Obama administration downplays Panetta’s Afghanistan comments

The White House on Thursday downplayed comments made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the United States would end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the 2013 date to end the combat mission is not set in stone, and is part of the eventual transition of control of security to the Afghans at the end of 2014.

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“It could happen,” Carney said. “But he was not making an announcement about the decision that had been made.”

Panetta said Wednesday on a flight to a NATO meeting with defense ministers in Brussels that the United States will seek to end its combat mission in 2013, handing the lead role in combat to the Afghans. Panetta said U.S. troops will still be “combat ready” until the full hand-off occurs at the end of 2014. 

Republicans quickly attacked Panetta and President Obama for announcing the timetable, and continued their criticism Thursday. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the announcement took him “by surprise,” and warned that knowing when the United States will be leaving would aid the Taliban.

“The Taliban are telling their friends and enemies today, ‘See I told you the Americans were leaving,’” McCain said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the decision, like the withdrawal from Iraq, was politically motivated.

“This president I think is focused on the November election,” Graham said. “He wants to tell the American people, ‘I got us out of Iraq and Afghanistan.’ I hope our nominee for president will say, ‘I want to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but I want to do it in a way that we’re stronger.’”

Carney said Panetta’s comments are within the context of the U.S. plan to transfer security control to Afghanistan in 2014. He said they are part of ongoing discussions within NATO that would continue through the G-8 meeting in May in Chicago.

“Let me be clear: This was an assessment of what could happen within the context of the stated policy within NATO,” Carney said.

Asked if there was any daylight between Obama and Panetta, Carney said, “Not at all.”

“This president is committed to achieving our mission in Afghanistan” and then “drawing down forces,” Carney said. Obama has a “very clear, focused achievable policy with a lot of muscle behind it. What he does not support is a war without end.”