Leon Panetta to Iraq: Make a decision on U.S. troop presence

The new secretary of defense -- on the job for just 11 days -- expressed frustration with Iraqi leaders, who have yet to tell the United States what their position is about keeping American troops there past the expiration of the current Status of Forces Agreement. All U.S. troops are supposed to leave by the end of this year, under the terms of the 2008 deal. Washington has indicated it would be willing to negotiate a continued troop presence there, but Iraq must first ask it to do so.

"I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make a decision, you know: Do they want us to stay? Don't they want us to stay? ... But damn it, make a decision," he told a gathering of troops, according to NPR.  

Panetta was in Iraq today after spending two days in Afghanistan, where he met with Hamid Karzai -- his first trip to both countries as the new Pentagon chief.

The longer Iraq takes to make up its mind, however, the more costly it will be for the United States to reverse course.

Meanwhile, the United States believes that Iran is behind an increasing number of attacks against American troops in Iraq -- part of a campaign to convince it not to stay on in the country. June was the deadliest month in over two years for American troops there -- with 15 soldiers killed. 

"This is really crunch time with the clock what it is and Ramadan approaching," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "The U.S. wants a sense of whether the Iraqi political system will give approval. For the U.S. side of things, Iraq is in the rearview mirror."

Katulis told Foreign Policy the administration doesn't want to give the impression it is dictating to the Iraqis what it needs.

"There's a sense in the Obama administration that we want to help the Iraqis complete the mission of helping train the security forces," he said. "But it's all about balancing that with the sensitivities of Iraqi leaders" -- many of whom do not want U.S. troops to stay and are actively fighting to claim the mantle of the leader who forced them out.

Katulis said that quietly, behind closed doors, a range of Iraqi leaders tell U.S. officials they want troops to stick around -- given Iraq still lacks key security infrastructures like an air force or border control -- but it's hard for them to say that publicly.

Slip of the tongue?

Meanwhile, Panetta's trip made headlines for another reason -- the new defense secretary made two separate slips in comments to the press.

In Afghanistan on Saturday, July 9, Panetta seemed to imply the United States had made up its mind about troop levels there as far out as 2014.

"We're going to have 70,000 there through 2014, and obviously, as we get to 2014, we'll develop a plan as to how we reduce that force at that time," he said. "For at least the next two years we're going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face."

President Barack Obama has committed to removing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and has said that he will drawdown levels at "a steady pace." (NATO agreed last year that 2014 would mark the end of combat operations.) Pentagon officials insist drawdown plans haven't been developed yet -- meaning Panetta misspoke.

"He was not here making new policy. He was not here differing with the president. He was not here making news on numbers at all," Douglas Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told the Wall Street Journal.

And in Iraq today, Wilson had to correct the new Pentagon chief again over comments related to Iraq and 9/11.

"The reason you guys are here is because of 9/11. The U.S. got attacked and 3,000 human beings got killed because of al-Qaida," Panetta told soldiers in Baghdad. "We've been fighting as a result of that."

Maybe the former CIA chief knows something we don't,  but a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks has been widely disputed by critics who say it was used as a superficial justification for entering that war.

Wilson once again had to backtrack after Panetta spoke, according to AFP.

‘I don't think he's getting into the argument of 2002-2003,' as the reason for the Iraq invasion, Wilson told reporters, adding that his boss was ‘a plain-spoken secretary.'

‘He has made clear that the major threat to this country is coming from Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups and he has also made clear that wherever we are in the world today, that (Al-Qaeda) is a principle reason for a military presence,' Wilson said.

Katulis said the misstatements, though awkward, weren't that significant.

"A handful of people will pay attention to this," he said. "The question is what is the viable end state in Iraq, not whether we should re-litigate 2003 all over again."

Katulis said the new, more public role of defense secretary will take some time to get used to - especially after spending two and a half years shunning the spotlight as head of the CIA.

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France pushes for diplomatic talks with Qaddafi

France is urging the Libyan opposition to sit down and negotiate with Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country's defense minister said yesterday in Paris. Gérard Longuet said it was time to "get round the table" and "speak to each other."

He added, "The position of the [Transitional National Council] TNC is very far from other positions."

You might recall France was the first country to recognize the TNC. And it pushed its NATO allies into initiating the military campaign against Qaddafi. It even fired the first shots against Qaddafi's regime. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the world had to prevent Qaddafi's "murderous madness" against civilians.

"This is a huge transformation," said Melissa Bell of France 24. "From the beginning it was always a question of Qaddafi leaving."

France sparked angry responses from Russian and African leaders when it parachuted weapons to Libyan rebels. Last week, Longuet said France would no longer arm the opposition.

So, what changed? Why is France shifting away from its gung-ho anti-Qaddafi position from earlier this spring?

For starters, the war has dragged on far longer than most people anticipated it would, and France seems to be growing impatient.

There is also frustration with the rebels, who have shown little desire to enter negotiations to end the conflict.

According to the Daily Telegraph, a senior Western diplomat said France was "sending a message" to the rebels that the clock is ticking to bring the conflict to an end. NATO's mandate in Libya is due to expire at the end of September.

"There is general recognition among Western diplomats that the structure of the state existing in the western part of the country should not be completely disregarded in the event of a quick collapse of the Qaddafi regime," the source added.

Observers have noted the campaign is not going as well as it could. George Robertson, the former British defense secretary and former NATO secretary-general told Foreign Policy that European countries lack the military capacity to bring the operation to a close.

"In Libya, the Americans did what I always suggested they might do -- which is to say, 'It's your fight; please take the lead. You're big enough; you're brave enough; you're strong enough. You do it,'" Robertson said.

As in Washington, the Libya war is taking a political toll on the administration in Paris.

Tomorrow, the French Parliament will vote whether to continue supplying the Libya mission. France 24 reports that the measure is likely to win approval but, coming at a time when progress seems to have stalled, it raises tricky questions for the government.

And campaign season has begun in France -- with presidential elections set for early next year, Libya could potentially hurt Sarkozy's chances. The military mission is costing France 1 million a day, according to France 24.

All that said, it isn't entirely clear what France's position is exactly.

After Longuet's statement, French Foreign Secretary Alain Juppé backtracked a bit, saying, "The question is not to know whether he must leave, but when and how."

Today, after Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, told an Algerian paper that Sarkozy met with an envoy of his father to discuss political solutions, Paris quickly denied the story.

"There are no direct negotiations between France and the Qaddafi regime, but we pass messages through the rebel council [TNC] and our allies," a spokesman said.

Ironically, Washington finds itself in a bit of a role reversal with Paris. Responding to the defense minister's comments, a State Department spokesperson said, "The Libyan people will be the ones to decide how this transition takes place, but we stand firm in our belief that Qaddafi cannot remain in power."

They'll have a lot to talk about when the United States, France, and other allies meet in Istanbul on Friday to discuss progress.

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