After being sworn in as the nation’s new secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta’s first order of business was to head for Iraq and Afghanistan to assess two military engagements in varying stages of winding down.
In interviews, Mr. Panetta, the former director of central intelligence, has begun to paint a portrait of how he sees the wars in those countries progressing, and of the pressures that he believes he must now exert as Defense secretary to bring them to a successful conclusion.
On the ground, he has been meeting with US troops and getting briefings from the top military officials, most notably Gen. David Petraeus, who is preparing to step down as the commander of forces in Afghanistan to assume Mr. Panetta’s old job at the CIA.
Panetta has already taken on what his predecessor and the commander in chief describe as the most wrenching duty their jobs entail: signing condolence letters to the families of US troops who have been killed in battle.
“It makes me that much more aware of the responsibility we have to support these men and women and to do everything we can to support their families,” he told reporters in his first news conference while aboard the plane.
It was a point Panetta emphasized during a visit to Baghdad Monday, where attacks on US forces and casualties are once against on the rise. “We’re very concerned that in June, we lost a helluva lot of Americans because of those attacks,” he said.
June was the deadliest month for US soldiers in Iraq in two years, and Panetta blamed Iran for providing lethal weapons to Iraqi militias. “We cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen,” he said.
Panetta’s predecessors have wrestled with just what they can do to protect troops from such weapons, including powerful roadside bombs known as explosively-formed projectiles, or EFPs, with dart-like shaped charges that cut through armored vehicles.
One chief aim of the trip has been to push Iraqi government forces to go after the Shiite militias that still exist, particularly in areas of east Baghdad.
“They are starting to do that,” Panetta said. But he added that the US will continue to exert pressure on forces supported by Iran.
“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.”