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White House Downplays Panetta Remark Suggesting Early Afghan War Transition

February 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, fixing a date for the U.S. and its allies to end combat operations in Afghanistan.

That question is front and center again after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talked to reporters yesterday en route to a meeting with his NATO counterparts.

From the White House to the NATO summit, the question today was, will the U.S. will end its combat role in Afghanistan early? U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta seemed to suggest exactly that yesterday when he said — quote — “Hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role.”

That would be one year earlier than expected.

But, this afternoon, White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to clarify.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: What Secretary Panetta said is that it could happen that the transition to Afghan security lead could be moved up to 2013. But he wasn’t making an announcement about a decision that had been made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, NATO has been working to transition to full Afghan security, province by province, by the end of 2014.

It was widely assumed that coalition troops would lead military operations until then. But even before Panetta’s statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy signaled an accelerated transition. He hosted Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris last week.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, French president (through translator): For France, the continuation of this transition and the gradual handover of the combat responsibilities will allow us to plan the return of all the French forces by the end of 2013.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Brussels today, NATO defense chiefs were at pains to show unity on an Afghan timetable.

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond.

PHILIP HAMMOND, British defense secretary: We are, I think, all actually in the same place. We all recognize that in 2013, there will be an evolution of the mission.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen played down any suggestion of a rush to the exits.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO secretary-general: We expect the last provinces to be handed over to the Afghan security forces by mid-2013. And from that time, the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support. In that, there is nothing new.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there was consternation in Kabul. A senior Afghan security official warned that Panetta’s statement — quote — “throws out the whole transition plan.”

Back in the U.S., Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail were equally bothered.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney spoke in Las Vegas yesterday.

MITT ROMNEY (R): So the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it. Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the day you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, CIA Director David Petraeus, who once commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, counseled calm at a congressional hearing today.

DAVID PETRAEUS, CIA director: The conversation that Secretary Panetta had with some press on his plane was more than a bit overanalyzed, shall we say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of this comes at a sensitive time in a war that has seen almost 1,900 American troops killed.

President Obama pointed to progress in his State of the Union address last month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: From this position of strength, we’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But a recently leaked national intelligence estimate spoke of a stalemate on the ground, and it warned, Afghan forces might not be able to keep control once U.S. forces depart.