BRUSSELS — The United States and its allies will formally change their military mission in Afghanistan to training and advising Afghan troops next year, a shift meant to extricate the alliance from a combat role after more than a decade of war, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday.
It was the first time a senior U.S. official had given a timetable for moving U.S. troops out of a lead combat role, although Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, said in December that he was planning such a shift.
Panetta outlined the mission shift on his way to Brussels for talks at NATO headquarters, noting that U.S. combat troops would still remain until the end of 2014, as previously announced, but mainly in a support role as Afghan forces assume responsibility for fighting the insurgency.
"Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013, and 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 traveling on his plane.
By announcing a specific timetable for beginning the advisory mission, U.S. officials are hoping to head off a push among allies to pull out their forces more quickly, with public support for the war and defense budgets shrinking.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France intended to remove all of its combat troops next year, instead of at the end of 2014, as NATO agreed to at the 2010 Lisbon summit. Sarkozy said he would urge the rest of the alliance to speed up its withdrawal as well.
But Panetta insisted that other than France, there is little support among most other members of the alliance for moving up the 2014 date for removing all their troops.
Even within the Obama administration there are divisions about how quickly to withdraw U.S. forces, with some White House aides in favor of announcing further steep withdrawals of U.S. forces ahead of the presidential election in November.
Like Sarkozy, President Barack Obama is facing a re-election campaign in which he is keen to show voters that the decade-long Afghanistan war is winding down. Though the formal NATO timetable calls for some U.S. combat troops to remain until the end of 2014, the White House has made clear it intends to continue bringing the U.S. troop numbers down steadily over the next three years and to put Afghan forces into the lead as much as possible.
The United States is already in the midst of a draw-down in Afghanistan that will reduce troop levels to 68,000 by next fall, but Panetta emphasized that the decision about how many U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 has not been made yet by Obama.
Among Pentagon officials and commanders in the field, there is support for keeping as many U.S. troops as possible in place for as long as possible.
Even after NATO shifts its "main effort" to training and advising, the U.S. and other allied combat troops will still be needed in case Afghan forces, which remain plagued by operational and personnel problems, need assistance against Taliban insurgents.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force still needs to be there to back them up until the end of 2014, said a senior Defense Department official traveling with Panetta.
The shift to an advisory mission in Afghanistan is similar to the approach used in Iraq, where U.S. troops pulled out of major cities and focused on training Iraqi troops more than a year before leaving the country for good. But it remained unclear whether it will be possible to hand off main responsibility for fighting the insurgency to the Afghan National Army and police.