LISBON, Portugal – A NATO summit originally intended to allow members to signal an exit date for the unpopular 9-year-old war in Afghanistan instead concluded Saturday with an agreement leaving open the possibility that allied forces will remain in the unstable country for years to come.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders gathered in Lisbon signed an agreement with the Afghan government to transfer primary security responsibility from the alliance to Kabul by 2014, as NATO gradually shifts focus to training, advising and logistics.
But officials carefully hedged the timeline, in light of the uncertainties in the military effort and the training of Afghan security forces.
Since a military buildup that has seen Western forces rise to about 150,000, this year already has been the bloodiest for allied troops in Afghanistan, with 654 deaths so far, 451 of them Americans, according to icasualties.org.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, said he did not “foresee (allied) troops in a combat role beyond 2014, provided of course that the security situation allows us to move into a more supportive role. … We have to make sure that we do not leave Afghanistan prematurely.”
President Barack Obama, speaking to reporters near the close of the two-day summit in the Portuguese capital, said his goal was to end combat “of the sort we’re involved with now.”
Yet “there may still be extensive cooperation with the Afghan armed services to consolidate the security environment,” he said.
NATO country leaders had initially hoped they could use the summit to reassure their war-weary constituents that there was an end in sight to the conflict. But in recent months, the White House has decided that a longer transition would be required and that the alliance should keep its exit plans flexible.
“There is a lot of hard fighting ahead,” said a senior U.S. official. “No one should read out of Lisbon that the fighting is over.”
U.S. officials want to remain vague about the departure in part to avoid sending a message to the insurgents that they can wait out the alliance. Administration officials also want to leave open the possibility of withdrawing troops ahead of schedule.
Obama has committed to beginning the first withdrawals next July, but the reduction may be small. The administration has sought to publicize the 2014 date in part to diminish the public focus on next year’s withdrawals.
Some European officials put a different emphasis on the plan.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told the British news agency Press Association that 2014 was “an absolute commitment and deadline for us,” promising the British combat role would be over by then.
Also Saturday, Russia agreed to work with NATO in planning for a joint missile defense system in Europe but stopped short of committing to it.
Russian President Dimitry Medvedev said he would send technicians to discuss plans for the system and was receptive to the idea of the shield, Rasmussen said.
The plan would knit existing U.S. missile defense networks to an expanding system in Europe. NATO has been eager to try to integrate Russia into the system as a way to include it into the continent’s broader security plans and improve collaboration in other areas.
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