I have been generally favorably disposed to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. While at CIA, his bureaucracy’s intelligence gathering apparatus drove the military operations which finally put postage paid to Osama bin Laden, not to mention Hellfire warheads on the foreheads of hundreds of mid-level AQ and Taliban seeking refuge in the Pakistani badlands. As DoD secretary he has been keen to put the brakes on the wilder enthusiasms of his party’s defense defunders, accurately asserting that the budget gap cannot plausibly be closed using DoD accounts alone.
But he has left the issue of coalition operations in Afghanistan as something of a dog’s breakfast during a recent NATO summit in Brussels:
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said there was a consensus among NATO leaders that the fledgling Afghan army “will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan” next year, with U.S. and NATO forces shifting to an advisory and training mission. British and French officials said they backed that idea, but other NATO officials were less definitive.
At a news conference at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said “we don’t know yet” when newly trained but inexperienced Afghan forces — who now number more than 300,000 — will take charge of the combat mission in the war. He predicted that NATO would resolve the issue at its summit in Chicago in May.
Rasmussen said that NATO forces would remain actively engaged in combat until the end of 2014, when most allied troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan. “Let me stress,” he said, “we will conduct combat operations throughout that period.”
On Wednesday, while en route to Brussels, Panetta surprised some allies by saying that the Obama administration wanted to shift from “a combat role to a training, advise and assist role . . . hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013.”
That timeline would represent an acceleration in NATO’s plans.
On Wednesday, Panetta acknowledged that U.S. troops could still be involved in combat after 2013 but indicated that they would fight only to protect themselves.
On Thursday, however, he modified that characterization, saying U.S. forces would still regularly engage in combat but in a “support role.”
“It’s basically, the Afghans themselves will be in charge of combat operations,” he told reporters. “Again, we’ll be there for support; we’ll be there for guidance. But they’re the ones that are going to be in the lead and conduct the operations.”
It was unclear what those changes would mean on the battlefield.
The Brussels announcement was probably intended for a domestic US audience, and intended to bolster President Obama’s political standing in his own base, not to mention a broad portion of those with no clear party preference and quite a few on the political right, all of whom have wearied of the word “Afghanistan”, not to mention the vast sums of blood and treasure expended there for no clear gain. Panetta was the right man to carry the water on this, since the president is no doubt eager to distance himself from charges by the right that he is soft on national security, charges Mr. Obama apparently intends to blunt in part by the high profile exposure of tactics, techniques and procedures used by low-key special operations forces. And while White House officials are keen to analogize the Afghan pull-out with the redeployment of US forces from Iraq, the realities on the ground are starkly different.
Surprising our NATO allies in Brussels was a misstep, however, and the assertion that Afghan National Security forces might be able to operate largely independent of coalition assistance by 2014 is illusory to the point of being hallucinatory.
This is, I suppose, what happens when a man of quiet competence is forced to subvert his better vision in favor of potential political rewards to his patron. Reason enough for men of quiet competence to avoid the political theater altogether, much to our country’s loss.