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Panetta Visits Troops in Afghanistan, Iraq


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in Iraq today after spending the weekend in Afghanistan. It's his first trip to the warzones since assuming his new position a week ago. He got a feel for the ongoing turmoil in Baghdad today - three rockets were fired into the heavily fortified Green Zone during his visit.

Panetta takes on this job at a complicated time violence against U.S. troops is up in Iraq and debate continues over how and how fast to wind down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, Secretary Panetta is being forced to learn the job as he goes.

RACHEL MARTIN: Training Afghan soldiers begins with the basics how to fire a weapon, how to read, even how to drive. Secretary Leon Panetta saw this first hand at Camp Dwyer in Helmand province.

Unidentified Man #1: We've had some problems with some vehicle accidents. We try to do sustainment and introductory training as often as we can.

Secretary LEON PANETTA (Department of Defense): Basic driver's ed.

Unidentified Man #1: It really is, sir.

MARTIN: Panetta is embarking on his own driver's ed course of sorts learning how to steer the U.S. out of two major wars, another conflict in Libya and the global fight against al-Qaida.

It's this last challenge the fight against al-Qaida where Panetta feels most confident. After all, his last job was overseeing the CIA, which he reminded U.S. troops of during his visit to Afghanistan.

Secretary PANETTA: One of my proudest moments was the ability as CIA director to work with Special Forces in the plan to go after bin Laden. That was a major blow to al-Qaida and every time you go after targets here, you add to the effort to dismantle and disrupt al-Qaida and their militant allies.

MARTIN: In his new job, Panetta has to switch gears - less al-Qaida, less espionage and far less secrecy.

Unidentified Man #2: Honor to meet you.

Secretary PANETTA: Nice to meet you. Where you from?

Unidentified Man #2: Andover, Virginia.

MARTIN: He's a former U.S. congressman, an extrovert, and quick with a laugh. He points to the long wooden stick that Afghan security forces sometimes use to dig around for IEDs.

Secretary PANETTA: My father used to use this on walnut trees.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But he's also had a few stumbles on his first trip. For example, Panetta said the U.S. plan is to keep 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan through 2014. Problem is the Obama administration has said the plan is to withdraw those troops gradually starting in late 2012. A Panetta spokesman quickly corrected his boss saying he just misspoke.

But the troop drawdown has been controversial. U.S. military commanders supported a slower withdrawal, so they can hold onto the gains they've made. So on this trip Panetta reassured U.S. troops that drawing down doesn't mean falling back.

Secretary PANETTA: You have my commitment that we are going to stay on that track. We're going to continue to move forward. We're going to continue to try to accomplish the mission of transitioning to the Afghans so that they ultimately can take control of the defense, security and government of their country.

MARTIN: Then in a matter of hours, Panetta flew from one warzone to the other.

We've just landed in Baghdad. This is where Secretary Panetta will meet with Iraqi leaders. He faces a whole different set of challenges here. U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of the country by the end of this year the U.S. is waiting on Iraq to ask them to stay.

Panetta is urging Iraqi leaders to make up their mind on a continuing U.S. military presence sooner rather than later.

The new Secretary of Defense is carrying another tough message. Last month, 15 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq. That's the highest number in two years. Panetta blamed the violence on militant groups armed by Iran. He said Iraq needs to crack down on these militias or the U.S. will.

Secretary PANETTA: I do want to make clear that we have the authority to defend our people. I would like for Iraq to exert more of an effort to go after those extremists that are making use of these weapons. That if we are going to be partners they have a responsibility to be able to protect against that kind of attack.

MARIN: A stern warning from a man learning to navigate his own new responsibilities, the obstacles he sees and the ones down the road that he can't.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.