KABUL (Reuters) - The United States appears to have taken Kabul by surprise by announcing plans to end its Afghan combat role earlier than expected, and coinciding with a secret report that the Taliban is confident it can grab back control of the ravaged country.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking on Wednesday, said the United States would stop combat operations before the end of 2013 as it winds down its longest war.
"A decision to push this a year earlier throws out the whole transition plan. The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations," a senior Afghan security official, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, told Reuters on Thursday."If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force," the official said, adding that his government had not been informed of the change in plans.
The United States, which led the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has previously said it would withdraw most combat troops by the end of 2014.
Panetta said the U.S. troops would shift next year to a supporting role, training and advising Afghan troops who would take charge of a country that has been at war for more than three decades.
A faster end to U.S. combat in Afghanistan could give President Barack Obama an election-year lift.It may also demoralize Afghans who fear a return to the austere rule of the Taliban and hope that reconciliation between all parties would deliver a better alternative.
People like hotel waiter Yama, 19, expressed alarm at the prospect that U.S. troops will cease combat sooner.
"Everything Afghanistan has built during the past years would be destroyed, robbed and sold to neighboring countries," he said.
Many Afghans have long been suspicious of neighboring Pakistan's intentions, and would like to see it tame Afghan militant groups it is accused of supporting.
Ties between the countries have been strained in recent months, but Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said on Thursday after her trip to Kabul a day earlier that "a lot of ill will had faded."
She said Pakistan had played no substantial role in reconciliation efforts but would encourage insurgent groups like the Haqqani network and the Taliban to lay down their arms and pursue peace if asked by Afghanistan.
"We would be able to do whatever we have, whatever tools we have, we would want to exploit to be able to assist the Afghan people," she told a small group of reporters in a briefing on her trip to Kabul this week."We are willing to do whatever the Afghans expect or want us to do."
MILTANT GROUPS AS PROXIES
Pakistan has long been accused of using militant groups as proxies in Afghanistan to counter the influence of its rival India there, allegations it denies.
Despite her enthusiasm over ties with Kabul, Khar cautioned the nascent peace process is far from producing breakthroughs.
The United States believes Afghanistan cannot be pacified without strong cooperation with Pakistan.
But ties have been damaged by a series of events including the unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bid Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year, and a NATO cross-border raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Islamabad is currently reviewing ties with the United States and parliament is expected to soon make recommendations on a new direction for the relationship.
Panetta's announcement immediately drew criticism from Obama's most likely opponent in this year's race for the White House, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney."Why (in) the world do you go to the people that you're fighting with and tell them the day you're pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense," Romney told a rally.
Panetta has also been criticized by some lawmakers for moving too swiftly to extract U.S. troops.
"Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then 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," Panetta told reporters on his plane to Brussels for a NATO defense ministers' meeting.The announcement came as allies like France are themselves looking for a quick exit from Afghanistan. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a tough re-election campaign of his own, announced he would pull out French troops by the end of next year.
He urged other members of the North Atlantic alliance to do the same, threatening to upend a well-settled strategy approved at a summit in Lisbon two years ago that calls for the transition to Afghan security leadership by the end of 2014.
The United States has been trying to draw the Taliban into reconciliation talks with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. But a key part of its strategy has been to increase military pressure on the Taliban to persuade it to join peace talks.
TALIBAN CONFIDENT ON CONTROLIn a classified report obtained by British media, NATO said that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, remained confident despite a decade of NATO efforts that it would retake control of Afghanistan.
"Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact," according to an excerpt of the report, published by the Times of London and the BBC.Panetta insisted that the new timetable was in line with a previous NATO strategy agreed in Lisbon.
"In the Lisbon discussions, it was always clear that there would come a point which we would make that transition and then be able to hopefully consolidate those gains in 2014," he said.
"So the bottom line is: No, this isn't a new strategy. It's basically implementing what Lisbon is all about."
He said his key message to the NATO allies as they meet on Thursday and Friday to prepare for a Chicago summit in May was that the coalition in Afghanistan needed to unite behind the goals agreed on in Lisbon.