NATO defense ministers are gathering in Brussels for a long-scheduled meeting that follows announcements by the United States and France they will end their combat roles in Afghanistan a year ahead of schedule.
Afghanistan is poised to dominate the NATO meeting after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta surprised reporters late Wednesday on his aircraft, saying U.S. troops will end their combat role in Afghanistan next year, rather than at the end of 2014, as had been expected.
“Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then, hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we will be able to make - you know, to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role,” said Panetta.
NATO’s top leaders had agreed to hand-over full security control to Afghan forces in 2014. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said ending the alliance's combat role even earlier should be no surprise.
“We expect the last provinces to be handed over to the Afghan security forces by mid-2013. From that time Afghan security forces are in the lead all over Afghanistan, and from that time the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support,” he said.
But he added that any moves by individual allies must be coordinated with the NATO command in Kabul.
Some analysts are concerned about advancing NATO’s already-ambitious timeframe, including Security and Defense Agenda Director Giles Merritt in Brussels.
“It is a high risk strategy in the first place, and I think there is a general feeling that we keep that risk within bounds by remaining solidaire [in solidarity] with each other,” said Merritt.
During the two-day meeting in Brussels, NATO defense ministers will hear a report from their commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen. They will be listening particularly for indications of whether the French and American 2013 plans are practical.
They will also want to know about a secret U.S. military report leaked to the British media this week that says the Taliban is stronger that Western officials have acknowledged. If true, it will present even more challenges for the Afghan security forces and their international partners in 2013 and beyond.
Watch NATO Secretary General Rasmussen discuss coalition's Afghanistan timeline