"It was Leon being Leon." This is the take you get when you ask Obama administration officials exactly what it was that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meant when he said last week that the administration wanted to move troops in Afghanistan from "a combat role to a training, advise and assist role…hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013." Panetta, that is, was just blurting something out, as is his wont. The administration didn't so much walk back Panetta's remark as frog-march it. CIA director David Petraeus complained in congressional testimony that Panetta's comments had been "over-analyzed." White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that the Pentagon chief was speaking of what "could happen," not what had been decided. A senior NATO official told me that Panetta's comments should be understood in an "aspirational" light. And so on.
It's true that NATO's decision at the Lisbon Conference last year to turn over all combat operations to the Afghan army by the end of 2014 did not stipulate the pace of that transition; that was to be decided according to facts on the ground. The transition began last year when the Afghan military took the lead in several of the country's most peaceful provinces. And as Petraeus helpfully pointed out, if you're going to be done by the end of 2014, "Obviously somewhere in 2013 you have had to initiate that in all of the different locations." But Panetta announced that the transition would end (or perhaps that he hoped they would end) 12 to 18 months before the terminal date. Have the facts on the ground changed for the better? I asked an administration official privy to intelligence on Afghanistan if he had any reason to believe that the much-maligned Afghanistan National Security Force had made big gains in professionalism. "No," he said, flatly.
So what's going on? Nothing, possibly. But it's likely that the administration is sending a signal. The chief audience for that signal is the American public, which has had it up to here with the grandiose foreign ventures that Obama inherited from George W. Bush. This process began last June when Obama announced that "the tide of war is receding," and thus that he was accelerating the timetable for the withdrawal of troops. But politics matters too: In the aftermath of Panetta's statement, the White House made it clear that it would be delighted to pick a fight with the hawkish Mitt Romney on the subject.
Panetta was probably also signaling his own generals, who objected to the accelerated withdrawal last year and want to keep carrying the fight to the Taliban, including in the east, which NATO has largely vacated. Panetta appears to be telling his commanders: We are making the transition now. This policy swerve was almost eerily prefigured by "The Next Fight," a report issued last December by the Center for a New American Security. After extensive battlefield interviews, the authors wrote, "We are not confident that most U.S. and NATO commanders have come to grips with the reality of the impending U.S. and allied transition." (Not true, insists my NATO source: "We're pretty well synched up and we want to get that transition down.") Field commanders were taking the fight to the Taliban and leaving their Afghan counterparts to mop up afterwards, the report noted. Many Afghan units had no embedded U.S. or NATO advisors; few were remotely prepared to lead the fight in fiercely contested provinces like Helmand or Kandahar. This almost guaranteed that whatever gains the American military made would prove unsustainable. The report recommended an immediate change of mission from combat to "security force assistance."