February 1, 2012
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, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday.
U.S. military commanders had said in recent weeks they would begin a transition this year toward taking more of an advisory role as Afghanistan’s national army and police take greater responsibility for fighting the insurgency. But 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.
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.”
Panetta said U.S. and NATO forces would remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, the deadline NATO has fixed for ending its role in the war. The Pentagon chief said U.S. troops would likely remain in Afghanistan for an indefinite period beyond that to carry out counterterrorism missions and continue to support Afghan security forces.
“We’re committed to an enduring presence there,” he said.
Although Panetta said the ambition to end combat missions next year was in keeping with the original NATO timetable for ending the decade-long war, his announcement was the latest sign that the U.S. and its allies are seeking to hasten that process.
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.
U.S. officials said they were taken aback by Sarkozy’s declaration but said they were hopeful France would keep some forces in Afghanistan in an advisory role. They said there were no indications that other NATO allies were seeking a premature withdrawal.
In a nod to fiscal and political realities, however, Panetta said he would ask other NATO defense ministers to reconsider whether it still made sense to expand the size of Afghanistan’s national security forces to 350,000 soldiers and police, from about 310,000 now.
Boosting the size of the Afghan security forces has been a cornerstone of the NATO strategy for the war. As U.S. and NATO forces gradually withdraw, fledgling Afghan forces are supposed to take over in the fight against the Taliban.
Confronted by weak economies and budget cuts, however, 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, 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.
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