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.