NATO casts doubt on 2015 Afghan exit
NATO's plan to wind down its combat mission in Afghanistan by 2015 was not set in stone, its leaders suggested yesterday, casting doubt on David Cameron's deadline for a British withdrawal.
A timetable to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces, a process due to start next year and conclude by the end of 2014, will be agreed at a meeting in Lisbon today.
Despite Western leaders' eagerness to leave Afghanistan, the timetable remains conditional, dependent on the ability of the government in Kabul to secure the country against the Taliban.
As the summit began, the United States made clear that 2014 was "an aspirational goal" and NATO's secretary-general warned that the West must remain committed in Afghanistan "as long as it takes".
A senior NATO official also warned of "inevitable setbacks" in the work to complete transition by the end of 2014.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, described 2014 as "an aspirational goal" for the transfer of security operations to the Afghans. "It does not mean that all coalition forces will necessarily be gone by that date," he said.
"There may very well be the need for forces to remain in-country, albeit, hopefully, at smaller numbers, to assist the Afghans as they assume lead responsibility for the security of their country."
British officials in Lisbon maintained that Mr Cameron's timetable was unconditional. "After 2015, we are not going to be in combat role. That's absolutely clear," said one.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, said he was not aware of Britain having a "concrete policy" on a withdrawal date.
"I believe all allies are committed to stay as long as it takes to do the job," he said.
Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Kabul, said there were "inevitable setbacks ahead". (© Daily Telegraph, London)