TALLINN, Estonia -- Fearful of losing public support for the war in Afghanistan, the United States and NATO on Friday agreed to start transferring control of the country back to its leaders by year's end but acknowledged that achieving stability will take decades.
If successful, the transition plan approved by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and representatives of the 27 other NATO countries would enable President Barack Obama to meet his target date of July 2011 for starting to bring home American troops.
Much depends not only on improved NATO military performance but also on political reconciliation between the Taliban and Afghan's central government. The allies must quickly improve the training and performance of the Afghan army and police and strengthen Afghan institutions weakened by decades of conflict.
Clinton on Friday offered an optimistic assessment of the approach, which NATO hopes Afghan President Hamid Karzai will endorse in July at an international conference in Kabul.
Once approved, NATO officially would implement the plan at a summit, possibly in conjunction with an announcement of the first provinces to be transferred to Afghan control, said Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO civilian in Kabul.
"We believe that with sufficient attention, training and mentoring, the Afghans themselves are perfectly capable of defending themselves against insurgents," Clinton told a news conference. "Does that mean it will be smooth sailing? I don't think so. Look at Iraq."
Asked whether any plan to turn power over to Afghanistan's sometimes dysfunctional, corrupt and resource-poor government was viable, Sedwill told reporters; "It's far from certain."
Yet he and other NATO officials said they think that with an infusion of new military and civilian aid, including the 30,000 U.S. troops dispatched by the Obama administration in December, success is possible.
"Increasingly this year the momentum will be ours," said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He said the transition to Afghan control is important to demonstrate not only to Afghans but also to the Western countries fighting there that an end to the war is in sight.
"Our aims in 2010 are clear: to take the initiative against the insurgents, to help the Afghan government exercise its sovereignty, and to start handing over responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans this year," Fogh Rasmussen said. He added, however, that even if the transition unfolds as expected it will takes decades of additional assistance for Afghanistan to stand on its own.