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U.S. Combat Role In Afghanistan To End As Early As Mid-2013

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced this afternoon that the timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is being accelerated:

BRUSSELS — In a major milestone toward ending a decade of war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said on Wednesday that American forces would step back from a combat role there as early as mid-2013, more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to come home.

Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.

Promising the end of the American combat mission in Afghanistan next year would also give Mr. Obama a certain applause line in his re-election stump speech this fall.

Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be combat-ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves,” he told reporters on his plane on his way to a NATO meeting in Brussels, where Afghanistan is to be a central focus.

The United States has some 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, but 22,000 of them are due home by this fall. There has been no schedule set for the pace of the withdrawal of the 68,000 American troops who will remain, only that all are to be out by the end of 2014.

Mr. Panetta offered no details of what stepping back from combat would mean, saying only that the troops would move into an “advise-and-assist” role to Afghanistan’s security forces. Such definitions are typically murky, particularly in a country like Afghanistan, where American forces are spread widely among small bases across the desert, farmland and mountains, and where the native security forces have a mixed record of success at best.

The defense secretary offered the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq as a model. American troops there eventually pulled back to large bases and left the bulk of the fighting to the Iraqis.

This isn’t necessarily a surprise, of course. The President had previously announced that American forces would be out of the country by 2014, and there has been pressure from other participants in the NATO mission such as France to bring the mission to an end as soon as possible. Moreover, the war itself remains as unpopular here at home as it has been for a long time. Add into this the increasing tensions with Pakistan ever since the raid that got Osama bin Laden and last year’s mistaken drone strike that killed Pakistani soldiers, and this is probably the wisest decision at this point.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. David M says:

    It’s been a long time coming, but sooner is better than later.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    this is probably the wisest decision at this point.

    This would have been the wisest decision over five years ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    It’s because Obama has lost control of the military. I mean he’s an iron-fister. Er…I can’t remember anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. CB says:

    ‘as early as’ a year and a half from now? we are ridiculous people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. sam says:

    Good article in today’s Times, The Hard Way Out of Afghanistan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Eleven years. As early as mid-2013. Is that like “up to X% real juice!” ?

    I know, getting out is easier said that done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Obama “lost” Afghanistan.

    I just want to be the first to say it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    Actually it’s only recently slipped into the negative approval column whereas Iraq has been perceived as a total debacle by a large majority for a long time. The sooner we’re out of this place the better. It’s simply unwinnable without a financial, military and time committment the US is not prepared to make. Just another Bush fiasco that Obama has to clean up as best he can.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. mike says:

    I will believe it when I see it. They will just spin it as “advise and assist”, meanwhile, PVT Snuffy on the ground won’t see a change in his mission or danger level.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Jib says:

    @mike: Well for some Pvt Snuffy’s, that is not true. My cousin is a marine, deployed to Afghan in early Dec, expected to be there for at least a year but was pulled out by Christmas.

    At least for him, the ramp down means no combat tour. I think he may be disappointed a little, or not, its complicated, he re-enlisted to go over there with his unit and they are all back so he is probably happy with it.

    But I am thrilled……

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