ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) - U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan aim to end their combat role next year and switch to training and advising Afghan forces through 2014, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
Panetta's remarks to reporters traveling with him to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels represented the Obama administration's most explicit portrayal of 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.
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 transitioning 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."
He 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.
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.
Although Panetta made no mention of it, U.S. Marines in Afghanistan already are making that transition out of a combat role.
They are operating in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been greatly weakened, and are on track to reduce their numbers significantly this year.
Panetta's remarks indicated that this switch into a support role will be applied across Afghanistan, assuming no major setbacks against the Taliban and continued progress in training Afghan forces.
Many U.S. forces already are training and advising Afghan forces. Marine Gen. John Allen, the overall commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has been talking publicly since last fall about converting the military role from combat to what he has called "security assistance."
But Panetta went further in identifying mid- to late-2013 as the target for completing this conversion countrywide.
Panetta was heading to Brussels to attend a NATO meeting at which this and other issues related to the war in Afghanistan are expected to top the agenda.
The session is intended to help pave the way for key decisions to be announced at a summit meeting of NATO heads of government in Chicago in May.
All NATO members have endorsed the 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.
Panetta said he hoped to hear more from the French delegation at NATO. Panetta is gathering with his European counterparts at a delicate time for NATO, not only because of the uncertainty surrounding the military mission in Afghanistan but also because of a growing gap in military power between the U.S. and nearly all other European members of the alliance.