NATO officials say Afghanistan will likely face security threats for years to come, but say alliance forces are making enough progress to begin transferring security responsibilities to the Afghan government this year.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen describes Afghanistan's security situation as challenging, but says the alliance has momentum and is holding increasingly more territory. He says NATO's pullout from that country will be a gradual process.
"It will not be a run for the exit," he said. "What will happen is that we hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans, and our soldiers will then move into a more supportive role. But I foresee that the Afghan security forces will need our supportive assistance for quite some time," he added.
Rasmussen expects transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government to begin this year.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said much of the NATO ministerial discussion focused on training Afghan security forces. She too, however, cautioned that Afghanistan will face security threats for years to come if insurgents do not give up their commitment to terror.
"I don't think we should expect the Afghans to meet an impossible standard, but what we can expect and what we are working toward achieving is an Afghan national security force, military and police that is able to protect the people and create a sense of confidence in their capacity," said Clinton.
NATO has had difficulty finding 450 more people for its training force. Secretary Clinton expressed confidence they will be found among the allies.
Clinton and Rasmussen say the alliance also seeks greater cooperation with Russia. They include terrorism, illegal drugs and piracy. He also urges Russia to join NATO in deployment of a common and more efficient missile defense shield that would protect the Euro-Atlantic region from Vancouver, British Colombia to Vladivostok, Russia. He said Russia can provide facilities for such a project.
"We should initiate a transparent process, a process in which we consult with Russia," he said. "Obviously, at the end of the day, it's for NATO to take decisions on a NATO missile defense system, but what ministers agreed at this meeting was to initiate a dialogue with Russia."
The alliance Thursday granted its Membership Action Plan to Bosnia Herzegovina, a move that could lead to full membership. But the Balkan country must fulfill certain conditions for safeguarding its ammunition and arms. Also Thursday, Secretary Clinton ruled out early withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, a decision supported by NATO's newest members - former Soviet satellite countries.
NATO will continue its search for a 21st century strategy during its Lisbon summit in November.