The US took Kabul by surprise by laying out plans to end its Afghan combat role earlier than expected, just after the leak of a secret report that the Taliban is confident of regaining control of the country.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said late on Wednesday the US would stop taking the lead role in combat operations before the end of next year and step into a supporting role as it winds down its longest war.
He said US forces would remain “combat-ready,” but would largely shift to a train-and-assist role as Afghan forces take over responsibility for security ahead of a 2014 deadline for full Afghan control.
The announcement, ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, was greeted with surprise in Kabul, where a senior Afghan security official said the move “throws out the whole transition plan.”
“The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations,” the official said.
“If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force,” he said, adding that his government had not been informed of the change in plans.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted there was no change in NATO’s plans and it expected responsibility for security to be handed over to the Afghan security forces by the middle of next year and for them to have full control at the end of 2014.
“It is of course of crucial importance that this change of role takes place in a coordinated manner,” he said, adding that the changes of role would have to take into account “the actual security situation on the ground.”
Britain yesterday said NATO’s strategy has not changed and alliance forces will continue to operate in a combat role.
“They [ISAF] will be operating in 2014 in a combat role. But it will be a supporting role,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Britain has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. Cameron has announced that Britain will pull out 500 soldiers from Afghanistan this year, but has not set out troop reduction plans beyond that. He plans to end Britain’s combat role by the end of 2014, leaving some troops behind to train and mentor Afghan forces.
Panetta’s announcement came just after British media published excerpts of a classified US report saying that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, remained confident of regaining control in Afghanistan despite a decade of NATO efforts.
US officials said the timing of the transition to Afghan security lead would be discussed at NATO yesterday and today. They said the process envisioned continued combat operations by coalition forces in support of the Afghans as needed.