WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai's target to take the lead from NATO in securing Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is only "aspirational" and may not be possible everywhere in the country, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
The 2014 target is expected to be a top agenda item at a NATO summit in Lisbon this week, where world leaders including President Barack Obama will lay the plans for their troops' eventual exit from the unpopular war.
Karzai has said he wants the Afghan army and police to take control of the country by 2014, a target Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called realistic.
"I would emphasize two things here: Number one, it is the end of 2014, so effectively, it's by 2015," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
"Although the hope is, the goal is, to have Afghan security forces in the lead over the preponderance of the country by then, it does necessarily mean that ... everywhere in the country they will necessarily be in the lead," he added.
Mark Sedwill, the top NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, said earlier this week that the transition process may run into 2015 and beyond, and that after foreign troops step down from combat roles the country could see "eye-watering levels of violence".
Analysts have interpreted the NATO comments as an attempt to soften the timeline while sticking to a more appealing message that U.S. and NATO forces are preparing for an eventual exit after more than nine years of war.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict, and the insurgency spreading to previously peaceful northern and western parts of the country.
The Taliban, who some analysts say may be heartened by a deadline for the departure of foreign troops, have said they aim to continue to step up their military campaigns.
"Basically we have no expectation that (foreign troops) will leave without any pressure," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone from an undisclosed location.
"They should learn from our history, but it seems they do not. Whatever strategy or timetable they adopt, it will not have an impact on our pressure."
Karzai, already embroiled in a dispute with NATO's commander about a recent criticism of the visibility and intensity of foreign forces' operations, declined direct comment on Sedwill's recent remarks.
His spokesman said that the president expected the summit to focus on transition, and would underline the need for Afghan forces to play a more high-profile role in operations.
Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul; editing by Chris Wilson