WASHINGTON, March 14, 2012 — Coalition forces are achieving their mission of helping Afghanistan transform its future, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a multinational military throng here today.
Coalition forces in Regional Command Southwest include 11 nations’ troops, and Panetta’s audience included U.S. Marines and soldiers, as well as dozens of British, Jordanian, Afghan and other nations’ service members.
Panetta addressed the hundreds of troops inside an echoing space created by what appeared to be an acre of vinyl draped over tubular steel framing, floored with concrete and filled with metal folding chairs.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the partnership that we have,” Panetta told the troops.
The 50 nations that make up the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force represent “probably the broadest and deepest military coalition we’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said.
Those countries’ military members are working with Afghan security forces “… trying to bring peace, justice, and … security to Afghanistan,” the secretary added.
They are working and fighting for a common cause, he said, “to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven” from which terrorists can launch attacks against other nations.
In working “shoulder-to-shoulder” to help build an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself, the secretary told the audience, they are helping to realize a dream that is often labeled American, but is common throughout the world — a better life for the next generation.
“Achieving that dream depends on men and women who are willing to make the sacrifices, to step forward, to work with fellow citizens, and to forge a better, more secure life for our children,” he said.
Coalition and Afghan forces alike have been tested time and again over a decade of war, and particularly over the last few weeks, he said.
“We’ve had protests and violence. We’ve had the burning of the Quran. … We’ve had ISAF forces that have been … murdered,” Panetta said. “And last weekend we were shocked to learn about the tragic event … in nearby Kandahar province that resulted in the death of so many Afghan civilians.”
Those incidents are deeply troubling, but are not reflective of overall Afghan-coalition cooperation, he reiterated.
Enemy-initiated violence is trending down, Panetta said, and 2011 was a transitional year for the Afghanistan mission.
“All of you have the opportunity to make 2012 a decisive year in this campaign,” he said.
Panetta touched down at Bastion Airfield here today for a two-day country visit that will take him from visiting troops and regional Afghan leaders in southern Afghanistan to high-level meetings in Kabul.
There, the secretary has meetings scheduled with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi.
In a break with past practice, none of the forces — including U.S. troops — brought their weapons into the area where the secretary spoke. During past visits, Afghan forces would likely have been the only unarmed soldiers present, officials acknowledged.
U.S. officials said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, who two days ago took command of Regional Command Southwest, made the decision yesterday that none of the troops meeting the secretary would carry weapons, so all service members present would be on an equal footing.
A senior defense official traveling with the secretary said yesterday that Panetta’s Afghanistan visit was planned long before a U.S. service member allegedly killed a reported 16 Afghan civilians March 11 near Kandahar. The secretary’s planned itinerary has not changed since that “isolated criminal attack,” the official added.
Panetta told reporters traveling with him that along with thanking coalition forces for their service, he will focus during this visit on strategic issues — the overall campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida, the transition to Afghan security lead by the end of 2014, and the enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan.
Panetta left Kyrgyzstan’s capital city of Bishkek this morning and visited U.S. service members at the Manas transit center before flying here. All U.S. service members coming into or leaving Afghanistan pass through Manas en route.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)