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Panetta says U.S. will have ‘enduring presence’ in Afghanistan after drawdown

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the United States would have an enduring presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when there will be a major troop drawdown.

He also pushed back against reports that the Taliban is gaining strength in that country.

“Well, the most important point is that we’re not going anyplace. We’re gonna, we have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan,” Panetta said on ABC News’s “This Week.”

“We’ll continue to work with them on counterterrorism. We’ll continue to provide training, assistance, guidance. We’ll continue to provide support,” he said. “We are making good progress. I mean, the Taliban, my view is that they have been weakened. We have not seen them able to conduct any kind of organized attack to regain any territory that they’ve lost. We’ve seen levels of violence going down. We’ve seen an Afghan army that is much more capable at providing security.”

Mitt Romney, who is set to clinch the Republican presidential nomination this week, has criticized the Obama administration for setting a date for withdrawal and called the approach to Afghanistan misguided.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta answers a question during a May 10 briefing at the Pentagon. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Responding to Romney’s position, Panetta said, “I think, without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what he’s asserting, I think you’ve got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan. It’s the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others — President Bush, President Obama -- everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in in Afghanistan.

“What is that direction? It’s to take us to a point where we draw down by the end of 2014. That is the plan that has been agreed to. And it’s a plan that is working. And very frankly, the only way to get this accomplished in terms of the transition that 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’s what this is about.”

During the interview, Panetta also raised an alarm about looming cuts to the defense budget, saying that they would be “disastrous” for national security and urging Republicans and Democrats to work together to avoid a budget showdown.

“Well-- my view is that when you’re facing the size deficits and debt that we’re facing, that obviously defense has to play a role in trying to be able to achieve fiscal responsibility,”

The Defense Department, he said, “provided a budget that, we think, meets not only the goal of savings but also, more importantly, protects a strong national defense for this country. The thing that does concern me is the sequester which involves another $500 billion in defense cuts.”

Republicans and Democrats have been foreshadowing a tough fight over massive budget cuts, set to happen at the end the year as part of a deficit reduction agreement reached after the failure of the so-called supercommittee. In January, $110 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare and the Pentagon are scheduled to occur in a process known as sequestration.

“I think what both Republicans and Democrats need to do, and the leaders on both sides is to recognize that if sequester takes place, it would be disastrous for our national defense and very frankly for a lot of very important domestic programs,” Panetta said. “They have a responsibility to come together, find the money necessary to de-trigger sequester. That’s what they ought to be working on now.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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