General David H. Petraeus (center) talks with US soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, in eastern Afghanistan. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Bradley Lail.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signaled America’s intention to cut its combat role in Afghanistan short, hoping to pull out of the war-torn Central Asian country by 2013, a year before the stated withdrawal deadline. The news comes as a leaked NATO report indicates that the Afghanistan Taliban, with the backing of Pakistan, is confident that it can take back control of the country.
“Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role,” said Panetta, speaking while traveling to a NATO summit in Brussels. It was, according to the BBC, the first time that a senior US official has given a timetable for transition, beyond the stated goal of a full troop withdrawal by 2014. The US led the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, on the claim that the country was fostering terrorist organization Al Qaeda. There are currently 99,000 US troops in Afghanistan, with some 22,000 expected to leave this year; some 68,000 are expected to remain after the end of this year.
America’s intention to leave Afghanistan early has surprised Afghanistan; leadership in Kabul is now concerned that the US has unfairly accelerated the transition timetable. Meanwhile, both Pakistan and the US downplayed the leaked NATO report. The report, based on statements taken from Taliban detainees, suggests that Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor and America’s uncertain ally in the war against the Islamist insurgents, was helping the Taliban. Pakistan has strongly denounced the claims, but the relationship between the US and Pakistan is already tense, strained by the US’s killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without the country’s permission.
Pakistan foreign minister calls leaked NATO report “old wine in even older bottles”:
Shock and not so much awe in Afghanistan. “A decision to push this a year earlier throws out the whole transition plan. The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations,” a senior Afghan security official told Reuters on Thursday. “If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force.” Michael Clarke, director of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, told the Financial Times that Panetta’s comments were “really very startling”: “You can understand the pressures on the Obama administration in an election year… But by talking about ending the US combat role in 2013, Washington is giving the core Taliban the chance to seize the narrative and declare that the US is on the run and scrambling to get out.”
But this shouldn’t be a surprise. However, Mark Thompson, writing at TIME’s Battleland blog, said that Panetta’s declaration shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, pulling out of Afghanistan fully by the end of 2014 needs to start sometime. “It happened in Iraq, and it’s part of an orderly withdrawal,” he noted. But, he agreed, “Panetta’s timing could have been better: even though it’s old new, reports that the Afghan Taliban are simply waiting for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw before they can resume their offensive was a predictable kick in the teeth.”
Al Jazeera looks at the leaked report in depth:
And of course, it’s an election year. A number of observers noted that this is an election year: Paul Adams, BBC’s Washington correspondent, said, “For the president, looking to be re-elected at the end of this year, it’s also useful. Barack Obama has already ended one American war, in Iraq. Now he’s thinking about when and how to end another.” Americans are likely to react positively to the idea that the two wars the President inherited are winding down.
Cutting and running? Obama’s political foes are using the announcement to accuse the President of cutting and running, Thompson at TIME noted: “Secretary Panetta’s statement today sends the wrong message at the wrong time to both our friends and our enemies in the Afghan conflict,” Senator Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said.
Is the Taliban winning? The leaked NATO report – which, the Khajeel Times suggested “may force the Coalition to revise its war aims and dealings with Islamabad” – was taken from interrogations of captive Taliban fighters. And the picture they paint of the war in Afghanistan isn’t a very different one from what the US sees as the war’s trajectory. Despite the US’s continued military victories over the insurgents, the Taliban believe that they are winning the war – specifically, war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, The New York Times reported. The paper reported, “[T]he classified report provides a sobering counterpoint to the coalition’s decidedly more upbeat public assessments of progress in the war and of the Afghanistan that NATO says it will leave behind. It abounds with accounts of cooperation between the insurgents and local government officials or security forces, as well as accounts from Taliban detainees who claim that in areas where coalition soldiers are withdrawing, the Afghan military is cooperating with the insurgents.”