Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made news two weeks ago when he told Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama that the White House would “seek international permission” before considering the imposition of a so-called “no-fly zone” in Syria.
Mr. Obama’s Pentagon chief was less sanguine, however, about whether the White House would extend the same courtesy to the American people’s representatives.
“Whether or not [the Obama Administration] would want to get permission from the Congress—I think those are issues we would have to discuss,” Panetta told Sessions.
Predictably, an administration spokesman quickly papered-over Mr. Panetta’s “misinterpreted” comments, reassuring Americans that the White House was simply “re-emphasizing the need for an international mandate… not ceding U.S. decision-making authority to some foreign body.” But it now appears as though Mr. Panetta may not have misspoken after all.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Obama Administration may “cede some control over nighttime missions…in a bid to ease tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.”
Afghan officials have criticized the raids for, among other things, creating an environment where local women are “mingling” with unrelated men – a taboo for many in the largely backward and illiterate Islamic country formerly ruled by the ultra-orthodox Taliban.
Exactly how much operational control military commanders will ultimately be relinquishing to Afghan officials is unknown, but the report suggests the change could be quite substantial.
Administration officials appear to be moving toward a more legalistic framework for missions, considering a “shift to a warrant-based approach” that would “subject [military] operations to advance review by Afghan judges” and “require warrants to be issued before operations get the green light,” according to The WSJ.
“The idea is to start to transition not only to an Afghan lead, but to more of a law-enforcement approach,” a senior defense official was quoted as saying.
According to the report, U.S. forces conducted some 2,500 of the controversial special-ops raids in the last twelve months, which military planners have characterized as extremely effective in disrupting Taliban operations while minimizing civilian casualties.
During the course of the 2,500 operations, U.S. officials say, just ten Afghan civilians were killed.
But the raids have become a focal point for Afghan criticism after a series of highly charged developments in the country involving U.S. forces.
In February, reports that U.S. personnel burned copies of the Koran prompted a series of protests (reports suggest that the books were confiscated and destroyed by American soldiers only after prisoners used the text’s pages to pass messages between one another). Then earlier this month, a U.S. soldier apparently opened fire on a group of Afghans, killing 16 civilians, including several women and children.
A senior defense official denied any link between the proposed policy change and the incidents.
Some critics lay some of the blame for chilling U.S.-Afghan ties at the feet of President Karzai. The Afghan leader has, for example, used inflammatory rhetoric in recent months, calling American soldiers in Afghanistan “demons” and accusing them of “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven.”
He also told a television interviewer last October that said his government would side with Pakistan in a conflict with the United States.
“If there is war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan,” Karzai said.
The dependability of the Afghan security forces has also come under scrutiny in recent days.
NATO personnel were temporarily withdrawn from some Afghan ministry positions in February after Afghan security official killed two U.S. soldiers inside the fortified Interior Ministry. The Taliban, who took responsibility for the attack, claimed the killing as proof that they have infiltrated the Afghan security forces.
It remains unclear whether or not the White House will seek Congressional approval before moving forward with the changes. But Administration officials are standing by the controversial plan, saying the move is consistent with their effort to transition U.S. personnel into a “support and advisory” role ahead of a scheduled withdrawal in 2014.