WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2011 — While terrorism remains a threat to national security, it is joined by cyber attacks, nuclear weapons capability and a number of rising powers among the world’s nations, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in an interview broadcast last night. “We continue to face threats from Iran and North Korea. We’re living in a world where cybersecurity is now something to be concerned about,” Panetta said in a televised interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose. “We also are living in a world in which there are rising powers, countries like China and Brazil and India, not to mention obviously Russia and others, that provide a challenge to us not only in trying to cooperate with them, but making sure that they don’t undermine the stability of the world,” he added.
Panetta said his role in meeting those threats is leading the Defense Department in effective national protection.
“It’s about being in charge of the services, our men and women in uniform who have to actually go out there and do the mission,” the secretary said.
In an era of persistent budget constraints, he said, defense must be more agile, both in quickly deployable forces and weapon systems and in more efficient management and procurement.
“We’ve got to be able to do all of this without breaking faith with those that put their lives on the line, … who are the key to whether or not our defense system works,” he added.
The secretary said trust is key not only to effective defense leadership, but also to the United States’ international relationships.
Panetta said his counterparts in other nations tell him the most important element in cooperating with the United States is “when we give our word, when we say we’re going to do something, … they have to trust that that’s going to happen. We have to be a dependable alliance partner.”
The nation’s troops have the same priority, he said: “When we say we’re going to provide certain benefits, we’ll stick to it, [and] that we will care for them if they’re wounded, that we will be there for them because of what they’re doing to try to protect this country.”
Such trust is especially critical as the military’s missions remain a crucial stabilizing factor in the world, he said.
While the U.S. drawdown in Iraq remains on track, the secretary said, the real question remains whether the United States will maintain a noncombat troop presence there, and if so, what kind of presence it will be. He noted that Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki has indicated he wants Iraq to have some kind of training assistance from the United States after Dec. 31, when all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq in accordance with a 2008 agreement between the two countries.
“And so the issue of what that will look like, how many will be there, is something that has to be negotiated with the Iraqis,” Panetta said.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to try to exert a “very, very large influence” on events in Iraq, he noted.
“They clearly continue to provide weaponry to Shiia extremist groups,” he said. “They clearly try to exert pressure on the government of Iraq. … And the end result is that we remain very concerned that Iran … tries to undermine the stability of Iraq and its future.”
Panetta said he has spoken directly to Maliki about his concerns, and the Iraqi president shares them.
“We cannot tolerate having Iranians provide weapons to extremists to kill Americans. That is not tolerable,” the secretary said. “And he agrees.”
Maliki has made that case to Iran, and Iraqi forces have conducted operations against groups working to transfer weapons from Iran to Iraq, Panetta said.
“I really can’t complain about the cooperation we’ve gotten from the Iraqis in assisting us to try to go after these groups that are attacking our forces,” the secretary added.
In Afghanistan, International Security Assistance Force Commander Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker make a good team, the secretary said, working effectively with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Afghans in trying to make sure the best policies are in place.
ISAF operations in Afghanistan have seriously weakened the Taliban, Panetta added.
“We expected a greater offensive this year than took place,” he said. “And I think in large measure the reason it didn’t take place is … we have reduced the influence of the Taliban, and as a result have given Afghanistan back to the [Afghans].”
Afghan security forces are “doing the job,” he said.
“They’re going out with our troops. They’re putting themselves on the line. They’re in battle, and they’re doing a good job,” Panetta said. “So I’m feeling much better about the situation in terms of … being able to turn more of this over to them.”
The larger question mark for Afghanistan’s future, the secretary said, is the Afghans’ ability to govern in a manner that provides for future stability.
Security transition thus far has been successful, he said, and by 2014, the Afghan people should be “well on the path” to securing and governing their nation for the future.
Successful reconciliation between Afghan leaders and former Taliban members requires insurgents to meet the conditions that the United States and Afghanistan set down, he said.
“They’ve got to … give up their arms, to become a part of their government, and to renounce al-Qaida,” he noted. “I think they have to be part of the political process that ultimately comes together in Afghanistan if it’s going to be successful.”
Both the United States and Pakistan also should be part of that process, Panetta said. Pakistan is critical to regional stability, he noted, because it is a nuclear power, its forces are working to combat terrorism, and the nation has a role to play in establishing stability in the region.
The secretary said he has “made very clear” to both Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief of staff, that terrorism is a threat to both their country and to the United States.
“If you’re against terrorism, you have to be against all forms of terrorism,” Panetta said. “You can’t just pick and choose among them.”
During those talks, the secretary said, he made the point to both Pakistani leaders that al-Qaida has a large presence in their country’s federally administered tribal areas, and the group continues to plan attacks on the United States from there.
“I made very clear to the Pakistanis that [we will] defend ourselves,” he said. “We will go after al-Qaida in the [tribal area] so that they never have the opportunity to attack this country again.”
The Pakistanis have worked with the United States to kill or capture terrorists, he said.
“While we have controversies and we have differences in a number of areas,” he said, “we’ve got to do everything possible to work with them.”
Intelligence-gathering efforts following the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani city of Abottabad provided encouraging evidence of al-Qaida’s decline, the secretary said.
“They were hurting in terms of their financing,” he said. “We actually knew … even before the raid that they were having a much harder time developing the financial support that they had had in the past.”
Attacks on al-Qaida’s leaders have led to the organization’s financial struggles, Panetta said.
“When you have people on the run, it makes it very tough to raise money and stay on the run at the same time,” he explained.
The United States and its allies conduct sophisticated and targeted operations, he said.
“These are probably the most precise weapons in the history of warfare,” the secretary told Rose, “and they are used very effectively to go after a very precise target.”
Panetta stressed that in addition to military approaches, true national security requires diplomatic approaches to challenges.
“If you’re talking about national security in this country, it isn’t something that is just a tank and a gun and an airplane. It’s got to be diplomacy as well,” he said. “And it’s that combination of military strength and diplomatic strength that gives us the ability to try to provide direction to the world and try to assist it so that it heads in the right way.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)