U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta speaks to troops on Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan, Dec. 14, 2011. Panetta thanked them for their service, dedication and bravery. The soldiers are assigned to the 172nd Infantry Brigade. (DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan (December 14, 2011) — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta traveled here to the eastern reaches of Paktika province to thank troops on the front lines he credited with making the gains that are turning the tide in Afghanistan.
“The fact is, this is where the rubber hits the road,” the secretary told an assembly of about 200 172nd Infantry Brigade soldiers based about 30 miles from the Pakistan border.
“You are the ones that are out here fighting every day” to achieve the mission in Afghanistan, Panetta said.
“This is a key area. You guys have done great work,” the secretary added. “For all the sacrifice that you are doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we are moving in the right direction and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan. And it is mainly due to you, to all of you.”
Panetta thanked the soldiers who are “fighting to make sure that our country is never threatened by the likes of al-Qaida or other terrorists who would attack our country”
“We are achieving a turning point, after 10 years of war, when it comes to terrorism,” the secretary said, recognizing efforts that have taken down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other key terrorist leaders and weakened the insurgency.
“We have made it very difficult for them to come together to plan the kind of attack that we saw on 9/11,” Panetta said. “And as a result of the efforts of both the military and the intelligence community, the bottom line is that not only is the world safer, not only is this area safer, but our country is safer.”
“That’s what this battle is all about. That is what this fight is all about,” he said.
Looking ahead, Panetta recognized successes being achieved within the Afghan national security forces that are assuming increasing security responsibility for their country.
“Are there challenges out there? You are damned right there are challenges,” he said. “Are we going to be able to take on those challenges? You are damned right we are.
“And the result is going to be that ultimately, here in Afghanistan, we will be able to establish a country that is able to govern and secure itself and we will make sure that the Taliban … [and] that al-Qaida will never again be able to find safe haven here,” the secretary continued. “And that is because of what you are doing right here, right now.”
Panetta stressed the importance of restoring relations with the Pakistanis to ensure continued security success, particularly along the border regions. Although the relationship is complicated and at times has been difficult, it’s important, he said, because Pakistan and United States face a common enemy.
“Ultimately, to win in Afghanistan, we have to win in Pakistan as well,” the secretary said.
Panetta also emphasized Pakistan’s responsibility in working toward that goal. “If we are going to secure this country, the Pakistanis better damn well secure their country as well,” he said.
After finishing his remarks, Panetta fielded questions from the soldiers, assuring them that the United States has no intention of letting their accomplishments unravel after the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan.
“We have spilled too much blood here,” he said, emphasizing that the United States is committed to a long-term relationship with Afghanistan to help ensure its success.
“In the end, this is about the Afghans. This is their country, and we have to give them whatever assistance they need to make sure they can govern and secure this country,” the secretary said. “But the answer to your question is, we are not going to walk away from the responsibility to ensure that all of the blood that has been spilled here has not been spilled in vain.”
Panetta, who presented Purple Heart awards to 12 “Task Force Black Hawk” soldiers, noted the sacrifices that service members and their families are making.
The secretary acknowledged the holidays present a particularly difficult time for Afghanistan-deployed service members and their families back home.
“On behalf of the Department of Defense, but more importantly, on behalf of the American people, thank you for your great service, your dedication, for your bravery, and for your willingness to be here and fight on behalf of your country,” Panetta said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work that you do.”
“You guys are heroes. You guys are patriots and I thank you for your service,” he said.
The secretary delivered a similar message when he visited the U.S. Embassy after returning to Kabul, thanking the diplomatic corps for its contributions to Afghanistan’s continued success.
“As much our men and women in uniform are patriots and heroes, so are you,” the secretary told the group as he praised their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way as they serve their country.
“You don’t need a gun. You don’t need a uniform,” Panetta said. “By virtue of what you do and how you serve, you are in my book heroes and patriots for America.”
Panetta recognized that both the Defense Department and State Department are facing budgetary constraints, but emphasized that the missions of both are critical to America’s national security.
“Our national security is not just a strong military,” he said. “We need a strong diplomacy. We need to have a strong economy. We need to have a good quality of life. All of that makes up our national security [for] the United States of America.”
As a result, “all of that has to be protected for the future,” the secretary said.
“So we all have to remain sure that if the United States is to remain strong, we need to remain strong in all of these areas,” Panetta said.
Maintaining America’s national security, he said, ensures “that we can provide the leadership that is necessary in the world to confront the threats that are out there.”