By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 19, 2011 – Even as deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan draw down, American service members will continue to deploy in the future, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today.
In a roundtable meeting at the Pentagon with military media representatives, the secretary also discussed the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
Though the United States is withdrawing forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a fair bet that the U.S. military will be called upon to meet new challenges, the secretary said.
“Service members will continue to confront threats in the world,” he said. “The likelihood is that we’re going to face some other crises. If the Arab Spring has told us anything, it’s that we’re dealing with an awful lot of turmoil in a complicated part of the world.”
Some 46,000 American service members are serving in Iraq, and the United States has not received a formal request for American trainers to remain there after the Dec. 31 deadline set by a 2008 agreement between the two countries for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq. Panetta said he sees some progress in that regard, as the Iraqis have agreed to discuss within their government a continued U.S. presence. They agreed to name a defense minister and interior minister, the secretary noted, and they agreed to a tougher line with Iran, which has been shipping in weapons and providing training to Iraqi insurgents.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Iraq are drawing down, and they are on pace for all to out by the year’s end, Panetta said. “The issue then will become what is the kind of training assistance and presence Iraq feels it needs in order to defend itself and secure itself,” he said.
The Iraq and Afghanistan missions are similar, the secretary said, in that the mission in both countries is to ensure governance so they can secure and defend themselves and cannot become havens for al-Qaida or other terror groups that might threaten United States.
Iraq has made a lot of progress, he noted, with 650,000 members now serving in its security forces. The level of violence is down, he added, and government officials are trying to work together to sort through very difficult issues.
In Afghanistan, the coalition surge has made a difference and al-Qaida and the Taliban have been weakened, Panetta said. “One of the real questions was [whether we were] going to be able to develop an effective Afghan army and police force,” he told the media representatives.
The Afghan army and police have grown in numbers and capability, he said, and seven areas of the country have transitioned to Afghan security control. “The real challenge will be whether or not the central government … is going to be able to maintain a level of governance that can provide stability for that country,” he said.
Pakistan remains a key player in the region, the secretary said. “Pakistan has got to get the clear message that they can’t pick and choose among terrorists,” the secretary said. “Terrorism represents as much a threat for their country as it does for ours. They’ve got to take on this responsibility as well.”
The Pakistanis are getting better about cooperation since the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Panetta said. “They have done better about going after some targets we’ve given them since the bin Laden raid,” he said. “At the same time, we have some bumps in the road in terms of relationship.”
But the bottom line is that the United States must continue to work with Pakistan, Panetta said. “We have got to continue to put pressure on them, because the bottom line is that we can’t … win in Afghanistan without winning in Pakistan,” the secretary said.