NATO agrees Afghan withdrawal plan, woos Russia
The Western allies agreed Saturday to end their troops' combat mission in Afghanistan by 2014 and convinced Russia to support a plan for a European anti-missile shield.
The 48 countries that make up the NATO-led force in Afghanistan signed a deal with President Hamid Karzai to begin handing his government control of fighting in early 2011 and move to a support role by 2014.
Nevertheless, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO would stand by Kabul after its combat mission ends, and US President Barack Obama said US forces would stay on and were ¨breaking the Taliban's momentum."
Taliban insurgents branded the handover plan NATO's admission of defeat, but the White House warned that "there's a lot of hard fighting still ahead" and NATO said Karzai "would not stand alone."
"Our goal is that the Afghans have taken the lead in 2014 ... We will have successfully transitioned so that we are still providing a training and support function," Obama told reporters.
"There may still be extensive cooperation with the Afghan armed services to consolidate the security environment ... but our every intention is that Afghans are in the lead."
In Afghanistan, the Taliban scoffed at NATO's plans.
"It has become clear that after nine years of occupation, the invaders are doomed towards the same fate as those that tread this path before them," the hardline Islamist group said in an emailed statement.
"Their troop surges, their new strategies, their new generals, their new negotiations and their new propagandas have been of no avail," it added.
Even as NATO met, four more civilians were killed when two suicide bombers struck in the east of the country, adding to a grim toll in the bloodiest year yet for allied soldiers and ordinary Afghans.
The summit was attended by leaders from the 28 NATO allies, the 20 other nations that fight alongside them in the ISAF military coalition, big cash donor Japan and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
NATO commanders want the allies to send enough funds and military trainers to allow them to boost the total size of Afghanistan's national security forces to 306,000 from 256,000 within the next 12 months.
Alliance officials insist the transition to Afghan control is not a rush to the exit, but the war is unpopular in Europe and cash-strapped governments are under pressure from voters to bring soldiers home.
Karzai surprised his allies this week by urging US forces to scale down operations and halt hated night raids by special forces, but after the summit he suggested the row had been smoothed over.
"I hope that as we move forward, many of these difficulties will go away and that then our movement to the future will be one without the difficulties that we are encountering," he said, when asked about the raids.
Obama acknowledged his conversations with Karzai are often "blunt" but said US forces must be allowed to protect themselves while helping their Afghan colleagues build up their strength.
The number of ordinary Afghans killed in the conflict rose by a third in the first six months of 2010 to 1,271, with most deaths caused by Taliban insurgent attacks, the United Nations reported in August.
The Alliance held a separate meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, their first such summit in two years, striking a new cooperation deal on Afghanistan and on a new missile defence shield.
Rasmussen said NATO had struck an agreement with Moscow to allow shipments of non-lethal supplies on Russian railways into and out of Afghanistan -- including, for the first time, of armoured vehicles.
"A period of very difficult tense relations has been overcome," Medvedev said. "We agreed that there exist lots of problems upon which we could cooperate very successfully.
"We have ambitious plans, we will work across all directions including European missile defence."
Following the NATO summit, Obama was to meet European Union leaders.
© 2010 AFP