Amid a news-filled summer here at home and the nation’s attention focused on the just-concluded Olympics, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today Aug. 14 Americans to remember a war is still going on in Afghanistan, and called on them to honor the sacrifices service members are making there.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed Afghanistan during a Pentagon news briefing. The two conferred earlier in the day with Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.
“I just want the American people to take the time and reflect on these sacrifices,” Panetta said. “It’s because of those sacrifices that I think we’re moving in the right direction to achieve our goal in Afghanistan.
“That’s a tribute to General Allen’s leadership and to the countless sacrifices of thousands of Americans and international and Afghan forces who have stepped forward to make us safer,” he added.
The leaders spoke of the campaign and Panetta summarized the progress measured against four goals: to build the capabilities of Afghan forces, to pressure the insurgency, to transition to an Afghan security lead, and to maintain the international coalition’s unity of effort.
It is a tough fight in Afghanistan, especially at the height of the summer fighting season, the secretary said, but added that progress can be measured. Afghan security forces continue to grow in size and capabilities, he said. There are roughly 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police today and the country will reach its goal of 352,000 in the next few months, he said.
Afghan forces’ capabilities are also growing, Panetta said. “The growth of Afghan special operations and having that capability has allowed Afghans to plan, conduct and lead special operations missions every day and every night,” he said.
Afghan forces recently activated a special operations forces command with 10,000 soldiers, and in one recent 24-hour period in one regional command, 27 of 35 SOF operations were Afghan-led.
Capable Afghan security forces will cripple the insurgency, Panetta said. The Taliban and other groups recognize this and are attacking to undermine the trust between the coalition and Afghan forces, he said. The Taliban has taken credit for a number of “green-on-blue” attacks to sow distrust.
“Make no mistake about it, I’ve been very concerned about these incidents … because of the lives lost and because of the potential damage to our partnership efforts,” Panetta said.
Another reason for the uptick in insurgent attacks is because Afghan and coalition forces are taking the fight to the enemy, the secretary said.
“When you’re aggressive and when you’re conducting operations against them, obviously the number of casualties are going to increase,” he said.
The fighting is away from cities and villages and the goal of protecting the population is being realized, Panetta said, allowing ISAF to continue with the transition to Afghan lead. “The transition has been and remains … very much a successful operation,” he said.
Afghan soldiers and police protect more than half of the population today and that percentage will rise to 75 percent in the coming months, Panetta said.
“Security gains made in these areas have been sustained,” he said. “Indeed, in the first six months of this year insurgent attacks were down about 15 percent in areas that are undergoing transition compared to 2011.”
Encouraging unity of effort is the final goal and ensuring the strong support of the Afghan people and the international community is paramount, the secretary said.
“In my discussions with General Allen and with my foreign counterparts … I’ve been struck by the shared determination of the international community and coalition to overcome the challenges and stay committed to the effort,” he said.
DOD leaders are encouraged that Pakistan recently has taken a more positive, visible step to advance the shared objective of a secure and peaceful Afghanistan, Panetta said.
“Their decision to open up the NATO supply lines means a great deal to us in terms of our ability to transit containers and materiel that are now moving across the border into Afghanistan,” he said. “Similarly, cross-border cooperation with Pakistan is increasing.”
American forces are drawing down in Afghanistan. But even with the drawdown – set to be complete next month – there will still be 68,000 U.S. service members in the country.
“As secretary of defense … one of my toughest jobs is to write condolence letters to the families of our fallen heroes,” Panetta said. “And frankly, I seem to be writing more lately.”
More than 1,950 Americans in uniform have died in Afghanistan, and thousands more have been injured. “The pain and the heartbreak of this war weigh heavily on me,” he said. “And yet when I talk to the families of the fallen, when you meet with them and when you meet with our wounded troops at Bethesda, I am struck by their commitment to seeing this mission through and to ensuring that these sacrifices are not in vain.
“At a time when I am sure that there’s an awful lot to be mad about, there’s a lot to be proud of when it comes to our men and women in uniform,” he said. “And we shouldn’t forget that.”