BRUSSELS — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that NATO allies have agreed broadly to step back from the lead combat role in Afghanistan and let local forces take their place as early as next year, a shortened timetable that startled officials and members of Congress.
Obama administration officials scrambled with varying degrees of clarity to explain that Panetta's announcement en route to the NATO defense ministers' meeting here that he hoped combat troops would move into a training and assistance role beginning in 2013 was not a policy change, but an optimistic look at the already-established timetable.
Panetta said he told a meeting of his 27 NATO counterparts that he hoped Afghan forces would be ready to take the combat lead countrywide sometime in 2013, with international troops shifting to a support role after a decade of inconclusive combat. That means Afghans would bear the main burden of offensive action, with U.S. and other foreign troops assisting, he said.
"There was consensus on this" among the allied defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters, Panetta told reporters, adding that no final decision was made.
Other officials, however, said there were some differences of opinion on whether 2013 was the right time to make this change. Few besides Panetta were willing to discuss the matter publicly; the ministers were due to resume their talks on Friday.
Views on what might take place in 2013 seemed to shift throughout the day as the ministers met behind closed doors. NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters in the morning that NATO expects all Afghan provinces to have been handed over to Afghan control by mid-2013, and "from that time, the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support."
But by day's end Rasmussen said it was too early to say whether that shift for NATO forces from combat to support will happen in 2013.
"It depends very much on the situation on the ground," he said, adding that the issue will be a central topic for discussion when President Barack Obama hosts a NATO summit meeting in Chicago in May on the Afghan endgame.
The summit also will deal with the tough question of the ultimate size of — and international financial support for — Afghan security forces beyond 2014, when the bulk of foreign forces are scheduled to leave. A related unresolved question is the number of U.S. and other foreign troops that might remain behind and what missions they would be assigned.
Panetta caused a stir when he said Wednesday that he foresaw American and NATO forces switching from a combat role to a support role by mid- to late-2013. He said this was a natural transition in line with the NATO goal, announced in November 2010, of having every Afghan province placed in government control by the end of 2014. Until that remark, however, it had been unclear how soon the U.S. believed it could largely end its combat mission in Afghanistan.
His remark prompted some Republicans in Washington to complain that the Obama administration was unwisely telegraphing its intentions to the Taliban. And it led to a cascade of confusing statements seeking to illuminate Panetta's meaning.
At one point, a senior NATO official offered this befuddling explanation of whether Panetta meant the U.S. combat role would end in 2013: "He 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 official was speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal NATO deliberations.
Asked further about the matter after Thursday's NATO meetings, Panetta said U.S. forces, once in a support role, would have to remain "combat ready," prepared to defend themselves but focused on enabling the Afghans to carry the brunt of combat. He also noted that U.S. special operations forces would remain in Afghanistan to go after certain terrorist targets.
In Washington, CIA Director David Petraeus, previously the top American commander in Afghanistan, told a congressional hearing that Panetta's comments had been "over-analyzed."
Petraeus said it is obvious that if the goal of putting Afghans fully in control of their own security is to be achieved by the end of 2014, then the final phase of that process would have to start sometime in 2013. "The idea is that we gradually stop leading combat operations," he said.
At the White House, officials backed Panetta, saying he was holding out hope that the transfer of control to Afghans could be accelerated.
"Within the context of transfer by the end of 2014, it is certainly possible — and if possible, therefore desirable — to have that transition take place earlier. But it is not an announcement of a new policy," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
At another point Carney said, "As secretary Panetta said, it could happen and hopefully it will happen: We could do it sooner."
What this means for the pace of the withdrawal of American troops is even less clear. For now, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, is under orders from Obama to reduce the current total of 91,000 U.S. troops to 68,000 by September. He has been given no lower target beyond September, although some reductions are seen as likely in 2013.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said the allies were united in seeing 2013 as key to getting Afghan forces in full control by the end of 2014.
"We are actually all in the same place," he said. "We all recognized that in 2013 there will be an evolution of the mission, the Afghans will be having the lead responsibility for the security throughout the whole country," he said. "But we will remain there in the combat support role and we will continue to do so, in our case, until the end of 2014, and the USA has indicated that it may go longer than that."
This week's NATO meetings began one day after a secret NATO report was leaked to the media suggesting that insurgent morale remains extremely high after more than a decade of war and that the Taliban remain confident they will defeat the U.S.-led coalition.
It also follows a series of attacks by members of Afghan forces on NATO troops or advisers. The repeated attacks have prompted worries about the degree of Taliban infiltration in the ranks of the national army and police, many of whom are considered unreliable.
There have been at least 35 attacks on international troops since 2007 by Afghan soldiers, police or insurgents wearing their uniforms, according to a tally by The Associated Press. The number rose sharply last year to 17, up from six in 2010.
Associated Press writers David Stringer in London, and Jim Kuhnhenn and Eileen Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.