The NATO alliance opened its summit in Lisbon on Friday with ending the war in Afghanistan and erecting Europe-wide anti-missile shield high on the agenda.
AFP - US President Barack Obama and his NATO allies opened a pivotal summit on Friday, vowing to cede command of the Afghan war to Kabul by 2014 and erect an anti-missile shield over Europe.
As another NATO soldier fell to an Afghan bomb attack, taking the toll for this year to 654, leaders began two days of talks in Lisbon planning to start bringing home troops and prepare a defence against any new foes.
"Today and tomorrow, we will take decisions which will frame the future of our alliance," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the leaders of the 28 NATO member states in his opening remarks.
"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," Obama said.
"So this summit is an important opportunity for us to align on approach and vision in Afghanistan," he added at a joint appearance with the summit's host Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.
More than 2,200 Allied troops have been killed in a nine-year-old war, launched by the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks to root out Al-Qaeda leaders and overthrow their Taliban protectors.
And, in a sign that fighting may be about to get even fiercer, US Marines are about to deploy powerful M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks to the front line for the first time in the lengthy conflict.
In an op-ed for several European newspapers, Obama said Washington would start to reduce its troop numbers in Afghanistan in July next year, but pledged that "as Afghans stand up and take the lead, they will not stand alone."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for Afghanistan's fledgling government forces to be allowed to take charge of the campaign by 2014, allowing the bulk of the 150,000-strong US-led force to return home.
Karzai slammed NATO night-time raids on Afghan homes in an interview just a week ahead of the summit. NATO and US officials sought to downplay any rift as a reflection of Afghan war weariness.
"I think he's expressing an authentic degree of frustration, an authentic concern that the Afghan people is less tolerant than it was back in 2002 and 2003 of the presence of international forces," a NATO official said.
"Therefore in that sense we are against the clock ... to bring this campaign to a successful conclusion," the official said.
But the war is also deeply unpopular with European voters, stiffening leaders' resolve to move beyond Afghanistan and create a leaner command structure ready to counter any new missile or nuclear threats.
The Lisbon summit has three distinct stages.
First, the 28 NATO powers will meet to thrash out their own strategic goals and agree a plan on missile defence. Then, they will be joined by Karzai and the other allies who make up the 48-strong coalition in Afghanistan.
Finally, allied leaders will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the first NATO-Russia summit since 2002.
The presidents, prime ministers and generals met in a white steel complex on the banks of the Tagus protected by at least 7,000 security officers as they focused a first session on a new "strategic concept".
A commitment to a new anti-missile system protecting soldiers and civilians across Europe is expected to be the big news from this meeting.
Leaders will agree to set-up a network of radars and interceptors to form an anti-ballistic missile shield in the skies over Europe, and overcoming Russian concerns by inviting them to take part.
Russia had formerly been fiercely critical of US missile plans, but the leaders hope Medvedev can be won over in discussions with NATO, the first encounter at this level since Moscow waged a war in Georgia in 2008.
Before leaving Moscow, the Russian party said that it was keen to share ideas about common missile defence but played down the chances of a major decision realigning the continent's security.
"During his address, President Medvedev will voice a number of ideas about how we shall build cooperation in the missile defence sphere in the coming years," said Medvedev's top foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko.
Moscow, however, will not expect too much too early. "We are realists, we will not ask for the impossible," Prikhodko said.
Rasmussen has said he expects Russia and the Allies to begin a joint study of Russia's possible inclusion in the missile defence system, which would be a remarkable U-turn by Moscow.