WASHINGTON — The U.S. military plans to change the focus of its Afghanistan mission from combat to training local forces by the end of 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday, apparently accelerating the timeline for Afghan forces to take over security responsibilities from NATO troops.
Panetta's comments to reporters traveling with him to Brussels — where he was scheduled to attend a meeting of NATO defense chiefs beginning Thursday — marked the first time that a top Pentagon official had stamped an earlier end date on the decade-old U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. However, U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at least through 2014, when all NATO combat forces are scheduled to withdraw from the country.
"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," Panetta 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."
The announcement appeared to be an effort to assure a war-weary American public — in an election year — that the Obama administration was charting a clear exit from Afghanistan. But it was also about semantics: By calling the U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan trainers, not combat forces, it suggests that their mission will involve less fighting and the U.S. will suffer fewer casualties.
Of course, commanders will point out that there's no such thing as a non-combat soldier, and U.S. troops continued to suffer loses in Iraq when the mission there switched from combat to what the Pentagon dubbed an "advise and assist" role.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the announcement would lead to an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces. From the 90,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon plans to draw down to 68,000 by the end of September — far more than most think would be needed to train.
Panetta told reporters that the administration still hadn't determined the number of trainers needed.
The U.S. decision comes one week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy surprised NATO by announcing that France would end its combat mission in 2013, a year ahead of schedule, following the killings of four French soldiers by an Afghan soldier they were training. Panetta told reporters that the U.S. decision wasn't related to France's.
The decision also appeared to contradict findings in the latest classified National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, reported by McClatchy last month, that indicate security gains won since last year's 30,000-strong U.S. troop surge may be unsustainable and that the Taliban leadership still had designs on ruling Afghanistan.
Panetta on Wednesday shrugged off the NIE findings, which the White House and top U.S. commanders also have disputed.
"Without question, there has been significant improvement in the security situation on the ground," Panetta said. "The Taliban has not been able to regain any of the lost territory. They haven't conducted a successful operation to regain territory. We continue to weaken them."
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