In background briefings for American security bloggers on Monday, senior NATO officials hinted that the alliance would be willing to wrap up combat operations in Afghanistan and transfer responsibility for the war to the Afghan security forces more than a year ahead of schedule.

That decision was confirmed yesterday when US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that American forces would step back from a combat role as early as the summer of 2013. (Wired’s Spencer Ackerman scooped the rest of the media in breaking the story from Brussels.)

Even if coalition forces cease combat operations by mid next year, NATO will almost certainly continue supporting the Afghan security forces for several years beyond 2013. Any NATO mission after 2013 is likely to entail mostly training and advising the Afghan army and police, and possibly air support for Afghan-led combat operations –activities that NATO is engaged in already.

Yesterday’s announcement of the accelerated transition was not entirely unexpected. Last week in Paris, Afghan president Hamid Karzai and French president Nicholas Sarkozy called for an early end to NATO-led combat operations.

The details of the pushed up transition are expected to dominate the agenda at the NATO defense ministerial meeting that will begin this afternoon at NATO Headquarters.

I’ll update after the press conference.

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