Friday, February 03, 2012

Panetta and the "End of Combat Operations"

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in the news for his comments on the future of Afghanistan.  The news media have screaming headlines about the "end of combat operations" in 2013 and a full pullout in 2014.  Pundits on both sides have jumped into the fray with their opinions, which appear to be wildly exaggerated no matter which side they're on.

Panetta's remarks shouldn't be much of a surprise.  All he's saying is basically what we've been working towards for a couple of years now.  We have been building up the Afghan security forces with the intent that they take over responsibility for the security of their own country by the end of 2014.  To do that, we're doing a gradual, phased transition, in which we step back as Afghans step up.  Some provinces have already been turned over to Afghan control.  This strategy allows them to lead the fight, with ISAF forces in support for a while, until it's all theirs.

Looking forward, there are three more fighting seasons (June to October) before that happens: 2012, 2013, and 2014.  For 2012, we're still leading the fight, at least in the south and east, but the Afghan forces are taking more responsibility.  In 2013, it'll be Afghans leading most of the fighting with ISAF providing support.  In 2014, the Afghans will have it all, while ISAF forces draw down from support to an advisory and training role by the end of the year.

The dumbest thing in the world would be to have ISAF forces leading the fight right up until the end of 2014, then turning to the Afghans and saying, "Okay, it's all yours, have fun."  That's a guaranteed formula for failure.  The phased approach allows Afghans to gain experience while still having a backstop - in other words, it allows them to fail (and learn) without jeopardizing the entire country.

So what Panetta was doing was just describing how our previously-announced strategy is going to be implemented.  Whether you agree with the strategy and timelines is a different matter.  Personally, I think the timelines are a bit ambitious - I think it would be safer for the mission to extend it by a year or two.  But I'm not at all convinced that the mission is worth the additional cost.

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