U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan should be able to start handing off responsibility for security to the Afghan government forces next year, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday.
While stopping short of setting a firm deadline, Fogh Rasmussen's public declaration puts the security alliance in line with President Barack Obama's promise to begin pulling U.S. troops out in July 2011.
The time line also reflects Europe's growing impatience with the nine-year-long war and a belief among many allies that the conflict should end.
Fogh Rasmussen's latest prediction also reflects a growing realization by NATO that security conditions will not improve dramatically this year, as many had hoped. At a NATO meeting in April, the secretary-general had said that handing over responsibility to the Afghans was a primary goal for 2010.
Some NATO members already have pulled out of the mission or plan to do so soon because of lagging public support.
NATO members are to meet in Lisbon, Portugal, in November to devise a plan for handing off control to the Afghans, including a time line for various provinces and benchmarks to measure progress.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan,that he has drafted operational guidelines to implement Karzai's goal of having Afghan police and soldiers take the lead in the country's 34 provinces by 2014 as security allows.
It remains unclear whether the Afghans will be ready to handle their own security, even four years down the road.
"These guidelines recognize that this is a process, not an event," he said. "It will typically represent a thinning out of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces not a hand-off per se."
Talk of a 2014 date enables politicians to tell their war-weary publics that the conflict will not drag on indefinitely, draining resources at a time of economic hardship and rising death tolls. It also sends a signal to the Afghans that the Western commitment to the country will extend beyond July 2011, when President Barack Obama says he will begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
Fogh Rasmussen said he believes security conditions have improved enough so a transition is possible. He said, however, that the precise timing of a drawdown will depend upon conditions on the ground.
"We will not leave until we finish our job," he told reporters ahead of a meeting with Obama at the White House. "But it is very helpful to have this road map."
War commanders have been more reluctant to put a date on when Afghan troops might take control. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell, the head of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, has said that the alliance needs at least another year to recruit and train enough soldiers and police officers.
Rasmussen said that setting next year as a goal for beginning to wind down troop levels does not conflict with a recent request by Gen. David Petraeus, NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, for 2,000 more troops.
Rasmussen said many of the 2,000 troops would be assigned to train Afghan security forces, in preparation for NATO's eventual withdrawal.
"Trainers are the ticket to transition," he said.
He said he did not know if the United States or other NATO allies would supply the additional forces.
NATO has been eager to show progress in the war. The alliance's top commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, said this week that coalition troops will clear the area around the vital city of Kandahar by December.
Although U.S. and NATO forces are expected to begin leaving next year, the U.S. government is expected to provide massive financial aid to Afghanistan for years to come.
According to a NATO document, the United States expects to spend about $6 billion a year training and supporting Afghan troops and police after it begins withdrawing its own combat troops in 2011.