By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – Progress in Afghanistan was among the topics Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta discussed in a wide-ranging interview this week with Bloomberg Television’s Judy Woodruff.
The secretary told Woodruff he believes the United States is on the right path toward its goals in Afghanistan.
“In 2011, the Taliban was weakened significantly. They couldn't organize the kind of attacks to regain territory that they had lost, which is something they have done in the past,” he said.
The secretary praised Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force. He noted that coalition forces have transitioned 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population to Afghan security and control and expect that total to be 75 percent by late summer. At NATO’s 2010 summit in Lisbon, Portugal, the alliance agreed that Afghan forces will have security responsibility for all of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“We're on the right course,” Panetta said. “We're in the right direction towards the end of 2014, being able to make that transition. But let's not kid ourselves. There are going to be challenges.”
Panetta noted the Taliban are a resilient enemy and will continue to conduct attacks and said corruption remains a problem in Afghanistan. “We're going to have to keep pushing to make this work,” he added.
Panetta acknowledged that drone strikes are taking place in Pakistan, but said the operations remain sensitive and are classified. “We are going to do everything we can, use whatever operations we have to, in order to make sure that we protect this country and make sure that [9/11] never happens again,” he said.
The interview also touched on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The international community is unified in sending the clear signal that they must prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Panetta said.
“The international community has brought a lot of sanctions on Iran,” Panetta said. “They're probably the toughest sanctions we've applied in a very long time, [and] they're having an impact. They're isolating Iran, and I think as a result of that, of all that pressure that's being put on Iran, the result of that is that there is now at least some glimmer that there could be a diplomatic effort to try to see if we can resolve these issues.”
The secretary said serious talks are ongoing, and that the ultimate solution must include Iran making it clear that it will suspend any kind of nuclear enrichment and make no efforts to develop any kind of nuclear weapon.
Panetta also discussed sequestration – a mechanism built into the Budget Control Act that will double projected defense spending cuts over the next decade in January unless Congress finds an alternative. He urged Congress to “show leadership” to prevent sequestration from occurring.
“My approach to that is that this would have a devastating effect on not only national defense, but I think on the rest of the country,” he said. “It's totally unacceptable, and frankly, our political leaders cannot allow it to happen. That's where I'm coming from on this issue.”
The secretary also defended the F-35 joint strike fighter program. It is essential to control production cost and fully test the aircraft to make it the “most effective fighting plane for the future,” he said.
“Part of our challenge is to try to stay on the cutting edge of the future, and that's what the F-35 is all about,” he said. “It's the fifth-generation fighter for the future, and it provides the kind of capability we absolutely are going to need in the future.”
Addressing the issue of apparent misconduct or poor judgment by service members in photographs and videos that have circulated on the Internet, Panetta condemned the behavior while emphasizing that the incidents are not representative of most men and women in uniform.
Such incidents affect the force’s morale and sometimes can jeopardize lives, Panetta said. But after meeting “literally thousands upon thousands of men and women in uniform” in a department of 3 million people, he added, he knows only a small percentage are involved in such misconduct.
“The overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform abide by the highest standards,” he said. Still, he added, he has made it clear to the service secretaries and chiefs that they must continue to emphasize character, professionalism, integrity, chain of command and discipline.
“[It’s] very important, and that makes our military the best in the world, [so] we've got to continue to emphasize that in the future so that we try to make sure that these incidents don't occur,” he said.