Australia's New Afghanistan Withdrawal Date Is Part Of War Plans, NATO Officials Insist

BRUSSELS -- In Brussels, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

On Tuesday, the day before NATO's defense and foreign ministers met at the alliance's headquarters here, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that her country was now planning to end its combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2013. The new date is a year ahead of the agreed-upon deadline by which the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, will fully hand over the country to Afghan forces.

But after two days of ministerial meetings, which included a Thursday session focusing on Afghanistan, neither Gillard nor her new policy was mentioned in public by NATO officials. Instead, in conversations with reporters, those officials insisted that the seemingly major announcement was in fact no change at all.

"It is within our strategy that as we gradually hand over responsibility, that we will also adapt our presence," said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu to The Huffington Post. "All 50 allies and partners have committed themselves to the principle of 'in-together, out-together.' And the Australians are committed to that principle as well." Her statement echoed comments made on background by senior NATO officials earlier in the week.

Lungescu's statements followed a long-established pattern in which NATO has unyieldingly defended its "Lisbon timetable" for withdrawal from Afghanistan. In that timetable, which was agreed to at the alliance's 2010 summit, ISAF members committed to a gradual handover of the country's security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. NATO insists that the agreement has never been altered or violated, even as some nations have sped up their own transition plans in the face of criticism at home.

The announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Februrary that the United States would end its own combat mission by end of 2013? "We stick to that timetable. There is no change whatsoever," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

The faster handover agreed to by President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron in March? "That timetable remains as firm, strong, unchanged as any," said a senior NATO official to reporters this week.

Lungescu instead blamed the impression of change on "the way the media tends to misinterpret and sensationalise statements, as they have done with PM Gillard's."

But Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council of the United States, a Washington think tank focused on transatlantic issues, said the change and the notion of distance between the official ISAF stance and the needs of its individual members, is real.

"Regardless of what their perceptions are, it's a change," he said, pointing to the reaction to Panetta's February announcement. "Unofficially, some of the other defense ministers were saying, 'whoa, this is totally new to us ... what did you mean when you told your press this? Because this is not what you've been telling us here.'"

The Australian Foreign and Defense Ministries clarified Gillard's comments in a statement released Thursday, saying that Australia was committed to aiding Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond. But the clarification did little more than emphasize certain areas of Gillard's speech and did not refute her call to have most Australians out of the war by the end of next year.

Benitez said that such shifts in the timetable are essentially attempts by national leaders to placate voters at home while technically adhering to NATO policy. "It's a funny dynamic because they ... don't want to say, 'we've changed our mind, we've changed our policy' but at the same time they want to domestically tell their public, 'well, we are leaving early, so you should vote for me,'" he told The Huffington Post.

Those political pressures have become more evident in recent weeks, as a spate of damaging incidents have rocked the war effort, capped by the Los Angeles Times' publication of pictures showing American soldiers posing for pictures with the body parts of dead insurgents. In Australia, Gillard faced immediate allegations that her policy shift was made for "domestic political convenience," while polls in the United States show majorities of Republicans and undecided voters in the presidential race coming out against the war.

In France, the unpopularity of the war has led Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate for president and the current front-runner, to pledge that he will remove French forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year, a potentially drastic shift in policy.

But even the more subtle moves by the U.S. and Australia over the past few months led one analyst to predict an ugly end to the timetable debate.

"There is nothing in the Lisbon declaration that accounts for getting out of Afghanistan by 2013. You can't find that year referenced anywhere," said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project. "By trying to say it's all part of the master plan, NATO is papering over the fracturing of the ISAF coalition, and the looming strategic failure of the war."