In visit to Afghanistan and Iraq, Panetta fixes his gaze on the exit sign
Former CIA chief Leon Panetta, now secretary of Defense, is assessing the US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to bring them to a successful end.
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“This is not something we are going to walk away from,” Panetta told troops in Baghdad. “We’re going to take this straight on.”
With the increased Iranian influence in Iraq over the past months, one of the key goals of Panetta’s trip “is to send a message to Iran that they’re not going to simply chase the US out of Iraq,” says Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
But under the current security agreement, US troops are obliged to leave Iraq by year’s end. Senior Obama administration officials have left open the possibility that US troops will remain in Iraq past the current December deadline.
But first, the Iraqis must request that they stay – a point that Panetta is expected to press in meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and others. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says that Iraq’s top political leaders will decide within two weeks whether to ask US troops to stay into 2012.
In Afghanistan, General Petraeus painted a bright picture for reporters traveling with Panetta, noting that the month of June “saw less insurgent attacks than last June and May was about the same.” Yet some question whether those trends represent true progress given the surge of 30,000 additional US troops into the country is currently at full strength.
Panetta, for his part, said that he believes US forces are “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.”
As CIA director, Panetta had stepped up drone attacks on Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. In a moment that did little to enhance feelings of goodwill among Pakistani officials toward the US, Panetta told reporters that he believes Al Qaeda’s new chief Ayman al Zawahiri is most likely hiding in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA.
Such a belief makes it likely that the pace of US drone strikes, which has been a source of contention with Pakistani officials, will continue. “If we can be successful in going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack on this country,” Panetta said. “It’s within reach. Is it going to take more work? You bet.”