If the Pentagon is telling the Obama administration the same thing in closed-door briefings, it could give the White House justification to accelerate the departure of the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops here.
The assessment Nicholson offered, however, is far rosier than the one that U.S. officials have provided recently. They have been citing the resilience of the Taliban and the shortcomings of the Afghan government and military.
Just one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own without air or other military support from the United States or NATO, according to a Pentagon report to Congress that was released Monday.
Nicholson said that although U.S. commanders have made “disingenuous” claims in the past about the extent to which Afghans were acting as equal partners in joint missions, officials now see the Afghan army as ready to operate largely on its own, albeit with key logistical and financial support from NATO. The new strategy as the United States tries to transfer greater responsibility to the Afghan government and military is one of “tough love,” Nicholson said.
“We are pushing them to failure,” he said. “We want them to see failure, we want them to smell it, we want them to taste it. We just don’t want them to achieve it.”
Panetta’s trip, likely to be his last official visit to the war zone, will give him a chance to consult with American commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the future U.S. role here as the decade-long war comes to an end.
“I look forward to a first-hand view,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him. “This will help me as we set the groundwork for the decisions that have to be made by the president with regards to our enduring presence.”
The Obama administration is debating how many service members it should aim to keep in the country after the U.S. combat mission ends at the end of 2014. Once that determination is made in the coming weeks, Panetta said, the White House will decide how quickly it will draw down the remaining forces.
The former CIA director, making his eighth visit to Afghanistan in four years, said he was heartened by what he described as signs of progress.
“It is clear to me that we are today in a far better place than we were four years ago, despite some very real challenges that remain in the region,” said Panetta, who is expected to retire as defense chief in the coming weeks.