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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Minister of National Defence and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway Peter MacKay take part in the opening plenary session at the NATO Summit in Portugal on Friday Nov. 19, 2010.Sean Kilpatrick/The canadian Press

To meet their four-year timeline for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, NATO officials say they will have to make a more graceful political handover to President Hamid Karzai in tandem with a military push against the Taliban.

As the NATO summit opened here Friday, leaders of the 28-member alliance appeared eager to put their long-standing misgivings about Mr. Karzai aside in favour of letting him take credit for having set a deadline of 2014 for the end of the combat mission.

NATO is also expected to offer the Afghan leader a long-term aid package that envisions continued financial subsidies and training for a 300,000-strong national security force that the war-torn country may not be able to afford on its own for years.

Less than a week ago, tensions between Mr. Karzai and the U.S. commander of NATO forces erupted in public after he criticized the counterinsurgency tactics of the U.S.-led military operation and suggested foreign troops should start to leave.

The tone was markedly different as Mr. Karzai arrived in Lisbon, with NATO officials saying they could have been more sensitive to Afghan concerns in the past.

"There is no question there are some frictions between us," said a senior Kabul-based official of the alliance, who briefed reporters on the condition he not be named.

"We weren't always responsive before" when Mr. Karzai condemned civilian casualties resulting from NATO operations, he added, and "for several years we didn't properly resource the campaign in Afghanistan."

The NATO general secretary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, made a similar admission in an interview with Portuguese radio on the eve of the summit. "I think that, seen retrospectively, we underestimated the challenge and our operation in Afghanistan didn't have sufficient resources, and yes, that was a mistake."

Mr. Rasmussen also said Afghanistan by the end of 2014 would probably not be completely free of foreign troops, but that those that remain would be focused on intensive training of police and soldiers.

NATO leaders also approved a new "strategic concept" for the alliance that sets out threats it faces over the next 10 years and endorsed a plan for a missile-defence system that would link U.S. and European shields against ballistic missiles.

During his address to the opening session, Prime Minister Stephen Harper identified Iran, which has developed long-range missiles and is believed to be building a nuclear weapon capability, as a serious threat to the alliance.

Earlier, on the sidelines of the two-day summit, he held private talks with Mr. Rasmussen, the President of Georgia and the prime ministers of Slovenia, Greece and the Czech Republic.

Canada won praise for its decision this week to provide 950 of the 2,000 military trainers that NATO estimates will be needed in Afghanistan over the next four years.

But, regardless of what role NATO forces may play in Afghanistan after the deadline, Canadian soldiers will not be there to participate, according to Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Combat troops are pulling out next year as planned, he said, and the 950 military trainers pledged to NATO this week will not stay past March, 2014, regardless of what other members of the alliance do. "There is no flexibility," he said.

The military's endgame plans for handing over security to newly trained Afghan forces call for a phased NATO withdrawal from areas of the country where the Taliban threat has been reduced to "levels they can handle themselves," according to the senior alliance official who briefed journalists in Lisbon.

The pullback will start town by town, along the model used in the Balkans and in Iraq, with foreign forces drawing back to the perimeters in places deemed safe enough for Afghan soldiers to control.

Bolstering the credibility of Mr. Karzai's government will also be a priority. The choice of areas to be transferred, the official said, will be based in part on whether tribal conflicts might erupt, warlords might try to rival state control and whether the level of corruption is high enough to fatally damage the credibility of the Kabul government.

To counter Taliban propaganda that the central government is hopelessly corrupt and weak, he added, NATO and international organizations have to step back and transfer control. Instead of controlling the contracts for infrastructure projects, and taking credit for them, foreigners need to let local Afghan officials be seen as delivering the goods.

"It means changing the way we provide support," he said.

The approach is meant to apply lessons learned from the Afghan war, which began with a NATO attack to oust the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and evolved into a deadly defensive war against a resurgent Taliban counterattack.

Mr. Rasmussen said the updated security concept statement approved by NATO leaders Friday is an attempt to learn from the Afghan experience.

In addition to identifying potential new threats to the transatlantic alliance from cyber-attacks and ballistic missiles, the document calls for NATO to get involved in reconstruction and development in post-conflict areas and devote more resources to long-term military training of security forces around the world.

"We have learned that military operations cannot be the only solution," Mr. Rasmussen said.

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