Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the U.S.-led NATO coalition would end its combat role in Afghanistan next year, the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is accelerating its plans to wind down the long and unpopular Afghan war.
“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,” The Washington Post said Panetta told reporters accompanying him to Brussels.
The Obama administration has previously promised that the United States would keep troops in Afghanistan until 2014, but Panetta’s comments suggested that the U.S. would shrink its military footprint there significantly in 2012 and 2013 as part of a broader shift away from a direct combat role in the country.
Military commanders in Afghanistan have spoken for months about reducing the number of American troops involved in frontline fighting against the Taliban and instead ramping up the effort to train a large and relatively capable Afghan military. The strategic shift, modeled on a similar approach used in Iraq, comes amid growing tensions within NATO about whether the war is worth the human and financial cost. Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that his country would be withdrawing its troops sooner than planned after an Afghan soldier recently killed four French troops.