Leon Panetta backs responsible troop cuts

Leon Panetta said he supports a "responsible" military withdrawal in Afghanistan beginning next month.

Last Updated: Jun 08, 2011, 17:02 PM IST

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
US 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.

He largely reflected arguments made by military
commanders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who have pushed
for a modest drawdown that would not jeopardise security
gains.

Panetta`s comments came in responses to a Senate
questionnaire in preparation for a hearing on 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 US troops from Afghanistan.

Gen David Petraeus, the top US 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 confirmed easily and would take
over after Gates` June 30 retirement.

In the questionnaire, Panetta said he supports the plan
to begin in July cutting the size of the US force in
Afghanistan, now close to 100,000, 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 counter-terrorism
matters and ceasing to provide sanctuary to Afghan Taliban and
other insurgent groups."

He also said that after the US raid in Pakistan that
killed bin Laden, Americans asked Islamabad to "take a number
of concrete steps to demonstrate cooperation and
counter-terrorism."

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.

PTI