Panetta At The Helm


By Dr. Richard Weitz

07/07/2011 – Notwithstanding his achievements during his more than four years as Defense Secretary, Robert Gates left some unfinished tasks for his successor, Leon Panetta.He has many tough challenges ahead. The Senate’s 100-to-0 vote in favor of Panetta’s confirmation showed strong confidence in Panetta’s ability to hold one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. Although Panetta has been guarded about his future agenda, he did indicate some of his priorities at his confirmation hearing last month before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

(For an alternative look at Secretary Gates and his legacy see why Gates II would fire Gates I see

Stabilizing Afghanistan

Successful managing the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is perhaps Panetta’s most urgent task. The fundamental issue is how fast U.S. and NATO troops will leave the country and what Afghan conditions and regional security structure will remain. No matter how effectively U.S. forces implement their strategy and tactics, they cannot win the war alone. The Pentagon needs reliable partners in Afghanistan to prevent terrorists from reestablishing a safe haven on its territory and suppress its narcotics-funded insurgency that presently threatens neighboring countries.

Panetta received conflicting advice regarding Afghanistan during his June 9 confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Chairman Carl Levin urged a significant reduction in U.S. troops so that Afghan officials ”understand that we mean it when we say our commitment is not open-ended” and that they must step up their efforts to assume a greater role in defending their country. Levin further argued that the reduced U.S. role “would deprive the Taliban of their biggest propaganda target, the claim that foreign troops are occupiers of Afghanistan.” Furthermore, Levin asserted that it was important to reduce “the stress on our armed forces after 10 years of nonstop war.”

In contrast, Senator John McCain maintained, “that 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.” Senator Saxby Chambliss said that, whatever the domestic political benefits, “from any operational perspective that withdrawal of U.S. troops at this point makes no sense.” Instead, Chambliss believed that U.S. forces should only depart after “it is clear that the gains that we have made will not be reversed.” Senator Lindsey Graham urged Panetta to consider keeping a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Panetta evaded some disagreements by simply affirming that any withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan should be “conditioned-based”: meaning that its pace and extent should depend on circumstances and should not undermine the recent U.S. military gains in the country. Panetta also concurred in the imperative of increasing the size and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), whose main components are the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP).

But Panetta saw the main impediment to victory in Afghanistan as political—the weakness of Afghan’s public institutions, including the national government, to address serious problems affecting the delivery of services, governance, economic development, and corruption.

(For an argument that this political dynamic is the fatal flaw in an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan see

Many of the Senators called for the use of “metrics” or “benchmarks” to provide criteria for assessing progress toward victory. Panetta initially sought to avoid providing his own criteria, but he eventually listed such objectives as weakening the Taliban; increasing the size and capabilities of the Afghan Security Forces; and improving Afghan governance. Panetta called for assessing conditions at the district as well as the national and regional level.

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In his written responses to the committee’s advanced questions, Panetta wrote that, “The Administration tracks metrics of progress throughout the year and conducts annual reviews to determine whether adjustments are necessary. Counter-terrorism is a significant part of the counter-insurgency strategy, and managing the balance of all aspects of the strategy is an ongoing process.”


Although critical of the Karzai regime, the Senators’ anger was mostly directed at the Pakistani authorities for their failure to eradicate the terrorist’s sanctuaries on their territory from which guerrillas attack American and Afghan troops across the border. Levin pointed to the brutal Haqqani network’s “open safe haven across the border in Pakistan” as “a totally unacceptable situation.” Senator Scott Brown demanded that the Pakistanis end their “duplicity” of taking billions of dollars in U.S. aid while supporting terrorists who killed American soldiers. The Pakistanis, he insisted, needed to understand that “either you are with us or you are not.”

Panetta called Pakistani-U.S. ties “one of the most critical and yet one of the most complicated and frustrating relationships that we have.” He noted the Pentagon’s need to transit supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan as well as Pakistanis’ assistance in monitoring and disrupting regional terrorist groups. Furthermore, “they are a nuclear power, and there is a danger that those nukes could wind up in the wrong hands.”

But Panetta acknowledged that the wide “trust deficit” between Washington and Islamabad created enormous problems for their relationship.

Panetta insisted that there was no evidence that senior Pakistani officials had assisted Ossama bin Laden to establish his hideout in a large secure compound less than an hour’s drive from Islamabad.

Nonetheless, Panetta complained that Pakistanis “maintain relationships with certain terrorist groups” and then complain about American violations of Pakistani sovereignty despite the fact “that the terrorists in their country are probably the greatest threat to their sovereignty.” Panetta agreed with Senator Jack Reed that “we can’t succeed in Afghanistan if we are not succeeding in Pakistan in terms of controlling the safe havens and the cross-border operations.” Panetta further concurred about the need to moderate suspicions between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India since their competition complicated U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region.


The Senators applauded the military progress recently achieved in Iraq, but they also pointed to worrisome gaps in Iraqi capabilities that may be contributing to the recent upsurge in violent attacks. In 2006, Panetta and Gates were both members of the Iraq Study Group. At the time, Panetta was very critical of the war effort and supported the Group’s majority in calling for scaling back U.S. military efforts in Iraq. The Bush administration instead chose to surge U.S. troops into the country, which helped stabilize the military situation and created the conditions for the 2008 U.S.-Iraq military withdrawal agreement.

During Panetta’s confirmation hearings, many of the Senators called for keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this December’s scheduled pull out. Senator McCain identified three areas where Iraqis would benefit from further U.S. in-country help: air defense, intelligence assistance, and maintaining security in areas of tension between Baghdad and the Kurds, such as Kirkuk.

Panetta said he expected Iraqi authorities to request that some U.S. troops remain in the country after 2010 and added that he would look favorably upon such a request given the “fragile” security situation there. He told McCain: “I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we have made there.” Panetta claimed that 1,000 al-Qaeda members remain in Iraq.

Panetta is also following Gates in calling for adequate funding of U.S. civilian agencies with essential national security missions. By October of this year, the State Department is scheduled to achieve initial operating capability as the lead agency in Iraq, assuming that role from Defense Department. The State Department is supposed to reach full operating capability in Iraq by the end of this year. In his written answers regarding the Pentagon handoff, Panetta warned that, “The biggest concern I am aware of is that the State Department may not receive the resources it needs for the transition.”

Defense Spending and Acquisition Reform

Panetta’s most difficult challenge will be meeting President Obama’s directive to cut the planned national security budget, dominated by the Defense Department, by $400 billion in the next twelve years. During his first years in office, Gates focused on winning the wars in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Under Bush, except to deliver urgently needed Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to U.S. forces in Iraq, Gates let his deputy, Gordon England, oversee the Pentagon’s planning, budgeting and acquisition system.

Gates became more engaged on procurement reform under Obama. In recent years, he cancelled several high-profile military programs, gave the combatant commanders greater say in resource allocation decisions traditionally dominated by the service chiefs, and began rebuilding the Pentagon’s defense acquisition workforce to provide in-house experts primarily loyal to the Department.

Nonetheless, when he left office last month, Gates still had achieved only modest progress in the processes employed to procure large weapons systems. The cases of the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, Future Combat Systems, Littoral Combat Ship, Joint Strike Fighter, and others make evident that, all too often, the Pentagon’s big-ticket items still suffer from repeated cost overruns, protracted delays, and performance problems.

Senator McCain complained at Panetta’s confirmation hearing that, “We have terrible out- of-control costs for literally every weapon system that we have acquired in the last 10 years that I know of.” The procurement of services has undergone even less reform.

Panetta’s experience as chair of the House Budget Committee and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton should help him tackle these problems. But his earlier career as a politician could be even more useful since Panetta will need to antagonize key congressional constituencies and other special interest groups to accomplish the necessary but thankless task of transforming how the Pentagon acquires goods and services to manage better the taxpayers’ money.

Panetta recognizes that coarse across-the-board funding reductions can be very inefficient, inflicting considerably more damage than tailored cuts aimed at the least valuable projects. Furthermore, budget and procurement decisions must become more joint and less service-centric.

In general, the Pentagon must ensure technology maturity before programs advance to the next development phase. National security planning and budgeting must often extend beyond the Pentagon to incorporate the interests and insights of non-military stakeholders like the State Department. In the case of some very expensive items, such as military space satellites, the Department should rely more on block rather than unique buys, fixed-price rather than cost-plus contracts, and allow for technology infusions primarily at regularly scheduled intervals. Cost-plus contracts should be used mainly for immature and innovative programs where costs are less predictable. These changes would result in more predicable demand, more stable and better-sustained production lines, and a more efficient workforce.

(For an argument that the Pentagon can leverage game changing technology to field 21st century forces and save money see