Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta carried an unmistakable message on his first overseas trip since taking office this month: One way or another, the two wars that have consumed the Pentagon for much of the last decade are nearing an end.
Panetta declared after departing Washington on Friday that Al Qaeda appeared on the verge of defeat. In Afghanistan, he stressed that the U.S. military must transfer security responsibility to the Afghan army. And in Iraq he emphasized that most, if not all, U.S. troops would pull out by year’s end.
In tone and substance, it was a noticeable shift from his predecessor, Robert M. Gates. During his tenure, Gates gradually adopted the view of many of his top commanders that defeating insurgents and terrorists was a generational struggle, requiring painstaking counterinsurgency warfare, prolonged deployments of U.S. forces abroad, and ever-growing defense budgets.
Panetta, who returned to Washington late Tuesday, did not directly repudiate that way of thinking. He made it clear that winning the nation’s wars, including the NATO-led air campaign in Libya, remains his top objective.
But he also gave clear indications that he is intent on setting limits — on his military commanders, on the expectations of America’s allies and on the defense budget — in an effort to gradually shift the Pentagon from a permanent war footing.
“We need to prevail in these conflicts and bring them to a responsible end,” he told soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division in Iraq. He thus echoed President Obama’s description of his plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the fall of 2012 as a “responsible” drawdown.
During his four-day visit to war zones, Panetta displayed a mix of bluntness and joviality, tossing off a joke about a “priest and a rabbi” in the same speech in which he described the operation to kill “that son of a bitch” Osama bin Laden.
He also showed a fondness for mild profanity that was jarring after Gates’ starched Midwestern reserve.
“This damn country has a hell of a lot of resources,” Panetta said Monday, referring to Iraq’s oil wealth. His point was Iraq can afford to defend itself in the future without large numbers of U.S. troops.
Panetta, who spent the last two years as CIA director, still appears more comfortable with the secret intelligence world than with the vast military bureaucracy he now controls. In sessions with troops and reporters, he spoke with assurance about Al Qaeda, which was his top focus at the CIA, but he sounded less surefooted about military terminology and strategy.
He is in many ways a better fit for Obama than Gates ultimately was. With Panetta, the president has gained an ally who is willing to draw down troops faster in Afghanistan than military commanders prefer and to cut the Pentagon budget by hundreds of billions of dollars in coming years, a task Gates resisted.
“I do not believe that you have to choose between fiscal savings and a strong defense,” said Panetta, who once headed the House Budget Committee and directed the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
At the CIA, he embraced the agency’s fondness for small-footprint, low-visibility warfare. He sharply expanded the use of drone aircraft strikes and other covert tactics to kill Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
Obama also appears convinced that paramilitary operations — not troop-heavy counterinsurgency campaigns lasting decades and costing billions — are the least expensive, most effective options in remote and dangerous places.
But the Pentagon has a way of shifting the outlooks of new defense secretaries. Gates was a former CIA director too when he replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief in late 2006, and he promised a “responsible” and successful end to the Iraq war.
Gates quickly concluded that tens of thousands more U.S. troops were needed. After Obama was elected and kept him as Defense secretary, Gates helped persuade the new president to order a similar troop buildup in Afghanistan.
Now it will fall to Panetta to wind down those wars — if he can.