By David Alexander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States intends to end combat operations in Afghanistan before the end of 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday, laying down a new marker for winding down America's longest war.
The timetable described by Panetta appeared to be the first time the United States has said it would shift into a supporting role, training and advising Afghan troops, by next year. His remarks came as allies like France appear to be looking to exit Afghanistan and U.S. President Barack Obama is eager to show voters that American involvement is ending.
"Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise-and-assist role," Panetta told reporters on his plane to Brussels for a NATO defense ministers' meeting.
Panetta's comments came days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is facing a difficult re-election campaign, announced he would pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013. Four French soldiers were killed last month by a rogue Afghan soldier.
Sarkozy also urged other members of the North Atlantic alliance to do the same, threatening to upend a well-settled strategy approved at a summit in Lisbon two years ago that calls for the transition to Afghan security leadership by the end of 2014.
It remained to be seen how the new U.S. timetable for ending combat operations would affect the calculations of Taliban insurgents, who have been fighting a bloody guerilla war against NATO forces.
The United States has been trying to draw the Taliban into reconciliation talks with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. But a key part of its strategy has been to increase military pressure on the Taliban to persuade it to join peace talks.
In a new classified report obtained by British media, NATO said that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, remained confident despite a decade of NATO efforts that it would retake control of Afghanistan.
NOT A NEW STRATEGY, PANETTA SAYS
Panetta portrayed the new timetable for ending U.S. combat operations in mid- to late 2013 as an implementation of previous NATO strategy agreed to at Lisbon.
"In the Lisbon discussions, it was always clear that there would come a point which we would make that transition and then be able to hopefully consolidate those gains in 2014," he said. "So the bottom line is: No, this isn't a new strategy. It's basically implementing what Lisbon is all about."
Panetta said he understood the reasons for France's apparent decision on its troops in Afghanistan, but hoped it would continue to work in the country through 2014.
A quicker end to U.S. combat in Afghanistan could give Obama an election-year lift, allowing him to point to a plan for ending the war.
As of January 1, 889 U.S. soldiers had been killed in a conflict that was launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. U.S. forces number about 90,000 among the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan and Britain 9,500.
But Panetta has come under criticism from some lawmakers for moving too swiftly to extract U.S. troops. U.S. military brass said that while they ultimately agreed to Obama's plan to remove an extra 30,000 "surge" troops from the country this year, the plan entailed more risk than they were comfortable with.
Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said Panetta's statement "sends the wrong message at the wrong time to both our friends and our enemies in the Afghan conflict. There is absolutely no military rationale that I am aware of for suddenly accelerating the current timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan."
Panetta said his key message to the NATO allies as they meet on Thursday and Friday to prepare for a Chicago summit in May was that the coalition in Afghanistan needed to unite behind the goals agreed on in Lisbon.
"We're on the right track. We've made important gains. We just have to stick with this until ... we all can by the end of 2014 be able to end this mission based on the success ... that gives Afghanistan the security it needs for the future," he said.
Panetta said despite the move by France, the other allies had supported the Lisbon process.
A senior U.S. defense official said the American delegation was keen to hear from the French allies about Sarkozy's thinking.
"What's been said doesn't necessarily imply a change in the commitment to the Lisbon timetable in terms of when the final phase of the transition process will be concluded," the official said.
"So we want to get a better sense of what the French actually have in mind, what kind of role they envisage in 2013 and in 2014," he said. "We may well be able to work with this. It may not be a fundamental difference."
The official noted that many policy officials in Paris had been caught off guard by Sarkozy's announcement and it had been difficult to get "exactly to what the French bottom line is."
"So far, we're not concerned about any cracks in the unity of the coalition," the official said. "I think despite predictions of rushing for the exits at different stages of this process, the coalition has held pretty firm together."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)