January surprise: We're ending our combat mission in Afghanistan a year early, says Panetta

This makes twice in 24 hours that the SecDef has telegraphed a hugely consequential military decision to the enemy. Either (a) he’s a moron, (b) he’s lying for strategic advantage, or (c) he has something else in mind. I don’t think he’s a moron and I can’t fathom what the strategic advantage to this might be. If you’re desperate to get the Taliban to the bargaining table, the last thing you’d want to do is tell them that they’ll have to wait us out in the field for even less time than they had planned.


So he must have something else in mind.

A senior European NATO diplomat in Brussels, for example, told Reuters that Panetta had “not said explicitly that the U.S. will end its combat role in 2013. There will be a shift, but he hasn’t said when the shift will end.” Afghan security officials were also surprised by the remarks, with a senior Afghan security official telling the wire service that “throws out the whole transition plan.”

“Transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations,” the official said. “If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force.”

Still, Panetta’s comment was no accident. It highlights an emerging shift in the White House’s overall war strategy, which will also provide the Obama administration with a potent new talking point as the 2012 presidential race kicks into a higher gear

“It will certainly help with the Democratic base, but a lot of Republicans and independents are also tired of Afghanistan,” said Chris Harris of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC supporting the Obama reelection campaign. “Obama can say ‘I promised to take the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan, turn things around there, and then wind down the war,’ and then say that he’s keeping that promise.”


Go look at some of the recent polls on Afghanistan. Last month Pew found that 56 percent want the troops out ASAP, a figure unchanged since last summer. In November, CNN found opposition to the war at 63 percent. Even so, I’m mighty curious to hear how The One is planning to make the big “I turned things around” pitch given that Panetta’s little bombshell dropped on the very day that wire services were running this:

The U.S. military said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw, raising the prospect of a major failure of Western policy after a costly war…

“The classified document in question is a compilation of Taliban detainee opinions,” [a NATO spokesman] said. “It’s not an analysis, nor is it meant to be considered an analysis.”

Nevertheless, it could be interpreted as a damning assessment of the war, dragging into its 11th year and aimed at blocking a Taliban return to power.

It could also be seen as an admission of defeat and could reinforce the view of Taliban hardliners that they should not negotiate with the United States and President Hamid Karzai’s unpopular government while in a position of strength.

According to the BBC, the report also describes “unprecedented interest” by Afghans, including members of the Afghan government, in joining the Taliban over the past year, plus of course the requisite acknowledgment that Pakistan is deep, deep, deep in cahoots with the Taliban leadership. (A memorable quote from an Al Qaeda prisoner: “The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad.”) I’m unclear on the exact timeline here, but I assume the NATO report was leaked in response to what Panetta said about early withdrawal, to nudge hawks into making the case that leaving sooner rather than later would be an exceedingly bad idea right now. The alternative, that NATO brass leaked the report precisely in order to convince people that the war is unwinnable and therefore we should take Panetta’s advice, is too unhappy to contemplate.


But maybe it’s the only call left. The best defense of Panetta’s early withdrawal talk that I’ve seen is James Joyner’s short piece at the Atlantic arguing that the war now seems like a lost cause, in which case we might as well save American lives by giving up in 2013 instead of in 2014. On the other hand, if this is chiefly a political pander aimed at handing Obama an “I’m bringing the troops home” line for the campaign, then maybe the coming withdrawal will be cosmetic only. The public has tuned out of following the war day to day; if people hear that the troops are on their way out soon, most will probably be satisfied with that without checking up to see just how many are being pulled. Face it: If we’ve now reached the point where top intel officials can talk openly about freeing Taliban prisoners from Gitmo without fear of a major backlash, they’ve got a very, very free hand to operate.

Update: No sooner did I write those last sentences than CNN reports Romney is hammering the White House for thinking of releasing the Taliban prisoners.

Update: Krauthammer wonders why Panetta keeps talking.

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David Strom 6:40 PM | February 29, 2024