and raves for new US pullout
plan By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - United States Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta's surprise announcement on
Wednesday that US troops will phase out their
combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013 is drawing
mixed reactions, as well as a fair bit of
confusion here, from both critics and supporters
of the 11-year-old war.
for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt
Romney, called the decision "misguided" and
"naive". Neo-conservatives and other hawks charged
that it was politically motivated and would result
in the return of the Taliban to Kabul little more
than a decade after a US-coordinated military
campaign chased their leadership into Pakistan.
"Only in some alternative universe is this
a winning strategy," complained Max Boot, a
neo-conservative military analyst at the Council
on Foreign Relations (CFR). "In the world we actually
inhabit it is a recipe
for a slow-motion - or maybe not so slow -
But the war's critics, many
of whom were deeply disappointed by President
Barack Obama's decision shortly after taking
office in 2009 to send substantially more troops
to Afghanistan, cheered Panetta's announcement.
"This is good news," said Matthew Hoh, a
former US Marine Corps officer and State
Department adviser in Afghanistan who until
recently directed the Afghanistan Study Group
here. "What we've needed to do for some time is to
transition from a belligerent in the conflict to a
mediator focused on facilitating an inclusive
political settlement. This appears intended to do
Whether that was indeed the
intention remained unclear on Thursday, however,
as the senior officials here insisted that
Panetta's announcement did not signal a major
shift in US or North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) strategy which had set the deadline for all
security tasks to be transferred to Afghan forces
by the end of 2014.
"This was an
assessment of what could happen within the context
of the stated policy of NATO, which is to transfer
the security lead to the Afghan security forces by
2014, and, within that .timeline, the transition
will take place," White House spokesman Jay Carney
Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, General
(retired) David Petraeus, the architect of the US
counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan,
insisted that Panetta's remarks were consistent
with previous planning.
"This is exactly
in line with the policy that we started back in
the summer of 2011, transitioning leadership of
combat operations from ISAF [the International
Security Assistance Force] to Afghan forces and
then progressively complete it by the end of
2014," he told congressmen on Capitol Hill.
Panetta's remarks, which clearly also took
the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai
and US allies by surprise, were made to reporters
while he was en route to a NATO conference in
Not only did he say that
Washington hoped to end the US combat role by
mid-2013 - 18 months before the end-of-2014
deadline - but he also indicated that NATO would
likely cancel plans to expand the size of
Afghanistan's security forces from the current
310,000 to 350,000 soldiers and police.
His remarks came at a critical moment on a
number of fronts.
With Washington's and
Pakistan's apparent backing, the Taliban have
established an office in Qatar where they have
been engaged in talks with US officials over
confidence-building measures, such as the return
of Taliban detainees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba, that could lead to broader peace talks.
At the same time, Karzai, who only
reluctantly endorsed the Doha talks, has
reportedly been pushing to open a separate
negotiating channel to begin negotiations under
the auspices of Saudi Arabia.
cooperating with US efforts to engage the Taliban,
Islamabad has continued to reject US appeals to
reopen NATO supply routes through Pakistani
territory that were closed in late November to
protest the accidental killing by US warplanes of
24 Pakistani troops at a border post.
result, Washington has been made to rely almost
exclusively on the Northern Supply Network through
Central Asia, making logistical support for the
troops far more expensive. The US has already
budgeted more than US$90 billion for the war this
In the wake of the killing of four
French Legionnaires by an Afghan soldier - the
latest in a lengthy series of such incidents
against NATO troops - French President Nicolas
Sarkozy last week announced that he would withdraw
all 3,600 French combat troops by the end 2013, a
year earlier than previously scheduled.
Amid all these developments, the leak this
week of a sensitive NATO report based on the
interrogation of some 4,000 Taliban detainees in
Afghanistan shed new and very discouraging light
on both the degree to which Pakistan's military
intelligence agency (ISI) has backed - even
controlled - the Taliban and the confidence of
Taliban militants themselves that they are winning
The report also noted that the
Taliban were receiving support from Afghan
government officials, including army units in
areas from which NATO forces had withdrawn. The
government "continues to declare its willingness
to fight, yet many of its personnel have secretly
reached out to insurgents, seeking long-term
options in the event of a possible Taliban
victory," according to the report.
thrust of the report - that NATO forces have
failed to stop, let alone reverse, the Taliban's
momentum - strongly contradicted the
more-optimistic assessments by US and NATO field
commanders and is certain to fuel growing public
sentiment in the West, including the US, that the
war has not been worth the expense in blood and
In the last major nationwide
poll conducted on Afghanistan in mid-January, 56%
of respondents said US troops should be withdrawn
"as soon as possible".
currently has some 90,000 troops in Afghanistan,
down from a high of just over 100,000 last summer.
It plans to withdraw another 22,000 by the end of
this summer. In his remarks on Wednesday, Panetta
stressed that no decision had been made regarding
the pace of the withdrawal of the remaining 68,000
According to Leslie Gelb,
president emeritus of the Council on Foreign
Relations, however, Panetta's remarks suggest that
the administration has adopted a strategy to end
"America's major military footprint in Afghanistan
well before the previous December 2014 deadline",
but that won't be clear until after the
presidential elections here in November.
Writing for the Daily Beast website, Gelb
claimed that Panetta, Vice President Joe Biden,
and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon had
become convinced late last year that, with the
death last May of Osama bin Laden and the
successful disruption of his al-Qaeda, US
interests in Afghanistan "were no longer vital,
and that more American deaths and billions [of
dollars] in costs were no longer worthwhile".
As a result, even while continuing efforts
to target senior and mid-ranking Taliban
commanders, Washington is now focusing its efforts
on a negotiated settlement.
that will be possible, particularly given the
apparent confidence of the Taliban, remains very
much in doubt.
"The Taliban are a much
larger organization than they were a couple of
years ago, and we've ruined our relationship with
Pakistan," according to Hoh, who blames Petraeus'
aggressive "surge" strategy for these setbacks.
"The policy has clearly failed, and now
we're to put some kind of settlement together
before we leave, and there's a real possibility
that will fail."
Jim Lobe's blog
on US foreign policy can be read at