KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) —
The Taliban are not beaten, the peace process is bogged down in internal squabbles and Afghan security forces aren’t ready to take control of the nation. Yet the U.S. and its partners are talking about speeding up — rather than slowing down — their exit from the war.
It’s becoming dramatically clear that politics is driving NATO’s war exit strategy as much or more than conditions on the battlefield.
Political calendars in the West were never supposed to influence the decision about when Afghan forces take the lead and allow international troops step back into support roles or leave altogether. The U.S., Afghan and other international leaders have said repeatedly that transition decisions would not be held hostage to international political agendas.
Then, after an Afghan soldier gunned down four French troops, President Nicolas Sarkozy suddenly announced last week that he was pulling French forces out of Afghanistan early. Sarkozy is facing an opponent in the coming presidential election who wants French forces withdrawn even faster.
Sarkozy boldly suggested that his NATO allies hand over security to the Afghan police and army in 2013 instead of by the close of 2014 — an end date they had all agreed upon at a meeting in Lisbon more than a year ago.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dropped another verbal bombshell this week at a NATO meeting in Brussels. He said the NATO allies had largely agreed to step back from the lead combat role in Afghanistan and let local forces take their place as early as 2013.
U.S. officials downplayed Panetta’s statement, saying it was not a policy change but an optimistic look at the established 2014 end date.
Either way, it shows how badly the Obama administration wants out of the war.
Panetta’s comment sounded different from what his predecessor told NATO allies just six months ago. “Resist the urge to do what is politically expedient and have the courage of patience,” former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said then.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said no final decision has been made but he noted the issue would be prominent in May, when President Barack Obama hosts the next NATO summit.
That meeting, in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, will come less than six months before the U.S. presidential election. There has been speculation that Obama might announce some kind of accelerated pullout or simply underscore how America’s involvement in Afghanistan is winding down.
“I definitely think there is a desire to say something appealing by Chicago,” said Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.
He said Sarkozy’s decision to fast-track France’s exit clearly reflects his need to address pressing domestic pressure to bring forces home as his presidential re-election campaign begins. Politics, “however undesirable,” always accompanies any coalition mission, he said.
Announcing that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will wrap up earlier than expected would give Obama more good news to report about his foreign policy. Already, the U.S. military has officially declared the end of its mission in Iraq in December 2011 when the last American troops left. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011 during a U.S. raid in Pakistan. And reviled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fell under a NATO onslaught without a single American casualty.
Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan realize that American public support for the war is evaporating but they don’t want to squander military gains of the past 18 months.