Secretary of Defense Panetta held this press conference previewing his final international trip as secretary, on January 14, 2013. His travel will include Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Great Britain.
Excerpt from transcript:
"Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned Mali very briefly. Can you expand a little bit on the assistance that the U.S. is giving to the French in -- in Mali? And maybe just characterize a little bit for us what you think this conflict is going to look like, how great the threat is, and how well armed you think those rebels are there. How long of a conflict do you think this may be?
SEC. PANETTA: As I've mentioned in the past -- and I'll reaffirm that, you know, we -- we have a responsibility to go after Al Qaida wherever they are. And we've gone after them in the FATA. We're going after them in Yemen and Somalia. And we have a responsibility to make sure that Al Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.
We've been very concerned about AQIM and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area. We have been working with our regional partners to try to develop plans to confront that threat. I commend France for taking the steps that it has. And what we have -- have promised them is that we will work with them to cooperate with them and to provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them in that effort.
And we are engaged in those discussions. AFRICOM is discussing this with France, and we'll continue to work with them to ensure that ultimately we do stop AQIM and that the responsibility for assuring security in that region will be passed to the African nations to provide a more permanent security for the sake of the world.
Q: But how long do you see this -- how long do you see this going on? And can you be a little more specific about either intelligence gathering, other things that the U.S. is willing to do so far?
SEC. PANETTA: It's hard to estimate, you know, the timeframe here, because obviously, you know, the effort is to try to do what is necessary to -- to halt their advances and to try to secure some of the key cities in Mali. This is being done, as I said, in conjunction with other -- other nations, the other African nations. I know ECOWAS, the African group of nations, is going to be deploying a force there soon. And the hope is that ultimately they assume the responsibility to ensure security in Mali.
MR. LITTLE: Elisabeth?
Q: On that topic, can you talk about, have the French asked for anything in particular from the United States?
SEC. PANETTA: We are -- I've been in discussions with the minister of defense and will continue to have those discussions. And the effort there will be to provide, you know, some limited logistical support to them to provide logistical support and intelligence support where we can to assist them in that effort.
Q: Are you talking about tankers -- (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: There will be some -- some areas of airlift where we will try to be able to assist them, as well.
MR. LITTLE: Julian?
Q: If -- if on the -- in the intelligence, are you thinking more satellite support or unmanned aerial vehicles? If you do provide drones, would they be armed? And is there a possibility that you could do strikes?
And then if you could also address, is AQIM a threat to the U.S. homeland at this point, or is it more of a regional threat? Or can you talk a little bit about what it does -- what --
SEC. PANETTA: I'm not -- I'm not going to get into the particulars of exactly the assistance we'll provide, other than to say we'll -- we will assist them in the intelligence arena. With regards to AQIM, we're concerned that any time Al Qaida establishes a base of operations that -- while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective and it's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction.
MR. LITTLE: Greg?
Q: Mr. Secretary, you know, Mali's a long way away from pretty much everywhere. It's, you know, not very well developed. We don't have bases right nearby. But, you know, this -- this threat with AQIM in northern Mali, it sort of developed pretty quickly after the Libya war. And some people say that one -- I don't know if it was unforeseen, but one unintended consequence of the Libyan war is that this resulted in a big flow of weapons and fighters into northern Mali. And, of course, the guy who led the coup in Mali was a guy who'd been trained in the U.S. The Malian army had received a lot of training.
To what degree could this -- these developments with AQIM in northern Mali been prevented? Would that have been possible? Is this something the United States -- if they had taken some different steps months or years ago -- could have led to a different outcome?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think we've always -- going back to my last job as director of the CIA -- we were always very concerned about AQIM, as well as Al Qaida in these other areas, as I mentioned, Somalia and Yemen. And our concern was that I wasn't enough simply to go after the leadership of Al Qaida in the FATA, that it was important that we try to go after Al Qaida wherever they tried to establish a base of operations, and for that reason, I think we have always been concerned about Al Qaida not only in these other nations that I talked about, but in North Africa, as well.
I think -- I think it was -- it's understandable that, as we've confronted them in each of these other areas, that they were going to try to move and establish a base of operations wherever they could, and obviously with the turmoil in Mali, they found it convenient to be able to use that situation to gain some traction there.
I think that was probably going to happen under any circumstances, but the fact is that we've been watching it for a long time, we have been paying attention to it, we haven't ignored the fact that -- that they have made efforts to -- to locate there, and I think when they began offensive operations to actually take on some cities, it was clear to France and to all of us that that could not be allowed to -- to continue. And that's the reason France has engaged, and it's the reason that we're providing cooperation to them in that effort.
Q: (off mic) -- Libya, do you think it was a side result of the Libyan war, an unintended effect?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that -- that there's no question, as you confront them in Yemen, in Somalia, in Libya, that they're going to ultimately try to relocate. So, you know, there's -- you know, that certainly, I think, is a consequence. But the fact is, we have made a commitment that Al Qaida is not going to find any place to hide.
MR. LITTLE: Gopal?
Q: On Mali, are other countries in NATO also providing any support, France? I know U.K. is providing some airlift, but are you asking other countries to provide any support to the French mission, as well.
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I'm not aware of what other countries are providing to France at this point. I know -- I know what we've been asked to do and what we're trying to provide, but, you know, frankly, one of the discussions I'll have in Spain regards their concern about what's happening with AQIM in Mali, as well. And I'll get a better idea of what -- what these other countries may be doing to assist."