By Carlo Muñoz - 02/22/13 06:46 PM EST
The final 32,000 American forces remaining in Afghanistan after this spring's planned troop withdrawal will start coming home following the country's presidential election in April, 2014 — officially ending America's combat role there, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday.
"Once those elections are completed, we will then begin the final drawdown," Panetta told reporters at NATO's headquarters in Brussels. The DOD chief was at NATO for the organization's defense ministerial.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the newly installed commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will oversee the final American pullout next year.
Panetta's announcement on the withdrawal timeline was prompted by the Pentagon's growing confidence in Afghanistan's military and national police, which are to take full control of all security operations after American and allied forces leave the country.
"There is a strong consensus that our mission is succeeding ... on the ground because of the growing role and capabilities that all of us have seen [in] the Afghan national security forces," the Pentagon chief said.
Friday's timeline comes weeks after the White House announced that it would be pulling out half of the 66,000 American service personnel in Afghanistan by this spring.
The announcement, made during President Obama's State of the Union address this month, would leave roughly 32,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Afghanistan until Afghanistan's presidential elections, set for April 5, 2014.
While the final withdrawal timeline is now set, U.S. and NATO leaders continue to wrangle over what kind of force will be left in the country after 2014.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière said Friday that the United States reportedly agreed to keep 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 drawdown.
But Pentagon press secretary George Little pushed back on those comments, saying the administration "is still reviewing options and has not made a decision about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014."
"A range of 8,000 [to] 12,000 troops was discussed as the possible size of the overall NATO mission, not the U.S. contribution," Little said Friday.
"We will continue to discuss with Allies and the Afghans how we can best carry out two basic missions: Targeting the remnants of [al Qaeda] and its affiliates, and training and equipping Afghan forces," he added.
Little's comments come a day after NATO leaders began walking back plans to cut the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) from the current 352,000-man force down to 230,000.
American and NATO military leaders agreed to funnel $1.4 billion into Afghan coffers to maintain that 230,000-man ANSF force during the alliance's annual summit in Chicago last May.
Alliance leaders believed the 230,000-man strong ANSF would be enough to maintain gains made by American and NATO forces in the country, particularly in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan.
The Chicago decision quickly came under scrutiny by several top congressional lawmakers, who claimed the lower troop number would not be enough to keep Taliban forces from retaking power in the country after 2014.
On Thursday, NATO officials reversed course, saying that maintaining a larger ANSF would "make it clear that NATO is committed to an enduring relationship with Afghanistan," according to recent reports.