Panetta: Afghanistan Strategy on Track Despite Recent Events

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, March 12, 2012 — Recent trag­ic events in Afghanistan high­light impor­tant lessons, but should not detract from sig­nif­i­cant progress achieved or derail the over­all Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force objec­tives there, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta said today.

“We can­not allow these events to under­mine our strat­e­gy,” he empha­sized.

Panet­ta told reporters trav­el­ing with him en route to Kyr­gyzs­tan that yesterday’s shoot­ing, when a U.S. ser­vice mem­ber alleged­ly killed 16 Afghan vil­lagers and wound­ed eight or nine oth­ers in vil­lages near a remote out­post in Kan­da­har province, was a crim­i­nal act and a ter­ri­ble loss of life.

“We were all deeply shocked and sad­dened,” the sec­re­tary said. Panet­ta reit­er­at­ed what he told Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai dur­ing a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion yes­ter­day, offer­ing his “deep­est con­do­lences” to the fam­i­lies of those killed and wound­ed, to the vil­lagers where the shoot­ings hap­pened, and to the Afghan peo­ple.

Panet­ta said he spoke today with Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, com­man­der of U.S. and coali­tion forces in Afghanistan, who told him all indi­ca­tions are that the ser­vice mem­ber who car­ried out the shoot­ings did so on his own, and alone.

“As best as we can deter­mine, this indi­vid­ual went out on his own in the mid­dle of the night … and went into these homes and start­ed shoot­ing,” the sec­re­tary said.

The ser­vice mem­ber then returned to his for­ward oper­at­ing base and turned him­self in, and is now in cus­tody, Panet­ta said.

Inves­ti­ga­tion into the events con­tin­ues, the sec­re­tary added, and mil­i­tary lead­ers are await­ing results to learn “why this sol­dier did the ter­ri­ble thing he did.”

“He will be brought to jus­tice and held account­able,” Panet­ta said.

Afghan and ISAF forces have worked togeth­er effec­tive­ly to main­tain secu­ri­ty fol­low­ing those killings, Panet­ta empha­sized, just as they did in the after­math of anoth­er recent inci­dent in which coali­tion forces acci­den­tal­ly burned sev­er­al copies of Islam’s holy book, the Quran.

“The Afghan army has real­ly per­formed in out­stand­ing fash­ion,” the sec­re­tary said. Even in the face of wide­spread civil­ian protests over the acci­den­tal Quran burn­ings, Afghan forces have done “very well in main­tain­ing order,” with no large-scale deser­tions, he not­ed.

“They rec­og­nize what they have to do and they’re doing it,” he added. “What we’ve accom­plished to this point is begin­ning to pay off.”

Panet­ta stressed that both recent inci­dents deserve close study, not­ing it’s impor­tant for mil­i­tary lead­ers to learn every­thing they can to pre­vent such things from hap­pen­ing again. At the same time, he added, it’s crit­i­cal to “bring the war to a respon­si­ble end and achieve the mis­sion.”

That mis­sion, he told reporters, is defeat­ing al-Qai­da and pre­vent­ing Afghanistan from ever again becom­ing a safe haven from which ter­ror­ists can launch attacks against the Unit­ed States and oth­er nations.

The sec­re­tary not­ed Afghan and inter­na­tion­al forces have achieved real progress toward those goals. “The lev­el of vio­lence [in Afghanistan] … is at its low­est point in five years,” he said. “It’s down 24 per­cent this year alone.”

Afghan army and police forces now lead secu­ri­ty efforts for half of their nation’s peo­ple, and the tran­si­tion from NATO to Afghan secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty is well into its sec­ond stage, Panet­ta not­ed. That tran­si­tion is set to fin­ish by the end of 2014, while the 23,000 U.S. troops remain­ing from the 30,000-person “surge” of 2010 will leave Afghanistan by the end of Sep­tem­ber.

Under that timetable, few­er than 70,000 U.S troops will remain by Octo­ber, and the “ulti­mate draw­down” of those forces is set to con­clude before 2015, the sec­re­tary said.

Panet­ta said Allen will pro­vide him with rec­om­men­da­tions for the tim­ing of that troop with­draw­al. He sees no rea­son to change the over­all strat­e­gy at this point, he added.

The sec­re­tary acknowl­edged while domes­tic polit­i­cal pres­sure may argue for accel­er­at­ing the pace of draw­down, “I think it’s very impor­tant for pol­i­cy mak­ers to keep [their] eye on the tar­get.”

“The test has to be whether or not Afghanistan is work­ing with us to main­tain the strat­e­gy,” he said. “Despite these events, Pres­i­dent [Hamid] Karzai con­tin­ues to coop­er­ate with us.”

The two nations have agreed to a process for tran­si­tion­ing to Afghan over­sight the Par­wan deten­tion facil­i­ty near Bagram Air­field, he said, and are work­ing on an agree­ment over “night raids” tar­get­ing high-val­ue insur­gents.

In the goal of estab­lish­ing Afghanistan’s abil­i­ty to secure its own peo­ple, 2011 was an impor­tant tran­si­tion point, Panet­ta said.

“We need to ensure that what hap­pened over these last few weeks does not hap­pen again … These are seri­ous mat­ters,” he said.

But he added, “We’re on the right path now … I do not believe there is any rea­son at this point to make any [strate­gic] changes.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)