En route to Asia, Panetta focuses on events in Mideast
IN FLIGHT OVER THE BERING SEA -- Just hours into a trip designed to reinforce the U.S. commitment to a strong military presence in Asia, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Friday that American troops would soon leave two Middle Eastern conflicts behind.
The long ordeal of war in Iraq is nearly over, he said, echoing an announcement made earlier in the day by President Barack Obama.
And following the killing of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi by an airstrike that included a U.S. drone, NATO’s Libya combat operations will likely end this month, he said.
“Today represents, in many ways, a real turning point from the last 10 years of war,” Panetta said.
With about 40,000 troops still in Iraq, the priority now is the logistical and security challenge of getting them all out safely by Dec. 31, Panetta said.
“We’re implementing that plan as we speak,” Panetta said. “I’ve got tremendous confidence in Gen. (Lloyd) Austin that he will be able to do this, and it’s very important that as we do this we provide for the security of our forces.”
Friday’s announcement by Obama was the result of a failure to reach an agreement between the two countries on the politically fraught technicalities of keeping thousands of U.S. trainers in the country. The main sticking point in the negotiations was immunity for U.S. troops from the shaky Iraqi justice system – a baseline requirement for the Pentagon, but unacceptable to many in Iraq.
Though the hope of some troops staying on has now been dropped, negotiations will continue after they leave about the possibility of smaller numbers of troops returning to Iraq for training or other missions.
“Once we’ve completed the reduction of the combat presence, then I think we begin the process of negotiating with them to determine what will be the nature of that relationship,” he said. “What kind of training to do they need, what kind of security needs do they (have), and how can we provide it in an effective way?”
Panetta gave thanks to the thousands of troops who have given their lives or suffered injuries in Iraq.
“Our troops and their families have borne a very heavy burden during more than eight years of war and have paid a great price,” he said. “And yet it’s a testament to their strength and their resilience that we are now able to bring this war to a responsible end.”
Adm. James Stavridis, the U.S. commander of NATO, recommended Friday bringing a formal end to NATO’s Libya combat operation by Oct. 31 and fully winding down NATO involvement in the following two weeks, Panetta said.
In contrast to Iraq, U.S. involvement in the Libya conflict has been measured in months. With the dictator Gadhafi gone, Panetta said that the United States, other NATO countries and nations in the region will need to help Libya both with developing democratic institutions as well as with immediate needs like health care for the many wounded during fighting.
“There’s going to be a tough path ahead for Libya. They’ve got to be able to develop governing institutions, they’ve got to be able to provide for elections, they’ve got to be able to develop the institutions of government and put them in place.”
Though sidetracked Friday by news from the Middle East developments, Panetta said he remains focused on a clear message he intends to convey in meetings with Asian officials over the coming week in Indonesia, Japan and South Korea:
“We will remain a strong Pacific force in the 21st century, and we will maintain a strong presence in the Pacific in the 21st century, and be a strong force for peace and prosperity in that region,” he said.