Defense Secretary Leon Panetta let the cat out of the bag Wednesday on his way to a critical NATO meeting in Europe. The U.S. will remove its forces from combat in Afghanistan perhaps as early as mid-2013, a year and a half before schedule. At that point, U.S. and NATO troops would focus on advising, training, and providing intelligence and logistical support to Afghan forces. But the announced decision hides an even bigger one—a strategy to end America's major military footprint in Afghanistan well before the previous December 2014 deadline. Don't expect to see all the details, however, until after the November presidential election.
News stories and commentaries are dismissing the decision as political grandstanding to gain public applause. Actually, however, it involves some serious political risk. Inevitably, some senior military officers will share their doubts with the press and friends in Congress. They will all say, as they believe, that Obama's new plan comes just as the tide of war is turning against the Taliban, and that the president is snatching defeat from the potential jaws of victory. These charges will be replayed in the media and given a megaphone by neoconservatives and Republican Party stalwarts. They will swear Obama is putting American security at risk.
The truth is that the president and his team are taking a risk. The risk is that early removal of U.S. and NATO troops from combat could lead to military gains in the field by the Taliban before November. But—and here are the political and strategic smarts—the Obama team is not actually removing the troops from Afghanistan before the U.S. election; they're just removing them from the fighting. If worse comes to worst, and a calamity approaches, the White House can always send the considerable number of U.S. troops still in country into the breach.