When NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke to the press last night at the end of the first of two days of meetings with NATO defense ministers, he tried to dispel confusion surrounding the end of NATO’s role in Afghanistan. A day earlier, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had announced that US combat operations would end in mid 2013 as would the process of transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan police and army –moving up both milestones by more than a year.

But Rasmussen said that the transition plan agreed on at the NATO Lisbon summit in November of 2010 still stood. The Lisbon plan foresees the Afghan security forces taking control of operations throughout the country by the end of 2014. “That decision and that roadmap still stand,” Rasmussen said. “We are all committed to the principle: ‘in together, out together.’”

The transition process began last year and will take place in five phases, with more provinces and districts handed over to Afghan control at each milestone. The second phase of transition was completed in December of last year. When asked when the final areas of the country would be transitioned, Rasmussen said that the handover would have to take place sometime before the scheduled 2014 withdrawal of international forces, so a full handover by mid 2013 was possible.

Until Afghan forces are in full control, the role of NATO forces will gradually change from combat to support, but combat operations won’t wrap up entirely until the end of 2014. “Let me stress: we will conduct combat operations throughout the transition period,” said Rasmussen.

In summary, here’s what we know: NATO will wind down combat operations as the transition process progresses, with NATO forces taking part in fewer combat operations as Afghans lead more, all the way through 2014. Between now and then, NATO will place increasing emphasis on training and assisting Afghan forces. And while it’s possible that the transition might be finished by mid 2013, that isn’t a set deadline.

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