Panetta confirmed as defense secretary
WASHINGTON, DC (PAN): Afghanistan and Pakistan will be the first major challenges for Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, who on Tuesday was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate as the country’s next defense secretary.
Panetta will succeed Robert Gates, one of the United States’ most successful and longest-serving defense secretaries, who held the post for more than four and half years spread over two presidencies.
Soon after confirming Panetta, Senators expressed confidence that Panetta would successfully meet the challenges the US faces in Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama is expected to announce a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday night (early Thursday morning local Afghan time).
Leon Panetta is no stranger to tackling difficult tasks and getting the job done, said Senator Mark Begich of Alaska.
Senator John McCain said that the main question the US must answer in Afghanistan concerns the size and scope of the drawdown of forces beginning this July. “I would agree with Secretary Gates that any drawdown should be modest so as to maximize our ability to lock in the hard-won gains of our troops through the next fighting season. I hope Director Panetta, as the secretary of defense, will support ‘modest’ reductions and take no action that would undermine the hard-won gains in Afghanistan,” he said.
“At a time when we are reconsidering our strategy in Afghanistan and when events are changing rapidly in the Middle East, we need a secretary of defense who has the proven ability to adapt to new situations and rethink our military preparedness at a time when resources are scarce,” Senator Robert Menendez said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he looks forward to working with Panetta on a range of critical issues – from withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan to trimming waste from the Defense Department budget.
Ahead of President Obama’s speech on a potential drawdown in Afghanistan, US House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon today praised the hard-won gains made by US and coalition forces but cautioned against any drawdown that would arrest strategic momentum there.
“My position on the war effort remains consistent. Afghanistan’s stability is vital to our national security. Any removal of forces should be based on ground conditions and consistent with the advice of our senior military leaders,” he said in a statement.
“At West Point in 2009, the President committed to winning in Afghanistan. Now the surge strategy is beginning to bear fruit by seizing the momentum from the Taliban,” he said.
“Districts in once contentious regions are being handed over to Afghan security forces, and the so-called shadow Taliban government network has been significantly disrupted. The Afghan National Army and police are growing in number and developing the professionalism necessary to secure their country. These hard won gains are significant. We should guard them jealously,” he argued.
Senator Carl Levin said Afghanistan will be important for Panetta. “President Obama said the other day that it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility. The President has also said that the reductions starting in July will be significant. Hopefully they will be and Director Panetta, while not assigning a specific number, agreed that they need to be significant,” he said.
“A significant reduction in our troop level this year would send a critical signal to Afghan leaders that we mean it when we when we say our commitment is not open-ended and that they need to be urgently focused on preparing Afghanistan’s security forces to assume security responsibility for all of Afghanistan,” he said.
“The more that Afghan security forces do, the better are the chances of success, because the Taliban’s biggest nightmare is facing a large, effective Afghan Army, already respected by the Afghan people, in control of Afghanistan’s security,” Levin said.
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