Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comment while en route to a NATO conference in Brussels -- that the U.S. would end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013, a year earlier than thought -- surprised key U.S. allies, alarmed many Afghans, and forced the White House to spend more than a day trying to walk it back.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Thursday that Panetta had simply been stating that he would use the conference to discuss a shift in strategy with other NATO policymakers, not trying to announce a substantive change in American policy. No senior U.S. official had publicly said combat in Afghanistan could end next year, however, and Panetta’s comments caught officials from Afghanistan and many European countries off-guard.
A senior European NATO diplomat in Brussels, for example, told Reuters that Panetta had “not said explicitly that the U.S. will end its combat role in 2013. There will be a shift, but he hasn't said when the shift will end." Afghan security officials were also surprised by the remarks, with a senior Afghan security official telling the wire service that "throws out the whole transition plan."
"Transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations," the official said. "If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force."
Still, Panetta's comment was no accident. It highlights an emerging shift in the White House’s overall war strategy, which will also provide the Obama administration with a potent new talking point as the 2012 presidential race kicks into a higher gear.
The Afghan war has long been deeply unpopular with Democratic voters, but Republicans and independents are also now expressing doubts about whether the conflict is worth its human and financial cost. Panetta’s remarks will give the administration the chance to say that it ended the Iraq War and will effectively bring the Afghan war to a close next year, a message that could resonate with a broad swath of voters.
“It will certainly help with the Democratic base, but a lot of Republicans and independents are also tired of Afghanistan,” said Chris Harris of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC supporting the Obama reelection campaign. “Obama can say ‘I promised to take the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan, turn things around there, and then wind down the war,’ and then say that he’s keeping that promise.”
CIA Director David Petraeus said Panetta’s comments had been “over-analyzed” -- one of a cavalcade of senior U.S. officials arguing that they weren’t an indication of a shift in the administration’s war strategy. But that strategy has already begun changing, with senior U.S. commanders in Afghanistan talking openly about reducing the numbers of American troops involved in front-line fighting against the Taliban and instead ramping up the effort to stand up a large and relatively capable Afghan military.
The strategic shift, modeled on an approach used in Iraq, comes amid a parallel effort to use elite Special Operations forces to kill individual Taliban leaders in order to bring the armed group to the negotiating table. It also reflects the growing tensions within NATO about whether the war is worth its enormous human and financial cost. France, for instance, recently announced that it would speed up its own withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The confusion within NATO about what, precisely, Panetta had meant to say didn’t carry over to the U.S., where leading Republicans described them as an unambiguous and dangerous signal that American forces were on their way out of Afghanistan.
In a joint statement on Thursday, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Panetta was sending “exactly the wrong signal to our friends and enemies in this conflict.”
“It continues the Administration’s misguided policy of publicly forecasting its plans to withdraw from Afghanistan,” they wrote. “The Taliban has little incentive to engage in a meaningful negotiation with the Afghan government or with us to end the conflict when they believe the United States is leaving and that they can wait us out.”
That kind of pro-war message is a common refrain on the Republican campaign trail, where GOP primary voters -- who are far more conservative than GOP voters as a whole or independent voters -- remain strongly committed to continuing the U.S. mission in Afghanistan until the Taliban and other militants are completely defeated there.
But Panetta’s comments are much more in line with the overall mood of the electorate than Republicans like McCain or Graham. It’s true that Democrats are more opposed to the war than other segments of the country: A Quinnipiac University poll in November found that just 24 percent of Democratic voters believe the U.S. is doing the right thing in Afghanistan, with 69 percent feeling that the administration is off-course there. Republicans were more positive, but only marginally so, with 46 percent thinking the U.S. had the right approach and 44 percent believing it didn’t. Independents, meanwhile, were basically in the Democratic camp, with just 32 percent believing the U.S. should continue its involvement in Afghanistan and 62 percent believing it shouldn’t.
The nation’s overall level of support for the war has also been clearly declining. A Quinnipiac poll in January 2010, shortly after the administration announced its Afghan troop surge, found that 59 percent thought the U.S. was right to be fighting in Afghanistan. By November 2011, just 31 percent thought American involvement remained worthwhile, while 60 percent felt that it wasn’t.
There are clear perils to the administration’s public discussion of ending combat operations in Afghanistan next year. It is sure to fuel the growing antiwar sentiments throughout NATO, where leading powers like France are already talking about speeding up their own withdrawals from the country. It could embolden the Taliban by making them believe they simply need to wait out the U.S. And it could further weaken American influence in Kabul by persuading Afghan policymakers that the U.S. is on its way out the door.
But war in a democracy is as much about maintaining political support at home as it is about winning military victories on distant battlefields. Panetta’s remarks may not be popular abroad, but they are virtually certain to be well-received here at home. And for an administration seeking reelection, that may be the only fight that really matters.