MELBOURNE Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plans to assume responsibility for his country's security by 2014 is a realistic goal and one that NATO should endorse at a summit in Lisbon, U.S. officials said on Monday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, both acknowledged a tough fight ahead but added they thought Karzai's target was attainable.
"One of the agenda items of the Lisbon summit is to embrace President Karzai's goal of completing the transfer of security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014," Gates told reporters during a visit to Australia.
Asked whether he supported its inclusion at the summit and believed it was plausible, Gates said: "Speaking realistically, I would say yes to both questions."
Mullen acknowledged "we're clearly not there" yet.
"But as a target at this point that makes sense," Mullen told reporters during a visit to Australia.
The November 19-20 summit in Lisbon will bring the war into focus following the most violent year in the nine-year-old conflict. NATO commanders are calling for patience, saying that despite record casualties, real progress is being made in the battle against the Taliban.
President Barack Obama aims to start bringing U.S. troops home next July, the beginning of a transition in which Afghans are intended to increasingly take the lead in security as foreign forces thin out.
Opponents of Obama's July deadline say it has emboldened the Taliban, sending a signal that militants need only to wait until the departure of foreign forces before stepping up activities.
"People say 'you picked July 2011 and that lets the Taliban know that there's an end date.' Well, I hope the Taliban think that's an end date because it's not," Gates said.
"And they're going to be very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there and still coming after them."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)