MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.