BRUSSELS — U.S. and NATO officials struggled Thursday to clarify how long their troops would remain engaged in combat in Afghanistan amid disagreements over when and how Afghan security forces would assume that role.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said there was a consensus among NATO leaders that the fledgling Afghan army "will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan" next year, with U.S. and NATO forces shifting to an advisory and training mission. British and French officials said they backed that idea, but other NATO officials were less definitive.
At a news conference at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "we don't know yet" when newly trained but inexperienced Afghan forces, who number more than 300,000, will take charge of the combat mission. He predicted NATO would resolve the issue at its May summit in Chicago.
Rasmussen said NATO forces would remain actively engaged in combat until the end of 2014, when most allied troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan. "Let me stress," he said, "we will conduct combat operations throughout that period."
On Wednesday, while en route to Brussels, Panetta surprised some allies by saying that the Obama administration wanted to shift from "a combat role to a training, advise and assist role … hopefully by mid to the latter part of 2013."
That timeline would represent an acceleration in NATO's plans.
On Thursday, he modified that characterization, saying U.S. forces would still regularly engage in combat but in a "support role."