NATO sets Afghan handover timeline, starting 2011 Eds: Releads with ISAF confirmation, amends troop number in graf 14, adds Rasmussen, Karzai, Ban quotes
The leaders of Afghanistan, NATO and their allies approved on Saturday a plan to start pulling Western troops out of frontline combat in Afghanistan early in 2011 - while pledging to support the country even after the handover ends in 2014, DPA reported.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) currently totals more than 130,000 men from 28 NATO and 20 allied nations, and is locked in battle with Taliban-linked insurgents. After nine years of war, Western voters are keen to see their troops come home.
"Here in Lisbon, we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said as he announced the decision on the second day of NATO's Lisbon summit.
The first provinces are expected to pass to Afghan control by July. However, NATO combat forces are expected to remain in control of security in the most dangerous areas until 2014, and stay in a supporting role well beyond that date.
"We must be guided by realities, not schedules ... There are no short cuts to peace," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. NATO leads ISAF under a series of UN mandates.
The transition process would see NATO troops progressively pulling out of their combat missions and letting Afghan forces bear the brunt of the fighting. NATO forces would remain as back-up to Afghan soldiers, especially providing artillery, training and air cover.
Rasmussen was at pains to stress that transition should not be interpreted as a run for the exit.
"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," he insisted.
The summit also pledged NATO support to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government well after 2014, primarily in training for the Afghan forces and support for reconstruction and development.
"The alliance's commitment to Afghanistan will endure beyond ISAF's current mission and is intended to be consistent with broader international efforts," the summit statement said.
Rasmussen and Karzai signed a joint declaration setting up a "long-term partnership" between NATO and Afghanistan at the summit.
"I found today a strong commitment by the international community, and this ... will be matched by the determination and hard work of the people of Afghanistan," Karzai said.
Leaders insisted that the 2014 deadline was realistic, with Rasmussen praising the growing competence of the Afghan forces.
NATO has already trained some 260,000 Afghan soldiers and paramilitary police, and hopes to boost that figure to 300,000 by October next year. Ahead of the summit, NATO diplomats said that the alliance would need some 900 more trainers to finish the job.
Canada has already pledged an estimated 700 trainers, although they are expected to stay in and around Kabul, meaning that NATO may need to find more than 200 more trainers to fill the training mission elsewhere in the country.
At the same time, the summit stressed that ISAF states would back any peace deal in Afghanistan which respected the constitution, forswore violence and ended the insurgents' ties with terrorists.
"There can be no purely military solution: Afghanistan's stability and well-being depend on a genuine political dialogue amongst all Afghans," Ban said.
Diplomats said that Germany had offered to host a high-level meeting in Bonn in a year's time to discuss progress.