Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a new timeline for American combat operations in Afghanistan—or did he? He said, “Hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make, you know, to make a transition from a combat role to a training advice, and assist role…” Pressed once, he added, “The hope was, that hopefully, we could reach a point in the latter part of 2013 that we could make the same kind of transition we made in Iraq, from a combat role to a train-and-assist role.” Pressed again about whether this timeline was a new departure, he answered, “No, not really,” repeating that such a transition was envisioned at the 2010 Lisbon Conference and that “we always looked at, you know, what exactly…are the pieces we would have to have in place in order to be able to make that transition.” Let us hope, hopefully, that this comment was a malapropism rather than the leaking of a new strategy, because, if it is a new strategy, it’s a bad one.
Everything Secretary Panetta said about the transition approach envisioned at Lisbon is true—that process, excessively binding and bureaucratic in our opinion, does foresee the gradual and conditions-based transition of the task of securing all of Afghanistan to the Afghan security forces. At some point—not specified at Lisbon or in any public statement or document before this one—the mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), would change from defeating the insurgency alongside the Afghans to assisting the Afghans in securing their own state. Could that point come in late 2013? Perhaps. But there is no way to be sure now. Announcing it as a fixed timeline now, therefore, would be not only foolish but irresponsible.
Secretary Panetta said one thing about Afghanistan that is certainly not true: “Consolidating those gains is going to be what we have to do in 2012, ensuring that we continue the transitions, ensuring that we continue to improve the Afghan army during this year.” If those goals are the limits of our campaign in Afghanistan for 2012, then our mission there will fail. The reason is simple: You cannot consolidate gains that have not yet been made.
Progress in southern Afghanistan (Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Day Kundi provinces in particular) is incontestable, as Secretary Panetta noted. Mullah Omar’s commanders have been driven out of their most critical safe havens. Mullah Omar himself, of course, has not been in Afghanistan since 2001. Local populations are turning against his commanders, forming into Afghan Local Police units or simply working informally with Afghan and Coalition forces to prevent the Taliban from coming back. But progress in the areas south of Kabul (Ghazni, Logar, Wardak, Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces) remains inadequate. The Haqqani Network that operates there has been damaged but not defeated. It retains important safe havens within an hour’s drive of Afghanistan’s capital (and on a highway that leads to two international airports, Kabul and Kandahar). Our job in Afghanistan is not done while those Haqqani safe havens persist inside Afghanistan’s borders.
The Haqqani Network is the most dangerous enemy facing the U.S. in Afghanistan today. It remains closely tied with al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Lashkar-e Tayyiba (LeT), and elements of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Mullah Omar has been drawn reluctantly into tolerating the use of suicide bombers and attacks on civilians, but Sirajuddin Haqqani (who replaced his father Jalaluddin at the head of the network a few years ago) has embraced and expanded such attacks in spite of Mullah Omar’s qualms. He has deepened his organization’s ties to the most militant terrorist groups in Pakistan whose aims are regional and global and whose tactics are abhorrent even by the standards of Afghan insurgents. He organizes and orients those groups. As long as the Haqqani Network and its affiliates control significant safe havens in Afghanistan, the danger remains high that they will shelter al Qaeda, LeT, IMU, TTP, and other terrorist groups eager to kill Americans. If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan while the Haqqanis still have such safe havens, the mission President Obama set himself of disrupting and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and creating conditions that will prevent it from returning will have failed.
This task cannot be left to the Afghan security forces, moreover. Apart from the fact that Secretary Panetta used the same media availability to suggest that the Obama administration is looking to reduce the size of the Afghan security forces to which it proposes to transition this fight, the Afghans will not be up to accomplishing this task. Clearing a heavily defended, long-established insurgent safe haven without simply annihilating the population is a challenge that only the American military and one or two of its allies can meet. Although our ISAF partners fight hard and bravely, only the British have undertaken such a task on their own—and they found it extremely difficult. It requires precise intelligence, accurate firepower, close air support, skilled infantrymen, sophisticated planning, perfect communications, and many other things that the Afghans will probably never have. Leaving it to the Afghans to clear safe havens south of Kabul is a recipe for failure. Implying, as Secretary Panetta did, that clearing those safe havens would be a matter of consolidating gains, a mopping-up operation, as it were, is simply wrong.
The reality is that there are two hard fighting seasons’ worth of combat in Eastern Afghanistan before we can transition the problem to the Afghans and focus on assisting them. And it will take all of the 68,000 U.S. troops that will remain at the end of this year to do it. The fight is worth it—eliminating the safe havens of groups that would give sanctuary to al Qaeda was what we came to Afghanistan to do in the first place. And it is achievable, even if the constraints President Obama has placed on our troops by imposing arbitrary and unjustifiable force caps on them make it much more difficult, dangerous, and protracted than it need be.
Secretary Panetta also said that no decision has been made about force levels in 2013. We hope that that is true. There is no occasion to make any such decisions until the end of this fighting season or early in 2013 itself. When we have made the gains we can and must make, and when we have consolidated them to ensure that our efforts were not wasted and our security is not endangered—only then should we talk about drawing down more troops or changing their mission. To do otherwise is to court disaster.