Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out the administration's most explicit portrayal of the US drawdown in Afghanistan, saying Wednesday that US and other international forces in Afghanistan expect to end their combat role in 2013 and continue a training and advisory role with Afghan forces through 2014.
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. The timeline fits neatly into the US political calendar, enabling President Barack Obama to declare on the campaign trail this year that in addition to bringing all US troops home from Iraq and beginning a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, he also has a target period for ending the US combat role there.
It also serves to possibly bridge an apparent gap between France and the rest of the Nato partners of the US on defining the end game in Afghanistan.
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 also said, however, that France would provide support for the training of Afghan forces beyond 2013, so his approach might not be entirely different from the one Panetta outlined in which allied troops shed their combat role in the second half of 2013 but remain through 2014 to train, advise and assist.
Panetta said he hoped to hear more from the French delegation at the Nato talks Thursday and Friday.
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 US and other international forces will no longer be in ``the formal combat role we're in now.''
Panetta said the administration wants to make sure that the Afghan forces, after foreign troops depart, are ``sufficient and sustainable,'' but noted that will require continuing financial support not only from the United States but also from allies and many other countries.
``One of the things we'll be discussing (in Brussels) is what the size of that (Afghan) force should be, but a lot of that will be dependent on the funds that are going to be put on the table in order to sustain that force,'' he said. ``That's one of the things, frankly, I'm going to be pushing at this (meeting).''
A senior defense official traveling with Panetta said the US believes Afghanistan will not need as big a force as is now being built. Nato has set a target of 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said the US thinks a smaller force would be adequate, but he would not be more specific
He likened this approach to the way Obama managed the final two years of US military involvement in Iraq. Obama declared an end to the US combat role there on Aug. 31, 2010 but kept tens of thousands of troops there through the end of last year to continue training and advising Iraqi security forces.
Panetta said no decisions have been made about how many US 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 US 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, US 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 US 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 in 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.
In Washington, a senior European diplomat said Sarkozy's initial comments caused confusion among other Nato allies. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to relate internal discussions, said the French president was referring to the shift from combat operations to a training mission in 2013, although he acknowledged that Sarkozy appeared to be calling for all operations to end next year. The diplomat said Nato plans to leave the 2014 deadline in place.
On his second trip to Europe since becoming Pentagon chief last July 1, Panetta is gathering with his 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 US and nearly all other European members of the alliance.
That chasm is not expected to narrow even as the US reduces its defense budget by nearly $490 billion over the coming decade and reduces the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
The US remains the leader of a 28-nation Nato, but the Obama administration has made no secret of its intention to shift focus toward Asia and the Middle East. It announced last week that it will remove two Army brigades from Europe in the next two years, leaving one in Germany and one in Italy. The alliance also is quietly discussing the possible withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Europe in coming years. The nuclear issue is on the agenda for the Brussels meeting.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said last week that the two brigades being removed from Europe will be eliminated rather than reassigned to US bases. Both are based in Germany _ the 172nd Infantry Brigade, in Grafenwoehr, and the 170th Infantry Brigade, in Baumholder. Odierno said that in the long run this change will benefit both the United States and its European partners because US Army combat and support units will periodically rotate in and out of Europe for training and joint exercises that are designed to meet the needs of the European forces.