President Barack Obama pledged Friday that US forces would stand by Afghanistan even after NATO-led troops hand control of the fight against Taliban insurgents to Afghan forces in 2014.
Echoing the president's commitments, on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Vice President Joe Biden described 2014 as the "drop-dead date" for turning over security responsibilities to the Afghan government.
"And 2014 is now a date that everyone has agreed upon, NATO as well as the Afghanis, that's kind of the drop-dead date," said Biden. "But that doesn't mean we’re going to have anywhere near 100,000 troops in 2013."
"The exit strategy in Afghanistan is twofold," Biden continued. "One is that the Afghan government gets to the place where they are able to compensate for the help that the Taliban gets in the villages and in the communities because they’re no longer the better alternative."
"Secondly, they have enough trained forces that the Taliban cannot bring that government down or occupy population centers. But our fundamental responsibility and the president stated again and the guys keep missing it. It’s not to defeat the Taliban. It’s to degrade and ultimately defeat al Qaeda."
Far from the dusty battlefields of Afghanistan, where more than 2,200 Allied troops have fallen in a vicious nine-year-old war, Obama and NATO leaders flew in to Lisbon for a two-day summit to set a handover date.
"We'll announce that the transition to Afghan responsibility is about to start, in 2011. We hope this process will be completed by 2014," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters as the leaders arrived.
It was Afghan President Hamid Karzai who asked his Western allies to allow Afghanistan's fledgling forces to take charge of the campaign by 2014, allowing the bulk of the 150,000-strong US-led force to return home.
Even as presidents, prime ministers and generals gathered in the white steel conference centre on the banks of the Tagus, the force in Afghanistan said another of its soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb.
And, in a sign that even fiercer fighting still lies ahead, the Washington Post reported that the US Marine Corps is preparing to deploy the powerful M1 Abrams main battle tank to the Afghan front for the first time.
"We finally have the strategy and resources to break the Taliban's momentum, deprive insurgents of their strongholds, train more Afghan security forces, and assist the Afghan people," Obama wrote in a widely published op-ed.
"Even as America's transition and troop reductions will begin this July, NATO can forge a lasting partnership with Afghanistan to make it clear that, as Afghans stand up and take the lead, they will not stand alone," Obama wrote.
"We cannot turn our backs on the Afghan people as before," he added, in a separate interview with Spain's El Pais daily.
The Alliance's summit has been billed as one of the most important in its history, with meetings planned with the beleaguered Afghan leader Karzai and former Cold War foe Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev.
Karzai is in open disagreement with his NATO sponsors over combat tactics, and Medvedev's Russia has in the recent past been fiercely critical of US missile plans, but the leaders hope both can be won over.
Alongside this, they hope to unveil the 28-nation alliance's new "strategic concept", a planning framework to govern how it orders security priorities in a world of multiple new threats and ever tighter defence budgets.
They will unveil plans for a network of radars and interceptors to form an anti-ballistic missile shield in the skies of Europe to protect NATO members, and overcoming Russian concerns by inviting them to take part.
Before leaving Moscow, Medvedev's top foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko said Russia is keen to share ideas about missile defence, but played down the chances of a major decision realigning the continent's security.
Moscow, however, does not expect too much too early. "We are realists, we will not ask for the impossible," Prikhodko said.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel dubbed Medvedev's participation in a NATO-Russia Council meeting at the summit "a milestone in NATO's development and in its relations with Russia" and "a good sign".
NATO leaders will also agree to reform the alliance by slashing the number of command headquarters and making them easily deployable to foreign conflicts.
Alliance officials insist the transition to Afghan control is not a rush to the exit, but the war is deeply unpopular in Europe and cash-strapped governments are under pressure from voters to bring soldiers home.
Nevertheless, Obama hopes to convince his European allies to send more troops to train their Afghan comrades, and summit host Portugal said Friday that it would like to send more.
Karzai surprised many of his allies this week by urging the United States to scale down military operations and by sharply criticising special forces night raids on Afghan homes.
Hundreds of police closed off and secured streets surrounding the complex, part of a team of 7,000 deployed for the meeting. A frigate patrolled the river and a helicopter patrolled overhead.
But there was no sign of the street fighting by anarchist militants that marred last year's NATO summit in Strasbourg, and police were able to contain scattered pacifist protesters.
This video is from MSNBC's Morning Joe, broadcast Nov. 19, 2010.