Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Sunday that more than $500 billion in defense-related cuts scheduled to kick in early next year would be "disastrous" to national security and begged lawmakers to restore the money.
The cuts were included in last summers bipartisan debt and budget agreement that allowed the White House to raise the debt ceiling. Since then, members of Congress from both parties have pushed to undo the Pentagon's portion of the $1.2 trillion "sequestration" budget cuts that also target nondefense domestic programs.
"I think what both Republicans and Democrats need to do, and the leaders of 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," Mr. Panetta said on ABC's "This Week."
"They have a responsibility to come together and find the money necessary to de-trigger sequester."
Mr. Panetta said the Defense Department has been diligent about trimming costs to help the federal government shrink its ballooning debt and deficit.
"We 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," he said.
However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has taken a hard line on keeping the automatic cuts in place, saying last week that he wouldn't accept Republican attempts to do away with them.
In Sunday's appearance on ABC's "This Week," Mr. Panetta also left open the possibility of military strikes against Iran should negotiations fail to halt the Islamic republic's suspected nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Panetta said that while he hopes the matter can be resolved diplomatically, the Pentagon has developed multiple plans to deal with threats "in that part of the world."
"The international community has been unified. We've put very tough sanctions on them, as a result of that," he said. But "we have plans to be able to implement any contingency we have to in order to defend ourselves."
The secretary's words were in response to a question about recent comments made by American ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro that the U.S. already has made preparations for a potential strike on Iran.
The U.S. and five other nations in recent days have been in talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program.
On Afghanistan, Mr. Panetta said the U.S. will continue to have an "enduring presence" in the country after a planned major pullout of U.S. and NATO forces there by the end of 2014.
"The most important point is that we're not going anyplace," he said. "We'll continue to work with [Afghan officials] on counterterrorism. We'll continue to provide training, assistance, guidance. We'll continue to provide support."
The heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees, upon returning from a trip to Afghanistan earlier this month, said the Taliban has grown stronger since President Obama's deployment of 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan in 2010.
But Mr. Panetta said that U.S. forces continue to make "good progress" fighting the Taliban, and that the rebel insurgency, though resilient, has been weakened.
"We have not seen them able to conduct any kind of organized attack to regain any territory that they've lost," he said. "We've seen the levels of violence going down. We've seen an Afghan army that is much more capable at providing security."
The secretary said he is still concerned about a high level of corruption in Afghan society and about Taliban safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. But he said that Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the top allied commander in Afghanistan, "has laid out a plan that moves us in the direction of an Afghanistan that can truly govern and secure itself."
"That is going to be our greatest safeguard to the potential of the Taliban ever coming back," he said.
Mr. Panetta also repeated U.S. criticisms of Pakistan for convicting a doctor who helped find Osama bin Laden in that country, calling the 33-year prison term "disturbing" and saying Dr. Shakil Afridi "was not working against Pakistan."
Dr. Afridi had run a vaccination program that helped the CIA collect DNA samples that confirmed bin Laden was in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. Mr. Panetta said the treason conviction is casting a pall over the "complicated" relationship between the two countries.
"It's an up-and-down relationship. There have been periods where we've had good cooperation, and they have worked with us.," he said. "What they have done here does not help in the effort to try to re-establish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan."
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