Panetta offers few details on plans for Afghan war

Defense pick sails through hearing on confirmation

‘I think it’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of presence to remain there.’ ‘I think it’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of presence to remain there.’
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post / June 10, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WASHINGTON — The presumptive new leader of the Pentagon, Leon Panetta, offered almost no specifics at his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday on how he’ll oversee the war in Afghanistan, saying it was up to others in the Obama administration to decide how many troops to begin withdrawing next month.

Panetta, 72, is scheduled to take office in three weeks if he wins Senate approval. That seemed a safe bet yesterday as members from both parties on the Senate Armed Services Committee praised his record as director of the Central Intelligence Agency since 2009, particularly the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. “I can’t wait to vote for you,’’ said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

At the same time, the gentle grilling that the senators gave Panetta made clear that running the Defense Department will be far tougher than getting confirmed. The tenor of the questions indicated that his honeymoon period could be brief as he faces pressure to wind down the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, as well as manage pending cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. President Obama has ordered $400 billion in spending reductions on national security over the next 12 years, and it will be largely up to Panetta, a longtime budget expert in Washington, to figure out the details.

Panetta was especially cautious in describing his views about the Afghan war, repeating stock comments from the administration that the US military had made gains but that they were “fragile and reversible.’’

He said he agreed with Obama that troop withdrawals starting next month should be significant. But he dodged attempts by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to pin him down, saying that it was up to Obama, current Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and General David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, to decide on specific numbers.

He did allow that bin Laden’s death could mark a turning point in the long-running fight against Al Qaeda.

“It’s given us the greatest chance since 9/11 to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda,’’ Panetta said. “But to do that, to be able to finish the job, we’ve got to keep the pressure up.’’

Later, he added, “I think the fundamental mission in Afghanistan is to provide sufficient stability so that that country never again becomes a safe haven for Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda’s militant allies.’’

But several Democrats and Republicans indicated that their patience was wearing thin. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called the Afghan war “a never-ending mission.’’

“I don’t see how we get to a stable state in Afghanistan,’’ she said. “So tell me how this ends.’’

Panetta paused and then responded that he was once very pessimistic about the war in Iraq but that things had turned around there. “If we stick with it,’’ he said, “there is going to be a point where Afghanistan can control its own future. I think we have to operate on that hope.’’

The former Democratic congressman from California was more forthcoming about other global trouble spots. He said US forces were still actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in Yemen, home to a thriving Al Qaeda affiliate, despite the political chaos and violence that has gripped the Arab country.

Regarding the war in Libya, Panetta said that the NATO-led mission was proving effective and predicted that it would eventually force Moammar Khadafy from power. “If we continue the pressure, if we stick with it, I think ultimately Khadafy will step down,’’ Panetta said.

Some senators expressed doubts about that outcome.

“If there’s any painful lesson that we have learned from our experience in Iraq, it is that if we do not have a plan in place after we have deposed a tyrant, that chaos and violence ensues,’’ Collins said. “Do you have confidence that we have a plan for dealing with Libya post-Khadafy?’’

Panetta replied that it was a “legitimate concern’’ but that “I’m confident that there are enough leaders in the opposition who can provide, hopefully, that continuity.’’