LISBON, Portugal (AP) — NATO will start reducing troop levels in Afghanistan next year and hand over control of security to the Afghans in 2014 but will not abandon the country after that and let it slip back into chaos, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Saturday.
Rasmussen, President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and leaders of the 28-nation alliance were meeting behind closed doors to discuss the alliance's exit strategy from Afghanistan on the second day of Nato's annual summit. They were also deciding how NATO will give advice, training and logistics help to Afghanistan's military over the long term.
"The direction starting today is clear, toward Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership (of the war)," Rasmussen said in his opening remarks.
NATO officials stressed that the alliance will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan long after it begins withdrawing troops.
"We will agree here today on a long-term partnership between NATO and Afghanistan to endure beyond the end of our combat mission," Fogh Rasmussen said. "If the enemies of Afghanistan have the idea that they can wait it out until we leave, they have the wrong idea. We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job."
Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said the 2014 goal and the end of NATO's combat role in Afghanistan beyond that date "are not one and the same." But many NATO nations have insisted they will remove all their troops by 2014, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated said his country will end its combat role in Afghanistan by 2015.
"Make no mistake about it, that is an absolute commitment and deadline for us," the British news agency Press Association quoted him as saying.
He added: "This remains a phenomenal challenge. There is a huge amount of work to do in Afghanistan, and I wouldn't want anyone to think we can relax in any way about Afghanistan."
The end date to hand Afghans control of security is three years beyond the time that Obama has said he will start withdrawing U.S. troops, and the challenge is to avoid a rush to the exits as public opinion turns more sharply against the war and Karzai pushes for greater Afghan control.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was expected to make a closed-door presentation emphasizing that stepped-up military operations this year, with the addition of thousands more U.S. combat troops, have made strides toward weakening the Taliban and eventually creating the conditions for peace negotiations.
But he also is believed to be concerned that the transition not turn into a departure before Afghanistan is stable.
Despite the optimistic statements about progress in the war, the Taliban have shown no sign of weakening under the intense military pressure. Allied deaths have reached record levels this year, and the guerrillas have expanded their activities into hitherto safe regions in the north and west of the country.
Another major event is a meeting of NATO's 28 leaders with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
NATO and Moscow are expected to sign agreements to expand the alliance's supply routes to Afghanistan through Russia, and set up a new training program in Russia for counter-narcotics agents from Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. They also are expected to agree on a program to provide training to Afghan helicopter crews.
Obama won NATO support to build a missile shield over Europe, an ambitious commitment to protect against Iranian attack while demonstrating the alliance's continuing relevance.
Two key unanswered questions about the missile shield — will it work and can the Europeans afford it? — were put aside for the present in the interest of celebrating the agreement as a boost for NATO solidarity.
"It offers a role for all of our allies," Obama told reporters Friday. "It responds to the threats of our times. It shows our determination to protect our citizens from the threat of ballistic missiles." He did not mention Iran by name, acceding to the wishes of NATO member Turkey, which had threatened to block the deal if its neighbor was singled out.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said that NATO met his nation's demands and that the agreement "was within the framework of what we wished. We are pleased about this."
Under the arrangement, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe — to include interceptors in Romania and Poland and possibly radar in Turkey — would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.
NATO plans to invite Russia to join the missile shield effort, although Moscow would not be given joint control. The gesture would mark a historic milestone for the alliance, created after World War II to defend Western Europe against the threat of an invasion by Soviet forces.
As for the U.S.-Russia arms treaty, Obama was backed by Fogh Rasmussen who told reporters that the treaty, called New START and signed in April by Obama and Medvedev, would improve security not only in Europe but beyond.
The allies opened their summit by agreeing on the first rewrite of NATO's basic mission — formally called its "strategic concept" — since 1999. They reaffirmed their bedrock commitment that an attack on one would be treated as an attack on all. In that context, the agreement to build a missile defense for all of Europe is meant to strengthen the alliance.
What remains in conflict, however, is the question of the future role of nuclear weapons in NATO's basic strategy. The document members agreed to Friday says NATO will retain an "appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities" to deter a potential aggressor. Germany and some other NATO members want U.S. nuclear weapons withdrawn from Europe.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Robert Burns contributed to this report.
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