US withdrawal plan from Afghanistan has not changed
On Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the US would end combat operations in Afghanistan in "mid to late 2013." The US forces would then switch to an advise and assist role, and the final withdrawal would occur by the end of 2014. CTV reported:
The United States and its NATO partners will end their combat roles in Afghanistan in 2013 -- a year earlier than previously announced.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that American troops will remain in the country through 2014, but only in a supporting role.
This switch to training and advising Afghan forces will occur in mid- to late-2013, Panetta told reporters in Brussels.
This announcement seems to have come as a surprise to many parties, Reuters noted:
Panetta surprised allies on Wednesday by suggesting the US combat mission in Afghanistan would end in 2013, the first time Washington had floated such a deadline.
Should it have surprised the US's allies? Was this really a change in plan?
No change in plan
Secretary Panetta's announcement corresponds to the same plan that US allies and the Karzai Government in Afghanistan agreed to over a year ago.
In September 2010, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the US would conduct combat operations in Afghanistan for only "two or three more years" before transitioning to an advise and assist role, the Wall Street Journal reported:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he envisions two or three more years of combat operations in Afghanistan before the U.S. transitions to an advisory role, a mission likely to last years more.
Pulling out combat forces in three years would ensure that the allied presence has transitioned to a training mission by the time British troops are due to withdraw in 2015. It would also meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai's goal of having his own army take responsibility for security by 2014.
At the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, NATO and Afghan President Karzai agreed to the withdrawal date of the end of 2014.
The members met with President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai regarding the group's operations in the country. They agreed to gradually withdraw combat forces from the country with a completion date of 2014.
In other words, Gates announced more than a year ago that the US would end combat operations sometime between late 2012 and late 2013. This is consistent with Panetta's announcement that combat operations would end in "mid to late 2013."
Gates also said back in September 2010 that the US would follow the same withdrawal schedule as it did in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time:
Mr. Gates sketched a process much like that in Iraq, where the U.S. formally ended combat operations this week, rebranding its forces as advisory brigades.
This part also has not changed. For Iraq, the last US forces left in December 2011. However, the US had ended combat operations 16 months earlier, in August 2010, at which point US forces transitioned to an advise and assist role.
For Afghanistan, the US plans to leave by the end of 2014. Following the same schedule as in Iraq, the US should then end combat operations 16 months earlier, by August 2013, and transition to an advise and assist role. Again, this corresponds to Secretary Panetta's statement that combat operations would end in "mid to late 2013" and the US would transition to an advise and assist role.
To sum up, the timetable announced by Panetta on Wednesday does not deviate from that announced by Gates in September 2010 and adopted by NATO in the strategic agreement of November 2010.