U.S. officials are expressing confidence that a 2014 date for ending international combat operations in Afghanistan will be met, with Afghan security forces assuming a lead role in defending their nation by then.
NATO leaders emerged from a two-day summit in Portugal with a common commitment that U.S. and other allied forces will have moved into a support role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Appearing on ABC's This Week program, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, expressed cautious optimism about the timetable.
"That is very much a reachable goal. There is a lot to do between now and then. Clearly, it is a very dangerous place, and a very tough fight we are in right now," said Mullen. "But that is a goal [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai set out there, and that all NATO allies and all countries that provide forces have signed up to [achieve], and we think it is reachable."
Admiral Mullen compared the Afghan security transition to one undertaken in another strife-torn nation.
"I would describe it much like what we just went through in Iraq, where they have the lead for their own security. We are then in some capacity in a training, advising and assist mode, which we would expect to be for some time," he said.
About 150,000 international forces are currently deployed in Afghanistan, more than half of them are from the United States. Some nations, like Canada, have already announced an end to a combat role before the 2014 date. The transition to a lead role for Afghan forces is expected to begin next year.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the NATO declaration on Afghanistan as a vindication of President Barack Obama's strategy for the country.
"We now have all the components of the strategy, which President Obama directed a year ago," she said. "And, we believe it is working. What was particularly reassuring were the expressions of support from the NATO-ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] partner countries, recognizing that we are also making progress on the ground."
Secretary Clinton added, however, that U.S. and other forces must continually strive to minimize civilian casualties, while aggressively pursuing Taliban insurgents. For months, President Karzai has complained of foreign troops inflicting a heavy death toll on Afghan non-combatants. U.S. military officials assert that, for every Afghan civilian who perishes as a result of NATO combat operations, the Taliban kill roughly nine others.