ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT - The United States plans to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013 and shift to a training role, one year before most US troops are due to withdraw, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.Although US commanders had already indicated a move towards an advisory mission in coming months, Panetta’s comments marked the first time the US administration had forecast American and allied troops could end their combat operations by the second half of next year. “Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a train, advise and assist role,” Panetta told reporters aboard his plane en route to a NATO meeting in Brussels. With President Barack Obama facing a tough re-election campaign, the Pentagon chief’s remarks represented the strongest signal yet that the White House wants to wrap up the wars it inherited from the previous administration, after having overseen the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in December.Obama took a similar approach in Iraq before the pullout there, declaring an end to the combat mission while the Pentagon renamed units as “advise and assist” brigades.Panetta portrayed the approach as in keeping with a gradual NATO plan adopted in Lisbon in November 2010, which calls for handing over security duties to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.Despite the goal of ending the combat mission next year, the United States had no plans to move up the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of American and coalition forces, Panetta said.The NATO alliance had agreed on the 2014 timeline “and I think we ought to stick with that,” he said.As for stepping back from a combat role, Panetta said: “Everybody assumed that there would come a time, as we move towards the end of 2014, that we would be transitioning that role.”He added: “And that’s basically what...we did in Iraq. And it’s what we’re going to try to do in Afghanistan.”After a decade of war, Washington has vowed to withdraw combat forces battling the Taliban by the end of 2014 but has left the door open to a follow-on force focused on training, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the Afghan government.Panetta said such a future force could include a counter-terrorism mission to strike extremists, along with standard training efforts.He said Washington wanted to see all the NATO allies in Afghanistan - including France - “respect” the NATO timeline.“We all went in here together and we’ll all go out together, but we have to do it on the basis of a strong alliance and a strong commitment that was made in Lisbon,” said Panetta. He said 2013 would be a “crucial” year for the final transfer of remaining areas to Afghan security forces and “2014 becomes a year of consolidating the transition.”It was unclear how the planned shift from combat to a mainly advisory role would affect US troop levels.The United States appears to have taken Kabul by surprise by announcing plans to end its Afghan combat role earlier than expected.“A decision to push this a year earlier throws out the whole transition plan. The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations,” a senior Afghan security official, who could not be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, told Reuters on Thursday.“If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force,” the official said, adding that his government had not been informed of the change in plans.With nearly 90,000 US troops now in Afghanistan, Panetta said that “no decision has been made with regards to the level of forces we’ll have in 2013.”By the end of September, the number of US troops is due to drop to 68,000, following the scheduled withdrawal of a “surge force” that deployed in 2010.Meanwhile, NATO allies in Brussels set out plans Thursday to hand Afghans full control of the battlefield next year as they seek to wind down an unpopular war that has dragged on for a decade.NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said foreign troops would shift to a support role as Afghan security forces take over, but he insisted that the alliance was sticking to its decision to keep troops there until 2014.“We expect the last provinces to be handed over to the Afghanistan security forces by mid-2013,” Rasmussen told reporters ahead of two days of talks among NATO defence ministers.“From that time Afghan security forces are in the lead all over Afghanistan. And from that time, the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support. In that, there’s nothing new,” he said.Despite NATO assurances that insurgents are on the back foot, a leaked secret NATO document, based on thousands of detainee interrogations, showed the Taliban believe they can reconquer Afghanistan once Western forces are gone.French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also facing a difficult election, had appeared to upend the strategy last week when announcing that France would withdraw combat forces a year early, in 2013.A diplomat said French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet “will try to clarify” the decision and “reassure allies that France does not intend to abandon them.” Longuet is expected to say that a number of French soldiers will stay beyond 2013 to continue the training mission.Rasmussen indicated that the 28-nation alliance was in sync.“Based on all I have heard, and all I have seen, I think all allies and all partners stick to the decisions we took in Lisbon,” he said.