But it sure sounded like a change: Panetta said the U.S. would shift its main role from combat to training and advising the Afghan security forces “by mid to the latter part of 2013.” That’s the first time a senior Obama administration official had made such a statement, and it’s a year earlier than most analysts had expected the transfer would take place.

A big question, certainly for the tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO forces left in the country, is what they can accomplish in the remaining time of their mission. Even with Panetta’s new timetable, that’s more than a year of fighting — and perhaps years more of training the Afghan army. U.S. commanders say that the Afghans fight much better when they’re partnered with U.S. troops, and that as they improve as soldiers, they’ve held they’re own against the Taliban. That’s something to try to build on.

Like all wars, this one begins and ends with politics. Panetta knows the American public and our European allies are tiring of the ten-year Afghan conflict. His comments Wednesday, on the eve of a NATO meeting here, were the prelude to a broader embrace of the phased withdrawal strategy that will be the showpiece of a NATO summit in Chicago in May.

Panetta argued the quicker handoff was possible because progress had been made: 2011 marked a “significant turning point” in the war against the Taliban he said, with better security and improved performance by Afghan forces. That’s a more optimistic judgment than the one reached by U.S. intelligence analysts, who argued in a new National Intelligence Estimate that the war was a stalemate, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Panetta’s approach had the simplicity of cutting through a knotted rope with a sharp knife. It reflected some political facts of life: war fatigue in NATO countries, not to mention among the Afghans themselves; the frustrating U.S. dependence on the weak and corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai; the maddening role of neighboring Pakistan, which is allied at once with the U.S. and its Taliban enemies.

The Obama administration, which had its eye on the exit ramp even as it added more troops in 2009, seems to have decided it’s time to declare victory and shift from the combat role by the middle of next year.

But officials can’t wish away the facts on the ground. When the NATO mission ends in 2014, the most likely outcome is the stalemate the NIE described—with Afghanistan’s future still up for grabs in a scrum that includes the Afghan army, the Taliban, and the crew of ethnic warlords and local power brokers who have been enriched by the war.

“Keep marching in the right direction,” Panetta said at one point, which means toward the exit for the bulk of U.S. combat troops. The Obama administration has pledged to keep a smaller troop presence in the country after 2014, to keep training the Afghans and to prevent any return to the country by al-Qaeda. That’s something, at least.