Top U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials Thursday downplayed talk of an early American pullout from Afghanistan, saying U.S. combat forces will stay there until the end of 2014, and there is a commitment for much longer than that.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus told lawmakers the media had “over-analyzed” comments by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. wanted to step back from its leading role in combat and move to training and supporting Afghan forces as soon as next year.
“I think it was a startling over-analysis [of Mr. Panetta’s comments], not necessarily a startling statement,” Mr. Petraeus said during a hearing by the House Intelligence Committee.
Enroute to a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, Mr. Panetta told reporters on his plane that the U.S. would seek, working with allies, to transition international forces to a support role for Afghan troops by the the middle of 2013.
Mr. Panetta stressed that the timetable, agreed to by NATO and U.S. officials, for pulling out all U.S. combat forces by the end of 2014 remains in place.
But with many NATO mamber states beginning to weary of the Afghan mission, his comments touched off a firestorm of speculation that international forces are heading for the exit.
To meet the 2014 deadline, U.S. forces will progressively hand over operations to their Afghan allies as the pullout date draws nearer, Mr. Petraeus said Thursday.
“The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations, the Afghan forces gradually take the leadership,” he said.
“That is what he was talking about,” Mr. Petraeus said of Mr. Panetta.
President Obama has made clear that, even after combat troops have left Afghanistan, there will be “an enduring security relationship” with the U.S., Mr. Petraeus said.
Many observers believe thousands of U.S. troops might remain after 2014 to continue training Afghan forces and hunting al Qaeda and other terror groups. But officials are tight-lipped.
“We’ve said all along that we expected to be involved with the Afghans on that [counterterrorism] and other issues” after the end of combat operations, Daniel Benjamin, counterterrorism coordinator for the State Department, told The Washington Times.
“It’s a pretty good bet that the cooperation will be along a pretty broad front to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become once again a launching pad for terrorist activities against the United States, our allies and lots of other nations,” he said.
In his testimoney, Mr. Petaeus noted that the leaders of other countries with troops in Afghanistan “have all pledged continued support in varying forms for Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014.”
Nonetheless, concern remains about whether Afghan forces will be able to sustain the fight against the Taliban without NATO help.
The effectiveness of Afghan security forces after 2014 “will depend on the amount of assistance that is provided, the character of that assistance, if you will,” Mr. Petraeus said.
But Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the mixed messages from the Obama administration about its commitment to Afghanistan, saying they could lead the Taliban and other Afghans to believe insurgents could outlast the international presence.
“The rhetoric we are using doesn’t match the intelligence we are getting,” the Michigan Republican said.