Apart from the fact that Secretary Panetta used the same media availability to suggest that the Obama administration is looking to reduce the size of the Afghan security forces to which it proposes to transition this fight, the Afghans will not be up to accomplishing this task. Clearing a heavily defended, long-established insurgent safe haven without simply annihilating the population is a challenge that only the American military and one or two of its allies can meet. Although our ISAF partners fight hard and bravely, only the British have undertaken such a task on their own—and they found it extremely difficult. It requires precise intelligence, accurate firepower, close air support, skilled infantrymen, sophisticated planning, perfect communications, and many other things that the Afghans will probably never have. Leaving it to the Afghans to clear safe havens south of Kabul is a recipe for failure. Implying, as Secretary Panetta did, that clearing those safe havens would be a matter of consolidating gains, a mopping-up operation, as it were, is simply wrong.
The reality is that there are two hard fighting seasons’ worth of combat in Eastern Afghanistan before we can transition the problem to the Afghans and focus on assisting them. And it will take all of the 68,000 U.S. troops that will remain at the end of this year to do it. The fight is worth it—eliminating the safe havens of groups that would give sanctuary to al Qaeda was what we came to Afghanistan to do in the first place. And it is achievable, even if the constraints President Obama has placed on our troops by imposing arbitrary and unjustifiable force caps on them make it much more difficult, dangerous, and protracted than it need be.
Secretary Panetta also said that no decision has been made about force levels in 2013. We hope that that is true. There is no occasion to make any such decisions until the end of this fighting season or early in 2013 itself.