ANNE GEARAN and SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press Writers
BRUSSELS (AP) - The United States and its NATO allies are readying plans to pull away from the front lines in Afghanistan next year as President Barack Obama and fellow leaders try to show that the unpopular war is ending.
Top military and diplomatic officials from the U.S. and NATO allies met Wednesday to finalize the combat handover program and a strategy for world support to the weak Afghan government and fledgling military after 2014.
At the same time, the nations that have prosecuted a 10-year war against a Taliban-led insurgency are reassuring nervous Afghans they will not be left to fend for themselves.
The competing messages aimed at different audiences are both challenged by current events in Afghanistan, where insurgents staged an impressive, coordinated attack last weekend that struck at the heart of the U.S.-backed government and international enclave in Kabul while Taliban leaders boycott peace talks the U.S. sees as the key to a safe exit.
The stated goal of U.S. involvement is to deter the al-Qaida terror network from again using Afghanistan as a base, but the day-to-day fighting is against some 25,000 Taliban and other mostly home-grown insurgents.
"I expect NATO members and (partner countries) to commit to pay a fair share of the sustainment costs ... after 2014," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday as he arrived for the two-day meeting of defense and foreign ministers.
This week's sessions are meant to stitch together U.S. and NATO agreements on the pace of U.S. and allied combat withdrawal next year. U.S. and Afghan officials have already said they expect a shift to an Afghan military lead in combat operations by the middle of 2013, although the U.S. stresses that it will still have a large number of forces in Afghanistan as backup.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Wednesday that the Afghans are on track to take the lead in securing the country by the end of 2013.
The combat shift parallels the withdrawal in Iraq, where U.S. forces pulled back from lead roles but remained in harm's way for months before a scheduled end to the war. U.S. military leaders have not submitted final proposals for how to ease nearly 70,000 troops into the back seat next year but are working against a firm deadline to end the current combat mission by 2015.
The two-day gathering is intended to clear any obstacles ahead of the conference of NATO leaders in Chicago on May 20-21. Ministers also will address the international bill for sustaining the Afghan army and police after NATO's planned withdrawal at the end of 2014 - one of the top items on the summit agenda.
NATO allies expect other nations with a stake in Afghanistan's stability - including China and Russia - to pay part of the total costs, estimated at about $4 billion a year. "A stable Afghanistan is in the interest of the whole international community, so I urge everyone to play their part," Fogh Rasmussen said.
The United States acknowledges that despite progress the U.S. is not meeting its goal of drawing $1.3 billion annually from other nations to fund the Afghan armed forces. The U.S. does claim that the largely U.S.-funded effort to recruit and train qualified Afghan military recruits is on or ahead of schedule, with a goal of 352,000 forces later this year.
Azimi said Wednesday that the Afghan Army has already reached its target number of 195,000 troops. Including police and other forces, Afghan security forces now number about 330,000.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he wants a written commitment of at least $2 billion a year from the U.S. for the armed forces. He said he would rather have a firm commitment to a lower figure than a verbal promise for a higher one. But it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Congress will commit to a set figure in foreign aid.
Obama also hopes to showcase a long-term security pact with Afghanistan in Chicago. U.S. and Afghan officials said they would like to sign the agreement ahead of the summit, with more specific military agreements to follow.
Afghanistan's president raised another condition Tuesday for that long-awaited deal. He said the accord must spell out the yearly U.S. commitment to pay billions of dollars for the cash-strapped Afghan security forces.
The demand threatens to further delay the key bilateral pact and suggests that Karzai is worried that the U.S. commitment to his country is wavering.
Coalition forces, whose numbers reached a peak of over 140,000 troops last year, have already started a drawdown. The U.S., which had about 100,000 service members in Afghanistan, has begun a withdrawal which will remove about a third of them by September.
Other major contributors to the coalition - including Canada, the Netherlands and France - have already pulled their forces out of combat or accelerated their withdrawals. Australia on Tuesday became the latest to announce withdrawal plans.
"It's within the line of our strategy that as we gradually hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans, we will also adapt our presence," Fogh Rasmussen said.
Nearly 3,000 NATO troops have died since the U.S. invaded in 2001 to evict the then-ruling Taliban, about two-thirds of them Americans.
In the U.S., 6 out of 10 of those surveyed saw the war as not worth its costs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last month. Opposition to the war is bipartisan, the poll showed.