The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Panetta’s February Afghanistan announcement announced again at NATO

Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 — just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February. "Today, we’ll decide the next phase of the transition — the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO ...

Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 -- just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February.

"Today, we'll decide the next phase of the transition -- the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO summit in Chicago. "We'll set a goal for Afghan forces to take the lead for combat operations across the country in 2013 -- next year -- so that ISAF can move to a supporting role. This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014, when the ISAF combat mission will end."

Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 — just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February.

"Today, we’ll decide the next phase of the transition — the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO summit in Chicago. "We’ll set a goal for Afghan forces to take the lead for combat operations across the country in 2013 — next year — so that ISAF can move to a supporting role. This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014, when the ISAF combat mission will end."

Obama’s announcement is meant to set a marker of progress next year when ISAF hands over the fifth and final tranche of territory to Afghan security forces. As of this week, three out of those five areas now have Afghan security forces in the lead. The announcement was made to show progress toward a complete end of the ISAF combat role in 2014, as agreed at the last NATO summit in Lisbon.

The announcement’s weight and impact was lessened somewhat by the fact that Panetta had already made it in February, some say accidentally, most say inelegantly, on a plane ride to Brussels.

On the way to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Panetta made news when he told reporters on the plane, "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013… Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role."

Those remarks were initially interpreted as a speeding up of the Lisbon schedule, but two days later in Munich at an international conference, Panetta clarified that he was talking about a transfer of lead combat responsibility and that ISAF troops would retain some combat role well into 2014.

"We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter," he said.

Your humble Cable guy was in Munich and heard from several NATO officials that they were surprised by Panetta’s remarks because they expected the milestone announcement to come out in May. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined," one European defense official said at the time.

At the time, one administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta disclosed the 2013 milestone inelegantly and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally went beyond the talking points cleared for public consumption to reporters on the plane.

Today, a senior defense official told The Cable that simply wasn’t the case.

"The messages he delivered were the messages he intended to deliver. It’s wrong to say that he accidentally read from internal documents. He drew from materials that officials across the interagency knew would be made public," the defense official said.

An internal document obtained after the fact by The Cable backs up that claim. According to the document, Panetta did have clearance to talk about the shift away from a combat mission during his Brussels/Munich trip, although not in explicit detail and not with the 2013 date attached.

"NATO and its partners in ISAF are discussing the establishment of an interim milestone for transition in Afghanistan, which would be announced at Chicago," reads the document. "When we reach the interim milestone ISAF forces will shift from a lead combat role to a supporting role – focused on training, advising and assisting the ANSF."

The internal document was marked "For use with allies and press."

Either way, the White House today said that Obama’s announcement today about the milestone was still significant because it included the endorsement of all the relevant world leaders and made it the official ISAF policy, regardless of who said what and when.

"What happened this week codified at a head of state level a lot of hard work and planning that’s been ongoing for months and which builds on what we agreed to at the Lisbon Summit," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.