has shifted to carrying out high-profile attacks in order to undermine the new sense of security that has been felt by ordinary Afghans. 

            There has also been a very troubling rise, as we all know, in insider attacks. And the purpose of those insider attacks has been to target the very trust that we need between ISAF and Afghan forces. That trust is critical to completing this transition. I expect that there will be more of these high-profile attacks and that the enemy will do whatever they can to try and break our will using this kind of tactic. That will not happen. 

            In response to these attacks, throughout this past year General Allen has taken steps, along with Afghan leaders, the Afghan army, ISAF, to protect our forces, to protect the Afghan people, and to ensure that our strategy remains on track. Most recently, during the heightened tension over the inflammatory video on the Internet, this included making temporary adjustments on partnered operations between ISAF and Afghan forces taking place below the battalion level. I can now report to you that most ISAF units have returned to their normal partnered options at all levels. 

            We must and we will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces. But I also want to underscore that we remain fully committed to our strategy of transitioning to Afghan security control. The ANSF remains, as General Allen has called it, the defeat mechanism of the insurgency.

            As the president has made clear, we have an enduring commitment to an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself and that is never again a safe haven from which terrorists can attack us. Our men and women in uniform are fighting forces -- ISAF, Afghanistan fighting forces -- I think have sent a strong message to the Taliban that time is not on their side. As I've said before, this is a war and it is a war that will continue to demand perseverance on the part of the American people, on the part of the Afghan people, and on the part of the international community. 

            But as we look at the challenges that remain for us to overcome in the coming months, I think we can take heart in how much our forces have accomplished over these past three years. I can tell you, based on my first-hand observations from going to the war front, and I think General Dempsey can say the same, that our troops are justly proud of what they have accomplished, and we certainly are proud of them. 

            Because of their continuing sacrifices and with the continued dedication and commitment of the American people, I believe that we can prevail in this war. 

            General Dempsey?

            GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. 

            I actually returned from Afghanistan just yesterday. While there, I visited our troops in Kandahar and in Helmand province. I walked the ground at Camp Bastion where the enemy last week broke through our perimeter, where two Marines fell while racing to the sound of the guns, and where I was reminded once again that our servicemen and -women are courageous to the core. 

            I also met with coalition and Afghan leaders, and I'll tell you this. The Afghan forces are not only gaining capability, but they're also importantly gaining confidence. They are fighters. With our continued assistance, I see them getting stronger while the Taliban gets weaker. I'll also tell you that our Afghan partners are working with us to shut down the threat of insider attacks. As one Afghan army commander told me, insider attacks are an affront to their honor, at odds with their culture and their faith. 

            As for us, we are adapting to changes in that threat as well. That's what professional militaries do. And we are doing it in a way that ensures we continue to be able to partner. The Taliban is clearly trying to split us apart, but it won't work. They're working to weaken the coalition and that won't work either. 

            In fact, I met with my 27 fellow NATO chiefs of defense the week before last in Romania. General Allen's campaign update to that group was met with one thing: resolve. "In together, out together" -- it's more than just a motto. It's our oath. 

            I'd be happy to take your questions. 

            Q: Yes, Mr. Chairman, since you just got back, you may be best able to answer this question. Specifically, the secretary said most units are back to partnering. Prior to these new restrictions, about 90 percent of all units -- 90 percent of all missions were partnered. 

            What percentage of the missions are partnered now? And how -- how much did it drop off? 

            And you said about a week and a half ago that these insider attacks were a serious threat and that something had to change. What specifically, if anything, has changed? What -- and what other changes do you need to see? Will this approval process have to continue indefinitely even as more partnering ramps up? 

            GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, John Allen's order that was sent out by the IGC didn't at that level restrict anything. It told subordinate commanders to assess their own situation in their own part of Afghanistan, and they did that. 

            I would suggest to you that what they did in that -- as part of that was buy themselves some time in order to determine whether we had to make any internal changes. That could be something as simple as reinforcing standards and discipline to adding potentially to the Guardian Angel program, or whatever it happens to be. 

            But that was all done, you know, it seems to me at the right level. It wasn't done at this level. It wasn't done at General Allen's level. It was done down where the boot meets the ground. 

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