Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) -- NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels agreed that their soldiers in Afghanistan will need to continue combat operations in a support role even after Afghan forces take the lead on the way to full responsibility for security.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reconfirmed yesterday that he hoped the coalition’s lead combat role throughout the country would shift to Afghan national security forces by the end of 2013, with the NATO-led troops continuing to play a support role through 2014.
His counterparts and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen demurred on the date, leaving it to the alliance’s heads of state to make the announcement at their May summit in Chicago, to be hosted by President Barack Obama.
The diplomatic gambits produced confusion as a succession of U.S. and NATO officials sought to tamp down talk of divisions in the 50-nation coalition triggered by France’s announcement last week of an early pullout of its combat troops and Panetta’s indications that the alliance may wind down active operations sooner than planned.
En route to the Brussels meeting, Panetta said Feb. 1 that the coalition would begin the final stage of the handover in the middle of 2013, while remaining equipped for combat through 2014.
Panetta’s comments drew criticism from Republican lawmakers in Washington, who said the U.S. may risk ending operations in Afghanistan early even though the Taliban remain a threat.
“I’m concerned about the announcement that was made yesterday that we’re going to end all combat roles in 2013 and just be in a supporting role,” Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, said yesterday at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee.
Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, the former top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, responded that Panetta was talking about a “progressive transition” toward transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces, not a change in the 2014 goal.
“The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations, the Afghan forces gradually take the leadership,” Petraeus told the panel. “It’s a successive series of transitions that take place.”
“There was certainly no division of opinion in any of the meetings that I attended,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him yesterday.
Transition to Support
“Everybody understands that there is going to be a transition here as we move toward Afghan control in these areas,” Panetta said. “As we make that transition, our role will obviously become one of support.”
When asked the meaning of the Afghans taking the lead, Panetta said they would determine “patrols, tactics, enemy targets. We’ll be there for support, we’ll be there for guidance, but they’re the ones that are going to be in the lead and conduct the operations.”
At issue are the timing and conditions for the gradual handover as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other nations contributing troops look for ways to reduce their forces in the more than decade-long conflict. The U.S. leads about 130,000 personnel, including 89,000 of its own after withdrawing the first 10,000 last year.
No one in the meetings yesterday talked about cutting troop levels, said a NATO official authorized to speak with reporters only on condition of anonymity.
The discussion centered on how to manage the transition to Afghan control within terms that NATO heads of state endorsed in their previous meeting in Lisbon in 2010, the official said. That agreement set the transition process to begin in 2011, as it did, and to be completed by the end of 2014.
“To complete the transition by the end of 2014, we will of course have to hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans some time before,” Rasmussen told reporters at NATO headquarters yesterday after the first day of meetings that continue today. “Exactly when, we don’t know yet. Let me stress: We will conduct combat operations throughout the transition period.”
The coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, is in the process of handing over control in a second group of provinces, districts and cities. Force commanders are working with the Afghan government to determine which areas would be included in the third of what they expect will be four or five phases.
“There’s much hard fighting ahead here,” Panetta said. The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine General John Allen, “made clear that this is no time to let up on the pressure” on the Taliban, the defense chief said.
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