KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO leaders gathering for a summit in Portugal this weekend will announce plans for the gradual handover of Afghanistan to fledgling Afghan forces by 2014 and a partnership that will endure for far longer.

The plan, presented as a natural transition to Afghan control at a time when leaders describe game-changing successes on the battlefield, is seen by some as the United States and its partners devising a way out.

But officials are warning that this process will take years and there is no quick route from this tumultuous and fractured nation.

“That’s why we are calling it ‘transition,’ ” said Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.

“The transition process will begin in the first half of 2011 and Afghanistan will have the lead countrywide in 2014,” he said. That “doesn’t mean ‘mission over,’ but the mission changes ... to where we are training and mentoring the Afghan forces.”

“We are not looking at forces flooding out of this country, just repositioning,” he added.

Afghan and NATO officials have been exploring the idea of a transitional handover of responsibility in Afghanistan for months with a view toward 2014, when President Hamid Karzai’s final term in office expires. But the summit will be the first time officials present a detailed plan on how this transition will play out. In some areas, the handover will be provincewide but in most, it will be district by district with each locale transitioning in four phases that will span from 18 to 24 months:

In the first phase, U.S. and ISAF forces remain in place while Afghan forces take a lead role in operations.

Second, Afghan forces will be the primary force with ISAF soldiers playing a more mentoring role.

In the third phase, ISAF forces will do overwatch from further back.

Finally, in 18 to 24 months, ISAF forces will only assist in logistics, further training, intelligence and other strategic guidance, officials said.

Key to the transition is having enough NATO trainers and mentors, and the coalition has continually fallen short of meeting that challenge. Canada, which is pulling its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011, announced yesterday that it would instead deploy 750 military trainers and 200 support troops, a declaration that NATO and U.S. officials welcomed.

Officials stress that 2014 is a goal, based on conditions on the ground.

“This won’t happen overnight,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, Obama’s special assistant for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the National Security Council, told reporters Tuesday in Washington. “It won’t be a single event. It will be a steady, progressive process that will be carefully monitored by conditions on the ground.”

Handover or retreat?In Washington, officials for weeks have tried to regain control of the war narrative from opponents of any such timelines, downplaying the significance of a war strategy review due December 1 and the White House’s July 2011 date for some number of troops to begin drawing down.

Instead, administration officials this week say NATO’s Lisbon summit is the critical event.

Lute called the summit a “strategic milestone for the ongoing mission in Afghanistan,” while U.S. Special Ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, speaking to reporters in Pakistan, called it a big event, and “a turning point in our policies.”

Opponents, meanwhile, warn that the transition strategy could be viewed as retreat.

The definition of success in Afghanistan has eluded NATO and U.S. officials, and skeptics warn that “transition” must not replace a commitment to the defeat of the Taliban.

“The president’s emphasis on ‘transition,’ intended to convey progress through the transfer of responsibility and burden to the Afghan government, does not convey a commitment to win,” Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy U.S. assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

“[Transition] is inescapably imbued with the odor of withdrawal, if not retreat,” he wrote. “It reinforces the insurgency’s confidence, and makes allies and partners question not only their sacrifices of blood and treasure, but also the value of NATO and U.S. leadership.”

The summit follows a flurry of reports last month that Karzai’s government was conducting secret peace talks with Taliban and other insurgent leaders. The wildly divergent reports over the level and significance of the talks, were painted by some as propaganda aimed at boosting prospects for peace ahead of the summit and the White House review.

Similarly, NATO and ISAF leaders say the surge of U.S. forces in key regions is enabling stability that, while so far brief, is creating this kind of transition opportunity for the first time.

“We believe we are regaining the initiative,” Sedwill said. “It’s still clearly fragile. There are significant risks, and there will be a long road certainly.”

A report by the Council on Foreign Relations task force led by the conservative former U.S. Undersecretary of State Dick Armitage recently warned that the White House review must be “a clear-eyed assessment of whether there is sufficient overall progress to conclude that the strategy is working.” If not, “a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted,” the report says.

Long-term commitment

NATO officials are also stressing that they will sign a partnership agreement with Afghanistan to show a long-term commitment. Even after the Afghans take the lead, Sedwill cautioned, they will need support for years, from logistical support to air force training, intelligence and partnership on targeted attacks on the residual insurgency.

Targeted attacks by U.S. special operations forces, which often take place at night, are a sore point between NATO and Karzai, who ratcheted up tensions ahead of the summit by publicly calling on the U.S. military to stop the raids.

In an interview with The Washington Post published Sunday, Karzai called on the U.S. forces to reduce their visibility and stop the intrusive night raids.

The raids, aimed at removing midlevel insurgent leaders from the Afghan battlefields, are seen as key to the military strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and ISAF commander in Afghanistan. Afghan and U.S. officials downplayed the rift, saying the sides are in agreement on transition and Karzai was simply reflecting concerns in his constituency.

Some see a growing strain between Karzai and the international players in Afghanistan, who insisted Wednesday that the partnership was strong.

“In the past he has had to express these things in public before we paid attention,” Sedwill said in acknowledgement of the strained relations. “We are paying attention now. I’d prefer [he raise these issues] privately, but we don’t have a good track record.”

Sedwill said those raids, along with U.S. military operations, will eventually stop, but it will take time.

“We probably won’t get there fast enough for his population,” Sedwill said. “We probably won’t get there fast enough for our own population.”

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