After President Obama outlines his strategy Wednesday for winding down the 10-year war in Afghanistan – including the rate of US troop withdrawals – it will be the duty of three men, all new in their roles, to get it done. It will be a tough job, and there is likely to be plenty of second-guessing not only about the strategy itself, but also their handling of it, from Congress, pundits, and ex-military types.
Here are some clues into what priorities these three defense leaders might set and a look at the particular skills each brings to the task of managing America’s longest war.
Mr. Panetta takes the helm of the Pentagon in July after an impressive vote of confidence from Capitol Hill. He was confirmed Tuesday with a unanimous Senate vote of 100 to 0. He is expected to largely adhere to the policies set by his good friend and predecessor, Robert Gates.
Currently Director of Central Intelligence, Panetta has played the role of skeptic among the national security team, asking the tough questions about how US efforts on the ground in Afghanistan are progressing.
Panetta has outlined some clear goals in Afghanistan. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing that the US military “must continue to degrade the Taliban. We’ve got to train [Afghan] security forces. We’ve got to help the government take ownership of their country, so that they can govern and protect their country.”
That said, Panetta, who served with Secretary Gates on the Iraq Study Group, told lawmakers that the Afghan government could also benefit from the same sorts of benchmarks that were instituted in Iraq for the Iraqi government. “I think that’s something that would be worth pursuing,” he said.
Panetta also testified that Osama bin Laden’s demise in May “not only made it 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 Qaeda.” The implication there is that he sees much still to be done to address the Al Qaeda threat.
Panetta, who led the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton presidency, is also well aware of fiscal constraints of the country as it wages the Afghan war – which costs the US $10 billion a month. “We must be highly disciplined in how we spend the taxpayers’ precious resources,” he told lawmakers.
While prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, Panetta is expected to keep a watchful eye on relations with Afghanistan’s neighbor to the east, Pakistan, which he has characterized as “one of the most critical – and yet one of the most complicated and frustrating – relationships that we have.” He added: “They are a nuclear power and there is a danger those nuclear weapons could end up in the wrong hands.’
Panetta is likely to become de facto adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander of the Afghanistan war who is in line to take over Panetta’s job at the CIA. That will likely bolster his standing with US military commanders.
Panetta has a personal connection to the Afghanistan war, too: His youngest son, Jim, served in the country and received the Bronze Star.
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