REPORTING FROM BRUSSELS -- The U.S. and its allies will formally change their military mission in Afghanistan to training and advising Afghan troops next year, a shift meant to extricate the alliance from a combat role after more than a decade of war, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday.
Panetta outlined the mission shift on his way to Brussels for talks at NATO headquarters, noting that U.S. combat troops would still remain until the end of 2014, as previously announced, but mainly in a support role as Afghan forces assume responsibility for fighting the insurgency.
“Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013, and 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,” Panetta told reporters traveling on his plane.
It was the first time a senior U.S. official had given a timetable for moving U.S. troops out of a lead combat role, although Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, said in December that he was planning such a shift.
By announcing a specific timetable for beginning the advisory mission, U.S. officials are hoping to head off a push among allies to pull out their forces more quickly, with public support for the war and defense budgets shrinking.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France intended to remove all of its combat troops next year, instead of at the end of 2014, as NATO agreed to at the 2010 Lisbon summit. Sarkozy said he would urge the rest of the alliance to speed up its withdrawal as well.
But Panetta insisted that other than France, there is little support among most other members of the alliance for moving up the 2014 date for removing all their troops.
Even within the Obama administration there are divisions about how quickly to withdraw U.S. forces, with some White House aides in favor of announcing further steep withdrawals of U.S. forces ahead of the presidential election in November.
Like Sarkozy, President Obama is facing a reelection campaign in which he is keen to show voters that the decadelong Afghanistan war is winding down. Though the formal NATO timetable calls for some U.S. combat troops to remain until the end of 2014, the White House has made clear it intends to continue bringing the U.S. troop numbers down steadily over the next three years and to put Afghan forces into the lead as much as possible.
The U.S. is already in the midst of a draw-down in Afghanistan that will reduce troop levels to 68,000 by next fall, but Panetta emphasized that the decision about how many U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 has not been made yet by Obama.
Among Pentagon officials and commanders in the field, there is support for keeping as many U.S. troops in place for as long as possible. Even after NATO shifting its “main effort” to training and advising, the U.S. and other allied combat troops will still be needed in case Afghan forces, which remain plagued by operational and personnel problems, need assistance against Taliban insurgents.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force “still needs to be there in robust fashion to back them up” until the end of 2014, said a senior Defense Department official traveling with Panetta said.
The shift to an advisory mission in Afghanistan is similar to the approach used in Iraq, where U.S. troops pulled out of major cities and focused on training Iraqi troops more than a year before leaving the country for good. But it remained unclear whether it will be possible to hand off main responsibility for fighting the insurgency to the Afghan National Army and police.
Though violence is down in many areas of Afghanistan, a recent U.S. intelligence estimate concluded that the war is stalemated and that the Taliban has not abandoned its goal of retaking control of the country.
In addition to military moves, the administration is seeking to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban, but even U.S. officials concede that effort is still in its infancy.
The advisory effort would put small teams of U.S. troops with Afghan units to help them plan operations and to call in air support and artillery fire if needed.
Panetta emphasized that some U.S. troops probably would remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to continue assisting Afghan forces and to carry out what the Pentagon calls counterterrorism operations — special forces raids aimed at Al Qaeda and its allies.
U.S. officials were caught by surprise by Sarkozy's announcement last week. His proposal that the rest of the alliance speed up its pullout introduced an element of uncertainty in what were expected to be low-key meetings of defense ministers at NATO headquarters.
A senior Defense Department official traveling with Panetta said the U.S. was still trying to understand Sarkozy’s proposal, but he implied there may not be as much disagreement as it appears between the U.S. and French positions.
“The discussions will reveal whether there’s a serious difference or not,” the official said. “We may find we can work with the French.”
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, right, attends a Cabinet meeting Tuesday with President Obama. Credit: Susan Walsh / Associated Press