Panetta: Drawdown plans won't affect spring offensive in Afghanistan

Pentagon officials are "very confident that [we] can maintain the pace with regards to the withdrawal of surge forces and be able to deal with the uptick in violence at the same time," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters Thursday. 

Significant advances made by the Afghan National Security Forces will help backfill the loss of 32,000 U.S. soldiers set to come home from the country this summer, Panetta said during a joint briefing with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak in Kabul. 

U.S. and coalition forces are gearing up to take out Taliban strongholds along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan this spring, Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said earlier this year. 

The American and NATO offensive will also look to quash the deadly cross-border launched by members of the Pakistani-based Haqqani terror group into eastern Afghanistan. 

"I feel very confident that General Allen has a very effective plan in place and that he can deal with the situation" even with the loss of those departing U.S. forces,  Panetta said. 

The White House has been firm that the remaining 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan would be out of the country by 2014. But administration officials have yet to decide when those troops will begin rotating back stateside. 

Washington and Kabul will team up on "a periodic review" on the status of U.S. and coalition forces as the 2014  withdrawal deadline nears, according to Panetta. 

The review will attempt to hone in on the right mix of forces the Afghans "need to maintain in order to secure this country not only now, but in the future," he added. 

That review will also ensure there remains enough flexibility within the U.S. and Afghan postwar pact to ensure key strategic security priorities do "not to become detached from the realities of the ground," Wardak added. 

Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, second-in-command of all American forces in Afghanistan, suggested in May that the Pentagon maintain that 68,000-man force through 2013. 

"Personally, I would like to stay at 68,000 through the first part of [2013]. And then again we'll make an assessment ... and we'll decide what we need going forward," Scaparrotti said during an interview with NPR. 

Maintaining that troop number would mean the 23,000 U.S. soldiers scheduled to leave the country in the next few months would be the last American troops to come out of Afghanistan until next year.