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U.S. to end Afghan role

| Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012

BRUSSELS -- The United States and NATO will seek to end their combat mission in Afghanistan next year and shift to a role of providing support and training to Afghan security forces through 2014, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

Panetta's remarks were the first time the Obama administration has said it could foresee an end to regular U.S. and NATO combat operations by the second half of next year.

"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," he told reporters traveling with him to Brussels, where he is scheduled to attend NATO meetings this week.

The foreign military role in Afghanistan is expected to evolve from the high-intensity fight against the Taliban to a support role with Afghans fully in the lead.

Panetta said U.S. and NATO forces would still be actively engaged in helping Afghan forces operate. Although the Afghan army has grown in size and capability, it is still dependent on the United States military for airpower, troop movement, supplies and medical aid.

"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 timeline fits neatly into the U.S. political calendar, enabling President Obama to declare on the campaign trail that in addition to bringing all U.S. troops home from Iraq, he has a target for ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.

His announcement was the latest sign that the United States and its allies are seeking to hasten that process even though all NATO members in November 2010 endorsed a plan to keep forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014.

On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy abruptly announced in Paris that his country would speed up its planned withdrawal of troops after an incident of betrayal in which an Afghan soldier killed four French troops. But Sarkozy assured allies 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 yesterday.

Confronted by weak economies and budget cuts, NATO has been reconsidering whether it can still afford to subsidize such a large Afghan force, and for how long. Obama administration officials have said that Washington and allied capitals can expect to pay for the bulk of the expense of equipping and training Afghan forces long after 2014.

"There's a general understanding that if this is going to remain sustainable, it may need to come down a little bit," said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. "Exactly what the figure is and what the precise timing will be is something we need to discuss with our allies."

Panetta said the U.S. and NATO would ask Arab allies, Japan, South Korea and other countries to pitch in to subsidize the Afghan army and police over the long term.

"In many ways, the funding is going to determine what kind of force we can sustain for the future," he said.

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. 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, 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 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 yesterday, identifying mid- to late-2013 as the target for completing this conversion countrywide.

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