WASHINGTON — Leon Panetta, the nominee to be the next US defense secretary, said Thursday that he backed a significant troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July, in an apparent break with outgoing Pentagon chief Robert Gates.
“I agree with the president’s statement,” Panetta told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat who asked the departing CIA chief whether he backed President Barack Obama’s call for a “significant” draw-down.
While Panetta repeatedly praised Gates and sought to assure the panel that he would follow in his footsteps, the answer seemed to put the two at odds as Washington works to put Afghans in charge of their own security by 2014.
“We ought to do nothing that jeopardizes that path,” said Panetta, who did not give a precise number of troops that should go and insisted troop levels would depend on the ebb and flow of a war now in its tenth year.
“This has to be a conditions-based withdrawal,” he said. “I think based on what changes take place, then obviously the president and the secretary would have to make adjustments.”
Panetta, 72, worked to reassure lawmakers worried a hasty pullout could spell defeat in Afghanistan and others exasperated by what Republican Senator Susan Collins called “a never-ending mission” to stabilize the strife-torn country.
“If we lose in Afghanistan, we not only create another safe haven for Al-Qaeda and for their militant allies, but I think the world becomes a much more threatened place because of that loss, particularly in that region,” he said.
“I can’t agree with you more. I think that’s absolutely dead-on,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has repeatedly warned against a hasty pullout from Afghanistan.
“To me, that seems to be a never-ending mission: I don’t see how we get to a stable state in Afghanistan,” Collins pressed Panetta. “So tell me how this ends. I just don’t see how it ends.”
Panetta acknowledged that there were “major questions” about whether Afghanistan would ever develop the resources, revenues and good governance needed to be stable, take over their own security, and quell Al-Qaeda.
“But I think if we stick with it, if we continue to provide help and assistance to them then I think there is going to be a point where Afghanistan can control its own future. We have to operate on that hope,” he said.
Obama was due to announce soon how many troops will leave Afghanistan next month, while Panetta was on track to replace Gates July 1, and be succeeded as CIA chief by General David Petraeus, now the US commander in Afghanistan.
Gates, during a NATO meeting in Brussels before retiring, indicated he supported a “deliberate, organized and coordinated” withdrawal from Afghanistan and added, “there will be no rush to the exits on our part.”
The hearing came amid stiff and mounting US public opposition to the war in Afghanistan, where the United States has some 100,000 troops ten years after invading the country to capture or kill Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Support for withdrawing US forces has spiked since elite US commandos killed bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout last month, with two out of five Americans favoring a complete pullout, according to a new survey by CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation.
Obama promised to enact a considerable withdrawal after ordering another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009 in a bid to duplicate the “surge” credited in Washington with helping to claw Iraq from the brink of civil war.
Some lawmakers have redoubled their calls for drawing down US forces levels in the face of cash-strapped Washington’s home-front struggle with its sky-high deficit and ballooning national debt.
Moments before the hearing began, protestors from the anti-war group “Code Pink” urged Levin to commit to bringing home US troops and complained that people in his home state “are eating cat food while you fight a champagne war.”