NATO Allies Discuss New Time Frame for Afghan Transition

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 6:00 pm (UTC-5)
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NATO defense ministers, at a two-day meeting in Brussels, have joined the United States and France in calling for Afghan forces to take the lead in all combat operations in their country by 2013 — a year earlier than originally envisioned.

NATO Secretary-General Anders-Fogh Rasmussen told the gathering he supports the new time frame, but he stressed there are no plans to leave Afghanistan early. He said NATO expects the last provinces to be handed over to the Afghans by mid-2013, and from that time the role of NATO troops gradually will change from combat to support.

Rasmussen added that any moves by individual nations must be coordinated with the NATO command in Kabul.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have suggested the coalition end its combat role in 2013 — a year earlier than planned. Panetta called 2013 a crucial year for the final transfer of remaining areas to Afghan security forces, but he added that no decisions have been made about the level of U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan once that combat role has ended.

During the two-day meeting, NATO defense ministers will hear from their commander in Afghanistan — U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen. The ministers also will be looking for indications of whether the French and American 2013 plans are practical.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the process of transfer from NATO to the Afghans already has begun and will continue. He said U.S. forces could “potentially” remain in a combat role until the end of 2014.

When asked if Panetta's remarks Wednesday represent a shift in Washington's approach to the 10-year war, Carney made it clear they do not. He sought to keep focus on President Barack Obama's objective — disrupting, dismantling and ultimately defeating al-Qaida.

Leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney continued his sharp criticism of Mr. Obama, focusing on Panetta's suggestion. Romney said it makes absolutely no sense to tell the people you are fighting against the day that you are pulling out troops. He added that “Mr. Obama's naivete is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States.”

The NATO meeting in Brussels is being held days after a leaked coalition report revealed that members of the Taliban insurgency are confident they can regain power in Afghanistan once coalition troops have departed.

This meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for a larger NATO gathering set for Chicago in May.