- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Defense secretary Leon E. Panetta released a statement welcoming President Obama’s decision to halve the number of U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, from about 68,000 to 34,000 by this time next year.

“In consultations with the President and his national security team, I strongly supported General Allen¹s recommendation and I believe the President¹s decision puts us on the right path to succeed in Afghanistan,” he said.

The plan to continue drawing down forces in a phased approach over the coming year was recommended by Marine Gen. John Allen, the former commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan, based on a thorough assessment of the campaign plan moving forward, he said.

Mr. Panetta, who is expected to retire and be replaced by former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel as early as this week, added that he was confident that the current commander, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford “will have the combat power he needs to protect our forces, to continue building up the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces, and to achieve the goal of this campaign ­to deny al Qaeda a safe haven to attack our homeland.”

He said coalition forces were on track to hand over full security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, and that the U.S. would maintain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, including through the continued training and equipping of Afghan forces and counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and their affiliates.

However, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Buck McKeon said the approach is “needlessly fraught with risk.”

SEE ALSO: Obama set to take 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan

“In a few weeks, a new fighting season will begin,” the California Republican said in a statement. “What surprises me most about the information I am receiving from the Pentagon is the President’s decision to halve the U.S. troops during the same year that the Afghan forces will be in the lead across the entire country for the first time.”

“Moreover, he is deciding to conduct a significant withdrawal [of] U.S. forces by 2014 without respect to anything that may happen on the ground over the next 12 months,” he said.

Mr. Panetta acknowledged that U.S. troops on the ground will “continue to be in a tough fight, and they will continue to face real challenges, but our fundamental goal is now within sight.”

“Thanks to their continued dedication and sacrifice, I believe we will prevail,” he said.

• Kristina Wong can be reached at kwong@washingtontimes.com.

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