BRUSSELS -- With no end in sight to the war in Afghanistan, leaders of NATO states meet this week to set out plans aimed at bringing their troops back home without the alliance suffering a humiliating strategic defeat.
At a summit in Lisbon on Nov. 19-20, NATO's 28 leaders will back a strategy of starting to hand security responsibility to Afghan forces next year, with the aim of Afghans taking the lead in the conflict countrywide by the end of 2014.
NATO officials say the strategy should allow for a gradual reduction of foreign troops from the current peak of about 150,000 soldiers from more than 40 countries.
The plan hinges on a struggling effort to build up Afghan security forces to a level at which they are capable of standing up to a resilient Taliban insurgency that has increased its reach despite a war now in its 10th year.
NATO is upbeat about the impact of a big U.S.-led troop increase over the past year, but few independent analysts foresee an outcome that could be termed a success, despite billions of dollars being spent on the war every week.
The Kabul government is widely seen as too corrupt, unstable and inept to stand alone, and the bid to boost Afghan forces is hampered by high desertion rates. Allies facing hostile domestic opinion and budget cuts are looking keenly for the exit.
"We all want to get out," said a NATO military official. "We don't want to be there — everybody wants to get out."
"EVERYBODY WANTS TO GET OUT"
NATO officials stress there will be no rush for the exit, that there is no current plan to end the NATO combat role completely even after 2014, and that troop withdrawals will be gradual and based on conditions.
"We can't just cut and run," the NATO official said. "We have to make sure what we leave behind has some chance of success, that there's a reasonable chance the structure is going to be able to survive."
But U.S. President Barack Obama's statement that the United States would start withdrawing next July, has made allies look to scale back their role.
The Netherlands has already ended its combat commitment and Canada plans to next year. Germany and France are also looking to cut troops next year, and staunch U.S. ally Britain aims to end its combat role by 2015.
The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has stepped up the fight against insurgents in the past year targeting Taliban commanders, while at the same time stressing that the door remains open for reconciliation.
Analysts say Petraeus is keen to demonstrate success ahead of a strategy review by Obama in December, seeking to limit his July troop cut and give more time to push the Taliban to talk.
But some question the strategy of targeting Taliban leaders. While expressing doubts that preliminary contacts between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and the insurgents can bear fruit, they say it could further radicalise the insurgency.
Haroon Mir of the Afghan Centre for Research and Policy Studies said talk of troop pullouts simply emboldened the insurgents and the risks were high.
"Unfortunately Afghanistan is not yet ready," he said. "If the U.S. and other NATO allies start withdrawing their forces, we will certainly have the return of the Taliban."
"PEACE WITH HONOUR"
Rand Corporation analyst Brian Jenkins said it was too early to say if progress was being made militarily. He said the West's strategy could simply be to make it easier for troop pullouts by arguing it had done its best to create conditions for the Kabul government to survive for a reasonable amount of time.
"Is it just a thin veil for a quick withdrawal -- to provide a decent interval?" he asked.
"The Afghan army is not going to be able to take over in the near future. The question is, will the troop withdrawals be delayed or gradual enough to prevent the situation from deteriorating, or will domestic politics dictate that we pull out and risk military failure in Afghanistan?"
Paul Pillar, a former CIA officer and now a professor at Georgetown University, argues that the military effort launched after the Sept. 11 attacks could now be counter-productive to the aim of combatting international terrorism.
He said the long-term Western plan appeared to be to withdraw as gracefully as possible and declare "peace with honour" -- just as the United States sought to from Vietnam in the 1970s, a war which ended with the overthrow of the U.S.-backed government two years after the U.S. pullout.
Sameena Ahmed of the International Crisis Group said there were enormous risks and Afghanistan -- and the West -- could be left little better off than before the U.S.-led intervention.
"This process could lead to the exact opposite of what was intended -- increasing the risks of internal stability, increasing the risks of civil war and increasing the potential for Afghan territory to be used by violent extremist groups."
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.