Executive Session

By:  Lindsey Graham
Date: June 21, 2011
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. GRAHAM. Mr. President, I rise in support of the nomination of Leon Panetta for Secretary of Defense. The President has chosen wisely. He has a terrific national security team in place. General Petraeus has become the CIA Director. Mr. Donilon has done a great job as National Security Adviser. In Leon Panetta, the President could not have chosen better. I am pleased with Ambassador Crocker, Ambassador Eikenberry, and General Petraeus did a heck of a job in Afghanistan. Ambassador Crocker will be the best we have to offer on that side for the military-civilian partnership in Afghanistan.

Leon Panetta heading up the Department of Defense is a home-run choice. I have known Leon for quite a while. I want to let the country know I think the President made a very wise decision. Tomorrow night, he is supposed to tell us about Afghanistan.

Mr. SCHUMER. Will my colleague yield?

Mr. GRAHAM. Yes.

Mr. SCHUMER. Mr. President, I wish to add my accolades about Leon Panetta. I know him well. We roomed together for 11 years here in Washington. He is a strong, smart, honorable, and devout man. He will be a great Secretary of Defense. I thank my colleague for praising him and add my accolades.

Mr. GRAHAM. Mr. President, that shows you how bipartisan it is going to be--Graham and Schumer. That shows you the depth and breadth of Leon Panetta--the way people view him here.

One of the first decisions he will have to make is what to tell the President about Afghanistan. I know we are war weary and have been there for 10 years. We didn't just throw a dart at the map when we decided to go there. That is the place the Taliban was controlling, they invited al-Qaida to be their honored guests, and bin Laden had a welcome home in Afghanistan. The rest is history.

President Bush understood that the Taliban was a force for evil. They allowed bin Laden to come to Afghanistan and plan the 9/11 attacks. They had a choice to make, and they chose poorly. We went in there to take the Taliban down.

We have a war in Iraq--and we can debate whether we should have done that. One of the reasons we are still not where we would like to be 10 years later is because a lot of the resources we had in Afghanistan went to Iraq. Now we finally got it right.

For the last 17 months, we have had enough troops in Afghanistan to make a difference. To President Obama, that was a hard decision for you to make--to add 30,000 additional troops at a time when most people said: Why are we still there? Can't we come home? But the President chose wisely, and 2014 is the transition goal--to transition to Afghan control. I think we are well on track.

Tomorrow night, the President will tell us about withdrawing troops. I believe we can, not because we are tired but because of the success on the ground. Let me point out some successes that would allow the President to make a reasoned judgment to withdraw troops. The one thing I urge the President to do is never lose sight of why we went there and our national security goals in Afghanistan. We will all be judged by what we leave behind. We want to leave behind the ability of the Afghan people to say no to the Taliban and reject extremism. They have the will, but they don't have the capacity yet. But they are getting there. Anytime you have the desire of the people who are oppressed by the Taliban and al-Qaida and you can help them help themselves, that makes it all safer.

Here is what happened since the President sent surge forces in. In November of 2009, there were two nations and 30 NATO trainers--two nations helping train the Afghan security forces from NATO. They had a combined 30 people. You could put them all in a bus. One thing the President did when he surged American forces in was that he insisted NATO step up their game. Here we are today, and we have 1,300 NATO trainers in Afghanistan with 32 countries providing assistance. We have 49 different countries helping in some form of training.

In the last 17 months, we have added 90,000 Afghan Army and police forces. So there has been a surge, far beyond the American coalition surge, in Afghan forces. How did that happen? We have better training. In September of 2009, 800 people were joining the Afghan Army per month. They were losing 2,000 a month. That was a terrible trend. In December of 2009, because of this new construct we came up with, we have been averaging 6,000 army recruits a month and 3,000 for the police. Today, we have 160,000 in the Afghan National Army and 126,000 in the Afghan National Police. By the end of the year, we will have 305,000 army and police under arms in Afghanistan.

And the reason that has happened is because we have changed the way we train the Afghan security forces.

So I hope the President, listening to Leon Panetta, Secretary Gates, and Secretary Petraeus, will tell the American people we can start bringing forces home beginning this summer because we have been successful, and we are not going to do anything to undermine that success because it has come at such a heavy price.

In reality, ladies and gentlemen, we have been in Afghanistan with the right configuration for about 18 months. The army retention rates today in the Afghan Army are 69 percent--almost doubled. The literacy rate among the Afghan Army and police force is twice that of the national population because we have focused on literacy. It is hard to be a policeman or army officer if you can't read or write. We are helping a people who have been dirt poor, who have been at war for 30 years, and who have been treated very poorly by everybody in the world. At the end of the day, it is in our national security interest to make sure the country where the Taliban took over and allowed bin Laden to come in as an honored guest never goes back into the hands of an extremist.

I am confident Leon Panetta has the wisdom and background, as the CIA Director, as a former Member of Congress, and as a successful businessperson, to lead the Pentagon at the most challenging time since World War II.

He is taking over from Bob Gates. There is not enough we can say or do for Secretary Gates to thank him. He has had the job for 5 years. When he came on board, Iraq was a hopeless, lost cause in the minds of many, and he and General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and many others--mainly our troops and coalition forces--took an Iraq that was on the verge of an abyss and we are now on the verge of a representative government that can defend itself and be an ally of the United States. Having Saddam Hussein replaced by a representative government in Iraq aligned with us is priceless. If we could as a nation take the place from which we were once attacked and turn it over to people who want to go a different way than the Taliban, and they have the ability to fight back and say no, all of us will be safer.

I congratulate the President on picking Leon Panetta to be Secretary of Defense. I know he has had a lot of hard decisions in the war on terror, and one of the biggest decisions he will make is coming up maybe tomorrow night. I want to work with him, Republicans and Democrats together, in making sure our Nation is never attacked again from Afghanistan. That is possible. We are on the verge of getting that right.

As we draw down troops, I ask the President to please tell those who are left behind still fighting in Afghanistan that he hasn't lost sight of the prize. The prize is not just bringing our troops home, the prize is to make sure their children never have to go back and fight in the future. That is the goal--to withdraw from Afghanistan in a way that we are safer and that our national security is enhanced. We are on the verge of achieving that goal.

What Secretary Panetta and others are going to be challenged with as we go forward in the 21st century is going to be substantial. The enemy is still alive, even though not well. We have punished the enemy--al-Qaida and other extremist groups--but they will not give up easily. At the end of the day, the goal is for our country to be safe, and it will take more than killing bin Laden to do that. Killing bin Laden was a form of justice long overdue, and it did make us safer, but the ultimate security in this world lies not with our ability to kill individuals but with our ability to help those who need to fight in their own backyard and protect themselves from terrorism. That really is security that is sustainable.

If we can leave Afghanistan in 2014 in a fashion that they have the capacity to marry up with their will to say no to the Taliban and turn their country around toward the light and not the darkness, then I say without any doubt that our country did them right. If we cut this operation short because we are tired and weary, we will pay a price. Our values are so much better than the enemy's. They have patience and bad ideas. We have a lot of good ideas for the future of mankind. The question is, Do we have the patience to make sure those ideas can flourish?

This is a long, hard war, fought by a few. We are on the verge of success. I could not think of a better person to lead us to a complete success, an enduring success, than Leon Panetta. So I look forward, in a bipartisan fashion, to voting for I think one of the best choices the President could have made as Secretary of Defense.

To Bob Gates, I would say: Whatever you do in retirement, wherever you go, you have my respect, my admiration, and on behalf of the American people you will go down in history as one of the steadiest hands America could have ever had during challenging times.

With that, I yield the floor.

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