Image: U.S. President Barack Obama greets Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai at the NATO Summit in Lisbon
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama greets Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai during the opening session of the meeting on Afghanistan at the NATO Summit in Lisbon Saturday.
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updated 11/20/2010 5:24:47 PM ET 2010-11-20T22:24:47

NATO leaders on Saturday set 2014 as the date for moving Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban, with President Barack Obama saying for the first time he wants U.S. troops out of major combat in Afghanistan by the end of that year.

Allies had different interpretations of that target's meaning.

Capping a two-day summit of 28 NATO leaders in this Atlantic port city, Obama said that after a series of public disputes with Afghan President Hamid Karzai — and despite the likelihood of more to come — the U.S. and its NATO partners have aligned their aims for stabilizing the country with Karzai's eagerness to assume full control.

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"My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort we're involved in now," Obama told a closing news conference.

For some U.S. allies, 2014 is more than a goal when it comes to shifting their troops from a combat role.

"There will not be British troops in large numbers and they won't be in a combat role" by 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron said. But he added, however, Britain has no intention of abandoning Afghanistan any time soon.

"We may be helping to train their army, we may still be delivering a lot of aid, in effect, because we don't want this country to go back to being a lawless space where the terrorists can have bases," Cameron told Sky News television.

Canada is ending its combat role in 2011.

If Obama's expectation about ending the U.S. combat mission in 2014 holds, it would mark a turning point in a war now in its 10th year, a conflict that once appeared headed for success but that drifted into stalemate during George W. Bush's second term in the White House.

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Obama entered office in 2009 pledging to end the Iraq war, which he opposed from the outset, in order to shift forces, resources and attention to Afghanistan — a fight he says the U.S. cannot afford to lose.

It remains far from sure, however, that even an expanding and improving Afghan army will prevail without U.S. combat support.

As the U.S. experience in Iraq showed, insurgencies can prove more resilient than predicted and newly assembled government security forces can take longer than expected to become competent and experienced enough to stand on their own.

At their annual gathering, NATO leaders also proclaimed "a true fresh start" in relations with Russia. They agreed to construct a missile defense over Europe, signed a long-term partnership accord with Afghanistan and expressed hope that the U.S. Senate would act quickly to ratify a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that some Republicans oppose.

Before returning to Washington, Obama met with European Union leaders. They released a statement on cooperation across the Atlantic to create jobs, avoid protectionist trade policies, and promote innovation and investment.

Afghanistan and its struggle against the Taliban dominated the NATO summit, which came just weeks before Obama is to receive an internal review of U.S. war strategy. The report is expected to conclude that despite slower-than-expected progress against the Taliban, the current approach is largely on track.

Last December, Obama ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, hoping to regain momentum from a resurgent Taliban, the radical Islamist group that harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington.

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The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan; other countries have about 40,000.

Many European countries see the U.S. as overemphasizing the value of military force in Afghanistan. They eagerly embraced Saturday's agreement to begin handing off security responsibility in early 2011, with a full transition targeted for the end of 2014.

"Here in Lisbon we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will become masters in their own house," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark said after allied leaders reached a consensus on the handover date.

"We will make it a reality, starting early next year," he added.

The allies appear not to have lined up a schedule for troop reductions to coincide with the phased turnover of security control to Afghan forces. But they do seem to agree that after this year the main military focus should be on training Afghans.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday in Chile that only a "fraction" of the current allied forces in Afghanistan are likely to remain past 2014. They probably will function as trainers and advisers instead of fighting, he said.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, gave the allied leaders a private briefing on how he foresees the transition to Afghan control unfolding, district by district and province by province, starting in 2011. In its public statement, NATO did not reveal the names of the first provinces expected to be transferred to Afghan control.

Karzai has aired a long list of grievances against NATO in recent years, including excessive killing of civilians and what he called U.S. efforts to undermine his re-election campaign last year. He predicted the transition will succeed "because I found today a strong commitment by the international community. This will be matched by the people of Afghanistan."

The NATO leaders, after agreeing on Friday to build jointly with the U.S. a missile shield to protect Europe, later invited Russia to become part of that effort.

The allies made their pitch in private to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but he stopped short of accepting in full. He agreed to work with NATO on an assessment of missile threats, which Fogh Rasmussen said would enable both sides to get a better technical grip on what it would take to counter the most troubling missile threats.

Medvedev appeared less than impressed with the NATO venture.

"It's quite evident that the Europeans themselves don't have a complete understanding how it will look, how much it will cost," the Russian leader told reporters. "But everybody understands the missile defense system needs to be comprehensive."

He added: "It should also be a full partnership. Our participation has to be a full-fledged exchange of information, or we won't take part at all."

Obama was more upbeat.

"We agreed to cooperate on missile defense, which turns a source of past tension into a source of potential cooperation against a shared threat," he said.

The summit also was notable for decisions it did not make. It stuck to the status quo, for example, on U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. Germany and some other European allies want the U.S. to withdraw the estimated 150-200 nuclear bombs stored in five NATO countries. Allied leaders chose instead to put off any action to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in NATO strategy.

Obama said the U.S. would host the 2012 NATO summit, but did not say where.

___

Associated Press writers Alan Clendenning and Slobodan Lekic, and Anne Gearan in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this rep

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama leaves wiggle room in NATO deal

  1. Transcript of: Obama leaves wiggle room in NATO deal

    Announcer: from Afghanistan .

    HOLT: Good evening from Afghanistan .

    LESTER HOLT, anchor (Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan): We are here tonight on what may be a major turning point in the war here. Today, for the first time , President Obama declared he wants the Americans here to be done with major combat by the end of 2014 . The date was agreed on by the president and NATO leaders meeting today in Lisbon as the deadline for Afghan troops to take over their country's security. But, like previous goals in this war, this one could still yet become a moving target given the political climate in Afghanistan itself and the Taliban 's stubborn resilience. Tonight I'll take you to the battlefield with a view from the ground and the air. But first to Lisbon , where NBC 's chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd has more on today's NATO agreement. Chuck , good evening.

    CHUCK TODD reporting: Well, good evening, Lester . Look , there's an answer, though very tentative,

    to the question many US military families have been asking for some time: When is the war in Afghanistan finally going to come to an end? Gathering this morning with NATO leaders, President Obama came away with what he hoped

    for, a NATO-endorsed date for major troop reductions in Afghanistan: December 31st, 2014 .

    Secretary-General ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: Here in Lisbon we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again because masters in their own house.

    TODD: And the president seconded the cautious optimism from NATO 's secretary-general.

    President BARACK OBAMA: My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead.

    TODD: But he left wiggle room.

    Pres. OBAMA: You know, it's hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary to keep the American people safe as of 2014 . I'll make that determination when I get there.

    TODD: And officials insist major troop reductions won't happen until they are satisfied the Afghans can handle their own security.

    Pres. OBAMA: That was my goal.

    TODD: In fact, NATO 's presence in Afghanistan could go well past 2014 thanks to a new security agreement with the country.

    Secretary-General RASMUSSEN: If the Taliban or anyone else aims to wait us out, they can forget it. We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job.

    TODD: This summit has not been without its drama; in particular, the president's push to persuade Senate Republicans to stop delaying ratification of the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia . In private meetings, Obama and his aides repeatedly urged European leaders to endorse START publicly. And the Russian president , also in Lisbon , went public, too, saying if we fail to move this forward, the world will not become safer. At a closing press conference, President Obama put the disagreement in pure political terms.

    Pres. OBAMA: This is an issue that traditionally has received strong bipartisan support. There's no other reason not to do it than the fact that, you know, Washington has become a very partisan place.

    TODD: But he dodged accusing his chief nemesis on the issue, Arizona Republican Jon Kyl , of being motivated by politics.

    Pres. OBAMA: I have spoken to Senator Kyl directly. Senator Kyl has never said to me that he does not want to see START ratified.

    TODD: Back to Afghanistan . President Obama also said today during his one-on-one meeting with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai that Karzai brought up his concern about the United States' use of private security contractors. President Obama defended the use, Lester , by saying, 'You know what? Until I can send US aid workers into certain provinces to build schools without fear of the Taliban ,' then he won't use them. But for now he has to do it.

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