The U.S. and its international partners agreed Tuesday on a roadmap for Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the nation by 2014 amid doubts that that they would meet the first goal — for the Afghans to assume control in certain areas by the end of the year.
At a one-day conference in a locked-down Afghan capital, President Hamid Karzai said he was determined that his soldiers and police will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations by 2014.
"This is a national objective that we have to fulfill, and we must," Karzai told reporters after the conference, attended by more than 40 foreign ministers and other dignitaries including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Talk of a 2014 date — which corresponds with the end of Karzai's term — enables politicians to tell their war-weary publics that the war will not drag on indefinitely, draining resources at a time of economic hardship and rising death tolls.
It also sends a signal to the Afghans that the Western commitment to the country will extend beyond July 2011, when President Barack Obama says he will begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Nonetheless, it leaves open the question of whether the Afghans will be ready to manage their affairs, even four years down the road.
The international community supported Karzai's 2014 goal and endorsed a phased-in transition for Afghan policemen and soldiers to take the lead in the country's 34 provinces.
"I can't give you names of provinces, but our goal is to hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans when conditions permit," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
At a NATO meeting in Tallinn, Estonia in April, Fogh Rasmussen was more specific, saying transition was likely to start before the end of the year.
"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," Fogh Rasmussen said at the time.
While officials at the conference insisted that transition was on track, there is internal discussion from Kabul to Washington to NATO headquarters in Brussels that the beginning could slip until least mid-2011, and perhaps later, according to a coalition official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The official said the Afghan security forces are not ready and that details of the plan for handing over control of certain areas is still undecided. There also is political pressure from countries that would like to see Afghan security forces take charge in the areas where their national troops are based so they can withdraw from the increasingly unpopular war, the official said.
Part of the delay could also be to allow the new NATO commander, Gen. David Petraeus, time to study the tactical situation and weigh in with his own ideas.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denied that the start of transition was slipping, telling reporters traveling with her that the "transition process may be able to begin by the end of this year."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed Clinton's comments, saying that transition to full Afghan security responsibility should be gradual and determined by the Afghan security force's capability "but it should be able to start soon."
The conference discussed how Afghan security forces are on track to reach a goal of 171,600 police and 134,000 soldiers by October 2011, but worries persist about their professionalism.
NATO reported Tuesday that two American civilians and two Afghan soldiers were killed in a shooting on a northern Afghan military base. An Afghan soldier who trained others at the base outside Mazar-e-Sharif started shooting during a weapons exercise, the international military coalition said in a statement.
Earlier this month, an Afghan soldier killed three British service members with gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade in the dead of night, a betrayal that highlights the difficulties in rapidly building up Afghan security forces so that foreign troops can go home.
The conference comes at a critical juncture in the nearly 9-year-old war. NATO and Afghan forces are engaged in operations to drive the Taliban out of their strongholds in the south. Insurgents are pushing back, making June the deadliest month for U.S. and coalition forces with 103 killed, including 60 Americans.
Worried about insurgent attacks, Afghan security forces virtually shut down Kabul for the conference, closing roads, setting up checkpoints and shuttering restaurants, grocery stores and government offices. Militants still worked to disrupt the event. Rockets fired at the Kabul airport Tuesday forced the diversion of a plane carrying the U.N. secretary-general and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
"Rockets hit the airport just as we were on our way to land," Bildt wrote on his blog. The plane was diverted to Bagram Air Field, outside Kabul, then the diplomats traveled aboard Blackhawk helicopters to the capital, Bildt said.
On Monday, Afghan and international forces raided a compound on the outskirts of Kabul, killing several insurgents suspected of planning an attack on the conference, NATO said in a statement.
The prolonged conflict has hobbled development in the impoverished country, and Karzai said Tuesday his government wants to take charge of more of its affairs.
The conference ended with the approval of a 10-page communique that restated strong support for channeling at least 50 percent of development aid through the Afghan government within two years while the government reforms, reduces corruption and strengthens its public financial management systems.