U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan hope to end their combat mission as soon as mid-2013 and begin the transition to a "training, advise-and-assist role."
He suggested the process would roughly mirror that in Iraq, where U.S. troops completed a withdrawal in December.
Speaking on a flight to Brussels, where he planned to meet on February 2-3 with NATO defense ministers, Panetta told reporters: "Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a train, advise and assist role."
Panetta said it was expected foreign forces would be "transitioning" their role in Afghanistan as the 2014 drawdown approached. He said that was "what we did in Iraq and it's what we're going to try to do in Afghanistan."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this week that France wants to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013.
French officials have said some French troops would provide training to Afghan forces after 2013 -- comments that appeared to echo Panetta's outline to reporters on February 1.
Sarkozy, who faces a reelection battle in April, responded by suspending French training missions and threatening to pull troops after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French servicemen in eastern Afghanistan on January 20.
Panetta said he wants to hear more from the French defense minister during this week's talks in Brussels to clarify whether there are any serious differences between the French stance and NATO's timeline for a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014. He insisted that a 2013 end to combat operations was in line with a previous NATO strategy agreed in Lisbon, Portugal.
Afghan officials say an early withdrawal would rush the transition and leave Afghan forces unprepared to provide security in the country.
Panetta described the role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2014 as being "pretty robust," and added that the change to an advisory and training role "doesn't mean that we're not going to be combat-ready."
"The Washington Post"
quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying "nothing is final" and that decisions about the pace of withdrawal would not be made until a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
An early transition from a combat role also comes ahead of a U.S. presidential election in November and would give incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama an opportunity to say during campaigning that U.S. troops were out of Iraq
and would soon be out of Afghanistan.
Compiled from agency reports