"It was Leon being Leon." This is the take you get when you ask Obama administration officials exactly what it was that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meant when he said last week that the administration wanted to move troops in Afghanistan from "a combat role to a training, advise and assist role…hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013." Panetta, that is, was just blurting something out, as is his wont. The administration didn't so much walk back Panetta's remark as frog-march it. CIA director David Petraeus complained in congressional testimony that Panetta's comments had been "over-analyzed." White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that the Pentagon chief was speaking of what "could happen," not what had been decided. A senior NATO official told me that Panetta's comments should be understood in an "aspirational" light. And so on.
It's true that NATO's decision at the Lisbon Conference last year to turn over all combat operations to the Afghan army by the end of 2014 did not stipulate the pace of that transition; that was to be decided according to facts on the ground. The transition began last year when the Afghan military took the lead in several of the country's most peaceful provinces. And as Petraeus helpfully pointed out, if you're going to be done by the end of 2014, "Obviously somewhere in 2013 you have had to initiate that in all of the different locations." But Panetta announced that the transition would end (or perhaps that he hoped they would end) 12 to 18 months before the terminal date. Have the facts on the ground changed for the better? I asked an administration official privy to intelligence on Afghanistan if he had any reason to believe that the much-maligned Afghanistan National Security Force had made big gains in professionalism. "No," he said, flatly.
So what's going on? Nothing, possibly. But it's likely that the administration is sending a signal. The chief audience for that signal is the American public, which has had it up to here with the grandiose foreign ventures that Obama inherited from George W. Bush. This process began last June when Obama announced that "the tide of war is receding," and thus that he was accelerating the timetable for the withdrawal of troops. But politics matters too: In the aftermath of Panetta's statement, the White House made it clear that it would be delighted to pick a fight with the hawkish Mitt Romney on the subject.
Panetta was probably also signaling his own generals, who objected to the accelerated withdrawal last year and want to keep carrying the fight to the Taliban, including in the east, which NATO has largely vacated. Panetta appears to be telling his commanders: We are making the transition now. This policy swerve was almost eerily prefigured by "The Next Fight," a report issued last December by the Center for a New American Security. After extensive battlefield interviews, the authors wrote, "We are not confident that most U.S. and NATO commanders have come to grips with the reality of the impending U.S. and allied transition." (Not true, insists my NATO source: "We're pretty well synched up and we want to get that transition down.") Field commanders were taking the fight to the Taliban and leaving their Afghan counterparts to mop up afterwards, the report noted. Many Afghan units had no embedded U.S. or NATO advisors; few were remotely prepared to lead the fight in fiercely contested provinces like Helmand or Kandahar. This almost guaranteed that whatever gains the American military made would prove unsustainable. The report recommended an immediate change of mission from combat to "security force assistance."
That appears to be what Panetta was talking about, though in order to become formal policy the change would have to be endorsed at the NATO conference this May in Chicago. And it makes a great deal of sense: Commanders have to be prepared to sacrifice some tactical gains in order to prepare Afghan forces to take over at the end of 2014. But "makes sense" is very different from "will work." The premise of the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that Obama agreed to adopt in 2009, at the urging of Petraeus, then the overall commander for the region, was that U.S. forces would clear out the Taliban from Afghan territory, train Afghan forces to take over, and help build a sufficiently effective government that would encourage the Afghan people to choose the state over the insurgents. That enterprise has largely failed, and since the White House knows very well that it has failed, officials cannot expect that even adequately trained Afghan forces will be able to sustain the fight against the Taliban. The "transition" is thus an exercise in kabuki as much as it is in counterinsurgency doctrine.
Leaks from two classified reports have confirmed what is already obvious. A January National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan drawn up by the CIA and other intelligence agenciesconcluded that the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government, along with the resilience of an insurgency sheltering across the border, could make it impossible for the Afghan state to survive on its own after U.S. and NATO support dwindles after 2014. And a NATO reportbased on the interrogation of some 4,000 Taliban prisoners asserted that Afghan security forces are collaborating extensively with the Taliban, and that Afghan civilians "frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government." (Critics have noted that Taliban prisoners may not be the most reliable sources.)
Still, senior military officials appear to be sincerely convinced that the battle is tipping towards the NATO alliance and away from the Taliban. Perhaps they'll be proved right; but based on current trends, the Taliban is all too likely to fill the vacuum created by the departure of U.S. and NATO forces. The best chance to avoid such a debacle is not a successful hand-off to the Afghan military but a successful negotiation which persuades the Taliban to lay down its arms in exchange for a significant role in the Afghan government. The White House is increasingly focused on that goal. The effort, based in Doha, is being led by Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But so far, Pakistan's intelligence service -- which, the NATO report noted, exercises almost total control over the Taliban -- has opposed the talks. Even Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has spurned the effort, preferring to conduct his own alleged negotiations in Saudi Arabia. The boys at Ladbrokes are probably laying long odds on this outcome, too.
And this brings us to the endgame of the endgame. Afghanistan is a relic -- though one that keeps reaching out from the crypt. We've already moved on. The Pentagon's "strategic guidance" issued last month stated that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" -- read, Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the United States will not be leaving the Middle East, it "will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region." Washington is pivoting from the Middle East to Asia, and from an immensely frustrating decade of regime change, occupation, nation-building, and counterinsurgency to a much more familiar and, dare we say, rational era of great-power deterrence. The president, and the American people, would like to see the back of Afghanistan.
And the harsh truth is that the West can afford to fail in Afghanistan. The real threat was al Qaeda; and al Qaeda forces in the region were seriously degraded even before the killing of Osama bin Laden. National security officials worry less than they used to that the Taliban would invite jihadists back into Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden, who has long argued that the threat was overblown, recently reiterated that, "The Taliban per se is not our enemy." At this point, the greatest threat that Afghanistan poses to the West is probably not a renascent al Qaeda but a civil war that would reduce the country to howling chaos. That's what a negotiated settlement would seek to avoid.
So, if all goes well, Afghanistan will be a mess, but not a mess that threatens U.S. national security. That turned out, in the end, to be the story of Vietnam. I would just say one thing, and I think it is something that anyone who has spent time in that woebegone country would feel: The Afghan people deserve better. We invaded their country and we raised their expectations. Perhaps we were wrong to do so; we couldn't make their government better than it was. But we have an obligation to do what we can -- not, chiefly, anymore with soldiers but with aid, trade, diplomacy, and all the other tools of American power. Let us not, in a fit of imperial forgetfulness, abandon Afghanistan as we execute our grateful pivot to Asia.