BRUSSELS The United States plans to shift out of a combat role next year in Afghanistan, focusing instead on training and advising local forces, the U.S. defense secretary said on Wednesday.
"Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then 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," Leon Panetta told reporters en route to a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels.
"And 2013 becomes an even more critical year, more critical because we'll be going into the final transitions ... and those will be some of the most difficult," Panetta said.
While President Barack Obama's increase of U.S. troops in 2009 and 2010 helped beat back the Taliban in much of southern Afghanistan, the Afghan insurgency remains resilient, with much of its leadership based over the border in Pakistan.
While the United States and its NATO partners have already agreed to formally hand control for security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, Panetta's comments appear to mark the first time the Pentagon has suggested it will formally shift its role in Afghanistan as early as 2013.
(Reporting By David Alexander. Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Peter Cooney)