Panetta: Combat in Afghanistan will End in 2013

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced that American forces in Afghanistan would begin to transition from a combat role to a supervising role as early as mid-2013, more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to return home.

“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,” Panetta, who was in Brussels for a NATO ministers defense meeting, told reporters.

He added that this “doesn’t mean we’re not going to be combat-ready,” but rather that the U.S. and other international forces will no longer be in “the formal combat role we’re in now.”

Panetta didn’t specify about how many U.S. Troops would be required to remain after the combat role has ended.

He did, however, mention that he doesn’t expect that number to dip below the 68,000 troop-level projected for this September because of the remaining military work that “demands that we have a strong presence there.”

Currently, there are about 91,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Many speculate that the announcement is fodder for the upcoming Presidential election. They argue that Obama’s re-election stump speech will sound much better with a line in there about bringing an end to the U.S. military’s combat mission in Afghanistan.

Putting aside the Obama administration’s political agenda, outside pressure from France may have contributed to the decision.

Last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced that his country would break with its NATO allies and accelerate the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan. President Sarkozy said that all French troops would be out by the end of 2013, a year prior to the 2014 timetable that had been agreed upon.

This had U.S. defense officials scratching their heads.

“A lot of policy officials in Paris were scrambling” after Mr. Sarkozy’s announcement, a senior American defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the New York Times. “So getting exactly to what the French bottom line is hasn’t been easy for them, much less for us.”

Panetta downplayed Sarkozy announcement at his press conference. Instead he focused on the challenges ahead, particularly how the U.S. would continue to support and fund Afghan security forces.

“One of the things we’ll be discussing (in Brussels) is what the size of that (Afghan) force should be, but a lot of that will be dependent on the funds that are going to be put on the table in order to sustain that force,” he said. “That’s one of the things, frankly, I’m going to be pushing at this (meeting).”

Right now, there are approximately 350,000 afghan troops. However, that number may have to be downsized because of the costs associated with maintaining such a large army (estimates suggest it costs around $6 billion a year). With Europe on the verge of bankruptcy, many of the U.S.’s allies are hesitant to foot the bill.

“The funding is going to largely determine the kind of force we can sustain in the future,” Mr. Panetta said.