The Cable

Panetta’s February Afghanistan announcement announced again at NATO

Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 -- just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February.

"Today, we'll decide the next phase of the transition -- the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO summit in Chicago. "We'll set a goal for Afghan forces to take the lead for combat operations across the country in 2013 -- next year -- so that ISAF can move to a supporting role. This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014, when the ISAF combat mission will end."

Obama's announcement is meant to set a marker of progress next year when ISAF hands over the fifth and final tranche of territory to Afghan security forces. As of this week, three out of those five areas now have Afghan security forces in the lead. The announcement was made to show progress toward a complete end of the ISAF combat role in 2014, as agreed at the last NATO summit in Lisbon.

The announcement's weight and impact was lessened somewhat by the fact that Panetta had already made it in February, some say accidentally, most say inelegantly, on a plane ride to Brussels.

On the way to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Panetta made news when he told reporters on the plane, "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013... Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."

Those remarks were initially interpreted as a speeding up of the Lisbon schedule, but two days later in Munich at an international conference, Panetta clarified that he was talking about a transfer of lead combat responsibility and that ISAF troops would retain some combat role well into 2014.

"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," he said.

Your humble Cable guy was in Munich and heard from several NATO officials that they were surprised by Panetta's remarks because they expected the milestone announcement to come out in May. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined," one European defense official said at the time.

At the time, one administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta disclosed the 2013 milestone inelegantly and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally went beyond the talking points cleared for public consumption to reporters on the plane.

Today, a senior defense official told The Cable that simply wasn't the case.

"The messages he delivered were the messages he intended to deliver. It's wrong to say that he accidentally read from internal documents. He drew from materials that officials across the interagency knew would be made public," the defense official said.

An internal document obtained after the fact by The Cable backs up that claim. According to the document, Panetta did have clearance to talk about the shift away from a combat mission during his Brussels/Munich trip, although not in explicit detail and not with the 2013 date attached.

"NATO and its partners in ISAF are discussing the establishment of an interim milestone for transition in Afghanistan, which would be announced at Chicago," reads the document. "When we reach the interim milestone ISAF forces will shift from a lead combat role to a supporting role - focused on training, advising and assisting the ANSF."

The internal document was marked "For use with allies and press."

Either way, the White House today said that Obama's announcement today about the milestone was still significant because it included the endorsement of all the relevant world leaders and made it the official ISAF policy, regardless of who said what and when.

"What happened this week codified at a head of state level a lot of hard work and planning that's been ongoing for months and which builds on what we agreed to at the Lisbon Summit," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.

The Cable

The NATO non-enlargement summit

This weekend's NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world's premier military alliance.

In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.

The 28 NATO foreign ministers did meet with leaders of the four "aspirant" countries, and the declaration praised those countries' contributions to NATO missions, but offered them little more than polite thanks.

"We are grateful to these partners that aspire to NATO membership for the important contributions they are making to NATO-led operations, and which demonstrate their commitment to our shared security goals," the declaration said.

"We're caught in this halfway place of ‘the door is open,' but it feels as if there's no political will or energy to make it happen," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "NATO enlargement has always been about strong American leadership, but this has not been a top priority for this administration."

Each would-be NATO member has its own roadblocks to membership. Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible. Georgia, recently named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership. But Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, can't join NATO because Greece is still demanding that the  Republic of Macedonia change its name.

There was a concerted effort in Washington in the lead up to the summit to push for a resolution to the Macedonia name dispute, but to no avail. Last month, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam. Obama's own former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, wrote an op-ed May 18 urging the president to do more on enlargement.

"The alliance's enlargement has been a priority at each major meeting of NATO heads of state since the fall of the Berlin Wall," Jones wrote. "This weekend, when NATO leaders convene in Chicago, enlargement may be swept under the rug in deference to other topics of concern. That would be a blow to stability in the Balkans and to the Republic of Macedonia in particular."

Just before the summit began, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, with former Defense Secretaries William Cohen and Donald Rumfeld, wrote a letter to the president urging him to break the impasse over Macedonia's membership or risk alienating European countries in transition that want to look to the West.

"Today, NATO is at a crossroads. As defense spending among NATO members falls, new aspirant nations in Southeastern Europe will provide needed manpower and resources to the Alliance. And while the region has made steady progress since the conflicts of the 1990s, stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted," they wrote. "We cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), came to the defense of Georgia's membership aspirations last week. In an op-ed in The Hill she argued for enlargement and called in a separate statement for progress on Georgia's bid.

"Georgia's security and sovereignty is critical to U.S. interests in the region. Georgia was invaded by Russian forces in 2008, and large portions of its territory remain under Russian occupation," she said. "I strongly urge our Administration to work with our allies at the NATO Summit in Chicago later this month to ensure that Georgia becomes a full member of the Alliance as soon as possible."

Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as "Toma the Gravedigger" to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.

"If we let this agenda lapse, we may not like what we see in the future," she warned.