2013 ambiguity turns meeting of NATO defense ministers into ‘day of confusion’

NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, February 2, 2012

From Elisabeth Bumiller, the New York Times:  The top NATO official said Thursday that NATO forces in Afghanistan would move gradually from a combat to support role by 2014, but that combat would continue during that period and that NATO remained committed to the principle of “in together, out together.”

The statement by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, capped a day of confusion at the headquarters here of the military alliance. The disarray began after the American defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, surprised at least some NATO officials when he said Wednesday that the United States wanted to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by as early as mid-2013, more than a year before most American and NATO forces are set to go home.

Defense officials said Thursday that Mr. Panetta was speaking of stepping back from a “lead” combat role, although they did not define that.

Mr. Panetta’s comments appeared to reflect the White House’s desire to extract itself as quickly as possible from an unpopular war, but on Thursday Mr. Panetta’s advisers and some NATO officials appeared concerned that other countries might hasten their exit from Afghanistan. Defense officials said throughout the day that the United States would continue in combat operations as needed through 2014 and that a residual international force would remain in 2015. . . .

 [Panetta] and his team also played down last week’s announcement by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France that his country would break with its NATO allies and accelerate the withdrawal of its forces in Afghanistan by pulling back its troops a year early, by the end of 2013. Pentagon officials said Mr. Sarkozy and the United States might be more in tune than it appeared, although they acknowledged confusion about the French president’s statement and said their goal was to sort it out at the NATO meeting.

“A lot of policy officials in Paris were scrambling” after Mr. Sarkozy’s announcement, a senior American defense official said. “So getting exactly to what the French bottom line is hasn’t been easy for them, much less for us.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing the internal deliberations of another country.  (photo: Getty)

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