Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confused many of America’s NATO allies last week when he said that US forces in Afghanistan would end their combat role in Afghanistan as early as the middle of next year. With American troops not set to fully withdraw until 2014 — the same year as the Afghan presidential elections — and the Afghan National Security Forces still considered unreliable at best, Panetta’s statements seemed out-of-step with international expectations.
A senior NATO official was quoted in the New York Times yesterday saying, “I’m just saying as NATO, there’s been no decisions — we’re still working this, we’re consulting with our allies. There are different views about when this should happen, how quickly it can happen.”
Panetta quickly clarified his previous remarks, claiming that he was referring to a timeline for transitioning command to ANSF control, not indicating a change in US commitment to the mission. So why make the statement at all? Clearly it had not been discussed with NATO officials, and it came at a particularly bad time given France’s recent decision to withdraw the remainder of its troops by the end of 2013 after four French troops were killed by a member of the ANSF. The success of the transition in Afghanistan will depend on the orderliness of the NATO drawdown and the US must be a steadfast leader in this effort.
So the question remains, why make this statement at all? Certainly there is no need for the US Defense Secretary to inform the Afghan government of its intentions through the international press. And the Afghan people are not likely to be reassured by yet another public declaration of American fatigue and disinterest in the military mission. To whom was Panetta speaking?
All evidence from the past few months leads to one answer, the American electorate. More specifically, voters who accept what they have been told, simply that failure in Afghanistan is inevitable and that covering our tracks as we leave absolves us of responsibility for the future. President Obama, for his part, also seems to believe that because he was saddled with this unwinnable war by President Bush, he is not responsible for its outcome, only for its end.
It is all too easy to criticize a campaigning president for politicizing his policies, but campaign politics is the only imaginable reason for pulling the remaining “surge” troops out of Afghanistan during what the military refers to as ”fighting season.” Disregarding the firm opposition of his generals and willingness to compromise among his Cabinet, including Secretaries Clinton and Panetta, Obama has demonstrated his primary goal in Afghanistan to be a political, not military, victory.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama praised the “courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces,” and asked that Americans strive for that same unity of purpose. President Obama would do well to follow his own advice, striving for political courage to win the war in Afghanistan instead of just ending it, for selflessness in putting the security of the United States above his own job security, and for teamwork with America’s allies who are looking for reassurance, not reluctance, in this critical transition period.