BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. forces will cede the lead role in combat operations in Afghanistan next year, but will keep fighting alongside Afghan troops, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, as the Obama administration struggled to clear up confusion over its Afghan exit strategy.
Panetta surprised allies on Wednesday by suggesting the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan would end in 2013, the first time Washington had floated such a deadline.
On Thursday, Panetta emphasized to reporters that U.S. troops in Afghanistan would remain "combat-ready" as the United States winds down its longest war. But he said the troops would largely shift to a train-and-assist role as Afghan forces take responsibility for security before an end-2014 deadline for full Afghan control.
"I want to be clear: Even as Afghans assume the security lead, ISAF (international forces) will continue to have to be fully combat-ready and we will engage in combat operations as necessary," Panetta said.
Final decisions on the pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and the hand-over to forces loyal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai are not due to be made until U.S. President Barack Obama and fellow NATO leaders hold a summit in Chicago in May.
But Panetta's remarks on Wednesday, made en route to a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels, appeared intended to begin a discussion over timetables and possibly set the stage for an accelerated transition in Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that while Panetta had not announced a new policy, it was possible and "desirable" to have the transition take place earlier.
"The president does not believe that U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan for the sake of staying. They should stay there to fulfil their mission and then he will bring them home," Carney said.
Obama, who withdrew the last of the U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, has been willing to scale down the American presence in Afghanistan more rapidly than some of his military commanders preferred.
The United States entered Afghanistan in late 2001 following the September 11 attacks to overthrow its Taliban-led government, which sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization. Washington provides about 90,000 of the 130,000 foreign troops there.
While U.S. officials insisted there was no contradiction in the U.S. message, comments by a senior NATO official underscored the potential for confusion.
"He (Panetta) said the combat role will come to an end but he also said combat will continue. And that's exactly what I'm saying," the NATO official said.
Panetta, speaking in Brussels, said there was a general consensus among members of NATO's International Security Assistance Force that Afghans should take the security lead at some point in 2013, but that ISAF forces would have to continue participating in combat operations in some areas as necessary.
"Between now and the end of 2014, we're prepared to engage in combat, whether we're in the lead or the Afghans are," a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity.
NATO officials stressed that while the timelines had not been explicitly spelled out before, given the 2014 deadline, handing lead security responsibilities to Afghan troops would always have had to take place by the middle of next year.
CIA Director David Petraeus told a congressional hearing that Panetta's comments had been "overanalyzed" and were "exactly in line" with the policy started last summer.
"If you are 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," he said.
If it can negotiate a bilateral troop deal, the United States is expected to maintain a modest-sized military force in Afghanistan even beyond the end of 2014, focused on advising Afghan forces and on targeted counterterrorism missions.
Karzai's fragile government expressed shock at Panetta's earlier remarks.
In Kabul, a senior Afghan security official said his government had not been informed of Panetta's announcement and said it "throws out the whole transition plan."
"Transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations," he said. "If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force."
The U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, had been in contact with the Afghan government regarding Panetta's comments, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Panetta discussed transition plans with NATO defence ministers, including Germany's Thomas de Maiziere, who said he had "followed the debate of the last few hours with surprise."
De Maiziere and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said later there was no change in the NATO plan and British Defence Minister Philip Hammond said allies were "all actually in the same place".
"We all recognize that in 2013 there will be an evolution in the mission," Hammond said. "The Afghans will be having lead responsibility for security throughout the whole country, but we will remain there in a combat support role and we will continue to do so in our case until the end of 2014," he said.
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news briefing NATO would move gradually to a support role, but combat operations would continue throughout the transition period and the alliance was committed to a principle of "in together, out together."
Panetta's comments came after French President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a tough re-election campaign, said last month that French combat operations would end by the end of 2013, an announcement that came after four French troops were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier.
Former U.S. NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker said Panetta had erred in putting an emphasis on the 2013 date, which would make withdrawal sound more imminent and affect the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
"It's a mistake to try to accomplish something against a deadline, especially when it's such a daunting challenge. Everyone just plans around it," Volker said. "(The Taliban) say, 'OK, if the Afghan security forces are really in charge as of 2013, all the better.'"
The concerns were heightened given that Panetta's comments came just after British media published excerpts of a classified U.S. report saying that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, remained confident of regaining control in Afghanistan despite a decade of NATO efforts.
Rasmussen said the alliance expected responsibility for security to be handed over to Afghan security forces throughout the country by mid-2013 and for them to have full control at the end of 2014.
"It is of course of crucial importance that this change of role takes place in a coordinated manner," he added, emphasising that the changes of role would have to take into account "the actual security situation on the ground."
Panetta said Washington had not made any decisions on troop levels for 2013 but Washington did aim to withdraw most of its combat forces by the end of 2014.
Scaling back U.S. combat operations could give President Barack Obama an election-year lift by enabling him to point to progress in Afghanistan.
But Panetta's remarks have already drawn criticism from Obama's chief rival for the presidency and Republican lawmakers in Congress.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Rob Taylor in Kabul and Jeff Mason in Washington