Lisbon: The Western allies have agreed a plan to bring their war in Afghanistan to an end within four years, and won over a cautious Russia to the cause of a European anti-missile shield.
The nations of the NATO-led force struck a deal Saturday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to begin putting the battlefield under his control in early 2011 and to move Western troops to a support role by 2014.
While the allies agreed to the target date to end offensive operations, the United States warned that “some hard fighting remains ahead” and did not rule out keeping some GIs in combat after 2014.
But the coalition’s second largest troop provider, Britain, set a “firm deadline” of 2015 for withdrawing its fighting force, and Spain said its own involvement could be over as soon as 2012.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen vowed the allies would stand by Kabul after its combat mission ends, and US President Barack Obama said some American forces could stay on a little longer.
“But my goal is to make sure by 2014 we have transitioned Afghans into the lead, and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort that we’re involved with now,” Obama added.
“Certainly our footprint will have been significantly reduced.”
A top White House aide said individual NATO countries would choose when to end combat operations but he said the United States had not yet taken that decision.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban scoffed at NATO’s plans.
“It has become clear that after nine years of occupation, the invaders are doomed towards the same fate as those that tread this path before them,” the hardline Islamist group said in an emailed statement.
NATO commanders want the allies to send enough funds and military trainers to allow them to boost the total size of Afghanistan’s national security forces to 306,000 from 256,000 within the next 12 months.
Karzai surprised his allies this week by urging US forces to scale down operations and halt hated night raids by special forces, but after the summit he suggested the row had been smoothed over.
“I hope that as we move forward, many of these difficulties will go away and that then our movement to the future will be one without the difficulties that we are encountering,” he said, when asked about the raids.
Obama acknowledged his conversations with Karzai are often “blunt”, but insisted US forces must be allowed to protect themselves while helping their Afghan colleagues build up their strength.
The number of ordinary Afghans killed in the conflict rose by a third in the first six months of 2010 to 1,271, with most deaths caused by Taliban insurgent attacks, the United Nations reported in August.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said after the talks he had told Karzai that Canada’s support was conditional on a fight against corruption.
Harper told Canadian television: “What I and others told President Karzai was the support of our governments and indeed our populations depend on the government of Afghanistan’s respect for and its acting upon basic principles – respect for democracy, for the rule of law and fair elections, for human rights, for good governance and for cleaning up corruption.”
Meanwhile, the Alliance held a separate summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, their first such summit in two years, striking a new cooperation deal on Afghanistan and on a new missile defence shield.
Rasmussen said NATO had struck an agreement with Moscow to allow shipments of non-lethal supplies on Russian railways into and out of Afghanistan — including, for the first time, of armoured vehicles.
“A period of very difficult tense relations has been overcome,” Medvedev said. “We have ambitious plans, we will work across all directions including European missile defence.
“Everyone believes the atmosphere is different. Everything we wanted to tell each other but were afraid to, today we said it and this makes me an optimist. After this summit I am a bigger optimist than I was before.”
But Medvedev warned there was no firm agreement on how Russia would take part beyond studying the European offer, and that Moscow would only take part if it is treated as an equal partner.