WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and leaders of other NATO countries will sign off this week on a plan for Afghan forces to take the lead in securing their country by 2014, the first clear indication of when Obama envisions most American troops leaving Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that the handover will start early next year and run through the end of 2014 under a plan set for approval at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Handovers, beginning with a few relatively safe provinces, would hinge on the rearrangement and eventual withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces.
This week's announcements mark the first time officials will outline concrete steps to meet the goal of transferring power in all 34 Afghan provinces within the next four years.
"Based on conditions on the ground, and as a result in the surge in international resources over the last year, it is possible now to begin a responsible transition to Afghan security," said Doug Lute, Obama's special assistant for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama announced late last year that he was dispatching an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. While Obama said at the time that the first of those troops would start coming home in July 2011, the pace of withdrawal was undefined.
Lute said Tuesday that the transfer of control to the Afghans would be a "steady, progressive process," though he wouldn't specify which provinces officials expected Afghan forces to take control of first.
Before a province can be handed over, Afghan and NATO officials will have to decide whether Afghan forces can handle the security and whether the local government is strong enough to manage provincial affairs, the Associated Press reported, quoting an unnamed coalition official. Other concerns include the need to address any unresolved issues, such as tribal disputes, that could flare up and create instability.
Those questions must be answered for each district by a board comprising Afghan, NATO and other officials, the coalition official said.