LISBON, Portugal — President Barack Obama on Saturday said for the first time he wants U.S. troops out of major combat in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the date he and other NATO leaders set for moving Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban.
Allies had different interpretations of that target's meaning.
Capping a two-day summit of 28 NATO leaders in this Atlantic port city, Obama said that after a series of public disputes with Afghan President Hamid Karzai — and despite the likelihood of more to come — the United States and its NATO partners have aligned their aims for stabilizing the country with Karzai's eagerness to assume full control.
"My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort we're involved in now," Obama told a closing news conference.
For some U.S. allies, 2014 is more than a goal when it comes to shifting their troops from a combat role.
"There will not be British troops in large numbers and they won't be in a combat role" by 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron said. But he added, however, Britain has no intention of abandoning Afghanistan any time soon.
"We may be helping to train their army, we may still be delivering a lot of aid, in effect, because we don't want this country to go back to being a lawless space where the terrorists can have bases," Cameron told Sky News television.
Canada is ending its combat role in 2011.
If Obama's expectation about ending the U.S. combat mission in 2014 holds, it would mark a turning point in a war now in its 10th year, a conflict that once appeared headed for success but that drifted into stalemate during George W. Bush's second term in the White House.
Obama entered office in 2009 pledging to end the Iraq war, which he opposed from the outset, in order to shift forces, resources and attention to Afghanistan — a fight he says the United States cannot afford to lose.
It remains far from sure, however, that even an expanding and improving Afghan army will prevail without U.S. combat support.
As the U.S. experience in Iraq showed, insurgencies can prove more resilient than predicted and newly assembled government security forces can take longer than expected to become competent and experienced enough to stand on their own.
Before returning to Washington, Obama met with European Union leaders. They released a statement on cooperation across the Atlantic to create jobs, avoid protectionist trade policies, and promote innovation and investment.
Afghanistan and its struggle against the Taliban dominated the NATO summit, which came just weeks before Obama is to receive an internal review of U.S. war strategy. The report is expected to conclude that despite slower-than-expected progress against the Taliban, the current approach is largely on track.
Last December, Obama ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, hoping to regain momentum from a resurgent Taliban, the radical Islamist group that harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The United States has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan; other countries have about 40,000.
Many European countries see the United States as overemphasizing the value of military force in Afghanistan. They eagerly embraced Saturday's agreement to begin handing off security responsibility in early 2011, with a full transition targeted for the end of 2014.
"Here in Lisbon we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will become masters in their own house," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark said after allied leaders reached a consensus on the hand-over date.
"We will make it a reality, starting early next year," he added.
The allies appear not to have lined up a schedule for troop reductions to coincide with the phased turnover of security control to Afghan forces. But they do seem to agree that after this year the main military focus should be on training Afghans.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday in Chile that only a "fraction" of the current allied forces in Afghanistan are likely to remain past 2014. They probably will function as trainers and advisers instead of fighting, he said.
U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, gave the allied leaders a private briefing on how he foresees the transition to Afghan control unfolding, district by district and province by province, starting in 2011. In its public statement, NATO did not reveal the names of the first provinces expected to be transferred to Afghan control.
Karzai has aired a long list of grievances against NATO in recent years, including excessive killing of civilians and what he called U.S. efforts to undermine his re-election campaign last year. He predicted the transition will succeed "because I found today a strong commitment by the international community. This will be matched by the people of Afghanistan."