Defense Goal: Combat Role In Afghan War Ends In '13

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says the U.S. hopes to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in late 2013. However, U.S. troops would still remain in the country through the end of 2014. Panetta is meeting this week with NATO defense ministers, and the Afghanistan mission is a key item on the agenda.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has always had two distinct audiences it would like to send messages to. To the American people the message is: the war is ending. To the Taliban, and also our allies, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the message is the opposite: we're not leaving. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta found himself saying both things. His most surprising statement was that America's combat mission could end more than a year earlier than has been thought.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to explain.

Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly did Secretary Panetta say?

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, here's what Panetta said, quote: "Hopefully by the mid to latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role." So here's what that means, that sometime next year it'll be the Afghans who are doing combat operations and the U.S. and NATO forces will provide help, such as helping with - plan operations and also providing support - everything from bomb disposal, logistics, medevacs, that kind of thing.

Now, one of Panetta's aides told me that we're consulting our allies in Europe this week about the idea of a transition to a support role in 2013. But the aide also said we'll be working with the Afghans, including fighting insurgents, until the end of 2014.

MONTAGNE: So part of what Secretary Panetta said sounds new. I mean, he's saying winding down combat operations in late 2013, which is earlier than what has been talked about. But also that the U.S. would still be in Afghanistan through the end of 2014, which has been expected.

BOWMAN: That's right. You know, it's a mixed message. NATO has already agreed to that timetable and nothing Secretary Panetta said changes any of that. But it appears what's going on here is they want to shift a little faster to that advise and assist role for Afghan forces. At the very least highlight it to get them ready for that 2014 handover.

You know, at this point senior commanders will tell you the Afghan forces are not ready to take over. The quality's spotty. And the ones I've been with, the Americans are always in the lead on these patrols. The Afghans are generally just kind of along for the ride. So the clock is ticking here. And beginning this training mission sooner, you know, the administration hopes the Afghans will be ready by the time of that handover date.

MONTAGNE: Well, because that is an earlier date, there are those interpreting this statement as a sign that the U.S. is leaving. And Secretary Panetta is hearing some criticism.

BOWMAN: That's right. Within an hour or so of Panetta's statement to reporters, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said Panetta's sending the wrong message. He said - Senator Lieberman said suddenly accelerating the timetable is not justified. He says U.S. military presence should be determined by developments on the ground, not the whims of Washington.

And, as you said earlier, you know, the administration has two audiences here. There's a U.S. audience, and many Americans are clearly tiring of the war. But they also want to send a message to the Afghanistan government, the Afghans and the Taliban that the U.S. is not leaving.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, are there military reasons for the administration to move up the timetable for a training mission?

BOWMAN: Well, the big military reason is the only way for the Americans and NATO troops to get out of Afghanistan is to have the Afghans provide security for their own country. And clearly the U.S. is already moving toward that transition. The Army is selecting 2,000 sergeants and junior officers this year who will break into small training teams to push that forward.

And the other is NATO allies are just getting tired of this. France has suggested ending this mission one year earlier. So there is eagerness right now to get out.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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