LISBON -- NATO leaders at a two-day summit in Lisbon have backed plans to begin transferring control to Afghan forces next year with an eye to full Afghan control by 2014, while assuring Kabul that they will not abandon it.
U.S. President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and leaders of NATO member states arrived in Portugal
to fine-tune the alliance's exit strategy from Afghanistan, as well as to discuss missile defense
and other ways the military alliance can counter 21st-century threats.
"Here in Lisbon we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after the meeting of allied leaders.
He added that he did not foresee foreign troops in a combat role in Afghanistan more than four years from now and stressed that "the aim is for Afghan forces to be in the lead countrywide by the end of 2014."
"Starting early next year, Afghan forces will begin taking the lead for security operations," Rasmussen said. "This will begin in certain districts and provinces and, based on conditions, will gradually expand throughout the country."
Rasmussen had said ahead of the meeting that "Afghanistan's fight against terrorism is of strategic global importance." He vowed that the alliance would maintain its military presence in Afghanistan after the transition to prevent that war-torn country from slipping back into chaos. NATO's "long-term partnership" with Afghanistan should "endure beyond the end of our combat mission," he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "I found voices of concord and agreement by the world leaders."
He reiterated that commitment after the Lisbon meeting, saying NATO "will stay after transition in a supporting role."
Under the "Enduring Partnership" agreement signed in the Portuguese capital, the alliance will continue to provide air support, training, advice, and logistics to Afghanistan's armed forces after 2014.
A clause in that document asserts NATO's "long-term commitment to a sovereign, independent, democratic, secure and stable Afghanistan that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists and terrorism."
Karzai, who has been critical of tactics used by NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, including night raids against suspected Taliban leaders, addressed the summit, which was also attended by representatives of the non-NATO states that participate in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
The Afghan president said he was confident the security handover would be a success and praised the international community's "strong commitment."Some Doubts
Karzai told reporters that Lisbon provided him with an opportunity to discuss Afghan concerns, including the problems of civilian casualties and detentions by foreign forces. He also expressed satisfaction over international support for ongoing efforts to reach a peace settlement with the Taliban.
"We have also spoken about the peace process and the need for the world leaders to back the peace process," Karzai told reporters, "and I'm glad to report to you now that on all the agendas that were common between us I found voices of concord and agreement by the world leaders."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was also in attendance, praised Afghan institutions for taking "increasing leadership and responsibility." He also said the United Nations would support the civilian aspect of a full transition to Afghan sovereignty and continue to support a genuine political dialogue that includes all Afghans.
"The Afghan-led search for a political solution has only entered its initial stage," Ban said. "The United Nations will support the process."
Some NATO and U.S. defense officials expressed doubts ahead of the conference about whether the 2014 deadline was realistic, given the continuing challenge posed by Taliban militants to the Afghan government.with additional RFE/RL and agency reporting