The Obama administration is defending a NATO plan to gradually end combat operations in Afghanistan. The future of America’s longest-ever war has become an issue in the 2012 presidential race.
Last week, the United States and NATO allies affirmed a plan that would leave international forces in a non-combat, supportive role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says there will be no abandonment of a nation that remains at war with radical militants and terrorist elements.
“We are not going anyplace," he said. "We have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan and will continue to work with them on counter-terrorism. We will continue to provide training, assistance, guidance.”
Panetta spoke on U.S. television, ABC’s This Week program.
President Barack Obama’s likely Republican opponent in this year’s election, former Governor Mitt Romney, says the administration’s plans will play into the hands of Taliban fighters and could squander hard-fought gains achieved during a decade of war.
“How can you be so misguided and so naïve? His secretary of defense said that on a date-certain we are going to pull out our combat troops from Afghanistan," said Romney. "Why in the world do you go to the people you are fighting and tell them the day you are pulling out your troops?”
Critics of a withdrawal timeline say Afghan militants will bide their time until international troops are gone.
Secretary Panetta says the plan has broad support from America’s allies and is sound.
“That is the plan that has been agreed to, and it is a plan that is working," he said. "And, very frankly, the only way to get this accomplished, in terms of the transition we have to go through, is to be able to set the kind of timelines that have been set here, in order to ensure that we fulfill the mission of an Afghanistan that governs and secures itself. That is what this is about.”
On another matter, the defense secretary criticized Pakistan’s imprisonment of a doctor who helped the United States confirm the location of now-deceased al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“It is so difficult to understand, and it is so disturbing that they would sentence this doctor to 33 years [in jail] for helping in the search for the most notorious terrorist in our times," said Panetta. "This doctor was not working against Pakistan. He was working against al-Qaida.”
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Republican Senator John McCain said Pakistan’s actions in this and other matters are easily understood.
“It is because the Pakistanis believe that we are leaving," said McCain. "We are always taking about withdrawal, withdrawal, withdrawal. The entire region believes that the United States of America is withdrawing. They have to live in the neighborhood. And they are making the accommodations, and that is not good for America.”
Defense Secretary Panetta described the relationship with Pakistan as “up and down” and one of America’s “most complicated.” But he added that bilateral ties are important for both nations.