BRUSSELS: 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 US and NATO allies met today to finalise the combat handover programme 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 US-backed government and international enclave in Kabul while Taliban leaders boycott peace talks the US sees as the key to a safe exit.
The stated goal of US 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 defence and foreign ministers.
This week's sessions are meant to stitch together US and NATO agreements on the pace of US and allied combat withdrawal next year. US 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 US stresses that it will still have a large number of forces in Afghanistan as backup.
The combat shift parallels the withdrawal in Iraq, where US forces pulled back from lead roles but remained in harm's way for months before a scheduled end to the war. US 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 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.