WASHINGTON, June 9, 2011 — The operation that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden “has not only made clear to the world that we will do what we have to do, but it has also given us the greatest chance since 9/11 to disrupt, dismantle and to defeat al-Qaida,” Leon E. Panetta said today during his confirmation hearing to become the next defense secretary.
“But to do that, to be able to finish the job, we have got to keep our pressure up,” Panetta, the current CIA director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If confirmed, my first tasks at DOD will be to ensure that we prevail in conflicts that we are engaged in.”
Al-Qaida has been weakened through the loss of its spiritual leader, but still remains dangerous, Panetta told the Senate panel. In addition to its activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, he said, it is establishing nodes in other parts of the world, including Yemen and Somalia.
Panetta emphasized that success is the only option in Afghanistan.
“If we lose in Afghanistan, we not only create another safe haven for al-Qaida and for their militant allies,” he said, “but I think the world becomes a much more threatened place because of that loss, particularly in that region.”
The goal, he said, is to “try to develop a stable enough Afghanistan that it will never again become a safe haven for al-Qaida or for other terrorist groups.” It’s a multi-pronged effort he said, and requires not only degrading the Taliban and training Afghan security forces, but also strengthening Afghan governmental institutions.
The coalition has made security progress there, “albeit fragile and reversible,” Panetta told the committee. He reported “good progress” in training Afghan national security forces, with 100,000 more Afghan soldiers and police in place today than in December 2009. In addition, the International Security Assistance Force training mission is ahead of schedule to meet its goal of 305,000 by this fall.
More progress is needed in the governance area, Panetta acknowledged, so Afghan leaders can “take ownership of their country … [and] govern and protect their country.”
Panetta said he supports President Barack Obama’s target to begin transferring increasing security responsibility to Afghan security forces next month and to begin a drawdown of U.S. forces there. “I very much support that decision,” he said.
But when pressed, he declined to specify exactly what he would recommend regarding troop numbers and timelines. Those decisions are best left at this point to Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, he said.
“If I’m confirmed, I’ll have to, obviously, arrive at a decision myself that I’ll have to ultimately present to the president,” Panetta said. “I’m not in that position now.”
As drawdown plans are made, Panetta said, he recognizes that that they potentially could have to be adjusted. “This has to be a conditions-based withdrawal,” he said. “That means you look at the conditions on the ground as it proceeds.”
Success in Afghanistan, he acknowledged, hinges closely with events in Pakistan. Panetta also emphasized the importance of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, and their common interest in confronting a common enemy that threatens them both.
“We can’t succeed in Afghanistan if we’re not succeeding in Pakistan in terms of controlling the safe havens and the cross-border operations,” he said. “And so we’ve got to work at both in order to ensure that we’re able to stay on path with what we would like to achieve in Afghanistan.”
Panetta conceded that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has undergone some strain. Complicating it, he said, is the fact that the Pakistanis maintain relationships with certain terrorist groups, that they continue to not take aggressive action with regard to these safe havens, and that their concern about the sovereignty results in criticisms of the United States.
In fact, Panetta said, he believes that “the terrorists in their country are probably the greatest threat to their sovereignty.”
“The relationship with Pakistan is at the same time one of the most critical and yet one of the most complicated and frustrating relationships that we have,” he said. But he emphasized the need to work at it and approach it as a two-way street.
“We have to maintain the relationship,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to try to strengthen that relationship, so that both of us can work to defend both of our countries.”
Turning his attention to Iraq, Panetta said the United States must ensure that Iraqi military and security forces are prepared to safeguard their nation so it can become a stable democracy in the region. He declined to rule out the idea of extending the U.S. military presence there beyond Dec. 31, if asked by the Iraqis. Pointing to the recent spate of violent attacks there, he said a thousand al-Qaida members still operate there.
“It, too, continues to be a fragile situation,” he said of Iraq. “And I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we’ve made there.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
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