By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:09 PM
LISBON - President Obama said Saturday he was confident that a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would begin in July and that "the objective assessment is that we have made progress" in the war effort.
"We are in a better place now than we were a year ago," Obama said in anticipation of next month's promised White House review of the surge strategy he announced last December. He said Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, had begun "planning and mapping" areas where security conditions would allow a drawdown.
Obama spoke at the end of a two-day NATO summit at which the coalition agreed to start turning parts of Afghanistan over to Afghan security control this spring, in a transition to be completed by the end of 2014, and secured Russia's promise to cooperate in a Europe-based missile-defense program.
NATO and Afghan President Hamid Karzai also signed a long-term agreement guaranteeing the alliance's indefinite cooperation on security. "As Afghans stand up and take the lead" for their own security, Obama said at a news conference, "they will not stand alone."
But Obama responded sharply to Karzai's recent criticism of some U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. Partnership, he said, was a "two-way street," adding of Karzai: "We have to listen and learn. But he's got to listen to us, as well."
Overall, the NATO gathering seemed to serve as a tonic for Obama, who returned from a 10-day trip to Asia earlier this month with a number of his goals unmet, only to face Republican foot-dragging on approval of the U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons treaty.
In addition to the Afghan and missile-defense agreements, NATO approved its first mission statement in more than a decade, designed to cut costs, improve cooperation and face new 21st-century threats. Obama cited the achievements as administration successes resulting from "the work that we've done over the last two years."
Alliance unity, he said, was "a direct result of American efforts and American sacrifice."
Obama has been criticized in the past for neglecting Europe as he sought new partnerships in Asia and elsewhere. In Lisbon, he went out of his way to affirm that relations with Europe were "the cornerstone of our engagement with the world."
Before his departure for Washington, he held a separate economic "summit" late Saturday with European Union officials, designed to smooth over differences between the administration's focus on job creation and stimulus and Europe's move toward sharp spending cuts and deep structural reform.
Several European leaders, including from NATO's newest members in Eastern Europe, pledged their support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, calling it vital to their own security and issuing what Obama called "umprompted" public urgings for early Senate ratification.
In a bilateral meeting here with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom he saw one week ago at the APEC summit in Yokohoma, Obama again said he would make ratification a top priority. Failure "would be very unpleasant," Medvedev later told reporters, adding that he remained confident that "common sense will prevail."Emphasis on transition
Both the administration and the Europeans hope that the four-year transition plan will reduce public opposition to the nine-year war. NATO members moving away from a combat role, Obama said, were becoming less reluctant to provide the military trainers needed to ensure Afghan troops were ready to take over.
Canada, which has said it will bring its combat troops home this year, announced last week that it would provide 950 trainers, and a senior U.S. official said that other commitments for about 500 more that would meet the coalition's current needs.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the transition process was underway, with Afghan forces taking the lead from coalition partners in some areas. Initial transition areas are to be decided by NATO, then approved and announced early next year by Karzai.
Officials emphasized that transition did not mean withdrawal, because coalition forces taken out of one area of Afghanistan would be transferred elsewhere inside the country. Each nation makes its own decision on when to withdraw troops.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan now number about 100,000 - compared to about 40,000 from other NATO members and an additional 20 non-NATO countries - and Obama has pledged an initial withdrawal in July. He has said the size and pace of the U.S. drawdown would be determined by "conditions on the ground."
Asked whether he saw a need for any American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Obama responded indirectly. "My first and most important job . . . is to keep the American people safe, so I'll do what's necessary," he said. "That will be true as long as I'm president of the United States . . . and maybe that will be the case in 2014," he said with a smiling reference to his reelection prospects.
"Our every intention is that Afghans are in the lead and we're partnering with them the way we partner with countries around the world" to whom the United States provides security assistance, he said.
The administration is negotiating a long-term bilateral agreement with Afghanistan, slated for completion early next year, that will promise indefinite U.S. security, economic, cultural and development support. That accord is separate from the NATO-Afghan agreement signed Saturday, which officials said was intended to guarantee continued training and equipment for Afghan security forces after 2014.The 2014 deadline
Obama said he was "pretty confident" that a U.S. counterterrorism capability would be maintained in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline, "until we have confidence that al-Qaeda is no longer operating and no longer a threat . . . We don't want to find ourselves in a situation where they've waited us out and they have reconsolidated," he said.
"It is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations as we are engaged now," he said. But "beyond that, it's hard to anticipate what will be necessary."
But, he said, "it's a testament to the confidence we have in Gen. Petraeus's plans and the fact that we are much more unified and clear . . . that we are going to achieve the end state."
Petraeus, who presented an update of the war at Saturday's three-hour meeting on Afghanistan, said that momentum had shifted from the Taliban to the coalition. Special Operations "night raids" against Taliban commanders were particularly successful, he said, and had killed or captured more than 370 insurgent leaders in recent months.
In an interview with The Washington Post this month, Karzai sharply criticized the raids, which he said were part of an excessive foreign military presence in Afghan towns and villages that disturbed the population and violated cultural norms. Among other things, he has also objected to the coalition's employing private security contractors to guard development aid sites and supply convoys, and said that coalition operations cause unnecessary civilian casualties.
Karzai, who attended the Saturday meeting, repeated his concerns to the coalition leaders and again in a half-hour session later with Obama.
"We're happy to see an understanding on Afghan demands," Karzai said in a news conference Saturday after signing a partnership agreement with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "I hope that as we move forward that many of these difficulties will go away."Objectives 'aligned'
Asked about their meeting, Obama recalled that Karzai had initially set the 2014 date for transition and that their objectives were now "aligned."
On Karzai's complaints, he said that "we have to be sensitive to his concerns and the concerns of the Afghan people. We can't simply tell them what's good for them . . . We have to listen and learn."
"On the other hand," he said, "If we're putting in big resources, if we're ponying up billions of dollars, if we're expecting that our troops are going to be there and to help secure the countryside and ensure that President Karzai can continue to build and develop his country, he's got to listen to us, as well."
"I don't fault President Karzai for raising those issues," Obama said. But "he's got to understand that I've got a bunch of young men and women from small towns and big cities all across America who are in a foreign country being shot at. . . . If we're setting things up where they're just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that's not an acceptable issue, either."
"I don't think that's unreasonable, and I don't think he thinks that's unreasonable," Obama said of Karzai, adding that the important thing was to keep talking to each other. "Sometimes," he said, "those conversations are very blunt."
Correspondent Edward Cody contributed to this report.