Panetta: Partnership Tested, Proven After Horrific Events

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)