A sign of progress and a call for vigilance: Panetta's Afghanistan announcement

 In Afghanistan

In a pleasant departure from his hyperbolic defense of high levels of military spending. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that the US and NATO are hoping to end “combat operations” in Afghanistan in mid-2013, rather than sometime in 2014 as they had implied earlier.

There has been much discussion about the political nature of this decision:

The Obama administration is betting that Americans are tired of the financial and human cost of the war and would welcome an exit strategy so long as they believed it ensured U.S. national security. Obama has asserted that the completion of the phased Iraq withdrawal, promised during his 2008 campaign, is evidence of U.S. strength and his own resolve.

Opposing the war in Afghanistan should be a no-brainer in this election. A solid majority of voters, including people of all political persuasions, support a military withdrawal. The main reason we’ve seen such an increase in congressional opposition to the war is that it is a foregone conclusion that the war is terribly unpopular; the phones in Congress are not ringing off the hook with people calling to urge a “stay the course” approach in Afghanistan.

But the decision the administration is making is not just smart from a political angle; it also makes the most sense for our security. A large ground force in Afghanistan is not going to protect us from a small group of potential terrorists dispersed around the globe.  As the National Security Network points out, many security experts recognize it is time to shift to a new strategy in Afghanistan:

Defense experts: shifting the focus of the mission in Afghanistan from combat to training Afghan security forces is the best way to protect long-term U.S. interests. As Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), Andrew Exum and Matthew Irvine of the Center for a New American Security wrote last December: “It is time for a change of mission in Afghanistan. U.S. and coalition forces must shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward a new mission of ‘security force assistance’: advising and enabling Afghan forces to take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight. This shift is more than rhetorical. With a 2014 transition looming in Afghanistan, U.S. and allied military leaders must recognize that U.S. and coalition forces will not defeat the Taliban and its allies in the next three years. Instead, they must direct the military effort toward working by, with and through the Afghans. This effort will protect long-term U.S. security interests without a never-ending commitment of immense U.S. resources.” This idea has currency inside the Pentagon as well. General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last December he would accelerate the role played by Afghan security forces. [CNAS, 12/11. John Allen via NY Times, 12/13/11]

Despite the fact that this decision is both smart and necessary, leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has decided to attack it as naïve. As Alex Roarty points out in National Journal, it’s a bit puzzling that Romney would be “tethering himself to an unpopular agenda.” Though why not add squandering lives and dollars on an unnecessary and unpopular war to dismissing the plight of the poor and making awkward and inappropriate jokes? He still has to compete with ditching child labor laws and building moon colonies.

Of course Romney’s misguided support is based on specious policy grounds:

Conservatives immediately responded to Panetta’s announcement by criticizing the decision to further align U.S. commitment with our interests there. But they have criticized tactics – setting a date certain, specific withdrawal numbers – without offering an alternative policy that meets both realities on the ground and the war-weariness of Americans.  As the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel wrote last month, “How do you win? Well, by beating your opponent, of course. And how do you beat your opponent? By winning. That tautology was essentially former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s answer when he was asked about how, as commander in chief, he would end the war in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban.”

Romney complained that the US shouldn’t tell the people they’re fighting when they are going to pull out troops. Apparently Romney either thinks he is going to come up with a plan to eradicate the Taliban militarily, something that has eluded the US and NATO for more than ten years, or he is going to pull a fast one on the Taliban with a surprise withdrawal, leaving them so stunned and confused that they can’t retake power.

While this recent development is encouraging, this is hardly a time to take our foot off the gas in pushing for an end to the war. The White House downplayed Panetta’s announcement, saying only that it “could happen,” perhaps trying to have it both ways. During the announcement about shifting in 2013, Panetta also said there would be some kind of military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely. Despite the administration’s talking point that the “tide of war is receding,” there is still no clear end date for when all US troops will come home.

Also, as Mark Thompson explains on the Battleland blog, the distinction between combat and non-combat troops is a fuzzy one:

Yet shifting from a combat role to a training and assist role – what Panetta wants to happen sometime next year – is a fuzzy line that commanders can blur for certain units and in certain provinces. “A shift in mission statement has been talked about for several months, and that not much may change on the ground,” says an officer heading into the fight shortly. “The mission statement can say partnering/mentoring instead of combat, but if a Afghan-U.S. patrol gets in a fight, those U.S. troops will still fight the same way they were doing before. A lot of that is already going on.”

This announcement is an important sign that all of our work over the last couple of years is bearing fruit—the administration sees the writing on the wall and is looking for a way to end the war. Now we must be vigilant and make sure they don’t cave to the pressure of the Romneys and McCains of the world and instead listen to the clear voice of the majority of Americans and put Afghans in control of their own future.

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