Nato leaders endorsed on Saturday a plan to start handing Afghan forces command of the war next year with the aim of ceding full control by 2014.
“We have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house,” Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference following a summit of Allied leaders.
Afghan forces will start taking the lead in security operations next year starting in some districts and provinces, and gradually spreading throughout the country, he said. “The aim is for Afghan forces to be in the lead countrywide by the end of 2014,” the Nato chief said after signing the plan along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Rasmussen promised the Alliance would stand by Afghanistan even after the transition.
“We will stay after transition in a supporting role,” he said. “President Karzai and I have signed an agreement on a long term partnership between Nato and Afghanistan that will endure beyond our combat mission,” he added.
“To put it simply, if the Taliban or anyone else aim to wait us out, they can forget it. We will stay as long at it takes to finish our job.”
Domestic and international aid agencies this week urged the Nato leaders to do more to protect civilians, as responsibility for securing the war-torn nation passes to the Afghan police and military.
The Nato and the Afghan government on Saturday endorsed a plan to begin the handover next year, with the aim of ceding full control to the Afghan authorities by the end of 2014.
The exit strategy comes after a new poll found that more Americans now oppose the war in Afghanistan than support it, with backing also fading in other Nato member states.
Research published late Friday by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) think tank suggested that NATO also needs to do more to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans.
The survey, conducted last month, indicated that 92 percent of the 1,000 respondents in the two southern states that have witnessed the fiercest fighting, Helmand and Kandahar, were unaware of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The US-led invasion that year was prompted by the Taliban’s refusal to give up Al-Qaeda leaders who claimed responsibility for the attacks and who were living in Afghanistan at the time.
Elsewhere, the survey suggested that 40 percent of people in the south believe foreign troops want to destroy Islam or to occupy or destroy the country.
A total of 42 percent of a further 500 men questioned in northern Parwan and Panjshir provinces were unable to name positive aspects of democracy.
“We need to explain to the Afghan people why we are here and both show and convince them that their future is better with us than with the Taliban,” said ICOS president Norine MacDonald.
The survey also painted a gloomy picture for the prospect of peace after the handover of powers, with a majority (61 percent) in Helmand and Kandahar doubtful that the Afghan police and military were up to the job.
More than three-quarters (81 percent), meanwhile, said they believed Al-Qaeda would return if the Taliban regained power and use Afghanistan to launch attacks on the West.
Under the new strategy, Afghanistan will see the handing over of responsibility for security to Afghan forces from 2011 and allow for most of the troop withdrawals by December 2014. NATO Secretary General Rasmussen stated that the 28-nation alliance was committed to the 2014 target date, despite comments from some officials at Nato and in the US that it was too ambitious considering the strength of the Taliban at present. US and NATO leaders, as well as Afghan President Karzai, say they hope to complete the transition to Afghan leadership across the country by the given date. The time period of four years for the withdrawal appears to be a pressure tactic to give a signal to the resurgent Taliban that the NATO forces were there to stay for a longer time, otherwise the drawdown would begin from spring of 2011 and the number of troops to be withdrawn would be kept secret. Coalition troops will gradually move from joint operations with Afghan counterparts to oversight, backup, mentoring and training functions in order to reduce the number of body bags returning home. Relatively secure cities and towns will first be handed over to Afghan troops, expanding over time into the surrounding rural areas. The escalating war has given the alliance its biggest challenge since it was formed 61 years ago. But victory is far from assured, and a hasty pullout would seriously undermine confidence in the alliance on both sides of the Atlantic. The exit plan is definitely the result of public pressure as European NATO members have been stressing for a rapid transition, viewing the transfer of authority as a way to bring their troops home and extricate themselves from an increasingly unpopular war which also overburdened their economies.