- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — NATO agreed to begin handing over command of the war in Afghanistan to the troubled Afghan government this year, a process that if successful would enable President Obama to start bringing U.S. troops home by his target date of July 2011.

But the accord reached Friday appeared short on details and timelines, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of a rocky road ahead in a country beset with a resilient insurgency, limited resources and a weak, sometimes dysfunctional central government.

Mrs. Clinton said she was pleased with progress toward eliminating the shortage of allied trainers for the Afghan army and police. She offered a generally sunny outlook for Afghanistan and said the government of much-criticized President Hamid Karzai gets too little credit for progress in building a viable democracy.

“We believe that with sufficient attention, training and mentoring, the Afghans themselves are perfectly capable of defending themselves against insurgents,” she told reporters. “Does that mean it will be smooth sailing? I don’t think so. Look at Iraq.”

NATO is still about 450 short of its target for a training force to assist the Afghan security forces, and while that gap apparently was not filled during Friday’s session, Mrs. Clinton said she was not discouraged.

“We have a relatively small gap that we’re still working to fill. I’m very convinced we’ll get that filled,” she said, adding: “For me, the glass is way more than half full.”

Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, told reporters later that the Tallinn meeting’s agreement on starting a transition to Afghan control this year will require endorsement by the Afghan government. That is supposed to happen at a July conference in Kabul.

The next step would be an announcement at a NATO summit meeting in November of the first provinces targeted for transition to Afghan control, Mr. Sedwill said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the 28-nation alliance is on track with its new strategy for winding down the war in Afghanistan, despite security setbacks and a continuing shortage of foreign trainers for the fledgling Afghan police and army.

“Our aims in 2010 are clear: to take the initiative against the insurgents, to help the Afghan government exercise its sovereignty, and to start handing over responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans this year,” he said.

He said a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, including Mrs. Clinton, agreed on what it will take to create conditions enabling Afghans to assume control of their own country. He was not specific about what those conditions will be, but said progress in that direction is important in order to avoid further erosion of public support for the war effort.

“Where it occurs, the transition must be not just sustainable but irreversible,” Mr. Fogh Rasmussen told reporters at the conclusion of the two-day meeting.

“Citizens in Afghanistan and in all troop contributing countries are demanding visible progress, and they are right to insist on that,” he added. “We should have no illusions. Making progress will not be easy and will not be quick. But based on what we see on the ground now, it is happening.”

He added that looking ahead to a winding down of the war does not mean the allies will leave before the mission is accomplished.

“It will not be a run for the exits,” he said.

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