Panetta says US plans to end combat mission in Afghanistan next year

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the United States will end its combat mission in Afghanistan next year.

The United States and its allies in Afghanistan will transition to a training role in Afghanistan in line with the planned NATO withdrawal at the end of 2014, Panetta told reporters on the way to a NATO meeting in Brussels, according to The Associated Press.


His comments, the first time a high-ranking administration official has said the combat mission will end next year, give a window into how the United States will move from its current troop force to ending the war in Afghanistan.

“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,” Panetta told reporters.

He said that U.S. troops will still be “combat ready” after 2013, and that the United States would still have “a pretty robust role” helping Afghan troops operate.

“It’s not going to be a kind of formal combat role that we are now,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “That 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.”

Panetta also said that some U.S. troops would likely remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to help train Afghan security forces and for counterterrorism missions.

The United States already started withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with 10,000 leaving in 2011, and President Obama has said another 23,000 will depart this summer.

NATO’s timeline was called into question last week when French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan in 2013. He made the comments a week after four French soldiers were killed by a supposedly friendly Afghan soldier.

Sarkozy said he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai would urge NATO to speed up withdrawing forces from Afghanistan.

Ahead of the Brussels meeting, Panetta said that he would ask other defense ministers to reconsider expanding the size of the Afghan security forces to 350,000 from 310,000, according to the Post.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said the announcement of a strategy change was "premature."

"While there have certainly been improvements in the Afghan Security Forces’ capabilities, the Committee has not seen a single assessment by our commanders that indicates they have any confidence in such a swift transition," McKeon said. “In 2006, America made a similar mistake in Iraq. We moved before the Iraqis were ready and we were faced with near civil war. It is incumbent upon DoD to justify this change in strategy to Congress before announcing it publicly.”