CNN "Erin Burnett Outfront" - Transcript

Interview

By:  Leon Panetta
Date: Dec. 13, 2012
Location: Unknown

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BURNETT: The issue of readiness on the part of Afghan Security Forces, to take over the fight against al Qaeda and terrorists in this country is the central issue to determine if America stays and how many American troops will continue to serve in this country.

There was a new Pentagon report out this week. Important it came from the pentagon. They're trying to tell a story of improvement here, but the Pentagon report itself said that only 1 in 23 Afghan brigades is actually ready to fully take over security in this country.

And in an army where 85 percent of the new recruits are illiterate, the challenges can be overwhelming. I spoke exclusively to the Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta today in Kandahar, and asked him about this daunting challenge.

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LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Obviously, there is a literacy problem, with regards to the forces and, you know, we can continue to try to prepare them for the ability to take over all of this security responsibility.

I guess, you know, the good news is that, as a result of the training effort, they are dealing with illiteracy and providing quick classes as these individuals go into the army, so they're meeting that responsibility.

They are developing the kind of training and capability that they need, but this is an area we're just going to have to focus on, intensely because over the next two years, and particularly in 2013, we have to reach a stage where 100 percent of the operations are in the hands of the afghan army. That's going to take a lot more work.

BURNETT: So is that why there's been a bit of a delay? I was just looking at some of the headlines. You said we're going to have a troop count decision in a few weeks. And then the last headline I saw was a couple of weeks ago and you said, I'm going to have a troop count in a few weeks. What's causing that delay? Are you not sure of the right number? Is the president holding it up? Where is the delay?

PANETTA: No, I think -- I think, first and foremost, that General Allen, having developed the campaign plan for Afghanistan, is the one who really has to come forward with the recommendations as the to what the enduring presence will look like. And he's prepared several options.

We've reviewed them and then ultimately they have to be presented to the National Security Consul, which reviews them and then present it to the president for a final decision.

That just takes time, and we want to make sure, obviously, that we make the right decision with regards to the size of that enduring presence.

BURNETT: There are people who are very worried that the U.S. will have too few people to actually provide the security that's required. And some have said that number is 20,000, and fewer than that is not enough. Is that fair?

PANETTA: Well, you know, it depends on the missions that we've got to be able to work on, in that enduring presence. And the key missions are the following. One is counterterrorism, which mean means we'll continue to confront al Qaeda.

And those that, you know, have always continued to plan attacks on the United States, we just want to make sure that there is no al Qaeda threat here in Afghanistan.

Secondly, to do the training and assistance that is necessary for the Afghan Army, and then thirdly, to provide some of the enabling capabilities for the forces that are here.

That will determine the nature of the presence. But the bottom line is that if we're going to accomplish our mission, our main responsibility for securing this country has to rest at Afghan Army.

BURNETT: So you're not yet sure on the number. It's not like you're just waiting to announce it. You're not sure on the number?

PANETTA: No, we're working intently right now to try to determine what that will be.

BURNETT: And it's interesting when you a lot with the mission on what you're trying to accomplish. I mean, the original mission here was, I'll quote the president, right, to defeat, disrupt, and destroy al Qaeda.

PANETTA: Right.

BURNETT: Is that mission accomplished?

PANETTA: The mission of defeating and deterring al Qaeda, I think, is well on the way towards, you know, achieving the mission, with regards to Afghanistan and the threat that we face here.

We continue to face al Qaeda, obviously, elsewhere, not only in Pakistan, but in Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere. But, you know, we have had remarkable success going after special operations against al Qaeda here and we're continuing to do that.

I think, you know, the main challenge here is, obviously, to make sure there's no safe haven for al Qaeda, in which to conduct attacks, but the key to that is in Afghanistan. That can secure and govern itself. Those two are interlocked in terms of the mission that we have in Afghanistan.

BURNETT: But what if they choose the Taliban?

PANETTA: You know, I'm very confident that the Afghan people want to be sovereign, they want to be independent, they want to be free from the Taliban, but they want to be able to determine their future. And that's OK. That's what needs to be done here is to have an Afghanistan that can determine its future.

BURNETT: When you talk about defeating al Qaeda, you know, you think about some of the statistics here. Obviously, there's still an insurgency, 93 policemen in one day joined the Taliban. Do you think al Qaeda will ever be defeated, even here?

PANETTA: I think you can reach a point where you so significantly weaken al Qaeda that although there may still be a few people around, they won't be able to conduct the operations that they've conducted in the past, and they certainly won't be able to plan the kind of attacks that American had happen to it on 9/11. And that's our goal, is to make sure that doesn't happen again.

BURNETT: And when you talk about al Qaeda and where it is, Mali is widely now seen as a safe haven for al Qaeda, and is linked to, inspired by, whatever the words might be, does the United States have to intervene in Mali?

PANETTA: We've got to go after al Qaeda, wherever the hell they're at, and make sure they find no place to hide. Because let's not forget, the main goal of al Qaeda is to attack the United States and we're not going to allow that to happen again. And if we're not going to allow it to happen, we've got to go after them in Yemen, in Somalia and yes, in Mali if necessary.

BURNETT: And final question on al Qaeda, how big of a threat right now, as you assess threat to the homeland, is al Qaeda?

PANETTA: I think we have significantly weakened their ability to do the kind of command and control and planning that would be necessary to conduct another 9/11 attack. At the same time, they still continue to threaten our country. And they still represent, I think, probably the most important threat we still face in the world.

BURNETT: All right, thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

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