WASHINGTON, March 31, 2012 â€“ The United States has reached a turning point after a decade of conflict, but must stay the course to continue to face down terrorism and other threats — including a debt Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said also threatens U.S. national security.
Panetta visited USS Peleliu off the coast of Camp Pendleton, Calif., yesterday, thanking the crew for its service, particularly supporting critical activities in Afghanistan.
â€œAs a result of the sacrifice of men and women in uniform,â€ he told the crewmembers, â€œweâ€™ve reached a turning point after 10 years of war.â€ He noted the end of the mission in Iraq, where â€œwe gave them the opportunity to establish a democracy in that region of the world, … because of the sacrifice we made.â€
â€œIn Afghanistan, weâ€™ve also made a turning pointâ€ during 2011, he said, extending credit to Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the top military commander there, and the men and women who put their lives on the line.
Violence is down for the first time in five years and the Taliban weakened and unable to organize to regain territory lost, Panetta said. Meanwhile, he noted that the Afghan national security forces are making progress, fighting alongside coalition forces and securing new areas.
â€œUltimately, itâ€™s going to be up to them to secure their country. Thatâ€™s what this is all about,â€ the secretary said, transitioning areas to Afghan control and Afghan security.
â€œThe bottom line is, itâ€™s working,â€ Panetta said. â€œOver 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan is now under Afghanistan security and under Afghanistan governance. And weâ€™re going to continue that process. Thatâ€™s the plan that General Allen has laid out, and we canâ€™t let anything — anything — undermine that strategy. Weâ€™ve got to be dedicated to the mission that this was all about, and we are.â€
Panetta pointed to successes in tracking down Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida organization he led. â€œWeâ€™ve gone after others throughout their leadership,â€ he said, but emphasized, â€œthey still remain a threatâ€ that needs to be confronted wherever they operate.
â€œWe canâ€™t give up in terms of the pressure we need to continue to put on terrorists,â€ he said. â€œBut we have made this country safer by virtue of what weâ€™ve been able to do.â€
As the war continues in Afghanistan, Panetta noted other threats around the world: North Korea, Iran and other rogue nations that destabilize the world and spread terrorism; unrest in the Middle East; rising powers in Asia; and cyber threats capable of crippling the country.
â€œSo weâ€™re facing a lot of threats that we have to confront if we want to keep America safe and if we want to give our children a better life,â€ he said.
These threats are converging, he said, as the nation faces a huge debt and deficits that pose a national security threat.
â€œIf we donâ€™t have the resources we need to maintain a strong defense, if we donâ€™t have the resources we need in order to maintain the quality of life that our people deserve, then we are going to weaken our national security,â€ he said.
That, Panetta explained, is why the Defense Department must reduce its budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years.
A new strategy developed in close coordination with the service chiefs, combatant commanders and Pentagon officials will ensure that as this belt-tightening occurs, the United States maintains a strong defense for the nation, he said.
â€œWeâ€™re not going to let budgets drive defense strategy,â€ he emphasized. â€˜Weâ€™re going to develop a strategy and then base our budget decisions on that.â€
Panetta vowed to maintain the worldâ€™s strongest military and not to hollow out the force as it draws down in numbers. He also promised to use a balanced approach to national defense, keeping faith with the men and women in uniform while shaping a force thatâ€™s smaller and leaner, but also more flexible and technologically advanced.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department will continue to advance in the future to ensure its force maintains the cutting edge.
â€œLet me tell you something: the Peleliu and what you do is what we need for the future,â€ he told the crew. â€œThis is about agility. This is about being able to move quickly. This is about doing the things that you do right here from this ship.
â€œThat is the future,â€ he continued. â€œAnd thatâ€™s why I wanted to come here, because itâ€™s important for me to tell you how important you are to our strategy now and in the future.â€
During a question-and-answer session following his address, the secretary offered assurance that the Defense Department plans to maintain 11 aircraft carriers and a fleet of ships like the Peleliu LHA-5, the last Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship in the Navy inventory.
The Peleliu was slated for decommissioning in 2014, but is now expected to remain in service for at least another year.