But revelations about plans already in motion have emerged sooner than the administration has been prepared to explain them, complicating efforts to turn them into a coherent whole and build support.
“There are people at every piece of this — the Taliban, Islamabad, Kabul and Washington” — who object to or are trying to influence elements of the emerging strategy, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more candidly. “They use leaking as a tool.”
Last week, days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed transitioning combat responsibilities to Afghan forces a full year ahead of NATO’s schedule, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters that the administration anticipated doing just that.
U.S. and Afghan military forces on the battlefield responded with open concern that they weren’t ready for an early turnover. At the White House, aides grumbled that only President Obama could announce a new timetable and that he wouldn’t be addressing the issue until a NATO summit in May.
Panetta’s comments also poured fuel on an ongoing debate within the administration’s national security team over the right balance between talking to the Taliban and fighting them, even as the troop-heavy counterinsurgency argument that won Obama’s approval two years ago has shifted in favor of those who advocated a sleeker counterterrorism force.
Some senior officials privately echoed Republican critics, who argue that an earlier end to the combat mission — or even public discussion of one — would weaken the administration’s hand as State Department and National Security Council officials prepare for another meeting with Taliban representatives this month in Qatar, and as the military girds for this summer’s fighting season.
With the election less than a year away, the administration has denied any domestic political calculus. Officials have said, however, that they think Americans are tired of the financial and human cost of the war and would welcome an exit strategy so long as they believed it ensured U.S. national security.
Opinion surveys show strong support for an early end to the Afghan war, and the GOP presidential field has failed to find a coherent message in opposition.
Nonetheless, the welter of revelations over talks with the Taliban has angered lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In appearances before Congress last week, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and CIA Director David H. Petraeus were pressed on the divergence between administration public claims of major battlefield progress, and classified intelligence assessments describing a stronger and more confident Taliban fighting force.