US troops in Afghanistan: How big is shift from 'combat' to 'assistance'?

The US plan to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2013, shifting to an 'advise and assist' role, may not mean a huge change for troops on the ground. 

Virginia Mayo/AP
United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels Thursday. NATO defense ministers will discuss possible changes to the alliance's strategy in Afghanistan after the U.S. and France called for speeding up the handover of combat roles to local forces.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said this week that the United States plans to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2013.

What does this mean for US troops, exactly? Are they likely to be safer? To see less fighting?

In practical terms, probably not. 

The move away from a “combat role” into, as Mr. Panetta explained it, an “advise and assist role” is replete with some murky military definitions.

For some time, Afghan forces have been “in the lead” for security in some provinces throughout the country. For US troops this still means providing plenty of help, analysts note. US soldiers and Marines come to the aid of Afghan forces in battle and continue to supply water, transportation, and other vital supplies.

Panetta explained that this transition will often be a matter of formality. “It’s still a pretty robust role that we’ll be engaged in,” he said Wednesday. “It’s not going to be kind of the formal combat role that we are now, but it clearly is going to be a role where we are going to be providing a great deal of support and assistance to the Afghan Army.” 

He added, “Look, it doesn’t mean that – you know, we’re not – we’re not going to be combat-ready.”

US troops will have to continue to call on this combat-readiness in a country that remains in violent turmoil. 

The intelligence community’s annual “threat assessment,” released this week, paints a picture of a Taliban-led insurgency that “has long ground in some areas.” However, the report notes, “its losses have come mainly in areas where ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] surge forces are concentrated.”

These US "surge forces" are set to come home later this year after the summer fighting season. Their ranks will decrease from some 90,000 now to roughly 68,000 by the end of 2012.

The Obama administration has yet to decide how many troops will leave the country in 2013.

Yet even as the number of US troops will decline, it is unclear that Afghan forces will be able to hold territory on their own. The annual threat assessment, produced by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Director of National Intelligence, among others, put the readiness of Afghan forces in stark terms: “In terms of security, we judge that the Afghan police and Army will continue to depend on ISAF support.”

That is precisely the concern of many US commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. For just this reason, then, Panetta's announcement sends a clear message to Afghan counterparts as well: that it’s time to step up the pace and take on more responsibility.

Still, this didn’t stop some lawmakers on Capitol Hill from decrying the move. Said Rep. Buck McKeon (R) of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, “While there have certainly been improvements in Afghan security forces’ capabilities, the committee has not seen a single assessment by our commanders that indicates that they have any confidence in such a swift transition.”

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