By Julie Pace and Robert Burns/The Associated Press
LISBON, Portugal — President Barack Obama on Saturday said for the first time he wants U.S. troops out of major combat in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the date he and other NATO leaders set for moving Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban.
Allies had different interpretations of that target’s meaning.
Capping a two-day summit of 28 NATO leaders in this Atlantic port city, Obama said that after a series of public disputes with Afghan President Hamid Karzai — and despite the likelihood of more to come — the U.S. and its NATO partners have aligned their aims for stabilizing the country with Karzai’s eagerness to assume full control.
“My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort we’re involved in now,” Obama told a closing news conference.
For some U.S. allies, 2014 is more than a goal when it comes to shifting their troops from a combat role.
“There will not be British troops in large numbers and they won’t be in a combat role” by 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron said. But he added, however, Britain has no intention of abandoning Afghanistan any time soon.
“We may be helping to train their army, we may still be delivering a lot of aid, in effect, because we don’t want this country to go back to being a lawless space where the terrorists can have bases,” Cameron told Sky News television.
Canada is ending its combat role in 2011.
If Obama’s expectation about ending the U.S. combat mission in 2014 holds, it would mark a turning point in a war now in its 10th year, a conflict that once appeared headed for success but that drifted into stalemate during George W. Bush’s second term in the White House.
Obama entered office in 2009 pledging to end the Iraq war, which he opposed from the outset, in order to shift forces, resources and attention to Afghanistan — a fight he says the U.S. cannot afford to lose.
It remains far from sure, however, that even an expanding and improving Afghan army will prevail without U.S. combat support.
As the U.S. experience in Iraq showed, insurgencies can prove more resilient than predicted and newly assembled government security forces can take longer than expected to become competent and experienced enough to stand on their own.
At their annual gathering, NATO leaders also proclaimed “a true fresh start” in relations with Russia. They agreed to construct a missile defense over Europe, signed a long-term partnership accord with Afghanistan and expressed hope that the U.S. Senate would act quickly to ratify a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that some Republicans oppose.
Before returning to Washington, Obama met with European Union leaders. They released a statement on cooperation across the Atlantic to create jobs, avoid protectionist trade policies, and promote innovation and investment.
Afghanistan and its struggle against the Taliban dominated the NATO summit, which came just weeks before Obama is to receive an internal review of U.S. war strategy. The report is expected to conclude that despite slower-than-expected progress against the Taliban, the current approach is largely on track.
Last December, Obama ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, hoping to regain momentum from a resurgent Taliban, the radical Islamist group that harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington.
The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan; other countries have about 40,000.
Many European countries see the U.S. as overemphasizing the value of military force in Afghanistan. They eagerly embraced Saturday’s agreement to begin handing off security responsibility in early 2011, with a full transition targeted for the end of 2014.
“Here in Lisbon we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will become masters in their own house,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark said after allied leaders reached a consensus on the handover date.
“We will make it a reality, starting early next year,” he added.
The allies appear not to have lined up a schedule for troop reductions to coincide with the phased turnover of security control to Afghan forces. But they do seem to agree that after this year the main military focus should be on training Afghans.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday in Chile that only a “fraction” of the current allied forces in Afghanistan are likely to remain past 2014. They probably will function as trainers and advisers instead of fighting, he said.
U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, gave the allied leaders a private briefing on how he foresees the transition to Afghan control unfolding, district by district and province by province, starting in 2011. In its public statement, NATO did not reveal the names of the first provinces expected to be transferred to Afghan control.
Karzai has aired a long list of grievances against NATO in recent years, including excessive killing of civilians and what he called U.S. efforts to undermine his re-election campaign last year. He predicted the transition will succeed “because I found today a strong commitment by the international community. This will be matched by the people of Afghanistan.”
The NATO leaders, after agreeing on Friday to build jointly with the U.S. a missile shield to protect Europe, later invited Russia to become part of that effort.
The allies made their pitch in private to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but he stopped short of accepting in full. He agreed to work with NATO on an assessment of missile threats, which Fogh Rasmussen said would enable both sides to get a better technical grip on what it would take to counter the most troubling missile threats.
Medvedev appeared less than impressed with the NATO venture.
“It’s quite evident that the Europeans themselves don’t have a complete understanding how it will look, how much it will cost,” the Russian leader told reporters. “But everybody understands the missile defense system needs to be comprehensive.”
He added: “It should also be a full partnership. Our participation has to be a full-fledged exchange of information, or we won’t take part at all.”
Obama was more upbeat.
“We agreed to cooperate on missile defense, which turns a source of past tension into a source of potential cooperation against a shared threat,” he said.
The summit also was notable for decisions it did not make. It stuck to the status quo, for example, on U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. Germany and some other European allies want the U.S. to withdraw the estimated 150-200 nuclear bombs stored in five NATO countries. Allied leaders chose instead to put off any action to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in NATO strategy.
Obama said the U.S. would host the 2012 NATO summit, but did not say where.
Associated Press writers Alan Clendenning and Slobodan Lekic, and Anne Gearan in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.