Current NATO strategy, agreed to at a summit in Lisbon in November 2010, calls for coalition forces to gradually shift to a training, advisory and assistance role with the Afghan military on the way to withdrawing all combat troops by the end of 2014.
The alliance has yet to agree on the pace of that process, however, and Panetta went further than what some in the administration were prepared to say publicly about their own deliberations. “Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013,” Panetta told reporters en route to a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. “Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role.”
NATO “consultations are ongoing,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to clarify the administration’s position. “Until the leaders come together . . . and make a final decision” at their scheduled May summit in Chicago, “nothing is final.”
A Panetta spokesman traveling with the defense chief issued a statement Wednesday evening — several hours after Panetta’s original remarks — saying that U.S. troops could still be involved in at least some combat operations, in partnership with Afghan forces, in 2014.
Afghan officials were unfazed by Panetta’s statements, saying they were confident that the United States would remain a stabilizing force in Afghanistan and that the country’s own army and police will be ready to accept a more active role in the conflict by 2013.
“The international troops are focusing more on the strengthening, equipment and funding of Afghan forces, and this will make the Afghan forces self-sufficient and ready to take on this big responsibility,” said Hakim Asher, a government spokesman. He called the statement a “natural part of the process of transition.”
But Panetta’s comments about an accelerated change in the military mission were the latest sign that the United States and its NATO allies are seeking to hasten the end of their involvement in the unpopular, decade-long war. On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a tough reelection campaign, abruptly announced in Paris that his country would speed up its combat drawdown this year.
Panetta, in his remarks en route to the NATO meeting, emphasized that an early transition did not mean early withdrawal, saying, “We’ve got to stick to the Lisbon strategy.”
U.S. and NATO forces, he said, would still be actively engaged in helping Afghan forces operate. Although the Afghan army has grown in size and capability, it is still dependent on the U.S. military for air power, troop movement, supplies and medical aid.