WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday unveiled a plan for Afghanistan that foresees U.S. troops remaining there until at least the end of 2014, more than three years past when President Barack Obama promised he'd begin withdrawing troops from the war-torn country.
White House officials, briefing reporters, said the U.S. will introduce the plan at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, that begins on Friday.
In outlining the proposal, the officials made no mention of U.S. troops withdrawing in 2011 and instead referred to the date as the beginning of "a responsible transition."
The plan is the latest iteration of an unfolding U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that began with a months-long policy review last year followed by the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops over the summer. In announcing the additional troops, Obama said a withdrawal would begin in July 2011 and that there'd be an extensive review of the strategy in December of this year.
McClatchy reported last week that the Obama administration would use the Lisbon meeting to begin de-emphasizing the withdrawal date in favor of a 2014 date.
There was no mention of a withdrawal of troops during Tuesday's telephone briefing, which was conducted on the record by Douglas Lute, the president's special assistant for Afghanistan; Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the senior director of European affairs for the National Security Council; Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO; and Ben Rhodes, an NSC spokesman.
Under the latest plan, U.S. and NATO officials will begin next year handing responsibility for security to Afghan forces in some communities where NATO officials believe Afghan forces are capable of taking control. The process will continue through 2014.
The U.S. and NATO will remain in Afghanistan through that period.
As the Afghan forces "stand up, they will not have to stand alone," Lute said.
The plan is the first time the Obama administration has offered a timeline for the pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which hinges on the progress of the Afghan security forces U.S. troops are now training.
But even the 2014 date could change — something some military commanders fear might be necessary because of the difficulty of training Afghan forces. Many Afghan soldiers and police officers forces can't read, and U.S. soldiers complain of their heavy drug use and lack of discipline.
The administration's plan comes as Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week publicly criticized the U.S. for its increased use of night raids on Afghan homes. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, instituted the raids after he took command in July in an effort to round up Taliban fighters. Karzai called the raids an affront to Afghan sovereignty.
Obama and Karzai will attend the two-day summit. In addition to Afghanistan, the NATO countries also plan to discuss the organization's structure, missile defense, economic cooperation among the member countries and how they should address climate change.
It's unclear whether weary NATO nations will commit troops through 2014. Many of the largest contributors are reducing their combat presence altogether or replacing them with trainers.
The White House officials said Canada, which plans to withdraw its combat troops by the end of 2011, has committed to sending 950 trainers. At their peak, 2,900 Canadians were deployed in Afghanistan.
The Netherlands has announced that it, too, will withdraw its forces.
There are roughly 100,000 U.S. troops and 50,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan.
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