U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has offered new details on the U.S. timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan (NYT), stating for the first time the Pentagon’s hope to conclude combat missions by as early as mid-2013 and begin the shift to a security assistance role. The defense chief framed the transition, which some see as an acceleration in the pace of withdrawal (WashPost), as an inevitable step toward the fulfillment of NATO’s transition strategy. The announcement was greeted with surprise in Kabul, where officials appealed for U.S. forces to stick to the previously agreed timetable for withdrawal (FT).
What’s at Stake
Pulling back U.S. troops too early could overwhelm Afghan forces and undermine tenuous negotiations with the Taliban, a central pillar of Washington’s exit strategy. A recently leaked NATO report suggests captured Taliban fighters are encouraged by their combat performance, believe they have support within Pakistan, and are confident in their return to power (ArmyTimes). However, NATO officials underscored the inherent bias of the findings.
Instability in Afghanistan could jeopardize the primary U.S. objective in the war of preventing a regeneration of terrorist safe havens. Toward this end, Washington has pledged an enduring presence in the country to implement counterterrorism efforts and provide ongoing training and advising to Afghan forces. But a rapidly deteriorating security environment could cause a highly strategic and potentially volatile part of the world–with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and an increasingly isolated Iran–to plunge into turmoil.