Panetta: U.S. Combat in Afghanistan to End Next Year

By: Robert Burns, Associated Press
By: Robert Burns, Associated Press

Brussels, Belgium (AP) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out the administration's most explicit portrayal of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, saying Wednesday that U.S. 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 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.

It also serves to possibly bridge an apparent gap between France and the rest of the NATO partners of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Obama declared an end to the U.S. 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 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 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 U.S. and nearly all other European members of the alliance.

That chasm is not expected to narrow even as the U.S. reduces its defense budget by nearly $490 billion over the coming decade and reduces the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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  • by War hungry NeoCon on Feb 2, 2012 at 01:31 PM
    Aw man! I wish we could stay there another 11 years! I'd rather our tax money go to Afghanistan than America.
  • by Abel on Feb 2, 2012 at 09:34 AM
    The deaths and the wounded warriors of our brave men and woman were in vain!Just because idiot politicians like Bush and obama make idiot decisions!All while they play golf and run around on our money having lavish lifestyles.I wonder if obama and his high spending wife thought about those brave soldiers sitting in a dusty old hut while having a seafood platter!
    • reply
      by Cain on Feb 2, 2012 at 01:34 PM in reply to Abel
      What do you want my brother Abel? To stay there indefinitely, force a system on these people that they don't want, and spend us out of existence?
      • reply
        by Abel on Feb 2, 2012 at 03:37 PM in reply to Cain
        Thats not what I meant at all!Im a veteran myself!They never should have went in with a large force!You can use intelligence and destroy terrorist camps with missiles or air power without having a large force on the ground.Its like vietnam all over again!Fight for a decade and leave with no longterm gain!We should not have been in either!A few missiles and airstrikes are a lot safer and cheaper than moving whole army's!Our politicians suck!
  • by Anonymous on Feb 2, 2012 at 08:05 AM
    Let's bring them back and prepare for Iran/China/Korea/etc.
  • by me Location: here on Feb 2, 2012 at 08:04 AM
    Well, we knew this was coming from the INTENTIONAL failure of the super committee that was supposed to cut spending in order for obama to get a debt increase. Not the latest chicom giveaway of 1.2 trillion, but the last one that was such a huge fight in congress. Anyway, I do want the troops home; these people they are helping have been fighting their civil wars for centuries and they will continue. The same iraqi politicians we supported now blast the US in order to accomodate their lunatic jihadists. Looking ahead; IMO, once we leave Afg and now out of Iraq, we can expect the fight on our doorsteps. Oh, just in case someone may wonder; no, they will not tell you when they're going to attack or when they may be leaving. They apparently have a little more experience than we do when it comes to war. Speaking of the failed super committee; when will the other part of the bargain to cut entitlements start? Fair is fair, right?
  • by holy smoke on Feb 2, 2012 at 07:09 AM
    I read on a different web site that Obama is negotiating with the Taliban for the release of five big honchos from the prison in Guantanamo. Does this moron really think that we can negotiate with these people? Afghanistan is a cesspool that we need to get out of but not the way this idiot is doing it.
  • by Glenn Location: Tallahassee on Feb 2, 2012 at 06:29 AM
    It's about time. This longest war in U.S. history was mismanaged and forgotten for the 1st 7 years. The last 4 years we've played catch up and can finally leave it to the Afghans. If they choose another path then it's THEIR decision. Time to nation build here AT HOME
    • reply
      by Steve Florida Native/resident, Veteran on Feb 4, 2012 at 03:46 PM in reply to Glenn
      Stupid is, as stupid does! Can't spell loser with a V. Thanx
  • by say what?? on Feb 2, 2012 at 04:40 AM
    This idiot Obama can't do anything right. All the Taliban does is mark the date on their calendar and then show back up after we quit fighting. What a mistake this is, you never tell the enemy when you are going to quit. We have to get this guy out of the White House come November.
    • reply
      by Anon on Feb 2, 2012 at 08:37 AM in reply to say what??
      So what noble purpose does it serve to stay? We keep fighting these people to what end? We got Osama, Alqueda was the real threat not the taliban. We only went in to get Osama, mission accomplished, let's go home and leave them the dirt and rocks they started with. If we stay all we do is lose by throwing money down this hole. What is your version of an endgame in this scenario? We install a puppet goverment that can't fight it's own war that we have to keep spending money to prop up. The Afghan people have proven they'd switch sides for money, we give them money to fight for us, the taliban outbid us then they fight for them. We'll never win this battle unless we take out Pakistan and that's not going to happen.
      • reply
        by me on Feb 3, 2012 at 11:53 AM in reply to Anon
        I agree.....And as soon as we get out, India and Pakistan will tangle over the Kashmir region again and personally I'm pulling for India. Especially, after Pakistan is trying to execute the person that tipped off Bin Laden's hideout. It's inevitable, 2 different religions...lots of hate. And we certainly can't forget the 1.5-2 trillion in mineral ore deposits in Afghanistan. Whatever country tries to mine those deposits will have to take their military with them.
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