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U.S. tries to ease confusion over Afghan plans

Thursday, February 2, 2012

(Reuters) - U.S. forces will cede the lead role in combat operations in Afghanistan next year, but will keep fighting alongside Afghan troops, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, as the Obama administration struggled to clear up confusion over its Afghan exit strategy.

Panetta surprised allies on Wednesday by suggesting the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan would end in 2013, the first time Washington had floated such a deadline.

On Thursday, Panetta emphasized to reporters that U.S. troops in Afghanistan would remain "combat-ready" as the United States winds down its longest war. But he said the troops would largely shift to a train-and-assist role as Afghan forces take responsibility for security before an end-2014 deadline for full Afghan control.

"I want to be clear: Even as Afghans assume the security lead, ISAF (international forces) will continue to have to be fully combat-ready and we will engage in combat operations as necessary," Panetta said.

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