A review of options for the size and scope of the U.S. military’s role in Afghanistan after 2014 will be completed within weeks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, “has worked on several options that we are now reviewing and working” with the White House, Panetta told reporters on his plane yesterday en route to a conference in Australia. “My hope is we will be able to complete this process within the next few weeks.”
The options are based on the roles U.S. troops will play in missions such as counterterrorism as well as training, advising and assisting the Afghan army, Panetta said. Allen will offer variations on how to accomplish those tasks, Panetta said.
The U.S. has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a force of more than 100,000, including members from nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President Barack Obama has pledged that the bulk of those troops will be withdrawn by 2014. The U.S. and Afghanistan are beginning talks this week on the size of the residual force and whether the troops will be given immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts.
Obama visited Kabul in May to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That agreement doesn’t cover the legal status of troops beyond 2014.
During the presidential campaign, Republican challenger Mitt Romney criticized Obama for withdrawing all military forces from Iraq in 2009 after failing to reach agreement with that nation’s leaders on legal protections for U.S. troops.
U.S. military officials have said they may need to keep as many as 15,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Panetta, 74, offered his most extensive comments on his own plans, indicating he is willing to stay on for part of Obama’s second term. “There are a lot of challenges on defense issues in Washington,” from Afghanistan to budget cuts, he said.
“At some point I’d like to get back to California,” said Panetta, a former House member from the state who has served as defense secretary since July 2011 after a stint as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Who the hell knows!” Panetta said, when asked if he would remain for four more years. “Better to do this day to day.”
Turning to efforts to avert the approaching fiscal cliff of budget cuts and tax increases in the U.S., Panetta said Obama’s re-election on Nov. 6 has been followed by some “hopeful talk” between the administration and lawmakers.
Any agreement must include reforming U.S. entitlement programs and raising tax revenue, Panetta said. In the absence of an agreement, automatic budget cuts of $1.2 trillion will start taking effect in January, including about $500 billion from planned defense spending over a decade.
The Pentagon won’t offer budget cuts to meet deficit-reduction goals beyond the $487 billion over 10 years already proposed by the administration, Panetta said.
“My view right now is that we have done our part with regards to deficit reduction,” Panetta said. “I sure don’t intend to put anything additional on the table. We have got to see what progress they make with regards to larger portions of the budget they’ve ignored in dealing with the deficit crisis.”
The Pentagon needs certainty about its budget to meet its goal of rebalancing military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta said.
The U.S. is maintaining “a very significant force in the Middle East” even as it boosts its military presence in the Pacific, Panetta said.
Panetta is scheduled to meet in Perth, Australia, today with his counterpart Stephen Smith as part of the annual Australia-U.S. ministerial talks known as Ausmin. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also is to join the bilateral talks.