NATO Defense Ministers Discuss Afghanistan Withdrawal

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 4:10 am (UTC-5)
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NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels Thursday to discuss possible changes to the alliance's strategy in Afghanistan, including ending combat operations earlier than planned.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have each suggested the coalition should end its combat role in 2013, more than a year ahead of previous plans, and switch to training and advising Afghan troops through 2014.

Panetta made his comments Wednesday aboard a plane en route to Brussels. He told reporters traveling with him that “hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013 we will be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role.”

The U.S. defense chief called 2013 a crucial year for the final transfer of remaining areas to Afghan security forces. He said no decisions have been made about the level of U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan once that combat role has ended.

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

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday the alliance will adhere to its plans outlined in November 2010, to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He also said NATO nations will continue their training mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Thursday's meeting is also meant to lay the groundwork for a larger NATO gathering set for Chicago in May.