The Cable

Panetta's weekend commute costs as much as GSA Vegas junket

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flies home to California almost every weekend, racking up costs for the American taxpayer roughly equal to the cost of the General Services Administration's junket to Las Vegas that has Congress fuming mad this week.

The AP reported earlier this month that Panetta, who has been commuting to his northern California home each weekend for decades, has made at least 27 round trips on government airplanes since becoming defense secretary and only reimburses the taxpayer $630 of the $32,000 cost of each trip. He is only legally required to reimburse the government for the commercial coach class fare.

Obama administration officials say Panetta likes to recharge his battery and often makes side trips to military bases while he's out West. Regardless, the optics of the expense don't look good at a time when the United States is in the middle of a fiscal crisis and Congress is searching hard to eliminate waste in government spending.

At Monday's Pentagon press briefing, Panetta was asked about the travel expenses, which now total about $860,000.

"For 40 years that I've been in this town, I've gone home because my wife and family are there and because, frankly, I think it's healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight," he said, noting that as defense secretary, he is not permitted to fly commercial and must be always reachable.

"I regret that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up. The taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense," he said. "But having said that, I am trying to look at what are the alternatives here that I can look at that might possibly be able to save funds and at the same time be able to fulfill my responsibilities not only to my job, but to my family.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey chimed in to insist that Panetta is working even while crisscrossing the country every weekend. "By the way, he doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him," Dempsey said.

Congress has been silent on the Panetta trips, although today marks the second day of hearings on the GSA employee conference in Las Vegas in 2010, which cost the U.S. taxpayer $823,000, according to an inspector general's investigation. At the first day of hearings, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that the GSA officials were acting as they believed they were "some kind of agency royalty who used taxpayer funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle."

"They violated one of the most basic tenets of government service. It's not your money," Cummings said.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Top senator: Pakistan remains major obstacle to peace in Afghanistan

This weekend's attacks on multiple diplomatic buildings in Kabul bear the hallmarks of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network and underscore that safe havens in Pakistan remain a major impediment to safety and stability in Afghanistan, according to Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Over the Senate recess, Graham spent a week in Afghanistan working on a new agreement on how to conduct night raids in civilian areas and how to implement a recently signed agreement on transferring more than 3,000 Afghan prisoners out of U.S. custody in the coming months. He told The Cable in an interview Monday that the Haqqani network, which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, is most likely responsible for the recent attacks.

"The Taliban claims credit for everything but this has the fingerprints of the Haqqani network," Graham said. "The Haqqani network is a criminal syndicate, not an Islamic ideological movement. They represent a series of tribes that are basically just mobsters. I don't see that being dealt with until the Pakistanis make a decision to stop betting on the Taliban and that will come the day the Pakistanis believe we're not leaving and we're going to have a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan."

Graham also blames the Obama administration for moving forward with the withdrawal of the 30,000 surge troops in Afghanistan by this September. Previously, the plan was to take the surge forces from the south and move them to the east during this summer fighting season.

"You really don't have the force projection against the Haqqani network that we had been hoping for," Graham said.

The response to this weekend's attacks showed the progress of the Afghan security forces [ASF] and the relative weakness of the Taliban and the Haqqani network, according to Graham, because the attacks were less successful than similar attacks in Kabul last fall and because Afghan government forces were in the lead.

"All the fighting, unlike last September, was done by Afghan security forces. The biggest loss of life was with the insurgents themselves," he said. "These spectacular attacks are to be expected, but there was no undermining of the overall stability of the country, the insurgents were dealt with by the ASF in a decisive manner, and it's a sign of how far they have come in their capability."

"Those who were involved in the attack got killed or captured and those who repelled the attack won the day," he said.

Graham's overall take on the war following his visit is that ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen's battle plan is going well in southern Afghanistan and that the development of the Afghan security forces is also going well, but operations in eastern Afghanistan have not been robust enough. Corruption continues to run rampant in the Afghan government, he noted.

"The poor government and corruption that you see around Afghanistan has to be dealt with over time... We're a generation away," he said.

The best way to increase prospects for long term stability in Afghanistan is to sign an agreement that would keep 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops and three or four U.S. airbases there indefinitely, said Graham.

"If that military footprint exists past 2014 as far as the eye can see, then the Afghan security forces will be able to overwhelm the Taliban in any future conflict and that will be the end of the Taliban's dreams to come back," he said. "It also sends a signal to Pakistan: If you continue to bet on the Taliban, you're betting on a loser."

Graham predicted that a broad strategic cooperation agreement will be signed before the NATO summit in Chicago next month, but he said all of the security related details, including how many U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014, won't be negotiated until sometime next year.

Meanwhile, Graham and his allies in Congress will continue to push the administration to slow the pace of the American troop withdrawals between now and the end of 2014, when full control of Afghanistan will be handed over the Afghans. This summer's fighting season will be a crucial test, he said.

"We're either going to win this war this summer or we're going to lose it. And the way we can win is to withdraw our forces in a fashion that leaves behind a capable Afghan security force that can always defeat the Taliban, provide enough security for the political process to flourish, and over time build up the institutions."