MELBOURNE, Australia — Afghanistan should be ready to handle its own security by the year 2014, the top U.S. defense chiefs said Monday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said NATO should endorse the 2014 timeline proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai when the alliance holds its annual summit later this month.
"As a target at this point that makes sense, so I am comfortable with it," Mullen said.
The 2014 date would give a symbolic deadline for ending the war and bringing most combat forces home. The war is already in its 10th year and unpopular in the U.S. and Europe.
The U.S. plans to begin withdrawing some of its 100,000 troops next summer, but has never said exactly how long some forces would remain. The top NATO civilian in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, has said the 2014 deadline is feasible for all but a residual allied force including special forces and trainers.
U.S. responsibility will extend for years, Gates said Monday.
President Barack Obama and other NATO allies will consider plans for transition of security control at the November 19-20 summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Although Gates had once said he hoped a few districts could be transferred this year, NATO is now looking at beginning the process in the spring.
"You'll see a thinning of the foreign forces in a particular district or province so there's a safety net under the Afghans ... as they take charge," Gates told reporters following two days of meetings with Australian defense and diplomatic chiefs that also included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"This is a tough fight that we're in but we're convinced that starting next year there will be parts of Afghanistan that will be under control of the Afghan government and its security forces," Clinton said at a press conference with Gates on Monday.
"I can't stand here today and tell you when or on what timetable," Clinton said. "We'll be making those assessments based on conditions as they occur."
U.S. officials say the war is beginning to turn around after two years of stalemate. Although eager to underscore that claim of progress by handing over some security control, military officials are worried about backsliding. The first districts to move under Afghan police and Army control will probably be in safer areas far from front line fighting in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Gates also said that although he welcomes preliminary talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the insurgency isn't likely to cut a deal unless it is weakened further.
"The Taliban need to clearly see that the prospects for success have diminished dramatically, and in fact that they may well lose," before senior leaders would be ready to negotiate a lasting political settlement, Gates said.
That tipping point would be difficult to foresee at least until next spring, Gates added.
The Taliban deny they are being beaten down.
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