Gamberi, Afghanistan–(ENEWSPF)–December 7, 2014.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Everybody got a chair? If you don’t want to sit down, stand up. Or sit down. This is not a lecture. Nobody’s going to be graded.
First I want to thank you all. Thank you for giving me some time today to come by and say hello and to pass on not just my gratitude, but the president of the United States, the people of America. Everyone supports what you’re doing, supports you personally, your families.
All Americans understand the sacrifices you make, your families, what you mean to our country. And as we move into a holiday season I know it’s particularly difficult because you won’t be with your families.
So I want to wish you an early happy holidays and to your families. And please convey to your families how much we appreciate them and the sacrifice they’re making too not being with all of you on this upcoming holiday.
So I want to acknowledge not only General Bentley for his leadership and his leadership team, but also General Campbell for what he is doing and what he has been doing here, and all of our leadership.
I brought with me the former commander of the 3rd ID, General Abrams, who spent quite a bit of time in Afghanistan over the years.
So I think many of you actually served with Abe over the years and served in the 3rd ID with him and probably other places. So take credit that you made him what he is today. And we’re very proud of General Abrams, as we are proud of all of you.
I know we’ve got some ISAF Polish partners and troops with us. Guys, thank you. We also appreciate what you do, and your partnership, your friendship and what you mean to this effort. And I know how proud your country is of your efforts. And I think I’ll have a couple of minutes here later this afternoon to stop by and personally thank you.
I’m here for a couple of days and then onto some other areas. And I wanted to spend some time here.
This is my fourth trip as secretary of defense. Because as we work our way essentially out of a job, as we transition from the combat roles that we’ve had over the last 13 years into train, assist and advise, it’s important that all of our leaders get a better understanding of not just how it’s going, what your concerns are.
I have had an opportunity to meet with General Waziri this morning and his senior commanders, which I valued very much and appreciated his time to take us through this. Because how we do this and what we accomplish, all of us together working toward the same objective is really important, especially over the next couple of years as this transition takes effect.
And I wanted to listen also to the Afghan leaders. General Campbell and I met with President Ghani yesterday and spent quite a bit of time with him as well as CEO Dr. Abdullah on getting his thoughts on the transition.
And this area, this core, this base, what you all do in this area has really developed into a model for how we’ll continue to do this with our ISAF partners, with the Afghan Security Forces. And I do think it’s important that we acknowledge. And I know you do and you all see it, the tremendous progress that has been made here in this country over the last 13 years, measurable in many tangible ways, certainly with the Afghan Security Forces.
I mentioned yesterday in a news conference with President Ghani that the first time I came to Afghanistan was I think it was the first congressional delegation that came into Afghanistan. It was in late January of 2002. And I’d been here a number of times since.
So I have some frame of reference and some perspective to at least make some analysis on progress. And we don’t want to see the tremendous progress that’s been accomplished through so much of the Afghan people, our involvement, the sacrifices the United States and our ISAF partners have made in blood, in treasure.
We don’t want to see that roll back downhill. There’s progress. We want to do everything we can to continue to support the Afghan people because after all, this is about their future.
It is about the future of Afghanistan, what kind of a country they want for their children, what kind of values is important to them and how they want to live their lives. And I think we as Americans have a particular appreciation for that. Our Polish colleagues understand an awful lot about that, what they have endured over different periods of time.
So we’re all in this together. And we want to make sure we maximize the value added that we all bring to this and investments that we’ve all made in this. And so I particularly note your role in this because it really is a model of how we can do this.
Now, there are challenges ahead. The job’s not over. This is still a dangerous country in many ways. But you don’t measure life based on one day at a time or one, even one year at a time.
It’s an overall measurement of are we moving in the right direction. Is there progress? Is this country better off than it was five years ago or three years ago or certainly 13 years ago? And I think when we apply those kinds of metrics it’s pretty clear what the answers are. So thank you for what you’re doing.
The world is an uncertain place. And I think you all are well aware of that. You have your own perspectives.
Some of you have — many of you have served in this country before. Some of you I know are on your second, third or even some fourth tour veterans here. You served in other parts of the world. So you understand the challenges that we are all dealing with all across the globe.
But I look at long-term trends. And I think that’s what we always have to look at. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, “the long pole of history are the trends in the right direction.” And there’s never been a time in history that there has not been a serious challenge.
Not only to freedom, but to people’s rights and respect of individuals and the things, again, that we all of us value and that we want certainly for ourselves and for our families and for our children. But also recognizing that other people all over the world want that as well.
So let me stop there and again wish all of you a wonderful holiday. You have each other. That’s not insignificant.
I, long ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, spent a year in an army uniform in a war away from home during the holidays. So I have some appreciation for what you deal with and what your families deal with and the sacrifices they make.
So please pass onto your families our warmest holiday wishes. Take care of yourselves. And again, tell your families how much we appreciate what they do. And of course we appreciate what you do and how proud we all are of all of you and your families. So thank you.
I’ll be glad to take some questions. Anything that you all want to talk about.
STAFF: I’ve got some stuff on my mind, so.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I would be disappointed if they didn’t.
If you guys just — probably the easiest way to do it is just if you got a question you want to say something just go up to the mic. Go ahead.
Q: Okay, sir. Given our current mission…
SEC. HAGEL: Who are you?
Q: I’m Staff Sergeant Farley, originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
SEC. HAGEL: That’s good enough.
SEC. HAGEL: Okay.
Q: Given our current mission here in Afghanistan of train, advise and assist, and it’s also going on in Iraq and Africa, do you think the train, advise, assist skillset will gain a wider emphasis for development among conventional forces and expand it around the world?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think the answer — the quick answer is yes. And why do I think that?
Again, when you look at the objectives of a mission, and you all know all about that because you are mission oriented. And you know how to carry out a mission. You know the operation of a mission. You know what it takes to accomplish a mission.
When you look at objectives of train, assist, advise, what is the point? What’s behind all that?
Well, what’s behind all that, just as what we’re doing here and we’ve done in other countries, we’ll do in more countries, is to assist a country, specifically security forces of a country, build their own capability, build their own capacity to defend themselves, secure their country, allow their country opportunities of possibility and prosperity. And we can do that. We do that very well.
I think the testament of that is pretty clear. We’ve been working with nearly 50 ISAF countries in this country for the last few years. Now as we transition to a new mission that we support, most of those 50 nations will stay in a train, assist and advise capacity over the next two years.
And it is to help the host country, a country that has invited us all in, the country of Afghanistan, to continue to help them, support them. But not fight for them.
Not do their work for them, but to assist them, advise them, support them, train them, give them the tools and the capacity and the capabilities, the leadership, the training, the institutions. Help them with that so they can become independent and they can do what they need to do to secure their country.
So yes, I think these are areas that are going to I believe become more and more important for our country. We’re doing this with partners all over the world. This is the most focused example of that for obvious reasons, what we’re doing here in Afghanistan. Thank you.
Q: Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary, my name’s Staff Sergeant Harcourt . And I’m from the sergeant’s sister city in the great state of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pa. I…
SEC. HAGEL: Do you guys get along? Do you talk?
Q: Never met until today.
SEC. HAGEL: See how we bring people together here.
Q: I earned my master’s degree in history from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. And you mentioned in your talk about modernity and change and how that goes and changing — in a changing world, and how that matters.
And from a historical perspective I was just curious. Given the deteriorated security situation in Iraq, how, if at all does that factor into our current foreign policy in deciding our withdrawal process here in Afghanistan, sir?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, it’s a good question. It would be a question coming from a major of history like you that would be obvious. But let me try and respond this way because you already know an awful lot about history you have, I’m sure, an answer to your question.
But I think a couple of things need to be said in answer to your question. First, Iraq and Afghanistan are totally different situations. And you all understand that. Many of you served in Iraq.
So that’s where you start. There are some similarities, sure. Our role is different in Iraq as it is here. And Iraq has been an ally. We, as you all know and many of you serve there, invested our blood and our treasure there to help the Iraqi people.
But in the end it’s really much about the question of missions and objectives. In the end each country must take the responsibility for their own futures and for their own fate and for governing themselves.
We help allies all over the world different ways, different situations and different locations. And I think the Iraq-Afghanistan situation is one of those where it’s different. It’s totally different than — I think probably more different than similarities.
But yes, some similar threats: terrorism. Some of the same factors, some of the same organizations that wanted to do everything they can to destroy the United States as well as Western values and Western civilization.
So there are common interests. There are common challenges. But how we work and cooperate with other countries is always — is always a little different. And I think that in this case that’s the case.
Q: Thank you, sir.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
Q: Good morning, sir. Second Lieutenant Stephandorf. I’m from Brooklyn, New York. Sir, have there been any recent changes to the reduction plan for the United States Army?
SEC. HAGEL: The reduction plan?
Q: Yes, sir.
SEC. HAGEL: No. I think you are all aware of our drawing down our force structure after 13 years of two long land-based conflicts that have required very significant numbers of Army, most specifically, Marines of course. But every service has been in it, but the Army has been the main manpower component of those two wars.
So, like history, when the United States cycles out of a war of our manpower needs, our force structures will level off and will be adjusted to not just the current threats, but always anticipated threats because only few of us would’ve predicted what the end of 2014 looks like right now versus how it started: Russia-Ukraine, ISIL, Ebola.
Those are but three. And all three have required new commitments of components of whether it’s ready reaction or specific and active engagement of our army in West Africa, helping there.
So you always anticipate. But no, we’ll stay on that drawdown path.
As you know the chief of staff of the Army, General Odierno, had come to me last year, actually a year ago, more than a year ago, as we were preparing budgets that we presented earlier this year. He presented to Chairman Dempsey. I accepted Chief of Staff Odierno’s recommendations as to how we would continue to drawdown.
But an important part of that is the glide slope. And when the Army and all services had been hit particularly hard, and you all know this, the last couple of years. We’ve built back a little bit this year.
But last year was really, really a disastrous year for our services because we had to stop training and sailing and flying and defer maintenance and all the other things that go with it because of sequestration. We had a government shutdown for 16 days. We had to furlough civilians for five days. We took major abrupt, steep cuts in our budget because of sequestration.
Now, there was a budget agreement that put some of that back this year and going into next year. But sequestration is still the law of the land, and it will come back in 2016 unless the Congress changes the law.
So (inaudible) has done a brilliant job of being able to maintain their current force structure and their anticipated drawdown plans. But the chief has said, all of our chiefs have said if sequestration continues that will further mean those abrupt, steep cuts will require a sharper glide path down on force reduction.
So we’re doing everything we can to see if we can get that turned around. But the number itself is not changing.
Q: Thank you very much, sir.
Q: Sir, 1st Class Rains from the San Diego area. Sir, with politicians continuing to cut our benefits such as proposed 1.8 percent pay raise down to 1 percent, and the reduction of basic allowance for housing, do you see a trend where at some point they might turn that around and start adding to our benefits instead of cutting, sir?
SEC. HAGEL: I don’t speak for the Congress. I doubt that you’re going to see a movement to add to benefits.
And I think again you need to review compensation benefits. Retirement. As you know of course, there’s a commission that the Congress — independent commission that the Congress empaneled that will report to the Congress early next year on recommendations on how we go forward, how our forces go forward under the current pay compensations benefits program.
Every chief of staff we have currently and past has said that the military enterprise cannot sustain the path we’re on with the current structure, which includes everything.
Adjustments are going to have to be made because if they’re not made down into the future then we will essentially end up with a hollow force. We will have a lot of benefits and pay, but there’ll be no money for readiness.
The capacity capability, the edge that you now have and we have had since World War II won’t be there. Unless the Congress wants to pass tens of billions of dollars in funding, more funding every year. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
No one questions or argues that our military should be absolutely compensated with an entire package that’s appropriate for your service and your sacrifice. That’s not the issue. But we’re looking down into the future.
How do we sustain the kind of quality that we have now, recruitment, retention? And at the same time assure the capability of our forces with the readiness and the weapons systems and the technological edge that we’ve had?
So that’s part of the debate. And it is really central to our future planning.
The Congress will come up next week with, I think, a National Defense Authorization Act which will address, maybe, a couple of these compensation issues. Maybe not. But I think at least what I’ve been told in many conversations I’ve had with members of Congress that they want to wait until the commission — the independent commission comes back with its recommendations.
But again, just to make sure everybody’s aware of this. And it’s a huge point. It’s one everybody agrees with.
No one disagrees that our men and women need to be fairly compensated for the tremendous sacrifice and service they give this country. That’s not in question.
What’s in question is how do we sustain this down the road? And I suspect as we get through this, and we will because we’re going to have to. Because if you don’t make these decisions now, at some point these decisions are going to have to be made.
I’ve never found the big decisions, the challenging — the questions in life that they get better, they get easier to fix or they just go away. Maybe your lives are different. My live has never been that way. It doesn’t happen.
So it means if we don’t deal with this now, somebody’s going to have to be dealing with it later. And there will be — there’ll be some decisions made that probably won’t be right. So I’m hopeful that we’ll get this right. Thank you.
Q: Thank you, sir.
SEC. HAGEL: Okay. John says — oh. John says no more.
All right. We’re going to — if you guys want to do this we’ll take a picture with everybody and I’ve got some coins, so.