LISBON, (Reuters) – NATO said on Saturday it would hand over security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 but the head of the alliance said it would not abandon the country in its fight against the Taliban.
Opening the second day of a summit attended by the 48 countries fighting in Afghanistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance would start handing over authority to Afghan forces next year and hoped to complete the process by the end of 2014.
“Today marks the beginning of a new phase in our mission in Afghanistan. We will launch the process by which the Afghan government will take leadership for security throughout the country, district by district,” Rasmussen said.
“If the enemies of Afghanistan have the idea that they can just wait it out until we leave, they have the wrong idea. We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job.”
NATO will also meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during the summit, and will discuss Russian assistance in the conflict and an alliance missile shield.
Karzai, who has an increasingly fractious relationship with the United States and with the U.S.-NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has set 2014 as the date he wants Afghan forces to have full responsibility for security.
President Barack Obama, who has sent 30,000 more U.S. troops to the war in the past year to try to quell the Taliban-led insurgency, intends to start withdrawing some forces from July 2011 and backs the aim of an end to combat within four years.
He also supports efforts at reconciliation with the Taliban.
Rasmussen said the new strategy did not mean all 150,000 foreign troops now deployed in Afghanistan would leave the country by the 2014 deadline.
“Let there be no doubt about our continuing commitment. Afghanistan’s fight against terrorism is of strategic, global importance,” the former Danish prime minister said.
“Which is why we will agree here today a long-term partnership between NATO and Afghanistan to endure beyond the end of our combat mission.”
The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan began in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. The United States and its allies invaded to overthrow the then-ruling Taliban, who had refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Now in its 10th year, the war has become a political headache for Obama. More than 2,200 foreign troops have been killed and the death rate is on the increase.
The withdrawal strategy hinges on efforts to build up Afghan forces so they can contain the widening insurgency, with a target strength of more than 300,000 by the end of 2011.
That has been hampered by high desertion rates, and the Kabul government is widely regarded as too corrupt, unstable and inept to survive long without foreign military support.
Russia, which fought a war in Afghanistan from 1979-89 before withdrawing in defeat, is expected to allow equipment to go through its territory and provide specialised helicopters.
Moscow is expected to sell 18 Mi-17 helicopters to the United States and lend three more to Afghan forces. The Mi-17 is better suited to operating in Afghanistan’s high altitudes and cold weather than equivalent U.S. helicopters.
NATO will also invite Russia to take part in a U.S.-European missile defence system designed to protect against a long-range attack from the Middle East or North Korea.
NATO leaders agreed to the shield on Friday, when Rasmussen said more than 30 countries now had or were acquiring the ability to deliver conventional or nuclear warhead missiles.
It is unclear what role Moscow might play in the system. Russia opposes identifying Iran as a possible aggressor and also wants reassurance that the system will not be used against it.
The NATO summit has also agreed a new strategic concept or mission statement to guide the 28-member alliance for the next decade. It reaffirms a commitment to a nuclear capability as long as such weapons exist, and aims to focus member states on 21st century threats such as cyber attack.
NATO, founded after World War Two as a bulkhead against the perceived threat from the Soviet Union, will also remain open to new members, with both Georgia and Ukraine, former Soviet states, in the running to join the alliance in coming years.