LISBON // The head of Nato said yesterday the alliance would start turning security over to Afghan forces next year under a plan the group's officials say will allow for substantial troop withdrawals by the end of 2014.
Some Nato and Pentagon officials have expressed doubt that the deadline can be achieved because of the rising threat posed by Taliban insurgents to Afghanistan's weak government.
But the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said before the start of a two-day summit in Lisbon that the 28-nation alliance was committed to the target date, and would leave a smaller staff to train the Afghan forces.
The US president, Barack Obama, who will have talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during the summit today, backed the decision to start the security handover in 2011 and called for moves towards a reconciliation with the Taliban.
"We will announce that the transition to lead Afghan responsibility [for security] is about to start in 2011," Mr Rasmussen said after talks with Portugal's president.
"We hope this process will be completed by the end of 2014 so that the Afghan security forces can take responsibility all over Afghanistan."
WAM reported yesterday that Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, led a delegation from the Emirates to the summit, which brought together leaders of the 28 member nations and their 19 partners in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan with EU leaders plus the United Nations, World Bank, Japan and Russia.
Nato leaders will formally announce the exit strategy during the summit, hoping to draw a line under a war seen as going badly for the United States and its allies. They will also approve a new 10-year vision for Nato, underscoring the need to be ready for similar missions in the future, and are expected to extend a missile defence system. They also hope talks with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, today will improve ties with Moscow.
Ahead of the summit, US military officials said they were sending a contingent of heavily armoured battle tanks to Afghanistan for the first time in the nine-year war, a shift that signals a further escalation in the aggressive tactics that have been employed by American forces this fall to attack the Taliban.
The deployment of a company of M1 Abrams tanks, which will be fielded by marines in the country's south-west, will allow ground forces to target insurgents from a greater distance - and with more of a lethal punch - than is possible from any other US military vehicle.
"The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower," an unnamed officer told The Washington Post. "It's pretty significant."
The US-led intervention in Afghanistan began in response to the September 11 attacks. The United States and its allies invaded to overthrow the then-ruling Taliban, who had refused to hand over al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden.
Now in its 10th year, the war has become a headache for Mr Obama, who talks openly of reconciliation with the Taliban.
"America and our Nato allies strongly support a ... process that seeks reintegration into society of those Taliban who agree on some main points: they have to abandon violence, break their ties with al Qa'eda and agree to live under the rules of the Afghan Constitution," Mr Obama told Spain's El Pais newspaper.