KABUL - Message to the Taliban: Forget July 2011, the date that President Obama set to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The more important date is 2014, when the international coalition hopes that Afghan soldiers and policemen will be ready to take the lead in securing the nation.
That date will be the focus of discussions later this month at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, the third and largest international meeting on Afghanistan this year.
Heads of state and other officials there will talk about how to assess security and other conditions so that government security forces can begin to take control of some of Afghanistan's 34 provinces next spring, allowing international forces to go home or move to other parts of the country.
"NATO emissaries are still bargaining over exactly how many troops will remain after departure day and for what purposes," said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Details aside, the devastating truth is that U.S. forces will be fighting in Afghanistan for at least four more years."
The 2014 target date isn't new. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in his November 2009 inauguration speech that he wanted Afghans to take responsibility for security across the country in four years. But that was all but forgotten the next month when Obama announced he was dispatching 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but that he hoped to start a gradual pullout in July 2011 - if conditions are deemed secure enough.
Obama has said he was not forecasting a mass exodus of American forces next summer, but that's what many Afghans, Americans and others around the world believed. U.S. and NATO officials have been working for months to correct what they insist was a misinterpretation of his remarks.
"We're not going anywhere," U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said Thursday in Kabul. "In fact, the better date to think about is the end of 2014."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said earlier this week that he hoped the Taliban are under the impression that July 2011 is the end date for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "It's not, and they're going to be very surprised come August, September, October and November when most American forces are still there and still coming after them," Gates said.
Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative, told reporters at a recent briefing that work was being done to try to get several provinces ready to begin transition in the spring. "I don't want to give you a number yet. . . . The announcement will come from the Afghans in the spring," he said.
The Nov. 19-21 summit comes just a month before Obama's year-end review of the U.S. war strategy, and NATO officials are hoping that the leaders of troop-contributing nations will leave Lisbon knowing progress is being made.
US Toll in Afghanistan
• Lance Cpl. James B. Stack, 20, of Arlington Heights, Ill.; assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Source: Department of Defense