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KABUL, Afghanistan — Message to the Taliban: Forget July 2011, the date that President Obama set to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
The more important date is 2014 when the international coalition hopes Afghan soldiers and policemen will be ready to take the lead in securing the nation.
That date will be the focus of discussions later this month at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, the third and largest international meeting on Afghanistan this year.
Heads of state and other officials there will talk about how to assess security and other conditions so that government security forces can begin to take control of some of Afghanistan's 34 provinces next spring, allowing international forces to go home or move to other parts of the country.
"NATO emissaries are still bargaining over exactly how many troops will remain after departure day and for what purposes," says Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Details aside, the devastating truth is that U.S. forces will be fighting in Afghanistan for at least four more years."
The 2014 target date isn't new. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in his November 2009 inauguration speech that he wanted Afghans to take responsibility for security across the country in four years. But that was all but forgotten the next month when Obama announced he was dispatching 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but hoped to start a gradual pullout in July 2011 — if conditions are deemed secure enough.
Obama has said he was not forecasting a mass exodus of American forces next summer, but that's what many Afghans, Americans and others around the world believed. U.S. and NATO officials have been working for months to right what they insist was a misinterpretation of Obama's remarks.
"We're not going anywhere," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Thursday in Kabul. "In fact, the better date to think about is the end of 2014."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this week that he hoped the Taliban is under the impression that July 2011 is the end date for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "It's not and they're going to be very surprised come August, September, October and November when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them," Gates said.
Gates once said that he hoped a few of Afghanistan's 398 districts could be transferred to Afghan security forces this year, but NATO officials now say the transition process won't begin in earnest until next spring — or perhaps the summer.
At a ceremony this week marking the one-year anniversary of the NATO training mission, Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak said his nation's security forces should be well on their way toward relieving NATO forces of the burden of ground fighting next year.
"This year we led some operations," he said. "Next year we hope that we will be able to lead more operations and take the responsibility for the physical security in more districts and provinces."
He ended his passionate address with the word "Giddy-up."
Before a province can be handed over, Afghan and NATO officials will have to decide if Afghan forces can handle the security and if the local government is strong enough to manage provincial affairs. Other concerns include the need to address any unresolved issues, such as tribal disputes, that could flare up and create instability.
Those questions must be answered for each district by a board comprising Afghan, NATO and other officials, a coalition official said on condition of anonymity to explain the assessment strategy. The transition to Afghan control could take months to years to complete, depending on the readiness of each area, he said.
Two-thirds of all enemy-initiated attacks, for instance, occur in three provinces — Kandahar and Helmand in the south and Kunar in the northeast, so those areas will likely be the last to be handed over, the official said. Ten Afghan districts account for 50 percent of all the violence, he said.
Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative, told reporters at a recent briefing that work was being done to try to get several provinces ready to begin transition in the spring. "I don't want to give you a number yet. We won't announce any number in Lisbon. The announcement will come from the Afghans in the spring," he said.
The Nov. 19-21 summit comes just a month before Obama's year-end review of the U.S. war strategy and NATO officials are hoping that the leaders of troop-contributing nations will leave Lisbon confident that progress is being made.
Sedwill said 2011 would be the start but the key date was the 2014 deadline for Afghans to have the lead for security throughout the country.
"We would expect by then to have none or at least very few international forces out on the streets in combat operational roles," he said.
NATO officials insist that decisions on transition be based on actual conditions on the ground, not the political calendars in the capitals of troop-contributing nations. The coalition official said top NATO officials have already beaten back pressure from some nations that want to see transition start first in areas where their troops are based. France, for example, has expressed hope that Surobi district of Kabul province where French troops are deployed will be transferred to Afghan control next year. Italy has said it wants to hand over Herat province in western Afghanistan within the next 12 months.