United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, second left, speaks with Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, second right, during a round table of NATO Defense Ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, April 18, 2012.
BRUSSELS (AP) — The United States and its NATO allies are readying plans to pull away from the front lines in Afghanistan next year as President Barack Obama and fellow leaders try to show that the unpopular war is ending.
NATO allies insisted they are not pulling the plug early on the Afghanistan war as top military and diplomatic officials from the U.S. and NATO allies met Wednesday. The allies are finalizing a plan to shift primary responsibility for combat to Afghan forces and firming up a strategy for world support to the weak Afghan government and fledgling military after 2014.
That year is the deadline to the NATO-led war to end, although it is clear that many nations will have long since stopped any active front-line combat and some will have pulled out completely.
At the same time, the nations that have prosecuted a 10-year war against a Taliban-led insurgency are reassuring nervous Afghans they will not be left to fend for themselves.
"There is no change whatsoever in the timeline," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted Wednesday.
The messages aimed at different audiences are both challenged by current events in Afghanistan, where insurgents staged an impressive, coordinated attack last weekend that struck at the heart of the U.S.-backed government and international enclave in Kabul. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders are boycotting peace talks the U.S. sees as the key to a safe exit.
Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance expects a bill of about $4 billion annually to sustain the Afghan fighting forces after international troops leave, which he called a "good deal" since it is cheaper than the cost of war.
But it is not clear that several European governments have the budget or the will to keep paying. A major NATO summit in Chicago next month is expected to include a broad commitment to long-term support for the Afghan forces but no specific pledges.
The United States expects to pay much of the cost but U.S. officials say Washington cannot foot the bill alone. The United States wants nations outside NATO, such as China and Russia, to chip in, arguing that everyone has a stake in ensuring Afghanistan does not slide into chaos.
The United States acknowledges that despite progress the U.S. is not meeting its goal of drawing $1.3 billion annually from other nations to fund the Afghan armed forces.
This week's sessions are meant to stitch together U.S. and NATO agreements on the pace of U.S. and allied combat withdrawal next year. U.S. and Afghan officials have already said they expect a shift to an Afghan military lead in combat operations by the middle of 2013, although the U.S. stresses that it will still have a large number of forces in Afghanistan as backup.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Wednesday that the Afghans are on track to take the lead in securing the country by the end of 2013. Azimi said the Afghan Army has already reached its target number of 195,000 troops. Including police and other forces, Afghan security forces now number about 330,000.
The combat shift parallels the withdrawal in Iraq, where U.S. forces pulled back from lead roles but remained in harm's way for months before a scheduled end to the war. U.S. military leaders have not submitted final proposals for how to ease nearly 70,000 troops into the back seat next year but are working against a firm deadline to end the current combat mission by 2015.
The two-day gathering is intended to clear any obstacles ahead of the conference of NATO leaders in Chicago on May 20-21. Ministers also will address the international bill for sustaining the Afghan army and police after NATO's planned withdrawal at the end of 2014 — one of the top items on the summit agenda.