NATO's top official said Monday that the alliance will adhere to its plans to hand over security to local forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, comments that came after France said it would push NATO to speed up its timeline for the handover of combat operations by a year.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged that the final transition phase, which involves handing over lead responsibility for provinces and districts to Afghan authorities, would start from "mid-2013." A number of areas and towns already have been handed over to the Afghan army and police since the transition started a year ago.
Nonetheless, the overall NATO plan is still pegged on a 2014 pullout date, Fogh Rasmussen said after a meeting with Romanian President Traian Basescu.
"We will stick to the roadmap that was outlined at the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, according to which we will gradually hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans, a process that has been started and hopefully will be completed by the end of 2014," Fogh Rasmussen said.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy jolted NATO by announcing France would speed up its exit and ask NATO to end its combat mission in 2013. The announcement came after an Afghan soldier killed 4 French soldiers on Jan. 20.
The move was seen as the latest crack in a coalition already strained by economic troubles in Europe and the United States, the Afghan government's sluggish battle against corruption, and a Taliban insurgency that remains unbeaten after more than a decade of war.
It's unclear if Sarkozy's call for all foreign forces to hand security over to the Afghan forces in 2013 will have traction when is presented on Thursday and Friday at a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels. Britain and Germany have already indicated they would stick to the 2014 timeline.
Basescu said Romania, with a contingent of 1,900 troops, will focus on training Afghanistan's paramilitary police forces.
Fogh Rasmussen said "there is nothing new" in the fact that from mid-2013 the role of coalition forces in Afghanistan will start changing from combat to a support role.
NATO is speeding up the training of the Afghan security forces, which are due to gradually expand to over 350,000 members. But incidents in which Afghan soldiers have turned on NATO troops have raised fears of increased Taliban infiltration of the Afghan police and army.
France, which now has about 3,600 soldiers in the coalition force, joins Britain, Germany and Italy in the top five largest troop-contributing nations. All those national contingents are dwarfed by the 90,000-strong U.S. force.
Sarkozy's government has been under political pressure to withdraw French troops before the United States' pegged pullout in 2014. Polls show most French want an early pullout _ and such a move could affect Sarkozy's re-election prospects.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, the front-runner in the polls, has said that if elected this spring he hopes to withdraw French forces by the end of this year.
Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich