Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that US troops in Afghanistan would step out of combat into an “advise-and-assist” role in Afghanistan as early as mid-2013, The New York Times reported.
Though the Obama administration has been working to end the war in Afghanistan, Panetta's comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on ending its central role in the war. The announcement also "give[s] Obama a certain applause line in his re-election stump speech this fall," The Times wrote.
Panetta said US and NATO forces would remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, NATO's deadline for ending its participation in the war. The Pentagon chief said American troops would likely remain in Afghanistan for an indefinite period beyond that to support Afghan security forces, The Washington Post reported.
The number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013 has yet to be decided, The Times reported.
But Panetta suggested that large reductions, below the 68,000 US troop level projected for this September, were unlikely following the 2013 shift, the Associated Press reported. The United States now has about 91,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to the AP.
Panetta also said that substantial fighting still lies ahead, even amidst his announcement.
“It 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,” he told reporters on his plane as he headed to a NATO meeting in Brussels, where Afghanistan is expected to be a central topic of discussion, according to the Times.
Panetta's announcement comes after President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday that France would accelerate its planned withdrawal of troops after an incident in which an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers.
US officials said they were surprised by Sarkozy’s declaration but said they were hopeful France would keep some forces in Afghanistan in an advisory role, the Post reported. They said there were no indications that other NATO allies were seeking a premature withdrawal.
Panetta said the NATO discussions would focus on a potential downsizing of Afghan security forces, largely because of the cost. The US and other NATO members spend about $6 billion a year to support the forces in Afghanistan, but are looking to reduce that financial commitment in the face of the financial crisis.
“The funding is going to largely determine the kind of force we can sustain in the future,” Panetta said, according to the Times.