KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban are not beaten, the peace process is bogged down in internal squabbles and Afghan security forces aren't ready to take control of the nation. Yet the U.S. and its partners are talking about speeding up — rather than slowing down — their exit from the war.

It's becoming dramatically clear that politics is driving NATO's war exit strategy as much or more than conditions on the battlefield.

Political calendars in the West were never supposed to influence the decision about when Afghan forces take the lead and allow international troops step back into support roles or leave altogether.

The U.S., Afghan and other international leaders have said repeatedly that transition decisions would not be held hostage to international political agendas.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dropped a verbal bombshell this week at a NATO meeting in Brussels. He said the NATO allies had largely agreed to step back from the lead combat role in Afghanistan and let local forces take their place as early as 2013.

U.S. officials downplayed Panetta's statement, saying it was not a policy change but an optimistic look at the established 2014 end date.

Either way, it shows how badly the Obama administration wants out of the war.

Panetta's comment sounded different from what his predecessor told NATO allies just six months ago. "Resist the urge to do what is politically expedient and have the courage of patience," former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said then.