WASHINGTON, Aug. 16, 2011 — The security mission in Afghanistan is making progress, but much more needs to be done on governance and development, two top Cabinet officials said at Fort McNair here today.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in a discussion at the National Defense University that the conflict in Afghanistan can be successful if all aspects of government work together. Former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno, now at George Washington University, moderated the discussion.
A total of 1,626 Americans have died in Afghanistan in the past decade, Panetta said. The largest loss of U.S. service members’ lives in one incident in Afghanistan occurred Aug. 6, as 38 U.S. and Afghan personnel died when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter went down in the eastern part of the country.
“There are a lot of our men and women that have put their lives on the line on the mission that we’re involved with there,” the secretary said.
That mission — to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida — remains crucial to U.S. security, and Afghanistan must never again be a safe haven for terrorist groups to attack the United States, Panetta said.
“I think we’ve made good progress on that,” he said. “We are making very good progress in terms of security, particularly in the south and southwest. Those are difficult areas. We’ve now got to try to improve the situation in the east.”
Overall, the situation is doing much better, and coalition forces have begun transitioning areas to the Afghan government, Panetta said.
“We’ve got to make sure that the Afghan government is prepared to not only govern, but to help secure that country in the long run,” he added.
Clinton said President Obama made the decision to go after the Taliban soon after taking office in 2009 because he believed the Taliban had momentum on their side. The president ordered additional troops into Afghanistan and called for an increase in civilian experts to serve there.
“I ordered and fulfilled the more than tripling of the civilians on the ground, from 320 to more than 1,125,” Clinton said. “We put in a lot of effort to try to stabilize, and then reverse, what we saw as a deteriorating situation. I think we both believe that we are now at a place where we can begin the transition and do so in a responsible way.”
Any change in Afghanistan will require some form of reconciliation, Clinton said.
“We know that there has to be a political resolution alongside the military gains and sacrifice that we have put in, alongside the sacrifice and suffering of the Afghan people,” she said. “But we want this to be, as we say often, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”
Clinton said the Afghan people are learning about democracy and the responsibilities inherent in a democracy. She pointed to President Hamid Karzai’s decision to not seek a third term as a “very strong signal that there has to be an active, dynamic political process to choose his successor.”
Pakistan is of paramount importance to stability in the region, the secretary of state noted.
“We think it is in the long-term interest of Pakistan for us to work through what are very difficult problems in that relationship,” Clinton said. “This is not anything new. We’ve had a challenging relationship with Pakistan going back decades.”
The Pakistanis are partners with the United States, but like most nations, they don’t agree with everything the United States does, Clinton said.
“They don’t always see the world the way we see the world, and they don’t always cooperate with us on what we think — and I’ll be very blunt about this — is in their interests,” she said. “It’s not like we are coming to Pakistan and encouraging them to do things that will be bad for Pakistan. But they often don’t follow what our logic is as we make those cases to them, so it takes a lot of dialogue.”
The United States has no choice but to maintain a relationship with Pakistan, because “we’re fighting a war there,” Panetta said.
“Because we are fighting al-Qaida there, and they do give us … some cooperation in that effort,” he added.
Pakistan is an important force in that region of the world, Panetta said, in part, because “they do happen to be a nuclear power that has nuclear weapons, and we have to be concerned about what happens with those nuclear weapons.”
Those are just some of the reasons to maintain the relationship with Pakistan, Panetta said.
“It is complicated,” the secretary acknowledged. “It’s going to be ups and downs.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)