|No "rush to the exits" for US troops ... an |
Afghan National Police graduation ceremony
at an International Security Assistance Force operating base
in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan.
Mr Panetta, the present head of the CIA, told a congressional committee that it would be up to the President, Barack Obama, the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, and the commander of forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, to call the shots on the drawdown, due to start next month.
But in somewhat contradictory testimony, the 72-year-old long-time Washington insider appeared to back both Mr Obama's pledge of a ''significant'' cut in troop numbers as well as endorse Mr Gates's call for a ''modest'' pull-back.
He agreed with recent assessments that there had been progress on security in Afghanistan, ''albeit fragile and reversible''.
But asked by a Republican senator, John McCain, whether he agreed with Mr Gates's more cautious position on withdrawals, Mr Panetta said: ''I agree that they should be conditions-based. And I'm going to leave it up to Secretary Gates and [the others] to decide what that number should be.''
Pressed further, he said: ''I'll have to obviously arrive at a decision myself. I'm not in that position now.''
Opinions differ wildly on how many troops should leave. Senator McCain nominates just 3000 of the nearly 100,000-strong force; his fellow committee member Carl Levin, a Democrat, says ''at least 15,000 troops'' should be sent home this year.
Mr Gates, meanwhile, continued to portray the drawdown as minimalist, telling NATO defence ministers in Brussels on Thursday that a reduction in American troops should not signal a mass exodus of allied forces.
The long-serving Mr Gates, who leaves his post on June 30, has cautioned against withdrawing combat troops, saying the US was looking for a way to reduce its ''surge'' numbers without compromising the safety of those remaining on the ground.
''Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part - and we expect the same from our allies,'' he told reporters.
More Americans now say it is time for the US to get out of Afghanistan, with almost half of those surveyed in opinion polls since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden claiming the allies are at last winning.
And Mr Obama claimed last week that a ''big chunk'' of objectives in Afghanistan had now been achieved.
In a CNN poll out yesterday, 74 per cent of respondents endorsed the drawdown; 39 per cent said it was time to leave altogether.
Mr Obama increased US troop numbers in Afghanistan by more than 30,000, copying the Iraqi troop surge ordered by George Bush in 2007 that provided enough stability for Mr Obama to scale back forces there last year.
However, Mr Panetta said it was likely that Iraq would ask the US to keep some of its remaining 47,000 troops in that country beyond 2011, making a complete withdrawal problematic. Such a request should be ''seriously considered'', he said, warning that there were more al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq than there were in Afghanistan.
"[Iraq], too, continues to be a fragile situation … we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we've made there."
IN addition, Mr Panetta also:
Warned that America's ''next Pearl Harbour'' could be a cyber-attack on the US that crippled its electrical grid and security and financial systems.
Described US relations with Pakistan as complicated and frustrating, but also critical.
Promised to complete this year Mr Gates's review of the $US400 billion in proposed defence budget cuts.