WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary nominee Leon Panetta backed plans to begin drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan this summer during his confirmation hearing on Thursday, but he dodged lawmakers’ questions about the size and speed of that move.
He also left open the possibility of keeping troops in Iraq past this December if government officials there ask for additional American assistance, but dismissed the possibility of larger military intervention in Libya.
“Our all-volunteer force has been stretched by combat that has lasted nearly a decade,” he told lawmakers. “I pledge that every deployment decision I make will be mindful of the stresses on our men and women in uniform, and their families.”
With his future as defense secretary all but assured — lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee repeatedly said they expected little resistance to his confirmation — Thursday’s hearing served more as a briefing on the challenges facing the military in coming years.
Senators peppered Panetta, the current director of the CIA, with questions on topics such as anticipated slowdowns in defense spending, acquisition reform, health care costs, detainee policy, and cyberwarfare.
But the hearing repeatedly returned to Afghanistan, where lawmakers pressed Panetta for more details on the planned troop drawdown.
Several openly questioned whether the death of Osama bin Laden — killed last month in a mission led by Panetta’s CIA — meant the U.S. had less incentive to stay in Afghanistan. On the other end of the spectrum, conservatives on the panel voiced concerns that any large withdrawal of troops could jeopardize recent fragile security gains in the country.
“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,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But Panetta deferred those questions to the current national security team, refusing to offer any numbers for the drawdown.
He did support President Barack Obama’s overall strategy in the region, and promised to press Pakistan on its lackluster efforts to stabilize its border with Afghanistan.
“We need to have their cooperation. We need to have a partnership with them against a common enemy,” he said. “We can’t succeed in Afghanistan if we’re not succeeding in Pakistan.”
He said that if Afghanistan remains a violent and unstable war zone, “we not only create another safe haven for al-Qaida ... but the world also becomes a more threatened place.”
When asked about the continuing mission in Iraq, Panetta said he could envision a continued U.S. military presence there past December, when American troops are scheduled to completely withdraw. But, echoing Obama’s comments, that move would be made only at the request of the Iraqi government, to help them preserve security.
But he unequivocally dismissed expanded military involvement in Libya, where NATO forces have been enforcing a no-fly zone since March. Panetta said he believes that economic and diplomatic sanctions, along with that military effort, are on the verge of forcing Moammar Gadhafi out of power.
“No one is discussing any [American] boots on the ground there, at any time,” he said.
Lawmakers offered only a few questions about reductions in planned Defense Department spending, a topic expected to be a major focus for Panetta in coming years.
Obama has outlined plans to trim $400 billion from spending plans in the next decade as part of efforts to balance the federal budget.
Panetta echoed the words of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the hearing, stating that the days of “large growth, unlimited defense budgets are over.”
But he also assured lawmakers that he believes fiscal restraint can be accomplished while still meeting national security needs, and he pledged to make sure the military is still the “best-equipped and strongest” force in the world.
The full Senate is expected to vote on Panetta’s confirmation later this month. Gates is scheduled to leave office on June 30.