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NATO ministers mull early combat withdrawal
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s shock announcement that the US would wind down combat operations in Afghanistan next year has dominated dialogue at a two-day NATO meeting of defense ministers in Brussels.
Hours before a two-day NATO meeting on Afghanistan started in Brussels Thursday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the shock announcement that his country plans to wind down combat operations in 2013.
The Brussels talks among top NATO officials were set to focus on possible adjustments to the alliance’s Afghanistan strategy. But the harbingers of a strategy shift were sounding hours before NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen opened the Thursday summit– with Panetta's announcement on a flight from a Andrews Air Force base in Maryland to the Belgian capital.
Speaking to reporters, Defense Secretary Panetta let the news fly: "Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a train-and-advise and assist role," he said.
With that, Panetta radically pushed up the date for combat troop withdrawal, which had been previously set -- at the 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon -- for the end of 2014.
Transitioning from a "combat" to a "training" mission has become the latest euphemism for an accelerated international military withdrawal from Afghanistan – especially in countries holding presidential elections this year.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced he would pull French troops out by the end of next year, and told reporters he had informed US President Barack Obama of the plan.
Addressing a joint press conference with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris, Sarkozy said, “We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013.”
Standing next to Sarkzoy at the conference, Karzai did not object to the French plan – although he did not sound convinced about the increased pace of the withdrawal.
“Yes, Mr. President, it is right that Afghanistan has to provide for its own security,” said Karzai before adding, “We hope to finish the transition -- to complete this transition of authority to the Afghan forces, to the Afghan government, by the end of 2013 at the earliest - or by the latest as has been agreed upon -- by the end of 2014.”
NATO report reveals a confident Taliban
But in Afghan government and security circles, the reaction to the new timetable was swift.
In an interview with Reuters, a senior Afghan security official complained that the move "throws out the whole transition plan".
"The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations," the official said.
Panetta’s announcement came a day after British news organizations published details of a classified NATO report on the interrogations of thousands of insurgent detainees in Afghanistan, which revealed that insurgents believe the Taliban – backed by Pakistan – will return to power in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops.
“Once ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is no longer a factor, the Taliban consider victory inevitable," the report stated.
On Thursday, senior NATO officials were at pains to stress that Panetta’s statement had not fundamentally altered the alliance’s Afghanistan strategy.
Speaking to reporters before the start of the talks, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen also said NATO troops would transition from a combat to a support role in mid-2013. He added that the support mission would wrap up at the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are scheduled to assume full responsibility for security.
However, Rasmussen stressed that the alliance was working on the details of a long-term partnership with Afghanistan.
“Afghans will not be left alone at the end of the transition process. We are committed to providing support to Afghanistan through transition and beyond,'' he said.
But many Afghans are afraid they will indeed by abandoned by Western forces – as they have been in the past.
Reporting from Brussels, FRANCE 24’s Méabh McMahon said NATO officials had insisted the handover would be gradual. “They’re stressing on the word ‘gradual’,” she said. “But some security experts agree that France’s early withdrawal would put NATO’s plans in jeopardy and that the policy of ‘in together, out together’ must be respected. But it’s likely that we won’t have a final decision until the next NATO meeting in Chicago in May.”