(BRUSSELS, Belgium) -- NATO defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, are in Brussels, Belgium, where the future of the mission in Afghanistan is topping the agenda at a two-day summit.
Panetta's remarks on Wednesday that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan would wind down more than a year before the 2014 deadline for withdrawal seem to have landed on the NATO summit like a bombshell.
NATO Secretary Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted there was nothing new; the transition would begin when the last province was handed over to Afghan security by mid 2013, he said.
"From that time the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support. In that there is nothing new," Rasmussen said.
The alliance, he insisted, would maintain its solidarity and stick to its goals.
Panetta's comments drew criticism, including GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who said the Obama administration should be "telegraphing" its strategy to the Taliban. However, the administration is trying to negotiate with the extremist group, which has stated it has no intention of joining a peace process.
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