After 10 years of war, the United States is at a turning point in its national defense, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today while visiting sailors and shipyard workers here.
“The reality is that after 10 years of war, we’re beginning to see the results of a lot of sacrifice on the part of our men and women in uniform, [and] on the part of all the people that are part of our national defense,” Panetta said.
As the military draws down its remaining forces in Iraq, with all out by year’s end, the secretary said, the United States met its goals there.
“The mission there was to establish an Iraq that could govern and defend and secure itself, and we have accomplished that mission,” he said. “Now it’s up to Iraq to be able to secure and govern itself. We’ll give them assistance; we’ll continue to work with them. The reality is that they’re on the right track.”
Progress also is being made in Afghanistan, Panetta said.
“In Afghanistan, we’re hoping that we can move in the same direction,” he said. “We’ve weakened the Taliban; we’ve had the lowest violence levels in Afghanistan in five years.”
“We’re beginning to secure key areas of that country,” he added, noting the growth of the Afghan army and police.
“We are moving in the right direction,” Panetta said. There remains “a lot of work to be done” before all security reverts to the Afghans in 2014. Hopefully, he said, “we’ll be able to, again, have an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself.”
Addressing terrorism, Panetta stressed the importance of keeping pressure on the enemy.
“The reality is, we’ve decimated al-Qaida’s leadership … [and] we have taken down key people, including bin Laden and others,” he said. “The result of that is that this country is safer by virtue of what we’ve been able to do.”
“We need to keep the pressure on; we need to make sure that we don’t give up,” Panetta said. “These guys are still at it – whether it’s Pakistan, whether it’s Yemen, whether it’s Somalia … we have got to keep the pressure up and make damn sure that they never again are able to attack this country, and that’s what we’re doing.”
U.S. national security is moving in the right direction because of the sacrifices of many people, he said, but still faces threats, namely from North Korea and in cyberspace. “This is a whole new world in which cyber warfare is a reality. It’s the battlefield of the future,” he said.
Panetta also noted the “rising powers” of China and India. He said his and President Barack Obama’s recent visits to the Pacific region were to ensure “we always have sufficient force protection out there in the Pacific to make sure they know we’re never going anywhere.”
“So when you look at the world that we’re dealing with, we still have a lot of threats,” he said. “And add to that, the challenge of now having to reduce the defense budget – we’ve got a huge deficit in this country.”
Despite fiscal challenges, Panetta vowed to “not break faith” with the military and prevent a hallowing out of the force.
“We have the strongest military in the world today, and we’re going to remain the best military in the world,” he said.