On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced plans to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year. "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," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Belgium. While plenty of non-combat troops will remain in the country until the scheduled 2014 withdrawal, the rough timeline signifies an earlier-than-expected departure date for tens of thousands of troops. Still, the Taliban isn't making the U.S. departure easy.
Hours before Panetta's remarks were reported, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid rejected reports that the Afghan insurgency and the Afghan government had agreed to negotiate, calling President Hamid Karzai a puppet. “Before the negotiation phase, there should be trust-building between the sides, which has not started yet,” Mujahid said. The statement wasn't a positive sign for the unofficial U.S. plan to transfer five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison to Qatar in an effort to establish an office for Western and Afghan diplomats to negotiate with Taliban intermediaries. A proposed prisoner release would ideally bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
If the Taliban's statement weren't frustrating enough, a new leaked NATO report indicates that the insurgents are confident they'll take back power after NATO troops leave Afghanistan. "The NATO report, based on thousands of interviews with Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield and in pinpoint raids by special forces, reflects a strong belief on insurgents’ part that they will ultimately prevail in their fight against the West," according to reports in the BBC and Times of London. (Among other exasperating details in the report, Pakistan is apparently abetting the Taliban.)
Additionally, today's New York Times makes clear that the harder the Afghan insurgency puts up a fight in the next two years, the greater the political costs will be for President Obama as the withdrawal becomes a political issue. "Promising the end of the American combat mission in Afghanistan next year would also give Mr. Obama a certain applause line in his re-election stump speech this fall," reports Elisabeth Bumiller. "Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead." In his remarks today in Belgium, Panetta emphasized, “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be combat-ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves."