(WASHINGTON) — Obama administration officials are downplaying Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comments that by late next year U.S. troops could switch away from a combat role in Afghanistan to an advise-and-assist mission.
Panetta’s remarks caught members of Congress, as well as European and Afghan allies, by surprise, and some surmised that his comments were a trial balloon for a strategy shift.
En route to a meeting in Brussels with NATO defense ministers, Panetta said Wednesday that it was his hope that U.S. and NATO troops would transition to a training-and-advisory mission in Afghanistan in mid-to-late 2013.
“Hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make…a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role,” Panetta said, “which is basically fulfilling what Lisbon was all about.”
On Thursday, Obama administration officials said Panetta’s comments were in line with the agreement reached at the NATO Lisbon Summit that the alliance would transfer security responsibility to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Panetta was referring to “an assessment of what could happen within the context of the stated policy of NATO, which is to transfer the security lead to the Afghan security forces by 2014, and within that frame, within that timeline, the transition will take place.”
Carney said “that it could happen that the transition to Afghan security lead could be moved up to 2013. But he was not making an announcement about a decision that had been made, simply about the consultations that would be taking place in Brussels and from Brussels forward to Chicago.”
In May, Chicago will host a summit for NATO heads of state.
CIA Director David Petraeus, the former top NATO commander, told Congress that Panetta’s comments had been “overanalyzed.”
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters that Panetta was providing “what some of the thinking is” with respect to the road to the security transition by the end of 2014.
Panetta said Wednesday that U.S. troops could still see combat even after the shift to a train-and-assist mission in 2013.
The possibility of a switch next year to an advisory mission in Afghanistan is similar to how the Iraq withdrawal was conducted, and Panetta said as much to reporters on Wednesday.
The defense secretary said Wednesday it was unclear how the shift would affect the pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The 91,000 American troops in Afghanistan will be reduced to 68,000 by the end of September as part of the planned reduction of 33,000 surge troops President Obama sent in 2010.
“Frankly, we haven’t made any decisions,” about further troop withdrawals, said Panetta. “What I can say is that 2013 is a critical year and, therefore, will demand that we have a strong presence there in order to make sure that the gains that we’ve made up to that point are continued.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sugam Pokharel and Tim Hume, CNN
Euan McKirdy and Natalie L. Gallón, CNN