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Panetta comments on end of combat in Afghanistan

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," February 1, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have gotten ahead of the administration a bit with this one on the way to a NATO summit in Brussels. The secretary announced U.S. forces will end combat operations in Afghanistan next year. Here is the specific quote, "Hopefully by mid to the latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a train and advise role -- advise and assist role. It's not going to be a kind of formal combat role that we are now." He did say "hope," but it still had some analysts scratching their heads.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JACK KEANE, (RET.) FORMER ARMY VICE CHIEF OF STAFF: It seems to me that our government is at odds with itself in a sense that the on-scene commanders in Afghanistan and also General Mattis are under the clear impression that 2013 is a fighting seizing for them, with full combat operations and not a training support mission only.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: Retired General Jack Keane. We're back with the panel. Fred, what about this?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think General Keane is exactly right, and that's not the only problem with this -- when you suggest that Panetta is getting out ahead of the administration. General Keane is saying that he's getting ahead of the generals actually in Afghanistan. All the troops, according at least to the Obama plan, are to be removed by the end of 2014. That doesn't mean you have to start cranking down by the middle of 2013, a year and a half earlier.

And the other problem is it's the same one that so many Democrats and others had about Iraq. They always wanted to set a date when we're going to leave and announce to the enemies and to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan when we're going to leave. And all they have to do is sit around and wait for that to happen.

BAIER: Rick, Jennifer Griffin reported according to one senior official that the announcement was supposed to be made in May at the NATO ministerial actually in Chicago and that it happened on the flight.

RICK KLEIN, ABC NEWS: Grand pronouncements of policy typically don't happen on a flight overseas on the way to something. I think this was more of an offhand comment that ended up revealing a lot about where the administration is headed. I think that a policy hasn't been set yet, hasn't been agreed on even internally, and there is going to be a lot of hashing out to do.

But it just raises a lot of questions, of course. What exactly -- we were talking about with the troops presence that would be there until the end of 2014 if this is no fighting going on in the middle of 2013. That hasn't been addressed in this. You listen to what the secretary said, it's clearly aspirational. He's hoping that this is the case. They're showing a lot of cards that they weren't ready to put on the table.

BAIER: But politically, it fits into the narrative that the administration has been trying to make, that we promised we'd be out of Iraq. We said we'd get you out of Afghanistan, and we're doing that.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: That's why -- call me cynical, but I think there is more than a whiff of re-election politics at play here. After all, Obama when he announced the wind down of the surge when he himself had ordered a couple of years ago, he decided what happened in September of this year, which makes no sense on the ground. Our commanders had recommended either before or after because it's in the middle of the fighting season. You would do it after, say, in December. But he wants to have it done by Election Day so he can argue that he did that.

And now we're going to have an announcement which will obviously will be coming -- that was leaked out, but it would have come in May that we'll be no longer in combat after the middle of next year, also a feather in Obama's cap.

But I would remind you that it's the Democrats who argue that Afghanistan is the good war, the real war, the central front in the war on terror. It wasn't the Republicans. They are argued that the Bush administration had not invested enough treasure and blood in Afghanistan. That's why Obama instituted the surge, tripling the number of troops, doubling the spanning. And now all of a sudden he's decided he's had enough. He wants out. But he wants the word out before Election Day so it will help him in his re-election.

BAIER: If the generals, Fred, on the ground really have a problem with this and arguably some -- many did about the decision in Iraq, and if they're vocal about it, or at least through channels they're vocal, is this a problem for the administration?

BARNES: Well, there is already a problem between the Pentagon and the White House, but this would be an even bigger problem. Look, you heard what General Petraeus said about which was it, the decision that the president made, I guess about Iraq. He said look, if I don't like it and I want to criticize it, I have to quit because if I'm here, he's the commander in chief and whether I disagree with his orders or agree with them, I have to carry them out. And I suspect that's probably what the generals in Afghanistan will do. They won't like what the president is deciding, but they'll -- he's the commander and they're not.

BAIER: That's it for the panel. But stay tuned to see a surprise cameo in the presidential Google hangout this week. Plus, our text to vote results on the other side of the break.

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Special Report, hosted by Bret Baier, airs on Weekdays at 6PM ET on Fox News Channel.