Melbourne (AFP) Nov 8, 2010
US military chiefs said on Monday that the Afghan government's plan to take over security from foreign troops by 2014 was a realistic goal, citing progress in the war effort.
The NATO alliance planned to endorse the 2014 goal set by President Hamid Karzai at a summit later this month in Lisbon, Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Melbourne.
The gradual transition was likely a "years-long process" that would begin in some areas next year as Afghan forces steadily expand and improve, Gates said.
"One of the agenda items for the Lisbon summit is to embrace president Karzai's goal of completing the transfer of security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014," the Pentagon chief said.
"So I think that's the kind of time frame that we're talking about."
Asked if he believed the 2014 date was realistic, Gates said "yes."
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed, telling reporters at the same briefing that he was "comfortable" with the timetable.
Their comments were the latest sign that Washington and its allies are looking to 2014 as an end date for the NATO-led military mission, amid waning public support for the war in the United States and among its partners.
Mullen said the US-led effort to train Afghan forces had made significant progress but there was still much more work to be done.
"But as a target at this point, that makes sense," he said of the 2014 deadline. "So I'm comfortable with it as this point."
Under US General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, planning for the handover was now well-advanced, the admiral said.
"When you look at what's laid out for Lisbon, and what General Petraeus and others have looked at in terms of transition, both in the near term and far term, there's an awful lot that's been fleshed out," he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier Monday in Melbourne that she was "convinced" that parts of Afghanistan would be under the control of Afghan forces by next year.
"This is a tough fight that we're in, but we're convinced that starting next year there will be parts of Afghanistan that will be under the control of the Afghan government and its security forces," she told reporters.
The nine-year-old war in Afghanistan, where Australia has some 1,550 soldiers deployed including special forces, was a focus of annual security talks between Clinton and Gates and their Australian counterparts.
Clinton said Washington remained committed to its strategy in Afghanistan, with NATO troops fighting to secure key cities and towns while building up Afghan forces.
She said she was confident that security could increasingly be handled by Afghan forces from next year -- subject to local conditions and detailed analysis.
Monday's comments follow a British newspaper report that Petraeus has drafted a timetable for handing over control of some areas to local security forces.
The Times reported that Petraeus will present a colour-coded map containing a small number of "green" areas which are designated for handover within six months at the NATO summit on November 19.
The plan indicates that the western province of Herat is due for an early handover, while NATO forces are expected to remain in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand for at least two more years, the paper said.
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