ISLAMABAD The NATO summit in Lisbon this weekend will mark a turning point in the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan as it lays out a roadmap to end combat operations by 2014, the top U.S. envoy to the region said on Monday.
But that won't spell the end of the international presence in Afghanistan, said U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.
"From Lisbon on, we will be on a transition strategy with a target date of the end of 2014 for Afghanistan taking over responsibility for leading the security," he told reporters in the Pakistani capital.
"We have a transition strategy. We do not have an exit strategy."
He stressed that 2014 would not be a repeat of 1989, when the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in defeat and the West turned its back on its former proxy battleground, leaving it a cauldron of Islamic militancy and civil war. The Taliban emerged from this stew as did Osama bin Laden.
"This does not mean international force will leave completely, and it definitely doesn't mean we're going to repeat 1989 when the U.S. turned its back on Afghanistan as soon as the Soviets left."
Many in Pakistan and Afghanistan still point to the abandonment as the United States' original sin and the cause of many of the region's problems.
"What happened in 1989 was a straight line to 9/11, and from 9/11 to where we are today," the U.S. envoy said. "It is the most extraordinary story of unintended consequences I think in American foreign policy history."
July 2011 would mark the beginning of the withdrawal as planned, he said. U.S. President Barack Obama set next summer as his starting point for the drawdown of U.S. combat personnel following a surge of 30,000 troops he ordered last year.
"One thing you can be sure of is that there will be some drawdown by July of next year," Holbrooke said.