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Panetta: Combat role to end next year

BRUSSELS (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out the administration’s most explicit portrayal of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, saying Wednesday that U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan expect to end their combat role in 2013 and continue a training and advisory role with Afghan forces through 2014.

Panetta’s remarks to reporters traveling with him to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels showed how the foreign military role in Afghanistan is expected to evolve from the current high-intensity fight against the Taliban to a support role with Afghans fully in the lead. The timeline fits neatly into the U.S. political calendar, enabling President Barack Obama to declare on the campaign trail this year that in addition to bringing all U.S. troops home from Iraq and beginning a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, he also has a target period for ending the U.S. combat role there.

It also serves to possibly bridge an apparent gap between France and the rest of the NATO partners of the U.S. on defining the end game in Afghanistan.

All NATO members in November 2010 endorsed a plan to keep forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. But France this week appeared to throw that plan into doubt when President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his side and seemingly in agreement, that NATO end its mission in 2013 — one year earlier than planned.

Sarkozy also said, however, that France would provide support for the training of Afghan forces beyond 2013, so his approach might not be entirely different from the one Panetta outlined in which allied troops shed their combat role in the second half of 2013 but remain through 2014 to train, advise and assist.

Panetta said he hoped to hear more from the French delegation at the NATO talks Thursday and Friday.

Panetta called 2013 a critical year for the Afghanistan mission that has dragged on for more than a decade with little sign that the Taliban will be decisively defeated. He noted that NATO and the Afghan government intend to begin a final phase of handing off sections of the country to Afghan security control in mid-2013.

“Hopefully by the mid to latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” he said. He added that this “doesn’t mean we’re not going to be combat-ready,” but rather that the U.S. and other international forces will no longer be in “the formal combat role we’re in now.”

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