Nato confirms deadline for Afghanistan troop withdrawal

The Nato chief today pledged the alliance will hand over responsibility for securing Afghanistan to the country's domestic forces by the end of 2014 as scheduled.

Secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke during a visit to an Afghan base outside the capital Kabul.

He said that what he had seen in touring the country had made him more confident that Nato would meet the 2014 goal.

Mr Rasmussen said the Afghan special forces are "some of the best in the world" and "the backbone of our strategy for handing over".

He stressed that funding and training of Afghan troops by Nato would continue after 2014.

Meanwhile, Admiral Bill McRaven, the head of US special operations, is mapping out a potential post-2012 strategy that would replace thousands of US troops with small special operations teams paired with Afghans to help an inexperienced domestic force withstand a Taliban onslaught as US troops withdraw.

While the overall campaign would still be led by conventional military, the handfuls of special operators would become the leading force to help Afghans secure the large tracts of territory won in more than a decade of US combat.

They would give the Afghans practical advice on how to repel attacks, intelligence to help spot the enemy and communications to help call for US air support if overwhelmed by a superior force.

If approved by the administration, the pared-down structure could become the enduring force that Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak indicated at the Pentagon that his country needs, possibly long after the US drawdown.

Adm McRaven's proposal amounts to a slimmed-down counterinsurgency strategy aimed at protecting the Afghan population as well as hunting the Taliban and al-Qaida.

It is not the counterterrorist plan advanced by vice president Joe Biden, which would leave Afghan forces to fend for themselves while keeping US special operators in protected bases from which they could hunt terrorists with minimum risk, according to a senior special operations official reached this week.

Thousands of US troops could remain in harm's way well after the end of combat operations in 2014, tasked with helping Afghans protect territory won by US forces.

The special operations proposal was sketched out at special operations headquarters in Tampa, Florida, in mid-February, with Central Command's General James Mattis and overall Afghanistan war commander General John Allen taking part, according to several high-level special operations officials and other US officials involved in the war planning.

Leaders of Nato nations are to meet on May 20-21 in Chicago to discuss the war, among other issues.

The Pentagon by September will draw down the 23,000 troops that remain from the surge of 33,000 troops sent to Afghanistan in 2010 to buy time for the Afghan military and government to build the numbers and expertise necessary to defend and govern themselves.

Plans for the remaining 68,000 troops in Afghanistan are not yet complete, but most US troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Gen Allen, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, has indicated he would like to keep as many troops on the ground for as long as possible, but with a solid majority of Americans now against the continued US presence in Afghanistan and the sped-up departure of some of America's Nato allies from the war zone, the Obama administration is feeling some pressure toward a faster drawdown.

The McRaven plan could provide a way to shrink troop numbers quickly without leaving a security vacuum as US troops depart, as has happened in Afghanistan before when Nato forces left an area.

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