WASHINGTON --- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today laid out three missions for the post-2014 troop presence in Afghanistan, and also made it clear the U.S. is not arming rebels fighting to topple the Assad regime in Syria.
During a joint press conference here with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Panetta was asked what the focus in Afghanistan should be following the transition to Afghan-led security.
“The fundamental mission in Afghanistan is to establish [a nation] that can secure and govern itself and ensure that al-Qaida, never again, finds a safe haven within Afghanistan from which to conduct attacks on the United States or any other country,” he said.
The goal for remaining troops, Panetta said, is an enduring presence that will direct itself towards three important missions.
“One is obviously [counterterrorism] to ensure that we continue to go after whatever al-Qaida targets remain in Afghanistan,” he said.
“Although we clearly have had an impact on their presence in Afghanistan, the fact is that they continue to show up, and intelligence continues to indicate that they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan as well,” Panetta said. He noted that forces have to be continually vigilant to protect against the terrorist group’s resurgence.
“So that’s going to be the fundamental thrust of the CT effort in the enduring presence,” Panetta said. “We also are going to continue to have a train-and-assist mission to help develop the capability of the Afghan Army.”
“The third mission will be to continue to provide some enabling capability so that we can provide the support needed for our forces as well,” he said.
Panetta noted the necessary troop levels to accomplish these missions is “exactly what’s being discussed” now.
In addition to discussing Afghanistan, the defense secretary also re-emphasized that the United States has had no involvement in equipping rebel forces in Syria with weapons or surface-to-air missiles.
“With regards to Syria, let me say, unequivocally, that we have not provided any of those kinds of missiles to the opposition forces located in Syria,” Panetta said. “We do provide … non-lethal assistance to the opposition.”
“We obviously are continuing to work on humanitarian relief to the refugees that have been impacted,” he added.
Panetta noted the U.S., with assistance from Israel and other countries in the region, also continues to monitor fighting in areas with chemical or biological weapons sites.
Our main focus right now, he said, has been working with other countries to try to provide whatever assistance we can to the opposition so it can ultimately become not only an effective force, but one that will be “needed once Assad comes down.”