LISBON, Portugal — NATO leaders formally agreed Saturday on a plan to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and laid the groundwork for an “enduring partnership” with the Afghan government after the fighting stops.

“NATO is in this for the long-term,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “If the Taliban or anyone else aims to wait us out, they can forget it.”

President Barack Obama cautioned that any end to combat operations must be conditions-based, but added that the U.S and NATO are in agreement that 2014 is the goal.

“Our every intention is that Afghans are in the lead,” Obama said during a news conference Saturday at the conclusion of NATO’s summit in Lisbon.

Obama also down played any rift with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been critical of U.S. night raids and the growing military footprint in his country.

“We have to be sensitive to his concerns,” Obama said. “On the other hand, he’s got to pay attention to our concerns as well.” With billions of dollars being poured into the country and a surge of troops taking on greater risks, Obama said he wouldn’t allow soldiers to be “sitting ducks.”

“They need to protect themselves,” Obama said.

Earlier in the day, Karzai said he was convinced that NATO’s plan for handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014 can be achieved, despite his ongoing concerns about U.S. military tactics — the source of increased friction between Karzai and his Western partners.

“We are confident the transition will succeed,” said Karzai during a press briefing Saturday following closed-door talks with alliance heads of state in Lisbon.

In that meeting, Karzai said, he shared his concerns about civilian casualties and ISAF’s “military posture,” which appeared to be a reference to unpopular U.S. night operations that target Taliban leadership. Last week, tensions between Karzai and the West intensified after the Afghan president expressed anger with the raids, which are seen as a key part of Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy to eliminate midlevel Taliban leadership.

Karzai’s criticisms were less pointed Saturday.

“I hope as we move forward, these difficulties will go away,” he said. “We are moving in the direction of Afghan leadership.”

NATO’s timetable for ending its combat role starts with the transfer of security responsibility to Afghans in some provinces and districts by early 2011.

“Based on conditions, it will gradually expand to the rest of the country,” Rasmussen said. “We will not leave behind a security vacuum that will increase instability in the region.”

Typically, transitions will be handled slowly, with Afghans assuming more responsibility step by step over an 18- to-24-month time span. It many cases, the transition will happen town by town, district by district.

In the first phase of transition, U.S. and ISAF forces remain in place while Afghan forces take a lead role in operations. Then Afghan forces will be the primary force with ISAF soldiers serving as mentors. Eventually, ISAF forces will step into the background to lend more limited support such as logistical assistance and strategic guidance.

The emphasis on transition in Lisbon coincides with NATO’s effort to show progress in a war effort that enjoys little public support across Europe. Despite NATO’s optimism about progress, officials acknowledge that recent gains are reversible. Meanwhile, casualties in Afghanistan are at an all-time high, and questions persist about whether the Afghan government and its security forces are up to the challenge of managing the country on their own.

Regarding NATO’s long undermanned training mission, Rasmussen said several allies will offer more troops toward that effort. But he stopped short of saying how many trainers would be offered and which countries would be contributing.

“Our training mission is critical,” Rasmussen said. “Trainers are the key to transition.”

Last week, Canada also stepped forward with a commitment to send 750 military trainers and 200 support troops, helping to close the shortfall.

So far, NATO’s summit in Lisbon has gone according to script. On Friday, the alliance adopted a new Strategic Concept that put missile defense at the center of the NATO’s mission in the decade ahead.

It also appeared that tensions between NATO and Russia, dating back to the country’s 2008 war with Georgia, have begun to thaw.

NATO leaders reached an agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that allows more Afghanistan-bound nonlethal equipment to pass through Russian territory. The new agreement includes armored vehicles, and allows for the reverse transit of goods, which will make it easier to get equipment shipped back to Europe for repairs.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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