Despite the blistering heat, Leon Panetta was jovial and informal as he addressed troops, U.S. officials and reporters in Afghanistan in his first trip as Secretary of Defense. He was too casual, immediately sending his spokesperson, Doug Wilson, into clean-up mode.
Panetta announced to reporters that the U.S. would keep 70,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 . “And obviously, as we get to 2014, we’ll develop a plan as to how we reduce that force at that time. For at least the next two years, we’re going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face,” he said.
However, President Obama said in his speech on July 22, 2011 that after recalling 33,000 troops by summer 2012, “our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete…” Though the President did not define “steady pace,” Panetta clearly contradicted the President by saying that troops would be there until the end of 2014. When reporters questioned him, he repeated his timeline, not understanding their confusion.
Spokesman Wilson sprang into action, to explain that Panetta misspoke and was “not here making new policy.” However, Wilson and aides might also have been quick to correct Panetta because he exposed the Pentagon’s continued preference for high troop levels in Afghanistan.
Deciding when and how many troops to recall was a significant debate between the Pentagon-White House. Before the decision, General David Petraeus, until recently the top commander in Afghanistan, urged the President to limit withdrawal to no more than 3,000 to 5,000 troops over the next eighteen months. After the decision, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, told the House Armed Services Committee that the proposed pace and number were “more aggressive and incur more risk than [he] was originally prepared to accept.” According to an unnamed U.S. official, Secretary Gates had to broker the agreement between the military leadership and the President.
Perhaps Panetta’s mistake was that unlike Gates, he was too open. Panetta revealed that the Pentagon was still challenging the President’s policy.
Intent is hard to discern, but the U.S. cannot afford to have the Pentagon and military leadership undermine the drawdown effort. To paraphrase Council for a Livable World board member, former Senior Civil Officer in Afghanistan and Marine in Iraq, Matthew Hoh, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is fueling the insurgency and Americans are dying in another’s civil war.
70,000 men and women holding on until 2014 is simply not tenable.