NATO may keep fighting in Afghanistan past its 2014 target date for shifting authority to Afghan forces, the alliance’s top civilian in the country has said.
It was the latest indication that the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan will remain sizable well into the next decade, despite plans to draw down troops and transfer responsibility to the Afghan government.
NATO’s Mark Sedwill said the end of 2014 was not a deadline. “It’s a goal,” he told reporters in the capital. “It’s realistic but not guaranteed.”
U.S. officials have said the handover will start early next year and run through the end of 2014 under a plan set for approval at a NATO summit this weekend in Lisbon, Portugal.
Handovers, beginning with a few relatively safe provinces, would hinge on the rearrangement and eventual withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces.
The 2014 option has been discussed for some time. But this week’s announcements mark the first time officials will outline concrete steps to meet the goal of transferring power in all 34 Afghan provinces within the next four years.
Mr. Sedwill said the number of NATO troops, currently at around 1,30,000, may not be heavily reduced by that date, but the mission will shift to focus on training and advising Afghan troops.
Both the Afghan government and NATO nations have said they’re committed to making the transition happen, but they’ve been hampered this year by increasing violence, with NATO deaths climbing and insurgents expanding attacks to previously peaceful areas in the north and west.
Mr. Sedwill said the transition to Afghan control of security will be slow and piecemeal, often starting with individual districts and building up to the province level. Each area will be evaluated for transfer based on four criteria – the security situation, the capacity of Afghan security forces in the area, the preparations of NATO forces and the progress toward governance reforms.