WASHINGTON – The Obama administration scrambled Thursday to tamp down the fallout out from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s surprise announcement that the United States would end its combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier than expected – a revelation that heightened confusion over U.S. strategy and stoked Afghan distrust of American intentions.
The U.S. decision also could weaken the administration’s hand as it tries to pressure the Taliban into peace talks by confirming to insurgent leaders that they can hold out until the U.S. combat mission draws to a close in December 2014, several current and former U.S. and Afghan officials warned.
Panetta’s remarks reflect a White House desire – in part driven by election-year politics – to hasten an end to the increasingly unpopular decade-old war that has claimed hundreds of American lives and cost billions of dollars amid demands for reduced federal spending.
But the announcement took U.S. lawmakers, some European allies and Afghan officials aback. It was widely assumed that U.S. troops would continue to take a lead role in combat operations until the end of 2014, when a phased transition to Afghan responsibility that began last year is to be completed.
“It’s confusing,” said Mark Jacobson, the former deputy NATO representative to the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.
Panetta sent “the wrong message at the wrong time,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, who added that he saw “absolutely no military rationale that I am aware of for suddenly accelerating the current timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
The announcement also surprised some members of Panetta’s own staff, who hadn’t expected the announcement to be made until a NATO summit that President Barack Obama will host in Chicago in May that will consider the alliance’s future role in Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that there was a policy change, but his remarks hardly clarified the issue. Panetta, he said, was offering “an assessment of what could happen within the context of the stated policy of NATO, which is to transfer the security lead to the Afghan security forces by 2014, and within that frame, within that timeline, the transition will take place.”
On Capitol Hill, CIA Director David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, sought to reassure confused lawmakers, saying that Panetta’s announcement on Wednesday during a flight to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense chiefs had been “overanalyzed.”
“The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations, the Afghan forces gradually take the leadership,” he said. “It’s in a successive series of transitions that take place as a result of the whole process between Afghan and (coalition) leadership.”
What Petraeus – and Panetta – left unsaid was that even though they would be reclassified as trainers and advisers, U.S. forces will continue participating in combat operations in support of Afghan troops.