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Panetta backs responsible troop cuts

June 08
03:50 2011

WASHINGTON: Leon Panetta, the man tipped 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 jeopardize 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

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