By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2012 - A transition to Afghan security lead in the country in 2013 is a prudent step, but one that doesn't change the December 2014 deadline for NATO to end combat operations in the country, Pentagon officials said today.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby amplified on remarks Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made yesterday on his way to NATO meetings in Brussels.
In an interview with reporters traveling with him, Panetta said the U.S. goal "is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then, hopefully, by 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."
The secretary was speaking in broad terms about the process of transition in Afghanistan, Kirby said. Transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans began last year, when NATO transferred security responsibility to Afghan security forces for seven areas. Later in the year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai chose 11 other areas to begin transition to Afghan lead. Afghan army and police forces now have lead responsibility for more than half the population of the country.
But the transition is a multistep process, Kirby said, and Panetta will be discussing that process with NATO allies in Brussels today. The final plan about transition and the particulars of the process will be decided in May by heads of state at the NATO summit in Chicago, he added.
"The secretary was pretty clear that he hopes to transition at least the lead for combat-type missions to Afghan national security forces earlier than 2014," Kirby said. "We really do believe that ... the gains we have made on the ground have allowed us to begin these type of conversations."
Kirby stressed that no deployment schedules have changed.
The captain said officials watch conditions all the time, and the allies will continue to hedge bets to preserve as much flexibility as possible. "The enemy always gets a vote," Kirby said.
The ultimate goal is to complete transition by the end of 2014, but many steps remain before that date, he said, emphasizing that transition takes time and is an evolution, not a sharp decision point.
"It is a well-reasoned process," Kirby said. "It's going to be informed by conditions on the ground and opinions and judgments of operational commanders and informed by general assessment of the performance and capabilities ... of the Afghan forces."
It's not too soon for the allies to be discussing the final phases of the transition, Kirby said.
"Given the success we've made and the progress that the Afghan national security forces have made, this is something we need to consider," he said. "2014 is not that far away. It would be imprudent -- in fact, I think it would be irresponsible -- if we and our allies and partners were not starting to have these discussions now."
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