The mixed messages coming from the Obama Administration last week on the future of combat operations in Afghanistan have left our allies confused, the Afghan people anxious, and the insurgency stronger.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his press entourage on his way to the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels that:
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, which is basically fulfilling what Lisbon was all about.
But the agreement at the 2010 NATO Lisbon Summit called for the end of combat operations and the completion of the transition process to the Afghans by 2015—not 2013.
Yesterday, the director of the CIA, David Petraeus, downplayed Panetta’s comments when testifying in front of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee:
…the conversation that Secretary Panetta had with some press on his plane was more than a bit over-analyzed, shall we say… What Secretary Panetta was discussing was indeed this progressive transition. If you’re going to have it completed totally by the end of 2014, obviously somewhere in 2013 you have had to initiate that in all of the different locations so that you can complete the remaining tasks. And that was what he was talking about.
With his military background and experience serving as top commander in Afghanistan, you can bet that Petraeus’s comments are more in tune with what U.S. commanders are thinking, or at least hoping for: that the coalition stays the course.
It is bad enough that we have a politically driven and arbitrarily established deadline of 2015 for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. Sending mixed messages on the U.S. commitment to the mission only strengthens the insurgency and weakens the already fragile ISAF alliance.
Sadly, many of our allies are looking for a good reason to exit. Comments suggesting that the U.S. may end combat operations earlier than agreed at the Lisbon Summit could potentially open the floodgates for many of our European allies to leave Afghanistan sooner than originally planned.
It is likely that Secretary Panetta’s comments will influence the U.K.’s decision on troop numbers when its National Security Council meets later this year to decide the speed of its troop withdrawal from Helmand Province. It is well known across Whitehall that there are cabinet members in the British government who would leave Afghanistan tomorrow if given the opportunity. They will use these comments from the Administration to back up their case.
France, Germany, and Italy have all announced troop reductions for this year. On a positive note, it is worth pointing out that Georgia is the only country committing more troops to Afghanistan in 2012. It will be doubling its contribution later this year in Helmand Province, making it the largest per capita troop contributing nation in ISAF—an example for all of NATO.
The performance coming from the Administration this week on the future of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan was amateurish at best and hurtful for the campaign at worst. What should have been an internal debate between the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA went too public. An important part of any counterinsurgency is the Information Operations campaign. This is, in part, accomplished by communicating a message of assurance to the people you are trying to protect while sending a message of strength to those you trying to defeat. The Administration failed this week. We hope this strategic error doesn’t have tactical consequences.