The United States plans to end its combat mission in Afghanistan as early as mid-2013 and shift to a training role, more than a year before most American troops are due to withdraw, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday.
Although US commanders had already indicated a move towards an advisory mission in coming months, Panetta’s comments markedthe first timethe US administration had forecast American and allied troops could endtheir combat operations bythe second half of next year.
With President Barack Obama facing a tough re-election campaign, the Pentagon’s chief’s remarks represented the strongest signal yet that the White House wants to wrap up the wars it inherited from the previous administration, after having overseenthe withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in December.
Obama took a similar approach in Iraq beforethe pulloutthere, declaring an end tothe combat mission whilethe Pentagon renamed units as “advise and assist” brigades.
Panetta portrayed the approach as in keeping with a gradual NATO plan adopted in Lisbon in November 2010, which calls for handing over security duties to Afghan forces bythe end of 2014.
Washington has vowed to withdraw combat forces battlingthe Taliban bythe end of 2014 but has left the door open to a follow-on force likely focused on training, depending onthe outcome of negotiations withthe Afghan government.
It was unclear how the planned shift from combat to a mainly advisory role would affect planned troop levels for US forces.