LISBON President Barack Obama said for the first time on Saturday his goal was to end the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and to significantly reduce the number of U.S. troops deployed there by then.
His remarks, made at the end of a NATO summit in Lisbon, surprised, as earlier in the day top aides had told reporters that Washington was not yet ready to commit to such a target.
"My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead, and it is a goal to make sure we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort we are involved in now," Obama told a news conference.
He said the United States endorsed NATO's plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghan security forces by 2014, but stressed that counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda in the region would likely continue after that date.
U.S. officials have in the past avoided linking the planned transition to Afghan control to the end of the U.S. combat mission in the unpopular nine-year-old war.
Obama was stung by criticism last year that he was jeopardizing the lives of U.S. soldiers by announcing that U.S. troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011. Critics said setting the date would embolden the Taliban.
As a result, the White House had been careful to refer to 2014 only as the date when Afghans would finally be taking the lead in security operations in their war-torn country.
But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen brought the issue into the open when he told a news conference the aim was for foreign troops serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to cease combat before 2015.
"I don't foresee ISAF 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.
Pressed for a response, senior Obama administration officials earlier had declined to explicitly endorse that date. They said the United States would make its own decision closer to the time, based on conditions on the ground.
"The issue of changing the combat mission is an independent national decision which will be made by all 28 nations of NATO. In the case of the United States, we simply have not taken that decision yet," one U.S. official told reporters before Obama spoke.
Obama's remarks crystallized the U.S. position but they still came with a major caveat.
"Certainly our footprint will have been significantly reduced (by 2014)," he said. "Beyond that it is hard to anticipate exactly what will be necessary to keep the American people safe as of 2014. I'll make that determination when I get there."
Despite spiraling violence and record civilian and military casualties, Obama said he believed NATO forces were making progress in blunting the momentum of the Taliban and ramping up training of Afghan security forces.
The White House is coordinating a review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and a report is due to be delivered to Obama in December. Ofe way the war is being fought.
Obama, who ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last year, said the Taliban was now on the defensive and that fewer areas were now under the militant group's control.
"We are in a better place now than we were a year ago," Obama said.
Security analysts and others, however, have questioned the upbeat assessments of U.S. military officials, saying they appear designed to influence U.S. public opinion and Obama's review and do not reflect the violent reality on the ground.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Matthew Jones)