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February 01, 2012

Panetta Outlines Earlier End to Combat Mission in Afghanistan

Posted in: Uncategorized

At least so far, the attempts from inside the military to warn against an early withdrawal in Afghanistan are not working. In fact, the US appeared to move in the other direction today, aligning themselves more with France than with the military moles.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that NATO would shift from a combat to a training mission in Afghanistan sometime in the second half of next year, rather than by 2014 as previously indicated.

The U.S. and its allies will formally change their military mission in Afghanistan to training and advising Afghan troops next year, a shift meant to extricate the alliance from a combat role after more than a decade of war, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday.

Panetta outlined the mission shift on his way to Brussels for talks at NATO headquarters, noting that U.S. combat troops would still remain until the end of 2014, as previously announced, but mainly in a support role as Afghan forces assume responsibility for fighting the insurgency.

“Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013, and hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” Panetta told reporters traveling on his plane.

We saw a similar timetable in Iraq. The combat mission ended mid-2010, and the last of the troops left at the end of 2011. Under this rough timetable, the combat mission in Afghanistan would end next summer, with the final troops out by the end of the following year. We still don’t know how many residual forces would be needed for the training mission in 2013-14. And also, Panetta said that some troops would remain beyond the 2014 withdrawal date, though that could be up to the Afghans. So we see the same fault lines emerging here as they did in Iraq.

This is really a direct response to the French proposed pullout of combat forces. The US moves their target date for the end of the combat mission in an attempt to keep the other NATO allies on board with keeping some residual forces in Afghanistan through 2014.

But it’s also a response to the operators inside the Pentagon trying to keep forces on the ground as long as they can, even while every intelligence estimate shows no progress in the war.

I thought this bit from the NYT story was revealing:

The defense secretary offered the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq as a model. American troops there eventually pulled back to large bases and left the bulk of the fighting to the Iraqis.

At the same time, Mr. Panetta said the NATO discussions would also focus on a potential downsizing of Afghan security forces from 350,000 troops, largely because of the expense of maintaining such a large army. The United States and other NATO countries support those forces at a cost of around $6 billion a year, but financial crises in Europe are causing countries to balk at the bill.

We built an army in Afghanistan that would cost more to maintain than the entire GDP of the country. And we’re surprised to find that unsustainable?

I should add that FDL alum Spencer Ackerman had this first, from NATO.

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