LISBON (Reuters) - The head of NATO said on Friday the alliance would start turning security over to Afghan forces next year under a plan to cease the combat role of foreign forces by the end of 2014.
Some NATO and Pentagon officials have expressed doubt that the 2014 deadline can be achieved because of the rising threat posed by Taliban insurgents to Afghanistan’s weak government.
But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he believed it was a realistic goal and one that would allow the military alliance to focus on training Afghan troops.
“Tomorrow we will announce that the transition process is about to start at the beginning of 2011 and I find it realistic that this process will be completed by the end of 2014,” Rasmussen said at a summit of leaders from NATO’s 28 member states.
“I see a role for troops after 2014 but with a focus on training security forces.”
Rasmussen said member states had agreed a new strategic concept, or mission statement, that will guide the alliance for the next decade. It includes the retention of its nuclear deterrent and an increased focus on contemporary threats such as cyberattack and counter-insurgency.
U.S. President Barack Obama said NATO had also agreed to develop a missile defense system to protect the territory of all NATO member states in Europe and North America, involving the linking of European and U.S. defense systems.
He said NATO leaders would invite Russia to join the system when they meet President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday.
But the focus of the summit was Afghanistan, with the U.S. administration expected to release a review of its strategy next month -- a report card that will examine whether the decision to send tens of thousands more troops to the war was right.
Obama, who will have talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during the summit on Saturday, backed the decision to start the security handover in 2011 and called for moves toward a reconciliation with the Taliban.
The United States has an increasingly tense relationship with Karzai, who has accused NATO forces of heavy-handedness and called for them to hand over security responsibility to Afghan soldiers and police by 2014.
The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan began in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. The United States and its allies invaded to overthrow the then-ruling Taliban, who had refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Now in its 10th year, the war has become a political headache for Obama. More than 2,200 foreign troops have been killed in fighting an insurgency that has gathered strength. Obama now talks openly of reconciliation with the Taliban.
In Spain’s El Pais newspaper, Obama wrote that insurgents should “abandon violence, break their ties with al Qaeda and agree to live under the rules of the Afghan Constitution.”
The withdrawal strategy hinges on efforts to build up Afghan forces so they can contain the widening insurgency, with a target strength set at more than 300,000 by the end of 2011.
But this has been hampered by high desertion rates and the Kabul government is widely regarded as too corrupt, unstable and inept to survive long without foreign military support.
The Pentagon said on Thursday the 2014 withdrawal date was only “aspirational” and may not be achievable everywhere.
Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative in Kabul, said this week that poor security in some areas could push back the pull-out date and Afghanistan could face ”eye-watering levels of violence by Western standards.
But he told reporters in Lisbon that it was hard to predict the timing, and conditions in Afghanistan might even allow for a faster withdrawal than foreseen.
“2014 is a goal, not a guarantee ... but we think that goal’s realistic and we’ve made plans to achieve it, but of course if circumstances agree it could be sooner,” he said.
He said it was not clear how many troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014, but it would be “pretty substantial.”
Despite NATO’s difficulties in Afghanistan, where a perceived failure would undermine its prestige, the strategic concept recommitted NATO to a global military role.
But military analysts say the Afghan experience and pressure on military spending since the global financial crisis have eroded enthusiasm for operations in non-NATO countries.
Writing by Luke Baker and Timothy Heritage