- Associated Press - Friday, November 19, 2010

LISBON (AP) — NATO will start drawing down its troops in Afghanistan next July and its combat role in the war-torn nation will end by 2014 or earlier so security can be turned over to the Afghans, a top alliance official said Friday.

“We think that goal is realistic, and we have made plans to achieve it, but of course if circumstances agree, it could be sooner, absolutely,” said Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative in Afghanistan.

Mr. Sedwill said the troop withdrawal starting next year will be “shallow” and eventually accelerate but did not elaborate.

The escalating war in Afghanistan, where the alliance is struggling to contain Taliban militants, looked set to dominate a two-day NATO summit opening Friday in Lisbon.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai also said the alliance’s 28 leaders, including President Obama, were set to approve the withdrawal plan. He said NATO is “quite confident of the end of 2014 timeline for handing responsibility to Afghan security forces” as requested by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Appathurai and Mr. Sedwill did not say how many NATO troops would stay in Afghanistan after 2014 serving as military advisers and trainers.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived in Lisbon ahead of Mr. Obama, met for an hour Friday with Mr. Karzai, a State Department official said.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting, said the session at Mr. Karzai’s hotel was “candid and friendly” and covered key aspects of the NATO mission in Afghanistan — including the planned transition to Afghan security control, as well as international civilian assistance to Kabul.

They reached a “common understanding” on outlines of a longer-term Afghan-NATO partnership, the official said.

NATO officials say they expect unanimous support from the allies for Mr. Obama’s plans for a new, expanded missile defense system in Europe that would be based on an existing shield meant to defend military units from attack. The U.S. already has a missile defense system based mainly in North America, and it is planning one for its European allies.

But Mr. Obama will face tough questions from U.S. allies on his exit strategy in Afghanistan. He will also meet with leaders of the European Union on Saturday to defend his preference for stimulus spending at a time when many European nations are enacting economic austerity measures.

The NATO leaders are expected on Saturday to endorse the plan by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to start handing over responsibility for security in some areas of Afghanistan to government forces next year.

Mr. Obama told El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, he expected the allies will pledge additional trainers for Afghan security forces.

“This effort is going to take time and our commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan people is for the long term,” Mr. Obama said. “We cannot turn our backs on the Afghan people.”

Mrs. Clinton defended the high cost that European nations are paying for their participation in the war in Afghanistan, and urged them to stay the course despite dire economic difficulties for many countries that have translated into wage cuts, lost jobs and massive government budget reductions.

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