With comments on an earlier pullout from Afghanistan, a Pakistani doctor and an Israeli strike on Iran.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confided to reporters while on the way to a NATO conference that the U.S. would end its combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier than expected, and will soon begin to shift responsibility increasingly to CIA and DOD Special Operations Forces rather than large, conventional ground forces. The announcement surprised—and alarmed—the Afghan government and key American allies. The White House has spent a lot of energy trying to walk this comment back, and have expressed irritation that this major revision of policy should have emanated from the White House.
The plan would represent a major shift in operational strategy, resulting in the removal of the 32,000 “surge” forces sent in to reinforce our struggling counter-insurgency/nation-building (COIN) effort. The new focus will rely more on SOF/paramilitary units to counter residual terrorist threats, elite commando teams that will target insurgent commanders and terrorist leaders. U.S. forces will continue to train Afghan military and police units, on whom more of the day by day burden of fighting the war will fall.
The Washington Post reports that Panetta’s remarks also “poured fuel” on an ongoing debate within the administration over the right mix of negotiating with the Taliban and killing them. Some officials feel that the revelation weakens the NATO/US hand before more talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar later this month.
The United States now has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, with about 22,000 slated to come home by fall. Previously the administration had said that 2014 would see the end of U.S. combat operations, and now that timetable appears to have been moved up at least a year.
The revised strategy would appear to represent a reversal of President Obama’s description of the Afghan conflict as the war that needed to be fought (as opposed to Iraq) and the surge of troop strength he committed just last year to the war. Political and military realities have now superseded any previous assessments, as the American public wearies of the war in an election year and the Afghan partnership is fraying. Civilian and military leaders alike are disappointed by the continued incompetence and corruption of the Karzai government, the abysmal performance by police units, and the tenacity of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
While the war has always been unpopular with Obama’s base, the conflict is enduring a lessening of support from Republicans and Independents as well. All are tiring of the seemingly endless conflict and the difficulties in changing the Afghan culture. More are gravitating to the approach advocated earlier by Vice-President Joe Biden which would rely more on Special Operations forces, raids, drone attacks, and “targeted assassinations” of key Taliban leaders.
The Panetta “announcement” also comes alongside the unauthorized leak of a NATO study that predicts a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the departure of ISAF forces (US/Europe). The estimate provides further fuel to stoke the disgruntlement of the American populace with the costs of the war, both in terms of lives and money, and the seemingly improbable quest for a successful outcome. Panetta’s statement will be greeted with shock, initially, on the part of our Allies, but most will be only too glad to see an earlier departure timetable.
Most likely the new approach will be resisted by the military commanders on the ground, who feel they are making progress and need more time, more money, and more troops. That’s not likely to happen, making General John Allen’s task as the ISAF commanding general much more challenging than it is even today.
Speaking of Secretary Panetta’s bluntness, two other recent comments by the SecDef have also generated surprise and some shock. First it was the revelation that a Pakistani doctor (name provided!) was instrumental in assisting the U.S. in ascertaining Osama bin Laden’s residence and his location. This was done before the doctor could be spirited out of the country and it is far from clear why Panetta revealed this doctor’s role.
Panetta also hinted strongly that there is a strong likelihood that Israel would strike Iran as early as April, a highly unusual muse by a Defense Secretary. I’m personally not sure if this isn’t just part of a coherent “public diplomacy” (disinformation) campaign being conducted by the West to convince the Iranian leadership that an Israeli attack is imminent and they’d better become more accommodating with respect to their nuclear program. Whichever, we are witnessing a flurry of “insider leaks” from Israel and the U.S. that seem to indicate that the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran is becoming more likely. Certainly the comments from Tel Aviv are also pointed in that direction.
Meanwhile, In Tehran, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in a defiant address, said that nothing would impede his regime from its objective of acquiring nuclear weapons. “Sanctions will not have any impact on our determination to pursue our nuclear course”, he proclaimed. Khamenei seemed buoyed by the possibility of an Israeli strike, in fact, and almost welcomes it.
What worries me is that he just might. With the Iranian economy in a tailspin, the populace increasingly disgruntled with the religious and civilian leadership, and social media stirring up the youth, the mullahs and the military may feel that the only thing that could salvage their position and unite the Iranian people would be an attack by Israel and, by implication, the U.S.
And, here in the U.S., as the 2012 presidential election moves closer, the question of which candidate is closer to Israel will be a key campaign debating point. That means that the impetus for the administration and the GOP candidate to appear fully supportive of Israel at this crucial juncture will drive positions further toward backing whatever Tel Aviv decides to do. I suspect the Israeli leadership knows that full well, and that factor may also enter into their own calculations on the timetable and advisability of a strike this year.
Keep watching—this will only get more interesting!
- Tyrus W. Cobb,
Former Special Assistant to President Reagan
February 5, 2012