LISBON // Nato said today it would hand over security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 but the head of the alliance said it would not abandon the country in its fight against the Taliban.
Opening the second day of a summit attended by the 48 countries fighting in Afghanistan and the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance would start handing over authority to Afghan forces next year and hoped to complete the process by the end of 2014.
"Today marks the beginning of a new phase in our mission in Afghanistan. We will launch the process by which the Afghan government will take leadership for security throughout the country, district by district," Mr Rasmussen said.
"If the enemies of Afghanistan have the idea that they can just wait it out until we leave, they have the wrong idea. We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job."
President Karzai, who has an increasingly fractious relationship with the United States and with the US-Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, has set 2014 as the date he wants Afghan forces to have full responsibility for security.
The American president, Barack Obama, who has sent 30,000 more US troops to the war in the past year to try to quell the Taliban-led insurgency, intends to start withdrawing some forces from July 2011 and backs the aim of an end to combat within four years.
He also supports efforts at reconciliation with the Taliban.
Mr Rasmussen said the new strategy did not mean all 150,000 foreign troops now deployed in Afghanistan would leave the country by the 2014 deadline.
"Let there be no doubt about our continuing commitment. Afghanistan's fight against terrorism is of strategic, global importance," the former Danish prime minister said.
"Which is why we will agree here today a long-term partnership between Nato and Afghanistan to endure beyond the end of our combat mission."
Meanwhile, President Obama renewed his call on US senators to quickly ratify the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, warning that failure to approve it would result in serious consequences for the country's security. "Without ratification this year, the United States will have no inspectors on the ground, and no ability to verify Russian nuclear activities," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "Without ratification, we put at risk the coalition that we have built to put pressure on Iran, and the transit route through Russia that we use to equip our troops in Afghanistan," the president continued. "And without ratification, we risk undoing decades of American leadership on nuclear security, and decades of bipartisanship on this issue. Our security and our position in the world are at stake." The treaty, signed by presidents Medvedev and Obama at an elaborate ceremony in Prague in April, restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 per cent from a limit set in 2002. The agreement, a top Obama foreign policy initiative, replaces a previous accord that lapsed in December 2009 and also requires ratification by Russia's lower house, the Duma.
* With AFP