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End of combat mission in Afghanistan doesn't mean safety for US forces

Afghan police officials inspect the scene of a bomb blast in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of volatile Helmand province, Afghanistan on Jan. 21.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the U.S. military hopes to end its formal combat mission in Afghanistan next year, but that doesn't mean Americans won't see combat there, U.S. officials say. 

Panetta said the end of the formal combat mission was planned for the middle or latter part of 2013. U.S. military forces would then take on a training and advisory role with Afghan security forces until all American military forces would withdraw at the end of 2014.

Panetta emphasized however that "this doesn't mean we're not going to be combat ready." And Pentagon officials acknowledge it's highly likely that U.S. forces will still see combat during the transition period until the end of 2014.

Panetta: US to end combat in Afghanistan next year

It's the same strategy and exactly what happened as the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq. More than 370 Americans were killed or wounded in Iraq after the formal end of their combat mission until all forces were finally withdrawn 18 months later. In fact, during that transition period, U.S. Special Operations forces continued to conduct nighttime raids on enemy or al-Qaida targets.

American troops often came under rocket attack in their compounds or encountered those highly lethal homemade bombs on the road. The last American soldier who died in Iraq was killed one month before the final withdrawal.

Slideshow: Afghanistan - Nation at a Crossroads

Pentagon officials insist this is not a new strategy. As in Iraq, a transition period was always built into the timetable for withdrawal. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had already announced that Afghan forces would take over security operations sometime in 2013, and NATO had also announced the transition to Afghan security would be completed next year.

The U.S. now has about 89,000 service members in Afghanistan. The total U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is slated to decrease to 68,000 by the end of this September.

For the first time Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said U.S. forces will aim to end their combat role in 2013, a significant milestone. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

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