WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO leaders meet in Lisbon this week to sketch a roadmap that could pave the way for the alliance to wind down its involvement in the nine-year-old Afghan war.
Building up Afghan security forces as quickly as possible is central to NATO’s withdrawal strategy. U.S. targets call for expanding the Afghan army and police to 306,000 by next October from more than 260,000 now.
The head of NATO’s training mission said last month the alliance was short of around 900 specialist instructors to train Afghan forces, but NATO officials say this may now have been filled.
Canada, which plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan next year, has said several hundred of its 2,900-strong contingent will stay behind as trainers. The Netherlands, which has already withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan, also says it wants to set up a new training mission.
NATO members are unlikely to offer additional combat troops and Obama is not expected to ask for more, despite worsening violence and record civilian and military casualties.
The NATO allies are expected to endorse Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s aspiration for Afghan security forces to take the lead in all provinces by 2014. They may say the process can start in some provinces and districts in the early part of 2011, a NATO official said.
In Washington, officials are putting more emphasis on 2014 than President Barack Obama’s July 2011 date for U.S. troops to start coming home. A White House review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, due in December, will help to determine the pace of those withdrawals.
“We think that Lisbon will help set in place a process by which over the next several years Afghans will assume the security lead across their country,” a senior Obama administration official said.
NATO leaders will seek to reassure Afghanistan that the focus on transitioning to Afghan security control does not mean the alliance is abandoning the country.
“Transition does not equal exit. It’s very important it’s not seen that way,” a NATO official said, adding that the summit would likely emphasize the alliance’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan in areas like military and police training, education and literacy programs.
HOW DOES SUMMIT FIT INTO OBAMA’S DECEMBER AFGHAN REVIEW?
The White House says Obama will pay close attention to the views of his fellow NATO leaders for the December review. U.S. officials stress though that the report will not lead to any major changes to the way the war is being fought.
“What the Europeans will want is an indication from the Obama administration that an end is in sight, which would enable the European governments to start talking about an endgame,” said Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
U.S. HAS SET JULY 2011 DATE TO START WITHDRAWING TROOPS, BUT HOW DOES THIS AFFECT NATO ALLIES?
Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing U.S. troops next July has encouraged allies to look to scale back their own roles.
The Netherlands has already ended its combat commitment and Canada plans to next year. Germany and France are looking to cut their troop levels next year, as is Britain, which aims to end its combat role by 2015.
Denmark has said it hopes to withdraw many of its 700 troops from Afghanistan by 2015, or even sooner, and Sweden has said it hopes its 600 troops in northern Afghanistan will be able to start handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces next year and to begin withdrawing in 2012.
ARE NATO MEMBERS HAPPY WITH OBAMA’S AFGHAN STRATEGY?
NATO allies backed Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan by agreeing to send an additional 10,000 soldiers to meet a target figure of 40,000.
Some officials have been privately critical of Obama’s decision to announce the July 2011 drawdown date on the grounds it will embolden the Taliban.
However, NATO officials and diplomats say most allies are keen to bring their troops back from Afghanistan as soon as possible, given the unpopularity of the war and mounting costs as many NATO members slash their defense budgets due to the economic crisis.
NATO officials stress that troop withdrawals will be based on security conditions and the readiness of Afghan forces.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, editing by Christopher Wilson