WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday played down Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's comments that the United States could end its combat role in Afghanistan next year, remarks that surprised allies in Europe and Kabul, as well as U.S. lawmakers.
Panetta, who is meeting with fellow NATO Defence chiefs in Brussels, said on Wednesday that U.S. troops in Afghanistan would step back from a fighting role in Afghanistan by mid- to late 2013. Instead, they would be in an "advise and assist" and training capacity, he said.
U.S. officials strenuously denied that the Defence secretary's remarks represent a shift in Washington's approach to the 10-year-old war, saying the timetable was in line with a previous NATO agreement to transfer all security tasks to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
"This was an assessment of what could happen within the context of the stated policy of NATO, which is to transfer the security lead to the Afghan security forces by 2014, and within that frame, within that timeline, the transition will take place," White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing.
"That's what Secretary Panetta was referring to," Carney told reporters.
But U.S. lawmakers expressed surprise at Panetta's remarks during a previously scheduled House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing, repeatedly questioning CIA Director David Petraeus about them.
"It was a surprise to me," Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said. "It is a departure."
Rogers said he was told by a senior official that Panetta's comments were probably the truth, but revealed too early. "I will tell you a senior official told me that he may have gotten ahead of the headlights," he said.
Petraeus sought to downplay the comments from Panetta, his predecessor at the CIA, saying they had been "over-analyzed."
The CIA chief said the policy previously adopted by the NATO-led international coalition and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai had called for all security tasks to be transitioned to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
"If you're going to have it completed totally by the end of 2014, obviously somewhere in 2013 you have had to initiate that in all of the different locations so that you can complete the remaining tasks," Petraeus said.
"The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations, the Afghan forces gradually take the leadership, it's in a successive series of transitions that take place as a result of the whole process between Afghan and ISAF leadership," he said.
"His (Panetta's) comments have been more than over-analyzed," Petraeus said.
"This is exactly in line with the policy that we started back in the summer of 2011, transitioning leadership of combat operations from ISAF to Afghan forces and then progressively complete it by the end of 2014," he said.
Panetta's comments ahead of the NATO Defence ministers' meeting were also greeted with surprise in Kabul, where Karzai's government, threatened by the Taliban's insurgency, remains fragile.
A classified NATO report leaked to British media this week said that the Taliban remains confident it can retake control of Afghanistan. The document was based largely on interviews with captured Taliban members.
The Pentagon also said Panetta's comments were not a change in U.S. policy.
"There is absolutely no change to anyone's commitment to the principles of the Lisbon summit and ultimate transition by the end of 2014," Captain John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said.
"There is no change to our commitment to Afghanistan, to their security, to preventing that country from ever becoming a safe haven again," he said. "Nothing changes today about the strategy that we're executing in Afghanistan and that we'll continue to execute."
"The desire to look for opportunities to transition the lead for combat roles to Afghan national security forces prior to 2014 does not at all mean that we won't be engaged in combat operation through 2013 and into 2014, probably right up to the end," Kirby said.