Karzai, who joined the Nato summit in Lisbon on Saturday, has called for a reduction in US military operations [AFP]

Nato will start pulling troops out of Afghanistan next year and hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces in 2014, the alliance has said after a two-day summit in Lisbon.

Nato leaders endorsed the plan after meeting behind closed doors in the Portuguese city to discuss an exit strategy from Afghanistan on the final day of the summit on Saturday.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary-general, Barack Obama, the US president, Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, were all present at the meeting, which also discussed how best to prepare Afghan forces for the handover.

"We have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house," Rasmussen told a news conference following the summit. "The aim is for Afghan forces to be in the lead countrywide by the end of 2014."

Rasmussen said that Nato would not abandon Afghanistan after the handover. "We will stay after transition in a supporting role," he said. "President Karzai and I have signed an agreement on a long term partnership between Nato and Afghanistan that will endure beyond our combat mission," he added.

"To put it simply, if the Taliban or anyone else aim to wait us out, they can forget it. We will stay as long at it takes to finish our job," he said.
 
The plan closely resembles a proposed timetable put forward by Obama earlier on Saturday.

"I look forward to working with our ... partners as we move towards a new phase, transition to Afghan responsibility, which begins in 2011, with Afghan forces taking the lead on security across Afghanistan by 2014," the US president said.

Nothing new

But Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from the summit, said there was no guarentee that the timetable  for withdrawal would be met. "Remember, at the beginning of this year there was a big conference in London, and that conference said that tranistion should have started by now, but that has not happened. So this is nothing new," he said. 

"To put it simply, if the Taliban or anyone else aim to wait us out, they can forget it. We will stay as long at it takes to finish our job"

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general

Al Jazeera's Sue Turton, reporting from the Afghan capital, Kabul, said that many in volatile parts of Afghanistan doubt whether the country is ready to begin taking over responsibility for security.

"There was a opinion poll that went down in the southern provinces to ask people what they thought about Afghans taking over security and over 60 per cent of young, fighting-age men said they did not believe that the Afghans were capable of taking over security," she said.

Obama said he is confident the US will be able to begin its pullout in July 2011.

At a news conference at the summit, the US president said; "We are in a better place now than we were a year ago", adding that "making progress between now and next summer, is key".

Obama acknowledged that he sometimes has "blunt" conversations with Karzai, who stunned Washington by criticising military operations.

Ban Ki-moon appeared to strike a note of caution in the press coference. "There is no short-cut to peace," he told reporters, saying decisions should be made based on "realities" not "schedules".

This year has been the deadliest for Afghan civilians and Nato forces. The number of Afghans killed in the conflict rose by a third in the first six months of 2010 to 1,271, with most deaths caused by Taliban and al-Qaeda attacks, the UN reported in August.

On Friday, another foreign soldier fell to a bomb attack, taking the toll for the year to 654.

Russian co-operation

Nato also reached agreement with Russia to expand an overland supply route to Afghanistan to allow for the transport of heavy vehicles and for the return of Nato equipment to Europe.

Rasmussen said the agreement showed determination to establish stronger ties with Moscow, the alliance's historical Cold War enemy.

The route from Europe to Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia serves as an alternative to the ambush-prone logistics link through Pakistan. The new agreement enhances that by allowing for heavy equipment such as armoured vehicles to be hauled.

Rasmussen and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, who was attending the Nato summit in Lisbon, also signed agreements on establishing a new training centre in Russia for Afghan counter-narcotics agents and for the training of Afghan helicopter crews.

Meanwhile, thousands of anti-Nato protesters marched through downtown Lisbon on Saturday to lodge their opposition to the war in Afghanistan.

The demonstrators chanted "peace yes, Nato no" as they walked through Nato's main thoroughfare. Police said that the demonstration passed off peacefully.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies