The U.S. and its military allies in Afghanistan intend to hand the lead combat role to Afghan forces next year, according to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, shifting to a training and advising mission as they press ahead with their withdrawal after more than a decade of fighting, reports Los Angeles Times.
Panetta’s remarks to reporters traveling with him to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels showed how the foreign military role in Afghanistan is expected to evolve from the current high-intensity fight against the Taliban to a support role with Afghans fully in the lead.
According to The Huff Post, the timeline fits neatly into the U.S. political calendar, enabling President Barack Obama to declare on the campaign trail this year that in addition to bringing all U.S. troops home from Iraq and beginning a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, he also has a target period for ending the U.S. combat role there.
Panetta said U.S. combat troops would remain until the end of 2014, as previously announced, but mainly in a support role.
“Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013, and hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” Panetta told reporters traveling on his plane.
Panetta called 2013 a critical year for the Afghanistan mission that has dragged on for more than a decade with little sign that the Taliban will be decisively defeated.
He noted that NATO and the Afghan government intend to begin a final phase of handing off sections of the country to Afghan security control in mid-2013.
“Hopefully by the mid to latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” he said.
He added that this “doesn’t mean we’re not going to be combat-ready,” but rather that the U.S. and other international forces will no longer be in “the formal combat role we’re in now.”
Some 68,000 troops are due to remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2012. There are currently some 99,000 US troops in the country, with 22,000 scheduled to return home during this year.
Panetta said no decisions have been made about how many U.S. troops would be required to remain there once the combat role has ended.
He suggested, however, that large reductions, below the 68,000 troop level projected for this September, were unlikely in the months immediately after the shift.
He stressed that dangers would remain while Afghan forces were trained up to take over security duties in many areas currently wracked by conflict.
“It’s still a pretty robust role that we’ll be engaged in. It’s not going to be a kind of formal combat role that we are now,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be combat-ready. We will be because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves.”
The U.S. now has about 91,000 troops there as part of the International Security Assistance Force. The fact that much military work will remain after 2013 “demands that we have a strong presence there,” he said.
All NATO members in November 2010 endorsed a plan to keep forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014.
But France this week appeared to throw that plan into doubt when President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his side and seemingly in agreement, that NATO end its mission in 2013 – one year earlier than planned.
Sarkozy, who is facing a tough reelection campaign this spring, said he would urge the rest of the alliance to speed up withdrawal as well.
The French president made his announcement after an Afghan soldier turned on his allies Jan. 19, killing four French troops and wounding more than a dozen.
Western officials are worried about an increasing number of cases in which Afghan troops, motivated by personal grudges or planted by the Taliban, have attacked foreign troops.
Sarkozy’s announcement caught U.S. officials by surprise, and introduced an element of uncertainty to what were expected to be low-key meetings of defense ministers at NATO headquarters.
The senior Defense official said the U.S. was still trying to understand Sarkozy’s proposal, but implied that there may not be as much disagreement as it appears between the U.S. and French positions.
“The discussions will reveal whether there’s a serious difference or not,” the official said. “We may find we can work with the French.”