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NATO leaders have formally approved plans to transfer combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces by the middle of 2013. However, an agreement to reopen NATO supply lines through Pakistan never materialized at the alliance's recent summit in Chicago.
After more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, leaders of the 28 countries of NATO have agreed to wind down their combat role.
Saying alliance forces are making progress towards defeating al-Qaida and denying it a safe-haven, President Barack Obama pledged that Afghan forces will take the lead in combat operations by the middle of next year.
“We’re now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan, a plan that trains Afghan security forces, transitions to the Afghans and builds a partnership that can endure after our combat mission in Afghanistan ends.," said President Obama.
The Taliban and al-Qaida-linked forces still regularly engage NATO troops in battle.
Analysts say that is why NATO needs to be careful about the speed of the withdrawal.
South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation:
“The situation in Afghanistan is still fragile," said Curtis. "It is still unstable. The U.S. did make progress in 2010 with the surge forces in the south, but the question is can these gains be consolidated, and I don’t think we can answer that question right now. And that is why the withdrawal of forces needs to be driven by conditions on the ground.”
NATO has agreed to continue to train, advise and support Afghan forces.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says the alliance is committed to a long-term partnership with the Afghan people.
“So that Afghanistan never again harbors terrorists that can attack us at home and so that Afghans can look forward to a better future in a stable region," he said.
The United States has pledged a continuing engagement in Afghanistan through 2024.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his country.
"To make sure that we take steady and strong steps and are backed, while we are making those steps toward 2024, where Afghanistan will be largely defending itself and providing for itself," said Karzai.
The conference did not resolve the stalemate over reopening supply lines from Pakistan.
They have been closed since an American airstrike last November mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
That demonstrates there are still major problems in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, says analyst Lisa Curtis.
“This did not help in terms of demonstrating the way forward in Afghanistan," she said. "It highlighted instead the problems that Pakistan still poses to stabilizing Afghanistan.”
About 130,000 foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. The U.S. plans to withdraw about 33,000 soldiers within the next few months.