NATO is expected to set itself a 2014 target for handing over security to Afghans at a summit that starts here Friday, as the alliance's appetite for the conflict dwindles after nine years of fighting, growing European war angst, and renewed criticism by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The allies appear to agree that the target year is realistic, but that hardly means the war is ending. The U.S. in particular is wary of giving the impression that the original aim of invading Afghanistan in 2001 — to deny al-Qaida a base from which to launch more terrorist attacks on the West — will be achieved by then.
So NATO plans to pledge an enduring partnership with Afghanistan at the two-day gathering in Lisbon, while admitting past mistakes.
"I think that, seen retrospectively, we underestimated the challenge and our operation in Afghanistan didn't have sufficient resources, and yes, that was a mistake," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Portugal's Renascenca in comments broadcast Thursday as leaders of the 28 NATO member nations headed to Lisbon.
He added: "We're on the right track now and that's why I'm very optimistic about our Afghanistan operation and we'll make a positive announcement in Lisbon — that the handover is about to begin."
The escalating war has given the alliance its biggest challenge since it was formed 61 years ago. But victory is far from assured, and a hasty pullout would seriously undermine confidence in the alliance on both sides of the Atlantic.
Already, some key allies worry publicly that military force is not the best way to put Afghanistan on a track to stability.
France's new defense minister, Alain Juppe, told a radio interviewer Wednesday that Afghanistan is a "trap" for allied troops. He added, however, that French forces will not withdraw fully until "Afghan authorities have the situation in hand."
Some analysts see a grimmer scenario.
"Success in Afghanistan is almost impossible," said Shmuel Bar, a director at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel. "If NATO is making its future contingent on victory in Afghanistan, they are not living in the real world. All they can expect to achieve are some limited aims, such as preventing the war from spilling over into Pakistan."
Karzai is scheduled to address Saturday's session. He caused an international stir by demanding in a Washington Post interview last weekend that NATO reduce its military operations and stop what the military believes is a highly successful tactic — night raids conducted jointly with Afghan troops against suspected Taliban leaders.
NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said Karzai's comments were unproductive.
"We have different perspectives, that's natural," Sedwill said. "It is much better if we work those different perspectives out in private."
The Lisbon meeting unfolds against the backdrop of President Barack Obama's internal review of the war strategy he announced in December 2009, which included sending 30,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan to regain momentum from the Taliban. Obama is expected to finish his review by year's end and face a new Congress in January that may scrutinize his war strategy more closely following the Democrats' loss of the House and setbacks in the Senate.
The NATO leaders are expected to endorse Karzai's proposal that Afghanistan take lead responsibility for security — and for the development of its government institutions and economic development — by the end of 2014. This process would begin in the first half of next year with an unspecified but small number of areas transferred to Afghan control.
The plan would allow NATO members to begin reducing their troop contingent of about 140,000, but the full timeline has yet to be determined. Obama has said he will start pulling out some of the approximately 100,000 U.S. troops there next July, but U.S. officials have said the number going home is likely to be small. Others are leaving sooner.
Canada said this week its 3,000 troops will end their combat mission next year, with 950 remaining to train Afghan troops, and Germany announced it will begin withdrawing in 2012.
The outlines of a plan to begin a transition to Afghan control, and to make 2014 the target date for completing the shift, have been in the works for many months. But Lisbon will mark the first public embrace of the plan by NATO heads of government.
Working out the details has been difficult, hampered by competing interpretations of how the war is going. Last April, when NATO foreign ministers publicly approved a plan that said the shift to Afghan control would begin before the end of 2010, there were high hopes for an intensifying NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan. While that offensive has succeeded in capturing or killing large numbers of Taliban fighters, the effect on the war's overall direction is unclear.
U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has offered upbeat public assessments lately. He is believed to be concerned, however, that a too-fast pullout of allied forces could jeopardize chances for consolidating recent battlefield gains.
Other senior officials have stressed that the pace and scale of troop withdrawals be decided as circumstances unfold.
Sedwill has called the 2014 target date "realistic but not guaranteed," warning that allied fighting beyond 2014 may be necessary. NATO's troop presence may not be heavily reduced by 2014, he said, but the mission is to have shifted to training and advising the Afghan army and police rather than leading combat operations.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday that British troops will quit their combat role in Afghanistan by 2015, whatever the security conditions or progress made in tackling insurgents.
The war is increasingly unpopular with voters in NATO nations, and alliance leaders worry about the political fallout unless they agree on a credible withdrawal timeline. As a result, they are expected to unanimously approve the transition plan.
Allied commanders highlight a series of advances this year against Taliban insurgents in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, to emphasize that the transition strategy is ready.
Thousands of peace activists are expected to arrive in the Portuguese capital to demand an immediate NATO pullout. Protest leader Reiner Braun complained that Portuguese border police who normally don't check IDs at the border with Spain have turned away European pacifists, including a bus carrying about 30 from Finland.
Portugal's Border Service said in a statement that 127 foreigners were turned away through Thursday morning for reasons of national security.
Also Thursday, Portugal's spy chief resigned on the eve of the summit, reportedly because he was angry about government budget cuts. The defense minister said the move will not affect the security of NATO leaders.
Allied casualties in Afghanistan have reached record levels of about 650 dead so far this year, and the Taliban have spread into parts of the country where they were not active before. They retain sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.
Marko Papic, a senior analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence analysis firm, argues that the best the allies can now hope for is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
"With terrorist groups such as the al-Qaida shifting to other locales, it is not even clear if the original goal of the war — to disable a transnational network of terrorists — still has any bearing on the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan," he said.
Alan Clendenning, Barry Hatton and Ana Paiva contributed to this report from Lisbon.