Panetta to inherit Afghanistan dilemma

Centeral Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta on Feb. 10, 2011, left and Top US commander in Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus, March 18, 2011.
Getty Images

With Americans still coming home in flag-draped caskets from Iraq, CIA director Leon Panetta revealed a surprising -- and to many, no doubt, confusing -- fact.

"There are 1,000 al Qaeda that are still in Iraq," he said. "We saw the attack that was just made the other day. It too continues to be a fragile situation."

That's right - 1,000 al Qaeda in Iraq where the U.S. has fewer than 50,000 troops. In Afghanistan, where there are twice as many American troops, intelligence estimates put the number of al Qaeda at no more than 100, reports CBS News senior national security correspondent David Martin.

Those lopsided numbers plus the killing of Osama bin Laden are two factors behind the political pressure on President Obama to accelerate the pullout from Afghanistan starting next month. A cinch to be the next secretary of defense, Panetta will have to live with whatever decision the president makes, but he refused to say how many troops he thinks should come home.

The Killing of Osama bin Laden

"That decision really does rest with General Petraeus and Secretary Gates and the president," Panetta said.

The president says a "big chunk" of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished, but Gates, who just finished his final visit to Afghanistan, argues now is not the time to let up. In an interview with "60 Minutes" he said the first withdrawals should not reduce combat troops.

"60 Minutes" interview with Gates

Gates: No "rush to the exits" from Afghanistan

"I hope he can find a way to bring a significant number of people out that aren't combat troops so we can keep carrying the fight to the Taliban," he said.

General Petraeus is due back in Washington at the end of this week and is presumably bringing his recommendations with him.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.