The United States plans to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013 and shift to a training role, one year before most US troops are due to withdraw, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
Although US commanders had already indicated a move towards an advisory mission in coming months, Panetta's comments marked the first time the US administration had forecast American and allied troops could end their combat operations by the second half of next year.
"Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a train, advise and assist role," Panetta told reporters aboard his plane en route to a NATO meeting in Brussels.
With President Barack Obama facing a tough re-election campaign, the Pentagon chief's remarks represented the strongest signal yet that the White House wants to wrap up the wars it inherited from the previous administration, after having overseen the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in December.
Obama took a similar approach in Iraq before the pullout there, declaring an end to the combat mission while the Pentagon renamed units as "advise and assist" brigades.
Panetta portrayed the approach as in keeping with a gradual NATO plan adopted in Lisbon in November 2010, which calls for handing over security duties to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
Despite the goal of ending the combat mission next year, the United States had no plans to move up the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of American and coalition forces, Panetta said.
The NATO alliance had agreed on the 2014 timeline "and I think we ought to stick with that," he said.
As for stepping back from a combat role, Panetta said: "Everybody assumed that there would come a time, as we move towards the end of 2014, that we would be transitioning that role."
He added: "And that's basically what...we did in Iraq. And it's what we're going to try to do in Afghanistan."
After a decade of war, Washington has vowed to withdraw combat forces battling the Taliban by the end of 2014 but has left the door open to a follow-on force focused on training, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the Afghan government.
Panetta said such a future force could include a counter-terrorism mission to strike extremists, along with standard training efforts.
He said Washington wanted to see all the NATO allies in Afghanistan -- including France -- "respect" the NATO timeline.
"We all went in here together and we'll all go out together, but we have to do it on the basis of a strong alliance and a strong commitment that was made in Lisbon," said Panetta, who was due to meet NATO defense ministers on Thursday.
He said 2013 would be a "crucial" year for the final transfer of remaining areas to Afghan security forces and "2014 becomes a year of consolidating the transition."
It was unclear how the planned shift from combat to a mainly advisory role would affect US troop levels.
With nearly 90,000 US troops now in Afghanistan, Panetta said that "no decision has been made with regards to the level of forces we'll have in 2013."
By the end of September, the number of US troops is due to drop to 68,000, following the scheduled withdrawal of a "surge force" that deployed in 2010.
The Pentagon chief sought to play down the effect of last month's surprise announcement from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to withdraw French combat forces in 2013, a year earlier than planned under the NATO strategy.
"With regards to France, I understand why they made their decision," he said.
Despite the French withdrawal plans, he said he was "pleased" that Paris had indicated it would retain a longer-term military presence with troops training and advising Afghan forces.
A senior US defense official told reporters it was possible that there was no serious gap between the French stance and NATO's timeline, depending on the precise details of what Paris planned.
"I think the discussions will reveal whether there's a serious difference or not," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
by Mathieu Rabechault Â© 2012 AFP
Date: Feb 2, 2012