U.S. military officials insist they are moving ahead under the existing Afghanistan war strategy, saying the Obama administration has not asked commanders to come up with plans to ramp down combat missions during 2013.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently told reporters the U.S. would end its combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2013, a full year before President Obama plans to remove all American troops. The defense secretary's comments, which Pentagon and administration officials have since attempted to walk back, were the first insistence by a U.S. leader that American forces would cease combat missions that early.
"Nothing has changed," Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a NATO spokesman, told U.S. News & World Report. "Our campaign is on track and will remain on track as planned." U.S. and NATO troops are "fully resourced and capable as necessary until the end of 2014 and beyond," Cummings said.
Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the second-ranking U.S. general in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday "there's been no change in our perspective here with respect to the campaign plan."
But both Cummings and Scaparrotti offered a bit of nuance about 2013 in Afghanistan.
"[The] campaign is constantly under evaluation, but 2013 is important because it signals the beginning of the decisive phase of the campaign," Cummings said. "During 2013 our campaign is contoured to provide for transition and support moving the [Afghan troops] to the fore. We will see a [U.S.] force here beyond 2014 as advisors, mentors, enablers and trainers."
Scaparrotti noted the existing U.S.-NATO plan calls for 2013 to be a big year during which indigenous security forces take responsibility for overseeing more and more territory, with Western forces falling back into advisory and training roles.
"Certainly 2013 is an area where ... we would hope to be pretty far along," he said.
But the U.S. deputy commander in Afghanistan made clear his soldiers will be fighting Taliban forces beyond 2013. "As we move forward, I see combat as part of what we're doing," Scaparrotti told reporters. "The [Afghans] will be in the lead and we'll be supporting. It will still be a combat role there."
While those in uniform say they are staying the course according to the current plan, some Pentagon analysts and former officials see fire behind the smoke of Panetta's words. The Lexington Institute's Daniel Goure, a former Army official, says he's "surprised that [President Obama] did not withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan earlier."
"The [administration's] new defense strategy makes it clear that in terms of planning and budgeting, Afghanistan is over as far as the Department of Defense is concerned," Goure says. "According to the strategy, the military is done with large-scale stability operations." But this creates an awkward situation for White House and Pentagon officials, because, as Scaparrotti made clear, U.S. troops will continue to fight-and die-in Afghanistan for some time.
"What does the president, secretary of defense and Army [and] Marine Corps leadership tell the Soldiers and Marines who will fight and die in Afghanistan over the next two years?" Goure said. "Is there a special medal for those warriors who serve as the forlorn hope covering our withdrawal? There really should be one."