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Remarks by Secretary Hagel at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

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Date:
Location: Helmand Province, Afghanistan

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning and thank you for giving me a little time this morning. I'm here, first, to say hello, and thank you for what you're doing. I wish you happy holidays. Also, I want you to know how much President Obama and our country appreciate what you're doing.

I know more than occasionally you wonder if anybody's paying attention or if anybody cares, but we do. Our country cares. We do know what you're doing and we appreciate it very much.

I know this is a tough time especially, holiday season coming. You're away from your families and your home. So I know it's particularly difficult. And I want you to tell your families how much we appreciate their work, their sacrifices and their service as they support you and support our country. So, thank you very much.

I also know that this is a time of great uncertainty with questions about bilateral security agreement, our continued involvement in Afghanistan -- will we be here? For how long? What will be our role? I want you to know that the president knows, I know, our commanders know that that is something that doesn't escape you. And I know it can occasionally make your jobs harder.

But I want to reassure you that we will work through this and the sacrifices and the work you're doing are not going to go undone. And you are making huge investments here for the future of this country. So, I want to again thank you for your continued focus on your jobs, what you're doing for your country. It matters. It will continue to matter. And we will work through all of this.

I also know that this part of Afghanistan is one of the most difficult. As a United States senator, I was here in Afghanistan a number of times. As a matter of fact, I was on the first congressional delegation that flew into Afghanistan in January of 2002 in Bagram when it was a complete blackout and we met under tents with only flashlights. So, I have been to this country many times since then.

And the difference that you all have made has been astounding for this country, to protect our interests. And I think sometimes people can take for granted how much work you've done and how effective you've been to protect the interests of our country in dealing with these great threats that face all of us -- terrorism, extremism, people who want to undo what we believe is important for the world, tolerance, dignity, all individuals being respected and given the same rights and opportunities for their families and for their future.

So, thank you very much.

I know we're going to have an opportunity to take some pictures, which I look forward to. But before we do that, I'd be very happy to entertain some questions, anything I can clear up, I'd be glad to respond.

Yes?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary I have a couple of questions for you.

SEC. HAGEL: Sergeant?

QUESTION: First of which, what would you say the likelihood is for the sequester actually being solved in the coming months. And the second part, if it isn't, what effect is that going to have on the services? What areas are we going to see cutbacks of their equipment, training, quality of life?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, you all know that sequester has cut deeply into the Department of Defense budget. And I've said it, all our commanders have said it. We are planning and preparing for continued reduction in our budgets.

But at the same time, we've also said that our mission, our priority of our mission won't change. We still have the resources and the capabilities and we are going to assure that readiness is always first and that our troops always have everything you need.

That is not in question. That will not be compromised.

There is some speculation in Washington that there may be a budget deal that is imminent, this week, when both the House and Senate come back into session, which may well give us two years of budget certainty and reduce the current level of sequestration that, as you know, is long, which, if that would be carried out, for this fiscal year it would mean about another $52 billion cut in DOD's budget.

But the budget agreement that they are working on would give us an opportunity to get some of that back.

Now, whether they will make that deal or not, I don't know. We have all been planning, the chiefs, our commanders, over the last six-eight months for different options and different plans, but I want to reassure you that we will take care of our troops first and their families. We will fund completely the priorities of our missions. And you will get everything you need to do your mission.

Where are you from?

QUESTION: Chicago, Illinois.

SEC. HAGEL: Ah, Chicago. It's a famous city in the White House these days as you know.

Your family there?

QUESTION: Yes sir.

SEC. HAGEL: Good. Well, tell them happy holidays. Thank you.

Yes?

QUESTION: What is your vision for the future military of Afghanistan?

SEC. HAGEL: My vision for the future of the military in Afghanistan?

Well, I think, and the president has said this, our leaders have said it, that as we have come to an end in our original mission here, and that is the combat part of our mission, as we have been handing that over to the ANSF and they have been doing a very good job with transitioning to their full capabilities and responsibilities, then we're looking at a new phase for our mission -- train, assist, advise, counterterrorism, I believe there is a role for our coalition partners in the United States here.

But that depends on the people of Afghanistan. If the people of Afghanistan want to continue that relationship, then I believe we will, and I believe our coalition partners have agreed to continue the relationship and be part of that post-2014 mission here in Afghanistan.

You know, because you've been following all of this, if you were right here, the Loya Jirga, which was empaneled overwhelmingly recommended to the president of Afghanistan that he sign a bilateral security agreement, which would invite the United States and our coalition partners to continue to work with their forces and train, assist, advise and work along side them, as you are doing, to help build the capacity of the Afghan police, the Afghan army, ANSF. And that's what you're doing, that's what you continue to do, and I think there there's still a role for us in that mission.

I'll take one more and then we will take some pictures.

Anybody else have -- yes?

QUESTION: (off mic)

SEC. HAGEL: Well, these are all specific areas of our responsibilities, of our missions, of our capabilities. We're always going to need those capabilities and those capacities.

As we adjust, certainly here, and move from one mission to another, we will frame up -- we've been planning on this -- what are those required capabilities? We need these capabilities also around the world. It isn't just -- it isn't just here.

I was just in Bahrain, I flew into Afghanistan yesterday and I will go onto Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Qatar from here tomorrow. And one of the things that I am discussing, to your question, with my counterparts from countries in this part of the world, certainly in the Gulf countries, where I just was and will go back into, was these kind of capacities.

One of the priorities that we have, over the last couple of years, we the DoD -- our commanders, our chiefs had put on, where we go from here as the Department of Defense working with our partners is capacity building, which you have been doing here to prepare the Afghan security forces.

Preparing in leadership capability, mission, focus, discipline, training, we're doing that all over the world. And so as we assess the requirements in order to do that, then some of -- of what we've been doing the last, certainly, 12 years, 15 years, are going to shift, based on new threats, new challenges, new priorities.

And partnerships are going to evolve into even more important components of our national security strategies, they have to as we help all of our partners around the world build their capacity and make them stronger, so that they can deal with these great issues.

Again, thank you all, very much for what you're doing. And happy holidays here. I hope Santa stops in Afghanistan. I know you've all been good and you -- you deserve Santa to stop.

So thank you, take care of yourselves. And I also want to tell you, we're very proud of you. We're very proud of you, and we're proud of your families.

Thank you very much.

(Applause.)


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