|The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Vice President
September 14, 2007
Vice President's Remarks to the Central Command, Special Operations Command, and the 6th Air Mobility Wing
Macdill Air Force Base Theater
Macdill Air Force Base, Florida
2:33 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Admiral, thank you for the introduction and thank you all for being here this afternoon and letting me come spend a little bit of time with all of you.
I count it a privilege to be with the men and women of Central Command, the Special Operations Command, and the 6th Air Mobility Wing. I also want to recognize a distinguished member of Congress here today, my old friend and colleague Bill Young. Bill, it's good to see you here this afternoon. (Applause.)
I know from my own experience that Bill's many, many years of service since I believe 1971 in the United States Congress, but he spent most of that time on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. And when I was Secretary, he was one of my closest allies on Capitol Hill, and he's still performing that same magnificent function today looking out for the forces, making certain that we have the resources we need to defend the nation.
I've been looking forward, as always, to coming down for a briefing and spend a little time with Fox and the command here at CENTCOM and SOCOM and I appreciate the chance to say a few words to all of you as well.
I want to thank everyone who helped out in arranging the visit, especially Admiral Olson and Admiral Fallon. And in the company of so many fine officers, I want to say a public word of thanks to a man who is not here today -- but who is well known to all of you and who is doing a terrific job -- General Dave Petraeus.
Let me also thank the officers from other nations here today -- in particular the spokesman for our coalition partners represented in Tampa, Brigadier General Arne Skjaerpe from Norway. We display many flags here at CENTCOM, and proudly so. More than 20 nations have deployed troops to a region of responsibility that stretches from Kazakhstan to Kenya. Together we've undertaken missions that are difficult and sensitive -- and also vital to the safety of our peoples, and to peace and stability far beyond. The United States appreciates your friendship. Our military is honored to stand with all of you.
We share the goal of confronting and defeating an enemy that threatens all civilized countries -- an enemy who rejects the rules of warfare, who disdains any code of honor, and who considers mercy and respect for innocent life to be signs of weakness. This enemy faces us not in the form of a nation state with an army and a navy, but rather in cabals of extremists who plot in secret and move in the shadows. They've inflicted great harm and they have a taste for more.
All this makes your work extremely urgent. CENTCOM has the area responsibility for two major fronts of the war on terror. And SOCOM has the lead in our fight against the terrorists. A lot of you have taken your turn in battle and I know would like to be there now. I realize it's not always satisfying to be here in Florida while your comrades are in the field. But your experiences have given you the knowledge to draw the plans and think of the tactics that we need in order to prevail in this very tough fight. You get up every morning and spend your day focused on protecting your fellow citizens.
The nation depends on you, and we're in your debt. We are also indebted to your loved ones -- and on behalf of the President, I send respects to them as well. Military families don't take an oath, but they're every bit as committed to the good of this nation, and they're a consistent, daily example of service above self. We can never thank them enough.
Last evening, as I know many of you saw, the President reported to the nation on the status of our operations in Iraq. Up in Washington we'll continue to have debates about Iraq and broader national security policy, as we should. Tough work lies ahead. But the evidence from a theater of war 6,000 miles away in my mind is beyond question: The troop surge has achieved some solid results, and in a relatively short period of time. General Petraeus and the troops under his command are doing an absolutely fantastic job, and the whole nation is proud of them.
Many of those serving today, of course, were not yet members of the military on September 11th, 2001. Some were inspired to join precisely because of what happened that morning. And it's no exaggeration to say that our world really did change six years ago. For most of this nation's history we had been spared from attack inside our borders. But in a violent world, the safety of distance was suddenly gone. We saw how a small group of men, in a conspiracy formed thousands of miles away, could slip into our country, kill Americans by the thousands, and reduce tall buildings to 16 acres of ashes. And we had to contemplate an even worse prospect -- that terrorists might acquire weapons of mass destruction and turn them against the United States.
With grave new dangers directly in view, the strategic situation changed fundamentally. The first thing we had to understand was that on 9/11, America was not merely the victim of a crime. We were a sovereign nation under attack, entitled to defend ourselves, and obligated to confront and defeat this enemy. We had to understand, as well, not just the ambitions of the enemy, but the kind of response they expect from us. Their goal is to frighten us, to break our will through acts of spectacular violence -- to hit us again and again until we run away.
They've chosen this method because they believe it works, and they believe the history of the late 20th century proves their point. During the 1980s and '90s, as terror networks began to wage attacks against Americans, there was a tendency to treat those attacks as isolated incidents. And those acts were answered, if at all, on an ad hoc basis, with subpoenas, criminal indictments, and the occasional cruise missile. As time passed, the terrorists concluded they could hit America with very little consequence, and change American policy with bigger targets and a higher body count. And so their attacks became more ambitious and more deadly.
In Beirut in 1983, terrorists killed 241 of our servicemen. Thereafter, the U.S. withdrew from Beirut. In Mogadishu in 1993, terrorists killed 19 Americans; thereafter, the U.S. withdrew from Somalia. This emboldened them still further, confirming their belief that they could strike America without paying a price and be able to change our policies. Indeed they did strike, and indeed they did not pay the price.
We had the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993; an attack on U.S. facilities in Riyadh in 1995; the attack on Khobar Towers in 1996; the attack on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and, of course, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Ultimately, of course, they attacked the homeland on 9/11 and took the lives of 3,000 people aboard passenger jets, at the World Trade Center, and in the Pentagon.
The terrorists have been at war with the United States for a long time. And after 9/11 this nation made a decision: We are at war with them. This is a long-term commitment, not a passing issue. There will be no running, or relenting, until the problem has been dealt with -- decisively, systematically, and permanently.
We've gone on the offensive, destroying safe havens, targeting their leadership, restricting their movements, closing off their money channels, infiltrating their operations, monitoring their communications, and working in dead earnest to stop the proliferation of catastrophic weapons. This new imperative has laid some very important work on many shoulders, from homeland security, to intelligence operations, to law enforcement. But no one carries a heavier burden than the war fighter, who engages the enemy on his own ground and slugs it out in tough conditions for the sake of freedom and the sake of our security here at home.
As the prime target of the terrorists, America has also enforced a doctrine that is essential to our own safety, and to eventual victory in this struggle. It is simple to state and understood by all: Governments that support or harbor terrorists are complicit in the murder of the innocent, and they must be held to account. That's a significant commitment to make. Some may question whether we mean it -- but the doubters do not include the members of the Taliban.
With good allies at our side, we took down the terror regime in Afghanistan, and we have aided the rise of a free government in that nation. There is still hard work and tough fighting there. We have lost soldiers in Afghanistan nearly every month since going in almost six years ago. Right now, with more than 20,000 troops on the ground, together with more than 20,000 personnel from other nations, we are continuing to prosecute our objectives.
But the United States is not a fair-weather friend. When we took down the terrorist supporting regime, liberating the Afghan people from tyranny, we promised to help them build something better. Success there is essential to security around the world, and to lasting peace in our world. The war on terror does not have to be endless. But to prevail in the long run, we must remove the conditions that inspire such blind, prideful hatred that drove 19 men to climb on airplanes and come to kill us.
We know from history that when people live in freedom, when they have their rights respected, and they have real hope for the future, they will not be drawn to ideologies of hatred and violence. We know, as well, that when men and women are given the chance, most by far will choose to live in freedom.
Tyranny in Afghanistan was worth deposing. Democracy in Afghanistan is worth defending. And the same is true in Iraq.
More than four years ago, we enforced the demands of the civilized world and ended the long, squalid career of Saddam Hussein. And having removed the dictator, we promised not to let another tyrant rise in his place. For their own part, most Iraqis have had their fill of violence and despair, and want only to get on with life in a peaceful country. They have turned out in large numbers in national elections, ratifying the most progressive constitution in the Arab world, bearing up with extraordinary courage against random violence and threats and refusing to be intimidated by killers.
Still, Iraqi society continues to suffer the effects of a generation of tyrannical rule. There are those who wonder why free Iraq hasn't yet produced a single, unifying figure like a Hamid Karzai or a Nelson Mandela. The problem, as President Bush pointed out recently, is that the Nelson Mandelas of Iraq are scarce, "because Saddam Hussein made sure that if they didn't escape the country, they were dead."
But Iraq is a great nation of more than 25 million people who want what we want -- security, peace, and the right to chart their own destiny. And right now they face attack from violent extremists who want to drag that nation back into the darkness. We are helping Iraqis fight back because it is the right thing to do -- and because the outcome will have a direct impact on the security of the United States.
The al Qaeda network that struck America is one of the elements now interested in destroying Iraq's democracy -- and Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants regard it as a critical front in their war against us. Their goal is to make us run -- in the process abandoning our friends, permitting the overthrow of a democracy, and allowing a country of 170,000 square miles to be a staging area for attacks against America and our allies. The terrorists are betting that Americans will grow tired, distracted, and weak. I believe that's a bet the terrorists are going to lose.
Ladies and gentlemen, the United States and our coalition are getting things right in Iraq. It's taken a good deal of time, and we've endured setbacks. Although our military performed admirably and continued to do everything we asked of them, 2006, I think everyone knows, was a difficult year. Al Qaeda terrorists wanted to accelerate sectarian violence, and they carried out that plan with ferocity. Many Iraqis doubted the ability of their government to provide basic protection or to deliver basic services. The security situation in Baghdad got worse instead of better. And in Anbar province, a huge area to the west of Baghdad, a U.S. military intelligence report declared the entire region was lost to al Qaeda.
Against that background, President Bush announced a new strategy to bring security to the population, to clear terrorists out of their strongholds so local governments could function, to give Iraqi security forces time to grow and improve and to provide the breathing room necessary for political reconciliation.
General Petraeus asked for reinforcements and we sent them an additional five brigades, to a full force of 160,000 troops. The operating assumption of the troop surge has been that basic security is a precondition for other progress. And providing that security has been our overriding goal.
As General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker told Congress this week, the challenge remains formidable. The situation, in the General's words, is "complex, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating." Yet, as he and the Ambassador also made clear, conditions in Iraq are changing for the better, and we are seizing the initiative from the enemy.
Since January even before the troop surge took effect -- each month our forces have captured or killed an average of about 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other enemies of the elected government. Coalition forces have struck hard against extremists and supply networks; seized caches of enemy weapons; and conducted operations against extremists supported by Iran -- a country whose paramilitary organization traffics in lethal material. And in the areas where we've cleared out the terrorists and militias, we've surged our diplomatic and civilian resources -- because it's critical that military success be followed quickly by real improvements in the lives of ordinary citizens.
And more and more, we're getting locals into the fight against those extremists. In Anbar province our military has done careful, painstaking work to confront the killers and to build confidence in the general population. They've been assisted by Iraqi forces -- and, most significantly, by local tribal leaders who've had enough of the mindless brutality of al Qaeda. We have driven al Qaeda from Ramadi and other population centers in Anbar.
President Bush himself visited the province last week, and assured local and national leaders that we're going to keep the pressure on the enemy in Anbar. It's still dangerous in the province, and just yesterday, of course, terrorists killed one of the sheikhs who had been in the fight against al Qaeda and had met with the President just last week. But that fight goes on, and America's support will not waver.
At the same time, General Petraeus is using reinforcements from the surge to bring similar progress to other parts of Iraq. This, also, is yielding results. In Baghdad, for example, the security environment is far better than a year ago. American and Iraqi forces are patrolling and living among the people they protect, and that's helped to build confidence in the neighborhoods. As Major General Rick Lynch put it, our forces are "not commuting to work; we're out there with the local citizens to let them know they're going to be secure, and as a result of that, they come to us with all sorts of actionable intelligence."
In the middle of a war, it's hard to overstate the importance of good intelligence. Nor can one overstate the difficulty of obtaining such information. But the first question in the mind of a source is whether he can trust you, or whether you're going to turn your back on him. In a news briefing General Lynch put it this way: "We get to an area, the first question the locals ask is, 'Are you staying?' And once they're convinced we're staying, the question then becomes, 'How can we help?'" This year, the General said, "we've seen an interesting shift. Iraqi citizens are coming to us to provide information. These citizens are talking about what they've heard and about any activity that jeopardizes the rebuilding of their country."
This, too, is another sign of the progress we've been able to make inside Iraq. The locals have begun to see that America's commitment is real and it is lasting. They've begun to see that the United States is a nation that follows through on a pledge and that the President of the United States is a man of his word.
The President has made clear that America will do its part to keep Iraq on the road of freedom, security, and progress. And as the President said last night, Iraq's national leaders are getting some things done. They've passed a budget. They are sharing oil revenues with provinces now. The Shia majority is showing more willingness to bring Sunnis, even former Baathists, into the military and civilian programs. And we expect Iraq's national government to press much harder in the work of national reconciliation, to match the kind of cooperation now taking place at the local and provincial levels.
We'll continue, as well, our intensive effort to train Iraqi security forces, so that over time Iraqis can take the lead in protecting their people. Progress has been uneven at times and the National Police especially needs improvement. But Iraq's army is becoming more capable. And because there's now a greater degree of cooperation from local populations, Iraqi forces are better able to keep the peace in areas that have been cleared of extremists.
For that reason, as the President told the nation last night, General Petraeus believes we've reached the point where we can expect the same level of security with fewer American forces in some parts of Iraq. It now appears that when an Expeditionary Unit of about 2,200 Marines leaves Anbar in two weeks, we won't need American forces to replace them. The General has also determined that at the current rate of success, we'll be able to withdraw a full Army brigade by the end of this year. He expects, as well, that by July, we'll be able to reduce our troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15.
President Bush has accepted the recommendations on troop levels, as well as the General's plan for the next phase of our strategy in Iraq. Starting in December, American forces will begin to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces in a manner that is designed to preserve security and maintain the upper hand over the enemy.
As advances are made against the terrorists and civil society grows stronger, the Iraqis will have more responsibility for security -- and our mission in the country will evolve. Going forward, American forces will go from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces to, eventually, overwatching those forces. Our troops will continue countering terrorism and training and equipping Iraqi forces. Further drawdowns in our military presence will depend on conditions inside the country, and on the recommendations from our people in the field, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. In any event, President Bush will make his decisions based on the national interest and nothing else -- not by artificial measures, not based on political calculations, and not based on the polls.
The United States is keeping its commitments, and persevering despite difficulty, because we understand the consequences of getting out before the job is done. A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would validate al Qaeda's belief that we lack the stomach for the fight, that we lack the patience to complete a mission even when it's in our clear national security interest. A contagion of violence would likely spread beyond Iraq's borders, and much of the effort that's gone into fighting the global war on terror would be dissipated.
Those of us in positions of responsibility cannot and will not ignore the plain and foreseeable effects of abandoning our mission. America has accepted a duty that is hard, and honorable, and worth completing. General Petraeus and his troops, all of you here at CENTCOM, are doing the right thing, in the right way, and at the right time. Your success will make our nation more secure. Let us make certain that we all stand behind them in victory.
The course we have chosen is not an easy one for America. But it will be far easier on the conscience of America when we see it through, sparing millions from suffering, and leaving behind a free and democratic Iraq. And the credit will belong to all of you and to your comrades. Many of your successes don't make it to the front page or the evening news, and some of your good work won't come to light until years down the road. But some of us do know, and we're filled with admiration and with gratitude. We don't take you for granted one single day or one single hour.
Six years ago, in the aftermath of tragedy, we began a long struggle to preserve our freedom and defend our way of life. Today, with boots on the ground 6,000 miles away, the history of that struggle is still in the making. I, for one, am confident in the outcome. Americans are not the sort to wait on events, or to live at the mercy of the violent. We do not sit and hope for the best -- we can see a better day for ourselves and all humanity, and we strive to achieve it.
We have shown a watching world that we are a good and just nation: secure in our ideals, fearless in their defense, and willing to sacrifice greatly for the cause of long-term peace. We will press on in our mission, and turn events toward victory.
I leave today just as I came -- with utmost respect and gratitude for the men and women of CENTCOM and MacDill for our good allies in this fight and for the Silent Professionals of the Special Operations Command.
END 2:58 P.M. EDT