- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 7, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan should be able to start handing off responsibility for security to the Kabul government sometime next year, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday.

While stopping short of setting a firm deadline, Mr. Rasmussen’s public declaration puts the security alliance in line with President Obama’s promise to begin pulling U.S. troops out in July 2011.

But Mr. Rasmussen’s latest prediction also reflects a growing realization by NATO that security conditions won’t dramatically improve this year, as many hoped. At a NATO meeting in April, the secretary general said that handing over responsibility to the Afghans was a primary goal for this year.

Some NATO members already have pulled out of the mission or plan to do so soon because of a lack of public support.

NATO members are to meet in Lisbon in November to devise a plan for handing off control to the Afghans, including a time line for various provinces and benchmarks to measure progress.

Mr. 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 ahead of a meeting with Mr. 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. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell, the head of NATO‘s training mission in Afghanistan, has said that the alliance needs at least another year to recruit and train enough soldiers and police officers.

Mr. Rasmussen said that setting next year as a goal for beginning to wind down troop levels does not conflict with a request by Gen. David H. Petraeus, NATO‘s top commander in Afghanistan, for 2,000 more troops. Mr. 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 Tuesday that the request for 2,000 more troops is a long-standing requirement for more trainers that will not be filled by U.S. forces.

NATO will have to determine how to fill that requirement,” said Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman.

NATO has been eager to show progress in the war. The alliance’s top commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, said this week that coalition troops will clear the area around the key city of Kandahar by December.

Although U.S. and NATO forces are expected to begin leaving next year, the U.S. government is expected to provide massive financial aid to Afghanistan for years to come.

According to a NATO document, the United States expects to spend about $6 billion a year training and supporting Afghan troops and police after it begins withdrawing its own combat troops in 2011.

Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.