A NATO summit originally intended to allow members to signal an exit date for the unpopular 9-year-old war in Afghanistan instead concluded Saturday with an agreement leaving open the possibility that allied forces will remain in the unstable country for years to come.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders gathered in Lisbon signed an agreement with the Afghan government to transfer primary security responsibility from the alliance to Kabul by 2014, as NATO gradually shifts focus to training, advising and logistics.
But officials carefully hedged the timeline, in light of the uncertainties in the military effort and the training of Afghan security forces.
With the military buildup that has pushed the number of Western troops to about 150,000, this year has already been the bloodiest for allied troops in Afghanistan, with 654 deaths so far, 451 of them Americans, according to the icasualties.org website.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, said he did not “foresee [allied] troops in a combat role beyond 2014, provided of course that the security situation allows us to move into a more supportive role.... We have to make sure that we do not leave Afghanistan prematurely.”
President Obama, speaking to reporters near the close of the two-day summit in the Portuguese capital, said his goal was to end combat “of the sort we’re involved with now.”
Yet “there may still be extensive cooperation with the Afghan armed services to consolidate the security environment,” he said.
NATO country leaders had initially hoped they could use the summit to reassure their war-weary constituents that there was an end in sight to the conflict. But in recent months, the White House has decided that a longer transition would be required and that the alliance should keep its exit plans flexible.
“There is a lot of hard fighting ahead,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke of condition of anonymity. “No one should read out of Lisbon that the fighting is over.”
U.S. officials want to remain vague about the departure in part to avoid sending a message to the insurgents that they can wait out the alliance. Administration officials also want to leave open the possibility of withdrawing troops ahead of schedule.
Obama has committed to beginning the first withdrawals in July, but the reduction may be small. The administration has sought to publicize the 2014 date in part to diminish the public focus on next year’s withdrawals.
Some European officials put a different emphasis on the plan.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, told the British news agency Press Assn. that 2014 was “an absolute commitment and deadline for us,” promising that the British combat role would be over by then.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said German troops would be withdrawn by 2014 but that the nation would continue training Afghan troops and police officers.
Another German official, who asked to remain unidentified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that the long-term commitment, even paired with troop reductions, was “quite a difficult thing to explain in Germany.”
Although several U.S. officials have said in recent days that U.S. forces could remain in a combat role after 2014, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters Saturday that he expects a small international troop presence after 2014 focused on training and advising Afghan troops.
“Anything that remains after 2014 would be very modest and very much focused on the kind of training, advise and assist role,” said Gates, who was in Chile.
NATO officials are also facing the challenge of dealing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been increasingly upset with the Western troop presence.
NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen said Saturday’s agreement begins a promise “by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house.”
Karzai, who signed the agreement with NATO on behalf of his government, said he believed they were “moving in the direction of Afghan ownership, Afghan leadership.”
Also Saturday, Russia agreed to work with NATO in planning for a joint missile defense system in Europe but stopped short of committing to it.
Russian President Dimitry Medvedev said he would send technicians to discuss plans for the system and was receptive to the idea of the shield, Rasmussen said.
The plan would knit together existing U.S. missile defense networks and an expanding system in Europe. NATO has been eager to try to integrate Russia into the system as a way to include it into the continent’s broader security plans and improve collaboration in other areas.
Obama praised Russia’s decision, saying cooperation “turns a source of past threats into a source of potential cooperation against a shared threat.”
In Moscow, a key lawmaker praised the moves at the NATO summit.
“We are now building a bridge from both sides, a bridge that will bring us closer to each other, and the [missile defense] system in Europe is one of the most important elements of it,” said Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the international relations committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
He also spoke of Russia’s growing cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan, pointing to a recent joint drug raid in the country. But he said there were limits to Russia’s involvement.
“The only thing we are not ready to do is to deploy our armed forces in Afghanistan,” Margelov said. “The Afghan war syndrome is still too strong in Russia, as strong as your Vietnam syndrome.”
As the alliance members wrapped up the summit, there was little respite from violence in Afghanistan.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force on Saturday acknowledged the accidental deaths of three Afghan civilians during fighting in eastern Afghanistan. Three other civilians were injured in the confrontation with insurgents in Kunar province, in which artillery rounds fired by Western forces missed their target.
Civilians were also killed and injured in two insurgent bombings in Laghman province. Both explosive devices were apparently attached to bicycles.
Times staff writers Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.