By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press ServiceSeptember 25, 2011
WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2011 -- The United States and Iraq are in talks to chart military assistance Iraq needs after the pull-out of U.S. troops at the end of the year, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.
Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he discussed the Afghan and Iraq strategies, the progress made and challenges that remain.
About 45,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. All will be out of the country by the end of the year. Iraqi leaders said they need an on-going training relationship with the United States. Gen. Lloyd Austin and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey are negotiating with Iraqi leaders to determine their needs and how the U.S. military can help meet those needs.
"We are seriously considering this request, and I want to make clear that no final decisions have been made," Panetta said. "We'll continue to consult extensively with the Iraqis, but we will also consult with the Congress before such decisions are made as to what a post-2011 training presence will look like."
Panetta wants to normalize the security relationship between the countries.
"The United States wants a normal, productive relationship and a close strategic partnership with a sovereign Iraq and with other countries -- similar, frankly, to the partnerships we have with other countries in the region and around the world," he said.
Iraqi leaders still have challenges, including dealing with Shia extremists allied with Iran and contending with the remnants of al-Qaida in the country.
U.S. military attention has shifted to Afghanistan where there are now about 100,000 U.S. service members.
"Because of the hard work and the sacrifices of Afghan and coalition forces, we've established conditions that are putting Afghans on the path to assume lead responsibility for security nationwide by the end of 2014," the secretary said.
The Taliban insurgency has lost ground in much of the country, especially in the south.
"Afghan national security forces are increasingly strong and capable," Panetta said. "We have made significant progress with regards to our primary mission of disrupting, dismantling and ultimately defeating al-Qaida, particularly with the operations that took down bin Laden and that continue to take down the key leadership of al-Qaida and their affiliates."
This progress has allowed the transition to Afghan security control to begin, Panetta said.
"We've done that in seven areas of the country since July," he said. "As this transition commenced, we began implementing a gradual and responsible drawdown that is essential to the success of that transition process and lasting security and stability in Afghanistan."
Yet, tremendous challenges remain in Afghanistan, Panetta said, noting the Taliban have shifted strategies to launch headline-grabbing attacks.
"We are concerned that these attacks, because of the loss of life and because they represent an effort to disrupt the process we have made, must be confronted and cannot be allowed to continue," the secretary said. "Overall, we judge this change in tactics to be a result in a shift in momentum in our favor, and a sign of weakness of the insurgency."
Overall violence in Afghanistan is down, especially in areas where the surge was concentrated -- Kandahar and Helmand province. But Afghans still perceive the Taliban network is still effective and the coalition must work with the Afghan government to provide security to destroy those perceptions, the secretary said.
A second challenge is in the east, where "the topography, the cultural geography and the continuing presence of safe havens in Pakistan give the insurgents advantages they have lost elsewhere in the country," Panetta said.
"We cannot allow terrorists to have safe havens from which they launch attacks and kill our forces," he said. "We cannot allow that to happen, and we have to bring pressure on the Pakistanis to do their part to confront that issue."
Developing governance in Afghanistan is a third challenge, the secretary said, and the United States and its coalition allies must aid the effort.
The United States and the coalition must retain their focus and dedication to the fight, Panetta said.
"This is a heavy burden that I feel personally now as secretary of defense every time I write a condolence letter," he said. "Since taking this office, I've been to Dover to receive the remains of those who were killed in the Chinook helicopter crash last month. I've been to Arlington, and I've been to Bethesda.
"In spending time with the families of those who have died or have been seriously wounded in the service of this country -- there isn't a family member who hasn't come up to me and said if you really care about what happened to my loved one, you will carry on the mission that they gave their life for or were seriously wounded for," Panetta added.
"We owe it to those who've paid this price to continue the hard work of doing this right and protecting our country," he said.