Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks about defense budget cuts during a briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia January 5, 2012.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks about defense budget cuts during a briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia January 5, 2012. (Olivier Douliery/MCT file photo)

WASHINGTON — The United States is not preparing to cut bait in Afghanistan, a Pentagon official stressed a day after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta mused about hastening the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.

There have been no policy changes and no plans are being made to change deployments or accelerate troop withdrawals, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said Thursday.

“Nothing, and I can’t say this emphatically enough, nothing changes today about the strategy that we’re executing in Afghanistan, and that we’re going to continue to execute,” Kirby said.

En route to a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, Panetta told reporters he hoped Afghans could take the lead combat role well before the end of 2014, a date agreed upon as the formal end of the war at the 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon.

“Hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” he told reporters.

Republican politicians and some pundits immediately took aim at Panetta’s statement, both for its content and what some saw as clumsy messaging.

In a joint statement, Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said Panetta “sends exactly the wrong signal to our friends and enemies in this conflict,” encouraging the Taliban to continue fighting, while giving the impression “the United States is more eager to leave Afghanistan than to succeed.”

In Panetta’s airplane press conference, however, he hinted that even if America handed over the lead security role, the U.S. military would remain engaged, with 2014 being a year of “consolidating the transition and making sure those gains are in fact held.”

At the Pentagon on Thursday, Kirby was even more explicit.

“There’s a lot of tough fighting ahead, there’s more tough days to endure, there is more combat to be conducted by us and by our Afghan partners,” Kirby said. “The desire to look for opportunities to transition the lead for combat roles to Afghan National Security Forces prior to 2014 does not at all mean that we won’t be engaged in combat operations through 2013 and 2014, probably right up to the end.”

Any decision to speed up the handover would not be made by Panetta, but by heads of state at the upcoming NATO summit in May in Chicago, he added.

Panetta’s statements, Kirby said, simply reflected his thinking on how to carry out a deliberate process to reach the 2014 Lisbon goal.

“We’ve always said the ultimate goal is to transition by the end of 2014. That has not changed,” he said. “When you’re in a counterinsurgency like this ... you don’t just wake up one day in December of 2014 and say, ‘OK, over to you.’”

Panetta’s desire to begin putting the Afghans in the lead is tactically sound, because it lets them practice their skills while backed by a superior U.S. force, said Ahmad Majidyar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The problem is the late-2013 timeframe attached to it, which may set up the endeavor for failure, said Majidyar, a senior researcher who conducts monthly classes on Afghanistan for U.S. officers preparing to deploy there.

“This new deadline will create the perception in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan even sooner than expected,” said. “This will make the Taliban less likely to be willing to negotiate, make them think they can just wait it out.”

But Chris Preble, a defense and foreign policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Panetta sent a needed message that the U.S. will pursue policies that bring an end to the war, rather than staying mired in an ongoing conflict.

“What the secretary is really saying is that continuing to do what we’ve been doing, as we’ve been doing it, is not an option,” Preble said. “We’ve got to find ways to shift some of these missions to other people, including the allies, including the Afghans.”

A notable feature of Panetta’s talk on the plane was its almost total lack of detail, said Anthony Cordesman, defense expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Because of that, it’s hard to interpret what Panetta’s envisioned handover would look like, and whether it would be real or symbolic.

“OK, we hand over formal responsibility — but until you know how many cadres of the U.S. military are being reduced ... this is not a defined shift,” he said. “Going back to Iraq, we transferred responsibility regularly without transferring responsibility.”

Twitter: ChrisCarroll_

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now