NATO endorses plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by end of 2014
Despite formal agreement, U.S. and its allies appear to take conflicting views on when NATO combat operations would end.
NATO nations formally agreed Saturday to start reducing troop levels in Afghanistan next year and to hand over control of security to the Afghans in 2014.
The 28 member states and Afghanistan also signed an agreement for the Western alliance to remain in place after that date to provide military assistance for Afghanistan's armed forces — including air support, training, advice and logistics.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014 because it could slip back into chaos without assistance.
"Here in Lisbon we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will become masters in their own house," Rasmussen said after NATO leaders, including President Barack Obama, reached a consensus on the handover date, first proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai last year, on the second day of NATO's annual summit in Portugal's capital.
No details were provided on the precise nature of NATO's future role beyond the security handoff, but Rasmussen said that NATO troops would ideally no longer be fighting the Taliban.
"I don't foresee (NATO) troops in a combat role beyond 2014, provided of course that the security situation allows us to move into a more supportive role," Rasmussen told reporters after the NATO leaders made their decision in a closed door session.
Karzai predicted the effort will succeed "because I found today a strong commitment by the international community. This will be matched by the people of Afghanistan."
Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, had said the 2014 goal and the end of NATO's combat role in Afghanistan beyond that date "are not one and the same."
Meanwhile, a senior Obama administration official says the U.S. has not committed to ending its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration discussions.
But many NATO nations have insisted they will remove all their troops by 2014, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated said his country will end its combat role in Afghanistan by 2015.
"Make no mistake about it, that is an absolute commitment and deadline for us," the British news agency Press Association quoted him as saying.
He added: "This remains a phenomenal challenge. There is a huge amount of work to do in Afghanistan, and I wouldn't want anyone to think we can relax in any way about Afghanistan."
Karzai said he told NATO leaders that Afghans are weary of the nine-year war, and angry at the high level of civilian casualties and detention of Afghan suspects by NATO troops.
The end date to hand Afghans control of security is three years beyond the time that Obama has said he will start withdrawing U.S. troops, and the challenge is to avoid a rush to the exits as public opinion turns more sharply against the war and Karzai pushes for greater Afghan control.
Karzai's office in Kabul said the president also told NATO it is important to reduce civilian casualties and eliminate private security companies.
He called on the NATO leaders to support an accelerated process for
reconciling with the Taliban and win the trust of countries in the region so that they can foster the peace process.
Karzai's office also said the president renewed his pledge to fight corruption and asked that for a meeting on security transition in November 2011 in Bonn, Germany.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was expected to make a closed-door presentation emphasizing that stepped-up military operations this year, with the addition of thousands more U.S. combat troops, have made strides toward weakening the Taliban and eventually creating the conditions for peace negotiations.
But he also is believed to be concerned that the transition not turn into a departure before Afghanistan is stable.
Despite optimistic NATO statements about progress in the war, the Taliban have shown no sign of weakening under the intense military pressure.
Allied deaths have reached record levels this year, and the guerrillas have expanded their activities into previously safe regions in the north and west of the country.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official said Saturday the U.S. is seeking to expand the areas where American missiles can target Taliban and al-Qaida operatives but that Pakistan has refused the request because of domestic opposition to the strikes.
The U.S. is increasingly relying on the missile strikes by remote-controlled drones flying over Pakistani territory to find and kill Islamist extremists who have free rein in the lawless areas along the border, where they plan attacks against American and NATO troops in Afghanistan
Another major event is a meeting of NATO's 28 leaders with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
NATO and Moscow are expected to sign agreements to expand the alliance's supply routes to Afghanistan through Russia, and set up a new training program in Russia for counter-narcotics agents from Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. They also are expected to agree on a program to provide training to Afghan helicopter crews.
Obama won NATO support to build a missile shield over Europe, an ambitious commitment to protect against Iranian attack while demonstrating the alliance's continuing relevance.
Two key unanswered questions about the missile shield — will it work and can the Europeans afford it? — were put aside for the present in the interest of celebrating the agreement as a boost for NATO solidarity.