Nato: 1 year till Afghan withdrawal
Washington - US-led Nato troops in Afghanistan should be able to start handing off responsibility for security to the Kabul government sometime next year, Nato’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday.
While stopping short of setting a firm deadline, Rasmussen's public declaration puts the security alliance in line with US President Barack Obama's promise to begin pulling US troops out in July 2011.
But Rasmussen's latest prediction also reflects a growing realisation by Nato that security conditions won't dramatically improve this year, as many hoped.
At a Nato meeting in April, the secretary general had said that handing over responsibility to the Afghans was a primary goal for this year.
Some Nato members have already pulled out of the mission or plan to do so soon because of a lack of public support.
Nato members were to meet in Lisbon, Portugal, in November to devise a plan for handing off control to the Afghans, including a timeline for various provinces and benchmarks to measure progress.
Rasmussen said he believes security conditions have improved enough so a transition is possible.
However, he said the precise timing of a drawdown will depend upon conditions on the ground.
"We will not leave until we finish our job," he told reporters before a meeting with Obama at the White House. "But it is very helpful to have this roadmap."
War commanders have been more reluctant to put a date on when Afghan troops might take control. Lieutenant General Bill Caldwell, the head of Nato's training mission in Afghanistan, has said the alliance needs at least another year to recruit and train enough soldiers and police officers.
Rasmussen said setting next year as a goal for beginning to wind down troop levels does not conflict with a request by General David Petraeus, Nato’s top commander in Afghanistan, for 2 000 more troops.
Rasmussen said most of the 2 000 troops would be assigned to train Afghan security forces, in preparation for Nato’s eventual withdrawal.
"Trainers are the ticket to transition," he said.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that the request for 2 000 more troops is a long-standing requirement for more trainers that will not be filled by US forces.
"Nato will have to determine how to fill that requirement," said Dave Lapan, a Defence Department spokesperson.
Nato has been eager to show progress in the war.
The alliance's top commander in southern Afghanistan, British Major General Nick Carter, said this week that coalition troops will clear the area around the key city of Kandahar by December.
Promote peace and stability
In the meeting with Obama, the president thanked Rasmussen for Nato’s efforts to promote peace and stability around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, the White House said.
Obama and Rasmussen also discussed goals for the November 19 to 20 Nato Summit in Lisbon.
Although US and Nato forces are expected to begin leaving Afghanistan next year, the US government is expected to provide massive financial aid to the country for years to come.
According to a Nato document, the US expects to spend about $6bn per year training and supporting Afghan troops and police after it begins withdrawing its own combat troops in 2011.