Remarks late Wednesday by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that U.S. military forces in Afghanistan could begin shifting from combat to a training and advisory role as early as mid-2013 are a significant development.
The United States and its partners in NATO agreed at a summit in Lisbon, Portugal in 2010 to turn over security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014.
Since then, it has been generally assumed U.S. troops would fully carry out their combat role through 2013 to ensure that Taliban forces are not able to undermine gains made on the ground.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced last year that the full 30,000 troops sent to Afghanistan, the so-called surge force, will be withdrawn by later this year.
He made that withdrawal plan a key part of the foreign policy portion of his recent State of the Union address.
"We’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten-thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America," he said.
With his Afghanistan strategy, and the fulfillment last year of his pledge to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq, Mr. Obama has spoken of the "tide of war" receding, saying the U.S should focus more attention on needs at home.
Secretary Panetta's comments to reporters accompanying him to NATO meetings in Brussels are a major development in what is known about the Obama administration's thinking about the Afghanistan timeline, but are not the first talk of transition beginning next year.
After France announced its intention to withdraw its forces by next year, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the transition to an Afghan security lead would begin in mid-2013.
Paraag Shukla, a former U.S. intelligence officer and now a senior research fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, had this assessment in an interview with VOA’s Pashto language service.
“What I think he’s trying to describe is that as we slowly transfer certain areas in Afghanistan to Afghan national security forces, our forces who are currently there are going to take on an increasingly advisory role. And so they’ll still be there in significant numbers depending on where in the country you’re discussing,” Shukla said.
Secretary Panetta underscored Mr. Obama's determination that the U.S. will have "an enduring presence" in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and said no final decisions have been made on exact U.S. troop levels after that.
Asked for comment on Panetta's remarks, White House officials directed questions to the Department of Defense.
In political speeches, President Obama stresses progress toward a final withdrawal. He told supporters in Washington this week that he is "managing a responsible transition in Afghanistan."
This is bound to be a major talking point for the president against an emerging Republican challenger ahead of the November presidential election. Another key talking point for Mr. Obama -- his support for Pentagon spending reduction plans, an issue directly linked to foreign operations like Afghanistan.
If conditions on the ground in Afghanistan do permit a U.S. transition to an advisory and training role beginning in mid-2013, Mr. Obama will be able to direct the attention of war-weary Americans to another milestone.
At the same time, he is likely to face predictable criticism from lawmakers in Congress, and from Republican presidential challengers, that confirming any sort of transition prior to the 2014 NATO target date will only embolden Taliban forces and undermine progress.