President Obama's political foes are slamming his defense secretary's announcement that U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan largely will end next year, but such a time line has been implied for months by military leaders.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta caused a public dust up Wednesday when he told reporters traveling with him to Brussels for a NATO forum that American troops in Afghanistan would shift into a mostly training and advising role next year ahead of the president's fall 2014 deadline for withdrawing all American troops.
Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney slammed Obama Tuesday during a campaign stop in Las Vegas. "Why in the world do you go to the people that you are fighting with and tell them the day you are pulling out your troops?" Romney said. "It makes absolutely no sense."
Prominent GOP hawks on Capitol Hill responded quickly, panning Panetta's announcement. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon of California said while the entire Obama withdrawal plan "meets his political time line, the vulnerability to our forces potentially increases."
In a dual statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham charged the commander in chief and his defense secretary with basing war plans on "domestic politics in the United States, not conditions on the ground in Afghanistan."
"The Taliban has little incentive to engage in a meaningful negotiation with the Afghan government or with us to end the conflict when they believe the United States is leaving and that they can wait us out," McCain and Graham said. "It is very unfortunate that the administration continues to provide reassurance to our enemies that the United States is more eager to leave Afghanistan than to succeed."
Administration officials typically counter such attacks by pointing out the announcements of troop-withdrawal plans from Iraq created the urgency among leaders there to get enough of the political and governing work done to allow for the exit of U.S. troops late last year.
So what was this announcement and flap all about? Politics:At home, within NATO, and inside Afghanistan. (As a former White House official often tells your DOTMIL correspondent: "I'm shocked there's politics going on in a political system!")
Politics is one of the few reasons Obama's GOP foes should have acted so surprised. Military leaders have been signalling for months that they hoped to begin handing over to Afghan forces and officials larger and larger chunks of territory long before the 2014 withdrawal.
For instance, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos told your DOTMIL correspondent in November "that over the next 12 months that we can transition from what you would call classic counterinsurgency operations to ... training and advising."
"That'll happen over the next year," Amos said. "It won't be a clean transition, it'll be a rolling transition."