By ROBERT BURNS and SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that NATO allies have agreed broadly to step back from the lead combat role in Afghanistan and let local forces take their place as early as next year, a shortened timetable that startled officials and members of Congress.
Obama administration officials scrambled with varying degrees of clarity to explain that Panetta's announcement en route to the NATO defense ministers' meeting here that he hoped combat troops would move into a training and assistance role beginning in 2013 was not a policy change, but an optimistic look at the already-established timetable.
Panetta said he told a meeting of his 27 NATO counterparts that he hoped Afghan forces would be ready to take the combat lead countrywide sometime in 2013, with international troops shifting to a support role after a decade of inconclusive combat. That means Afghans would bear the main burden of offensive action, with U.S. and other foreign troops assisting, he said.
"There was consensus on this" among the allied defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters, Panetta told reporters, adding that no final decision was made.
Other officials, however, said there were some differences of opinion on whether 2013 was the right time to make this change. Few besides Panetta were willing to discuss the matter publicly; the ministers were due to resume their talks on Friday.
Views on what might take place in 2013 seemed to shift throughout the day as the ministers met behind closed doors. NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters in the morning that NATO expects all Afghan provinces to have been handed over to Afghan control by mid-2013, and "from that time, the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support."
But by day's end Rasmussen said it was too early to say whether that shift for NATO forces from combat to support will happen in 2013.
"It depends very much on the situation on the ground," he said, adding that the issue will be a central topic for discussion when President Barack Obama hosts a NATO summit meeting in Chicago in May on the Afghan endgame.
The summit also will deal with the tough question of the ultimate size of — and international financial support for — Afghan security forces beyond 2014, when the bulk of foreign forces are scheduled to leave. A related unresolved question is the number of U.S. and other foreign troops that might remain behind and what missions they would be assigned.
Panetta caused a stir when he said Wednesday that he foresaw American and NATO forces switching from a combat role to a support role by mid- to late-2013. He said this was a natural transition in line with the NATO goal, announced in November 2010, of having every Afghan province placed in government control by the end of 2014. Until that remark, however, it had been unclear how soon the U.S. believed it could largely end its combat mission in Afghanistan.
His remark prompted some Republicans in Washington to complain that the Obama administration was unwisely telegraphing its intentions to the Taliban. And it led to a cascade of confusing statements seeking to illuminate Panetta's meaning.
At one point, a senior NATO official offered this befuddling explanation of whether Panetta meant the U.S. combat role would end in 2013: "He said the combat role will come to an end. But he also said combat will continue, and that's exactly what I'm saying." The official was speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal NATO deliberations.
Asked further about the matter after Thursday's NATO meetings, Panetta said U.S. forces, once in a support role, would have to remain "combat ready," prepared to defend themselves but focused on enabling the Afghans to carry the brunt of combat. He also noted that U.S. special operations forces would remain in Afghanistan to go after certain terrorist targets.
In Washington, CIA Director David Petraeus, previously the top American commander in Afghanistan, told a congressional hearing that Panetta's comments had been "over-analyzed."
Petraeus said it is obvious that if the goal of putting Afghans fully in control of their own security is to be achieved by the end of 2014, then the final phase of that process would have to start sometime in 2013. "The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations," he said.