The combat role for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that on Wednesday for the first time on behalf of the administration to reporters traveling on board his airplane heading to Europe.
Secretary Panetta said: "Hopefully by the mid to the latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role."
U.S. forces are due to remain in Afghanistan through 2014. Panetta did not suggest Americans would be coming home any sooner.
The U.S. goal is to keep the Taliban from returning to power. But in another development Wednesday, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin tells us a U.S. military report says the administration's goal may be out of reach.
The report -- classified secret and titled "State of the Taliban 2012" -- makes for discouraging reading to anyone who thinks the Taliban is a spent force. Based on interviews with Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners, it states that "though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remain intact."
Prisoners, of course, are not the most reliable of sources. But the sheer weight of numbers -- 27,000 interrogations of more than 4,000 prisoners held at Parwan prison in Afghanistan -- gives the report the ring of truth. The prisoners acknowledged that they lost ground in the south of Afghanistan and are no match for American troops. But U.S. force levels are going down from a high of 100,000 to the current 89,000, to 68,000 by September.
And the prisoners say they are encouraged to fight on by America's supposed ally Pakistan and its intelligence service known as ISI.
As the report puts it, "ISI officers tout the need for continued jihad and expulsion of foreign invaders from Afghanistan... ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel. Senior Taliban leaders meet regularly with ISI personnel, who advise on strategy..."
A captured al Qaeda commander put it more bluntly: "Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can't (go to the bathroom) without them watching."
If there's any encouraging news in this document, it's that the Taliban believes al Qaeda is indeed a spent force and doesn't work with them much anymore.