Panetta says toughest fighting in Afghanistan yet to come

In his exclusive sit-down with Foreign Policy on Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that some of the "toughest" fighting in Afghanistan is yet to come.

It was not a surprising assessment - commanders long have talked about the tenacious presence of insurgents and Haqqani network operatives in the East -- but one perhaps not fully understood by those who don't war watch for a living.

Although the war in Afghanistan is winding down by some measures -- number of bases, number of troops deployed -- loudly touted on the campaign trail this year, the fighting is not finished. Unlike the last two years of the Iraq war, don't expect American soldiers and Marines to be stuck on shrink-wrap duty sending tons of U.S. war goods and equipment back home.

Panetta said that with the exit of surge forces this month comes the challenge of sustaining the momentum for one more year, to permit the final two hand-offs of security regions yet to be determined in the country to Afghan forces a little more than a year from now. That exit point is well established -- it is President Obama and NATO's stated timeline. But getting there is the hard part, says Panetta.

"Now the challenge is to continue that momentum, continue the transition, and ensure that we have a sufficient force in place in order to complete the fourth and fifth tranches, which are going to be the more difficult ones," Panetta said, "and reach a point sometime in the fall of 2013 after completion of the last transition, where we will turn over combat operations to the Afghans."

Before that happens, the United States has an uphill climb in eastern Afghanistan, where Haqqani network terrorists continue to wreak havoc, especially in the close geographic stretch between the capital, Kabul, and the Pakistan border. Commanders in Afghanistan for a long while have not worried much about security in the easier, less-contested areas of the north and west, which Afghan forces already oversee. It is in the east where the final U.S. battles in Afghanistan likely will occur.

Here's Panetta, from the transcript:

FP: Conventional wisdom is that before 2014, there's still a big fight to come between Kabul and Pakistan, so that is the real trouble area, that this is not going to be sitting it out for a couple of years like the end of Iraq. Is that fair to assume?

PANETTA: Yeah, yeah. In terms of?

FP: That this is still going to be heated fighting to come...

PANETTA: Oh yes, especially in the east. The east is being able to transition those areas, being able to make sure the Afghans are in fact capable of maintaining security in those areas, is going to be something that we're going to have to work hard at. This is going to be some of the toughest areas that we've gotta deal with.

Complicating matters is the seemingly unending spate of so called "green on blue" violence -- insider attacks on U.S. troops by Afghans in the ranks of the security forces on which Washington has bet the war's end. Following Friday's successful insurgent attack on Camp Bastion, International Security Assistance Force officials on Monday said they have ordered a slowing of their partnered training with Afghan forces - putting the brakes on one of the most important pillars of the exit strategy proffered by the Obama, the Pentagon and NATO.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, traveling in Europe, gave a striking warning this weekend about that concern.

"It is a very serious threat to the campaign," said Dempsey, Obama's senior military advisor, of the war effort.

And that's a very serious charge. He did not say inside attacks are a threat to a particular unit or base or region. General Dempsey said it's a threat to the entire "campaign."

And if Dempsey is saying it out loud, it's a sure bet it's already said it to President Obama. Obama currently is expected to receive in mid-November ISAF commander Gen. John Allen's future war plans. Panetta said Obama will take that recommendation seriously. No matter what Allen determines, don't expect 68,000 troops to just sit around watching Afghans train. The end of combat may come by 2014, but not without a fight first.