Leon Panetta’s skills as a bureaucrat have been lauded by the Obama administration, various Washington players, and the U.S. media, but his limited knowledge of counterinsurgency and fourth-generation warfare (4GW) is once again on display. Speaking to reporters on his way to NATO’s ministerial in Brussels, the Defense Secretary hyped America’s progress in Afghanistan to such a degree that he’s now actively contributing to its instability. Panetta would adhere to President Barack Obama’s line (he did, after all, help author and popularize it) by labeling the Taliban as a broken insurgency, giving rise to the possibility that America’s “combat role” could wrap up by “mid to late 2013.”
“2013 becomes an even more critical year, more critical because we'll be going into the final transitions, final tranches, and those'll be some of the most difficult areas. But nevertheless, you know, our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then, hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make -- you know, to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role, which is basically fulfilling what Lisbon was all about. 2014 then becomes a year of consolidating the transition and making sure that those gains are in fact held, so that we can move towards a more enduring presence beyond 2014.”
On the surface, Panetta is proactively containing the fallout of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s political agenda. Rocked by the deaths of four French soldiers (killed by a Taliban infiltrator in the army) and his political opponent, who promises a rapid withdrawal of 3,900 troops if elected, Sarkozy recently convened with President Hamid Karzai to accelerate the security transition to Afghan forces. The two agreed to “ask NATO to consider a total handling of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013.”
Panetta, in turn, jumped on the possibility as though it were a live grenade.
U.S. and NATO are now spinning this trend as a decision of strength - the surge will conclude successfully, the Taliban will remain broken and Afghans can assume the lead in security operations. Although caught in a 4GW vortex, Panetta’s remarks have admittedly been flipped upside-down by the narrow focus over NATO’s time-line. Most of his interview is expended on the progress of Obama’s surge: “We have weakened the Taliban. We've made good progress in going after them. The level of violence is down. It continues to be down.”
Questioned whether his comments reflect a shift in U.S. strategy, Panetta explicitly responds, "In the Lisbon discussions, it was always clear that there would come a point which we would make that transition and then be able to hopefully consolidate those gains in 2014. So the bottom line is: No, this isn't a new strategy. It's basically implementing what Lisbon is all about."
Except the overall perception appears irreversibly negative.
For starters, active parties in Afghanistan are clearly experiencing public and private disarray as they sort out France’s new position. The Obama administration failed to sufficiently coordinate Panetta’s remarks internally or externally, with Voice of America remarking, “Since Panetta spoke on Wednesday, American and NATO officials have been trying to explain the new prominence of 2013.” Fox News observed that he “may have gotten ahead of the administration on this.” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication, called Lisbon’s time-line the “framework of record” and said “we will need allies to remain committed to that goal.” A senior NATO official attempted to explain, “He said the combat role will come to an end. But he also said combat will continue, and that's exactly what I'm saying."
Back in Washington, CIA Director David Petraeus attempted to rescue his partner by making “bunny ears” to the House Intelligence Committee. Panetta’s replacement appealed to the same reasoning that other U.S. and NATO officials are holding onto, explaining the nature of a “progressive transition” between 2013 and 2014. Combat operations - especially night-raids and air-strikes - will not cease during this time-frame. Petraeus reasonably argues, “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...”
Only Panetta’s comments weren’t obvious enough to keep him from clarifying himself: “I want to be clear. Even as Afghans assume the security lead, ISAF (international forces) will continue to have to be fully combat-ready and we will engage in combat operations as necessary.”
As politically savvy as Petraeus may be, accusing the media of "overanalyzing” Panetta’s interview illustrates a chronic misunderstanding of the war’s politico-information sphere. The Pentagon is appealing to its own reason by spacing its transition to Afghan forces, when the potential run on NATO withdrawals has psychologically overwhelmed this narrative. That most NATO members (UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia) and their populations want out in the expedient future is no secret. Now, in the process of drawing on America’s strength, Panetta is exuding weakness by drifting behind France’s political wake. Afghanistan’s non-military spheres are burning with ambiguity and indecisiveness, undermining the desired stability of NATO’s transitional plan. Petraeus downplayed the U.S. media’s definition of a “stalemate” by arguing that the word never surfaces in a word search of NATO's leaked report.
Nor does it need to for Afghans, Americans, Europeans and Muslims in general to feel this way after 10 years of warfare.
The Taliban will naturally pounce on Panetta’s self-induced sensationalism to generate its own display of strength, and propaganda could become secondary to a field morale boost headed into 2013. These events dovetail straight into NATO’s report compiled from 27,000 interrogation sessions from 4,000 captured Taliban. According to an excerpt of the report, "Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.”
Demonstrating the depths of Panetta’s confusion, Afghan officials were also caught off guard despite Karzai’s support for Sarkozy’s accelerated time-line. One senior official told Reuters, "The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations. A “former” government official who maintains contacts in the presidential palace said Karzai was “rattled” by Panetta’s comments, and predicted that the “real damage” will hit the negotiating table on both sides. With Taliban leadership already motivated to outlast the foreign coalition, “the palace in Kabul will... distrust U.S. intentions even more.”
Yet another danger - a constant during counterinsurgency - has manifested in the GOP’s political cycle; Panetta’s comments further politicized the U.S. debate over Afghanistan (what debate exists). This trend, though ongoing throughout the war, will increase its destructive potential as 2014 approaches.
As U.S. officials continue to jump on Pandora’s box, the Obama administration and NATO members will likely spread the propaganda fire by injecting oxygen. The more they attempt to “clarify,” the more confused they appear. White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed Panetta and Petraeus’s comments by saying the transition “could be moved up to 2013. But he was not making an announcement about a decision that had been made, simply about the consultations that would be taking place in Brussels and from Brussels forward to Chicago.”
Thus the administration intends to go high profile by putting the situation in Obama’s hands; Rhodes called Chicago’s summit “a chance for everybody to come back together, make sure we're aligned in our planning for our drawdowns and our transition." However this plan has already fallen victim to the impressions of another political maneuver. Obama’s personal credibility is sorely lacking in Afghanistan, as revealed by his State of the Union declaration that the Taliban’s momentum “has been broken.”
The Taliban must be starting to think the same about NATO’s coalition.