Nato members weigh timing of Afghan pull-out

Leaders meeting in Portugal are expected to set a timetable for withdrawal by 2014 as countries are eager to transfer responsibility to Afghan troops.

KABUL // The war in Afghanistan will be high on the agenda at a Nato summit today, with members expected to agree on a timetable that could see most foreign troops leave within the next four years.

Meeting in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, countries including the United States and Britain are due to rubber stamp a plan to begin the gradual transfer of security responsibilities to local forces in six or seven months.

The move is designed to have the government here taking the lead by the end of 2014, although officials are cautioning that the deadline will not be set in stone.

In the build-up to the summit, Nato's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said earlier this week, "we are not looking at forces flooding out" as soon as the process starts.

However, any timetable is likely to add the sense on the ground that the endgame is well under way, with the international community keen to withdraw its 150,000 troops from an increasingly bloody conflict.

The 2014 target has been known for some time, having been announced at a conference in Kabul during the summer.

It has already caused mixed feelings among sections of the Afghan population, where growing anger at Nato forces is often accompanied by concern about a civil war once the bulk of them leave.

The probability of fighting continuing in some form was acknowledged by Mr Sedwill. Speaking at a briefing to the media on Wednesday, he warned there would still be a "residual insurgency" and "eye-watering" levels of violence even after the withdrawal.

At least 650 foreign troops have died in 2010 so far, compared to 521 in the whole of 2009. Civilian casualties are also up, with the UN reporting that the number of innocent people killed or wounded rose 31 per cent in the first half of this year.

Benoît Gomis, of the international security programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said the reaction of Afghans to the timetable should be watched closely.

"The situation in Afghanistan is obviously very difficult at the moment. It has been for a while," he said.

Despite taking their own heavy losses, the insurgents show no obvious signs of giving up. To mark Eid al Adha this week, the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, issued a lengthy statement declaring that "the moment of defeat" for US and Nato forces was at hand.

"The aim is to entangle the enemy in an exhausting war of attrition and wear it away, like the former Soviet Union," it said.

Mr Gomis admitted a withdrawal timetable could potentially be "counter-productive" and encourage the rebels. However, he said the risk should not be over-estimated.

"Announcing a date does not mean that if the country is in a very bad shape in 2014 [all] the alliance troops will actually leave," he said.

Under the plan that is due to be formally agreed at the two-day summit, the responsibilities for security will be handed over gradually. The most volatile regions will be left until last and some forces will remain even after the transfer is complete, largely in a training capacity.

Nato has not revealed where the transition will start, fearing that insurgents will target those areas. Provinces that will almost certainly be held back until the end of the process include Helmand and Kandahar in the south, and Kunar in the east.

On the eve of the summit, the prospect of sectarian violence breaking out in the event of withdrawal was not lost on people in Kabul.

Mohammed Yousuf Yousufi, a father of six, said he was not comfortable with the security handover, fearing it would ultimately cause a civil war.

"While the Taliban are here, the foreign forces must be here too, because our Afghan forces are not able to stand on their own feet," he said

"The way I see them, even in 20-years they will still be in the same situation."

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, recently sparked controversy when he told The Washington Post that the United States should cut its military presence and stop conducting night raids that aggravate Afghans.

His comments angered the commander of Nato forces, Gen David Petraeus, but they reflect some of the deep-seated resentment many Afghans now feel.

Rafiullah Maroofi, a Pashto literature student from Maidan Wardak province, said foreign troops were "making the situation worse day by day" and he would "be happy if they leave as soon as possible", even if sectarian clashes were a result.

When asked if the Taliban would regain power if the withdrawal is completed in 2014, Mr Maroofi said: "We know that on the same day you [foreigners] leave, they will come."