SANTIAGO, Chile – Only a "fraction" of the current 150,000 foreign forces fighting in Afghanistan are likely to remain in the country past 2014, probably as trainers and advisers instead of front-line combat troops, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday.
NATO nations, at a meeting in Portugal, agreed to start reducing troop levels in Afghanistan next year and hand over control of security to the Afghans in 2014. But the U.S. and its allies appeared to take conflicting views on when NATO combat operations would end.
There's been confusion about what the goal of a security handoff in 2014 really means. Gates was asked whether he envisions a combat role for U.S. forces past that time — a combat commitment stretching at least 14 years since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
"The intention is that by 2014 that the lead role in all security activities across the entire country would have been transitioned to Afghanistan and to their security forces," Gates said in Chile, where he was attending defense meetings.
"I anticipate that the international forces, some fraction of them, will remain to do training and to provide support for the Afghans. But I think anything that remains after 2014 will be very modest" and focused on the kind of advisory role that U.S. forces now play in Iraq.
About 50,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in 2003. They are on call to help Iraqi forces and perform counterterrorism operations.
Gates was not specific about what duties a post-2014 U.S. force might perform in Afghanistan, but he said the Iraq force would be the model.
Roughly 100,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan. The Obama administration plans to begin scaling down that force next July.