The timetable for the end of America's combat role in Afghanistan could be sooner than later.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who was en route to a NATO meeting in Brussels Wednesday, said America's combat involvement in that nation would end by 2013, rather than the end of 2014, The New York Times reported.
The timeline fits neatly into the U.S. political calendar, enabling President Barack Obama to declare on the campaign trail this year that in addition to bringing all U.S. troops home from Iraq and beginning a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, he also has a target period for ending the U.S. combat role there.
The defense secretary said there has been no decision on the number of American forces that would leave next year or revealed what the scaling down would involve. "It doesn't mean that we're not going to be combat-ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves," he said.
The U.S. now has about 91,000 troops there as part of the International Security Assistance Force. The fact that much military work will remain after 2013 "demands that we have a strong presence there," Panetta said.
Watch the "60 Minutes" interview with Leon Panetta below:
Back in June,that 10,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of 2011. He said at the time: "Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."
Although Panetta made no mention of it, U.S. Marines in Afghanistan already are making that transition out of a combat role. They are operating in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been greatly weakened, and are on track to reduce their numbers significantly this year. Panetta's remarks indicated that this switch into a support role will be applied across Afghanistan, assuming no major setbacks against the Taliban and continued progress in training Afghan forces.
Many U.S. forces already are training and advising Afghan forces.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the overall commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has been talking publicly since last fall about converting the military role from combat to what he has called "security assistance." But Panetta went further in identifying mid- to late-2013 as the target for completing this conversion countrywide.
Panetta was heading to Brussels to attend a NATO meeting at which this and other issues related to the war in Afghanistan are expected to top the agenda. The session is intended to help pave the way for key decisions to be announced at a summit meeting of NATO heads of government in Chicago in May.
All NATO members have endorsed the plan to keep forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. But France this week appeared to throw that plan into doubt when President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his side and seemingly in agreement, that NATO end its mission in 2013 - one year earlier than planned.
Panetta said he hoped to hear more from the French delegation at NATO.
Panetta is gathering with his European counterparts at a delicate time for NATO, not only because of the uncertainty surrounding the military mission in Afghanistan but also because of a growing gap in military power between the U.S. and nearly all other European members of the alliance.
That chasm is not expected to narrow even as the U.S. reduces its defense budget by nearly $490 billion over the coming decade and reduces the size of the Army and Marine Corps.