WASHINGTON — The Obama administration scrambled Thursday to tamp down the fallout out from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's surprise announcement that the United States would end its combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier than expected — a revelation that heightened confusion over U.S. strategy and stoked Afghan distrust of American intentions.
The U.S. decision also could weaken the administration's hand as it tries to pressure the Taliban into peace talks by confirming to insurgent leaders that they can hold out until the U.S. combat mission draws to a close in December 2014, several current and former U.S. and Afghan officials warned.
Panetta's remarks reflect a White House desire — in part driven by election-year politics — to hasten an end to the increasingly unpopular decade-old war that has claimed hundreds of American lives and cost billions of dollars amid demands for reducing federal spending.
But the announcement took U.S. lawmakers, some European allies and Afghan officials aback. It was widely assumed that U.S. troops would continue to take a lead role in combat operations until the end of 2014, when a phased transition to Afghan responsibility that began last year is to be completed.
"It's confusing," said Mark Jacobson, the former deputy NATO representative to the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.
Panetta sent "the wrong message at the wrong time," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, who added that he saw "absolutely no military rationale that I am aware of for suddenly accelerating the current timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan."
The announcement also surprised some members of Panetta's own staff, who hadn't expected the announcement to be made until a NATO summit that President Barack Obama will host in Chicago in May that will consider the alliance's future role in Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that there was a policy change, but his remarks hardly clarified the issue. Panetta, he said, was offering "an assessment of what could happen within the context of the stated policy of NATO, which is to transfer the security lead to the Afghan security forces by 2014, and within that frame, within that timeline, the transition will take place."
On Capitol Hill, CIA Director David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, sought to reassure confused lawmakers, saying that Panetta's announcement on Wednesday during a flight to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense chiefs had been "over-analyzed."
"The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations, the Afghan forces gradually take the leadership," he said. "It's in a successive series of transitions that take place as a result of the whole process between Afghan and (coalition) leadership."
What Petraeus — and Panetta — left unsaid was that even though they would be reclassified as trainers and advisers, U.S. forces will continue participating in combat operations, albeit in support of Afghan troops.
"The reality is that you are going to have advisers in combat roles," said a former senior U.S. military commander, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "You are still going to be in the midst of a raging insurgency."
Should the United States stick to the schedule outlined by Panetta, it would mirror the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq.
Fourteen months before leaving Iraq last year, the United States formally announced the end of combat operations. Even so, U.S. troop deaths continued.
The Obama administration is deliberating over the pace of the U.S. force drawdown, which began last year with a withdrawal of 10,000 out of the 30,000 American troops surged into Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan in 2010. Another 22,000 troops are to be pulled out by September, leaving some 68,000 American soldiers.
How many American personnel — trainers, special forces and others — will remain after 2014 is still being negotiated between the United States and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Panetta's announcement comes amid deep uncertainty — fueled by a recent high-level U.S. intelligence report — over whether gains made by last year's surge can be sustained.
The National Intelligence Estimate's judgment, which reflected the consensus of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, was reinforced this week by a leaked secret NATO report that said the insurgents, backed by Pakistan, are confident of victory.
France, meanwhile, last week jolted Karzai's government and its NATO allies with a surprise announcement that it would pull its 4,000 combat troops out next year. President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision came after four French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier they were training — a sign of the dangers that would remain even for a training-focused mission.
Some U.S. officials are concerned that the Obama administration's goal of forcing the Taliban into peace talks through military pressure could be undermined by the decision to end the U.S. combat role next year.
"The real damage from Panetta's statement is at the negotiating table," said a former Afghan official who maintains close contact with the presidential palace in Kabul. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
After a year of secret contacts with U.S. and German officials, the Taliban agreed last month to open a political office in Qatar as a first step toward peace talks. But the initiative faces numerous hurdles, including a Taliban refusal to renounce violence and congressional opposition to a Taliban demand for the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
The former Afghan official said that the Karzai government, already worried that it will be abandoned by the United States, was rattled by Panetta's announcement.
U.S. troops will be stepping back from combat amid reductions in international funding for Afghan security forces, which remain dependent on U.S. air power, logistics, advanced intelligence collection and other support functions, he said.
"Now, the palace in Kabul will ... distrust U.S. intentions even more," he said.