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NATO Agrees to Assist Afghanistan Past 2014

20 novembre 2010

LISBON — NATO and Afghanistan agreed Saturday to the goal of a phased transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014, but acknowledged that allied forces would remain in Afghanistan in a support role well beyond that date.

And if Afghanistan has not made sufficient progress in managing its own security, NATO officials warned, 2014 was not a hard-and-fast deadline for the end of combat operations.

“We will stay after transition in a supporting role,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, said at a news conference on Saturday after meeting with PresidentHamid Karzai of Afghanistan. “President Karzai and I signed an agreement on a long-term partnership between NATO and Afghanistan that will endure beyond our combat mission.”

NATO officials had previously said it was likely that tens of thousands of support troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2014 to provide training and other security guarantees to Kabul. But the statements by Mr. Rasmussen and other officials on Saturday were more definite.

Mr. Rasmussen said that the aim of the agreement signed Saturday was to hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, and for foreign troops serving in the coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, to cease combat by then. But that deadline was also hedged, as officials have previously noted.

“I don’t foresee ISAF troops in a combat role beyond 2014, provided of course that the security situation allows us to move into a more supportive role,” he said.

Officials have said that NATO’s withdrawal was contingent on the ability of Afghan forces to take their new responsibilities.

“2014 is a goal, not a guarantee,” Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative in Kabul, said Saturday. “But we think that goal’s realistic and we’ve made plans to achieve it, but of course if circumstances agree it could be sooner.”

He said last week that that poor security in some areas could delay the pullout date, and that Afghanistan could face “eye-watering levels of violence by Western standards.”

A senior American official said that Washington would not commit to any deadline now for the end of combat operations, given the need to gauge progress on the ground as the training of the Afghan forces proceeded.

The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said that 1,500 trainers were already in place. He said that all 34 Afghan provinces had been graded into different categories of security and stability. But decisions on which provinces will first be handed over to Afghan control have not yet been made, the official said.

But, he cautioned, “No one should read out of Lisbon that the fighting is over.”

“There is a lot of hard fighting that lies ahead,” he said.

The longer NATO commitment comes as public opinion across Europe is increasingly opposed to the war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 as retaliation for the attacks of Sept. 11 of that year. But with a shift from combat operations to police and army training, European diplomats here said they hoped they could buy some time with the public instead of rushing out of Afghanistan. They are eager to emphasize nation building instead of combat.

Many NATO nations have insisted that they will remove all their troops by 2014, and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Saturday that his country would end its combat role in Afghanistan by 2015.

“Make no mistake about it, that is an absolute commitment and deadline for us,” he told The Press Association news agency. “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.”

Despite the strain between Mr. Karzai and NATO lately, the Afghan president was described as genial and cooperative during the closed-door meeting with NATO leaders on Saturday, standing in his long green striped cloak to greet President Obama, with whom he was to have a separate meeting later in the day.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that “we might not always see eye to eye,” but said the partnership was important, said a Western diplomat in the room. Mr. Obama also thanked NATO and other allies — 48 countries were represented in the meeting — for their contributions to Afghanistan. “There were no histrionics,” another Western diplomat said.

At the same time, Mr. Karzai is pushing for greater Afghan control. As Mr. Rasmussen said Saturday, “The Afghans must be masters in their own house.” He added: “The direction starting today is clear, toward Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, also made a closed-door presentation setting out his military strategy for the transition, which will include more aggressive military operations of the kind that Mr. Karzai has sometimes criticized, including more drone missile strikes and nighttime raids.

In a news conference after the session, Mr. Karzai said he had found understanding for his concerns. “The realities on the ground were substantially understood and agreed upon by our partners,” he said. “I hope as we move forward many of the difficulties will go away.”

In his presentation, General Petraeus said that “we are beginning to see a return on our investment” and that “we have broken the Taliban’s momentum,” according to a senior European official in the room. But the official added: “Is it true or not? I’m not so sure.” He said, “To many of us it begins to have the ring of Vietnam,” of confident military assessments that were not always accurate.

Later on Saturday, NATO’s leaders began a NATO-Russian summit meeting with the Russian president, President Dmitri A. Medvedev. After having agreed Friday on a missile-defense system that will gradually protect all of NATO’s members, the alliance is eager to secure an agreement from Russia to cooperate in missile defense, by sharing information from each other’s systems. Moscow has already said that it is interested in cooperation, but has many questions about how such a system would work.

Mr. Obama has made it clear to the Baltic states that there is no question of sharing a missile defense system with Moscow or giving the Russians any control over the NATO system. But Mr. Obama also asked NATO allies at the alliance dinner on Friday night for their support for the ratification of the New Start treaty he had negotiated with Mr. Medvedev, and which the Republicans are holding up in the Senate.

Mr. Obama also appealed for ratification in his weekly radio address.

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 counternarcotics agents from Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. They also are expected to agree on a program to provide training to Afghan helicopter crews and to buy more Russian helicopters for Afghan forces, as well as a contract to repair existing Russian equipment used by the Afghans.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called the opening to Russia “an historic new chapter” in relations with NATO and the West. She said she supported the ratification of New Start “because it will really end the cold war.”

About Russia, she said: “A former military adversary is now clearly a partner,” adding: “It’s a turning point in working together that we can clearly call historic. Of course there’s still a long road ahead of us, to build security with Russia, but to start on this road has extraordinary importance.”

Mr. Obama also found time on Saturday to plug a European version, the Opel Ampera, of G.M.’s Chevrolet Volt, which runs largely on electricity. “This is a nice-looking car,” the president said, then added, “This is the future right here.”


Judy Dempsey contributed reporting.


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