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NATO envisions post-combat world in Afghanistan

From Elise Labott and Chris Lawrence, CNN
President Hamid Karzai is calling for increased Afghan sovereignty, a NATO official says.
President Hamid Karzai is calling for increased Afghan sovereignty, a NATO official says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • All 34 provices have been assessed for transition
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai is working hard for grass-roots improvements
  • NATO promises a robust presence in the country after combat role ends

Lisbon, Portugal (CNN) -- The NATO alliance is making it clear that it will have a robust presence in Afghanistan for some time to come, and is preparing the groundwork for security transition and an extensive program to train Afghan security forces.

The move comes as NATO leaders start envisioning and planning a gradual transition to Afghan security leadership up through 2014, one of the main thrusts of the NATO-Afghan partnership declaration announced in Lisbon, Portugal, on Saturday.

As countries make the transition away from combat, they will enter into training roles for Afghan security forces.

A senior U.S. official said that NATO's International Security Assistance Force has said that all of the country's 34 provinces have been assessed for transition, with each being graded according to their readiness.

Although the actual provinces that could be ready for transfer in 2011 have not yet been identified, the official said the most likely candidates will be those provinces where insurgents have never operated.

Several countries have already said that their troops will not remain in combat positions indefinitely.

A senior British official said Saturday that Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated in the meeting what he has said publicly -- no matter how violent Afghanistan is at the end of 2014, the British will end combat operations by 2015.

Despite the promise to stop fighting in four years, the official says the British will remain involved in Afghanistan in a non-combat role.

President Barack Obama has not yet made a decision as to when the United States will end combat operations, according to the senior U.S. official, who said it would be impossible to know what the situation on the ground will be in Afghanistan so far out.

"The issue of changing combat missions is an independent national decision," which will be made by all ISAF members, the official said. "The president will assess when to make that change, but it's not in the cards right now."

The official said a key element of the discussions, and one which will feature prominently in the review of the administration's Afghanistan policy next month, is the government's readiness to govern the country once security control is handed over.

Many U.S. officials and diplomats from other NATO countries have voiced concern that while the security situation is improving, the Afghan government's capacity to govern its people has not.

"If you commit 30,000 additional troops and NATO commits 10,000 you expect to see improvement in the security situation," the official said. "And then what?"

He added that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was working hard to generate capacity at the local level.

The official said Karzai has expressed some concerns about the tactics of NATO forces in his country, on the heels of comments he made last week criticizing the strategy and calling for a less visible international presence and an end to night raids, the official said.

"He is calling for increased Afghan sovereignty," the official said. "He envisions a day when Afghanistan will be increasingly self-reliant and when 140 ISAF troops aren't in his country."

The official said the Lisbon meeting of all ISAF countries produced "a 49-nation endorsement of that goal."

"We are anxious for Afghan forces to be self-reliant," he said. "When we get into a bind is with expressions of dissatisfaction on the pace of movement of that goal and occasionally on the techniques."

The official said the long-term partnership signed Saturday between NATO and Afghanistan had many purposes: to reassure the Afghan people, to hold the coalition together, to reassure the region NATO is not going to leave an unfinished job in Afghanistan, and to warn the Taliban to "be careful."

"NATO is not going to pick up and leave," the official said.