The US will seek to wind down combat operations in Afghanistan during 2013, more than a year before a deadline for withdrawal, the defence secretary says. Speaking while travelling to a Nato summit, Leon Panetta said the US hoped to switch to a role training and supporting Afghan forces.
His comments are the first time a senior US official has given a timetable for transition. Some 68,000 troops are due to remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2012.
There are currently some 99,000 US troops in the country, with 22,000 scheduled to return home during this year. Until now, though, there had been now word on how the Pentagon planned to manage the main bulk of the drawdown, committing only to a full withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014.
Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role, Mr Panetta said en route to Brussels, site of the Nato summit.
He stressed that dangers would remain while Afghan forces were trained up to take over security duties in many areas currently wracked by conflict.
It's still a pretty robust role that we'll be engaged in. It's not going to be a kind of formal combat role that we are now, he said. 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.
President Barack Obama ordered a surge in US troops in Afghanistan in 2009 in an effort to seize and retain Taliban-controlled areas.
The US has fought in Afghanistan since shortly after 9/11 attacks of 2001, seeking to oust the Taliban for their role in harbouring al-Qaeda. Plans for peace talks between the U Leon Panetta said the US hoped to switch to a role training and supporting Afghan forces.