WASHINGTON – Leon Panetta, the man tapped to be the next defense secretary, said he supports a "responsible" military withdrawal in Afghanistan beginning next month, sidestepping questions on whether he backs the "significant" drawdown President Barack Obama has pledged.
Panetta, the current CIA director, told senators that the U.S. has made enough progress in the Afghan war to give Obama meaningful options for the troop withdrawal. But he said the size and pace must depend on battlefield conditions.
As debate heightens over how deep the troop cuts will be, Panetta was cautious in comments to a Senate committee. And he largely reflected arguments made by military commanders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates who have pushed for a modest drawdown that won't jeopardize security gains.
Panetta's comments came in responses to a Senate questionnaire in preparation for a hearing Thursday on his nomination. The responses were obtained by The Associated Press.
If confirmed by the Senate, Panetta's first task as defense secretary would be to direct and oversee the much-anticipated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is slated to deliver options for troop reductions to Obama in the coming days, with cuts beginning in July.
Pressure for a substantial reduction is growing, as Americans and lawmakers revel in the death of Osama bin Laden and struggle with an economy hampered by the billions spent on the costly war.
The intelligence chief will come face-to-face with congressional war fatigue during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Panetta is expected to be easily confirmed, and would take over after Gates' June 30 retirement.
In the questionnaire, Panetta said he supports the plan to begin cutting the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan — now close to 100,000 — in July, as well as the overall effort to begin transferring security control in parts of the country to the Afghans.
Panetta, in fact, backs the Pentagon line in many of his answers — repeating Petraeus' often-used comment that while important security gains have been made in Afghanistan, they "are fragile and reversible."
Panetta also echoed warnings from Pentagon officials to Pakistan, saying Islamabad must do more to go after militants within its borders who are plotting and directing attacks against troops in Afghanistan.
"It is vital," he said, "that Pakistan live up to its end of the bargain, cooperating more fully in counterterrorism matters and ceasing to provide sanctuary to Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups."
And he said that after the U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden, Americans asked Islamabad to "take a number of concrete steps to demonstrate cooperation and counterterrorism."
Future requests by Pakistan for security assistance will depend in part by the country's response to that request.
Panetta also endorsed suggestions that the Pentagon consider keeping troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year if Baghdad asks for help.
On terrorism issues, Panetta said the ongoing unrest in Yemen has weakened the already fragile country and allowed al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to make gains in tribal areas and seize additional territory.
The Yemen-based al-Qaida affiliate, he said, "poses an immediate terrorist threat to U.S. interests and the homeland" and is focused on launching a "near-term attack" against America.
He added that the threat from al-Shabab in Somalia, another al-Qaida-linked terror group, is growing. He said the group is developing ties with the Yemen organization, and added that it employs several hundred foreign fighters.
"As al-Qaida undergoes leadership changes and regroups from counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, we need to ensure that it does not relocate its center of operations to Somalia," Panetta said.
Panetta — who will be the second CIA director in a row to take over the Pentagon — said the mingling of military and intelligence officers serving in senior positions is not a cause for concern.
Obama nominated Panetta as his next Pentagon chief in late April, as part of a broad overhaul of his national security team. Under the plan, Panetta will replace Gates, also a former CIA director, who is finally making good on his pledge to step down and return to his home in the Pacific northwest.
Petraeus, who led the much-praised military surge into Iraq and the subsequent drawdown, will retire from the military and take Panetta's post at the CIA. And Adm. Mike Mullen will retire as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, a respected veteran commander in the Iraq war, will take that job as the president's top military adviser.
All are subject to confirmation by the Senate, but there has been nary a whisper of opposition to any of the men, who have all undergone congressional scrutiny for previous jobs in their careers.
In other comments, Panetta said he supports repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, and will continue the process set up by Gates to determine if and when the ban should be implemented.
He also said does not believe the chief of the National Guard should be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — something that some members of Congress and outside experts have recommended. He said doing that would create the impression that the guard is a separate military service, rather than part of the other military services.
Panetta served in Congress for eight terms, and was chairman of the House Budget Committee before moving on to head the Office of Management and Budget. He was White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.