Panetta Assesses National Security Threats

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)