By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2015 – As part of his first official trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Ash Carter made a stop in Kandahar today to thank U.S. troops there for their dedication to the mission and the progress they and their NATO and Afghan allies have achieved.
His visit was to the Train Advise and Assist Command South, or TAAC South, formerly Regional Command South. The command’s area of responsibility includes the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Daykundi.
The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division is what is called the TAAC South framework element, and contributing countries include Romania, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia, Jordan and Georgia.
At TAAC South’s Kandahar Airfield headquarters, Carter told the troops that they are his priority.
Thanking the Troops
“You're what I wake up to every morning” he said. “I never forget for one minute that you're here and what you're doing, the sacrifice that being here entails and the risk that it entails for you.”
He thanked the troops personally and on behalf of the Defense Department and the nation.
While in Afghanistan, the secretary will assess progress being made in the country so he can determine future actions and make recommendations to President Barack Obama, he told service members.
The train, advise and assist mission is becoming the heart of the effort in Afghanistan that will make permanent the success that U.S. and coalition troops have sacrificed so much for, Carter said.
An Important Country in the World
“We'll never be gone from Afghanistan because Afghanistan is an important country in the world,” he added, “but when our presence here is reduced to something much smaller than today, we want to make sure that the Afghans themselves are able to preserve the environment our forces have created over the last few years, one of relative security and stability.”
Carter told the men and women in uniform that he’d met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdulla Abdullah in Kabul.
“There's one thing President Ghani said that I want to share with you. He said, ‘Would you please tell your people that I appreciate the sacrifice they have made for my country.’”
Carter said, “Just think about that -- remember that.”
Questions From the Troops
Before giving each service member a coin and having his picture taken with them, Carter took questions from his audience that ranged from cybersecurity to military retirement to downsizing the force. But first he commented on the coins.
“Let me tell you a little bit about the coin. … I'm so new they haven't made coins with my name on them yet, so I'm sorry about that. It's a more generic secretary of defense coin. It may not be as valuable on eBay as an Aston B. Carter coin,” he said to laughter from the audience, “but you can trade up later.”
His first question was about the cyber dimension of building a force of the future.
“Cyber has to be part of building the force of the future -- is in fact part of the force of right now,” the defense secretary said.
One of the reasons the United States has the finest fighting force the world has ever seen is because of the way the nation leverages technology, Carter said, especially information technology.
The field is exploding and it's everywhere in the world, he added, “and that means if we don't change and we don't keep up, we can't keep our position as the best in the world.”
The United States has a substantial lead in cyberspace now, Carter said, “and there’s no reason why we can't keep it.”
“The reason we'll stay the greatest is that we'll keep striving to be at the forefront,” the secretary added. “And in today's world the only way to be excellent is to be open to ideas from the outside. You can't think of everything yourself and you can't do everything yourself.”
Military Retirement System
To a question about the military retirement system, Carter said he’s open to reconsidering the system.
The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission studied the current system and sent its report to Carter, who said he’s studying it.
“Ultimately under the law I'm required to then tell President Obama what I think about it and I haven't had a chance to do all that yet, and absorb it,” he said.
But Carter added that his starting point is that such a system attracts those who will keep the all-volunteer force healthy in the future and that continues to offer a retirement structure that is attractive and gives recruits appropriate incentives along the way to stay in the military or retire at a time that is best for them and best for the force.
Keeping the All-volunteer Force Healthy
“That’s the criterion that I will principally apply in considering these things,” the secretary added. “It's not about money [or] anything else. It's fundamentally mostly about the health of the force in the future and that's the lens through which I will look at it.”
The military retirement system has financial implications for each individual service member and for the country as a whole, Carter said, but the priority is to make sure the services have the right people.
“Any change we make [should] be one that those already in service don't have to make if they don't want to,” the secretary said, adding that this in line with what the commission recommended.
“I don't want to breach our understanding with you at the time you joined, that's not fair, he told service members.
The services can make alternatives available to those who may join the military in the future, and available to those who are in now, Carter said, “but if we made a deal with you when you first got in, I think we ought to keep that deal.”
Defending the Nation
To a question about downsizing the military at a time when multiple national security challenges face the nation, Carter said he’s adamantly opposed to the budget cuts known as sequestration.
The sequestration process is unwise and unsafe for national security going forward,” he told troops.
“We’ve got to spend enough money on defense to protect our country and protect our interests,” the secretary said. “We just can't have a mindless mechanism that decides what the defense budget is.” The nation, he added, must decide what it needs to protect itself, its interests and its allies, and consider those elements to build a budget.
It’s also imperative, he said, to put every defense dollar to good use.
“My reaction every time somebody says … how are you spending your money? Fair enough. It’s fair enough to be challenged and make sure we're using all that money” in the best possible ways, Carter said.