New Defense Secretary Panetta Sizes Up Afghanistan

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Leon Panetta is making his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary this weekend. Guest host Linda Wertheimer gets an update from NPR's Rachel Martin, who is traveling with the secretary.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Leon Panetta capped his first week as Defense secretary with surprise visits to two nations that will occupy much of his time - Afghanistan and Iraq. Panetta visited some of the 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan after meetings in Kabul yesterday with president Hamid Karzai and the top U.S. commanders there. He landed in Baghdad a short time ago for another tour of a struggling nation.

NPR's Rachel Martin is traveling with the secretary. She joins me now from Baghdad. Hi, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, these visits are Panetta's first as Defense secretary to both countries. What are the challenges he faces in Iraq?

MARTIN: Well, in Iraq, Linda, Secretary Panetta is meeting with leaders here to discuss the long-term U.S. presence in this country. U.S. troops - U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of this year. U.S. officials have been waiting for Iraqi officials to ask them to stay. They say they can't make this decision unilaterally, this has to be an Iraqi decision. Secretary Panetta is here this week to try to urge Iraqi leaders to make that decision sooner, rather than later.

WERTHEIMER: Now Panetta takes this job fresh, basically, from overseeing the secret raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Is there any sense of how that experience will shape his views of Iraq and Afghanistan?

MARTIN: Well, you know, just today when Secretary Panetta was in Afghanistan speaking with U.S. troops, he brought up the fact that he is coming into this job just after overseeing that critical operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. He called this a crucial victory in the fight against al-Qaida. He went so far as to tell reporters earlier in the weekend that defeating, strategically dismantling al-Qaida is within reach of the United States. So Secretary Panetta is clearly focused on the global fight against al-Qaida. What will be his challenge is changing his point of view, to think more strategically about the military effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.

WERTHEIMER: Rachel, the strategy in Iraq has been a counter-insurgency strategy. Panetta is about to be replaced at CIA by General David Petraeus. He will be leaving Afghanistan after a year as the top commander. He is considered the author of the current strategy. I understand he gave one of his last press conferences this weekend. What are his thoughts about where that war stands now?

MARTIN: He did. He spoke with reporters in what could be one of his final press appearances before slipping into the shadows of the CIA for a while. And, you know, interestingly we talk about this raid on Osama bin Laden. There was a lot of discussion in Washington after that raid about how valuable these smaller special operations raids can be. A counterterrorism strategy, if you will, that requires actually smaller footprint than the counterinsurgency strategy. So, General Petraeus is feeling a little bit on the defensive here. He is still making the case that the counterinsurgency strategy is really the only way the U.S. can extract itself from Afghanistan. He says the key to making that happen is to train Afghan national security forces so that they can assume defense and security of their own country. That's really the only way that he says the U.S. can leave.

WERTHEIMER: Leon Panetta has meetings in Iraq today. He met with Afghan president Hamid Karzai last night. What came out of that meeting? Does the U.S. still see Karzai as a reliable partner?

MARTIN: Well, this has been a big question. You know, Hamid Karzai, every time he seems to have a gripe with the United States, he airs this gripe publicly. And that's something that has been an annoyance to U.S. officials, to say the least. Secretary Panetta said that the conversation he had with Hamid Karzai was cordial, he said he has a good working relationship with him. He also told reporters, though, that he had struck some kind of a new agreement with Hamid Karzai. That anytime there was a source of tension or concern that the president of Afghanistan has, Secretary Panetta urged him to talk with him about that behind closed doors. Leon Panetta said he would issue that courtesy to President Karzai, and he said President Karzai assured him that he would do the same.

WERTHEIMER: Rachel, now that Panetta has arrived in Baghdad, what's on the schedule for him?

MARTIN: We just landed here in Baghdad and it's been a long couple of days for this newly-minted secretary of defense. He's actually going to take it easy. He's meeting with Iraqi leaders, you know, today and tomorrow. Tomorrow, he'll meet with the top U.S. commander here, along with the Iraqi president and prime minister and the leader of the Iraqi-Kurdish people in the northern part of the country.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Rachel Martin; she's now in Baghdad, traveling with Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. Rachel, thank you.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

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