Ahead of the crucial NATO Summit in Lisbon, the US today said the "responsible transition" to Afghan security forces for taking the lead in securing the country will begin by the middle of next year and is expected to end in 2014.
"We are viewing this Lisbon summit as a strategic milestone for the ongoing mission in Afghanistan, during which we expect to highlight two mutually supporting themes," said Doug Lute, Special Assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Lisbon Summit, he said, is expected to announce the "beginning of a responsible transition to Afghan leadership."
"That is, putting Afghans in the lead across Afghanistan for their own security," he told reporters in a tele-conference.
With regard to transitioning to Afghan leadership, Lute said, the process actually began in last year and was then highlighted again in the conference hosted by the Afghans in Kabul in July this year.
"The idea is that based on conditions on the ground and as a result of the surge in international resources over the last year, it is possible now to begin a responsible transition to Afghan security lead across the 34 provinces in Afghanistan," Lute said.
Acknowledging that this won't happen overnight or in a single event, he said it will be a steady, progressive process that will be carefully monitored by conditions on the ground.
Both international security forces as well as Afghans will measure progress and determine how and when the transition can take place, he noted.
"The goal, however, that President Karzai enunciated and the international community endorsed in Kabul in July is that this process across the 34 provinces will aim to be completed by the end of 2014. So it's a process that begins in early 2011 with the target of completion at the end of 2014."
"During this process to reassure the Afghans that as they stand up, they will not have to stand alone, NATO is expected to endorse a enduring partnership with Afghanistan, and in particular a partnership that sees NATO sustaining its commitment to the development of Afghan national security forces," Lute said.
Responding to questions about Karzai's recent statement on continued presence of foreign troops, Lute said Karzai's call for more self-reliance is closely linked to this process of transitioning gradually as conditions permit, both geographic areas of Afghanistan and institutions to an Afghan lead.
"There are also, Lisbon is also designed, however, to provide this reassurance by way of the enduring partnership that as Afghanistan becomes increasingly self-reliant, it won't have to do so immediately on its own, but rather it'll be reassured by way of this enduring commitment," he said.