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U.S. General David Petraeus testifies at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington June 29, 2010.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

NATO leaders gathering for a two-day summit this week in Lisbon will be looking to the American general in command of the war in Afghanistan to show them a way out.

The meeting, which begins Friday, will bring together the 28 countries that are members of the alliance to define the threats it faces in the future, discuss the possibility of a shared missile defence shield and restart talks on security co-operation with Russia after a two-year freeze.

But the more immediate worry is Afghanistan. With the NATO operation in its ninth and most lethal year, attention will be focused on what General David Petraeus can offer by way of a timetable for starting to extricate Western troops next year.

Behind closed doors, he is expected to provide an overview of the situation on the ground and on plans to cede responsibility over the next four years to Afghan security forces, province by province and possibly district by district, with the goal of completing the transfer by the end 2014.

That dovetails with what Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who will also be in Lisbon, has put forward as a deadline for having foreign combat troops out of his country. Yet despite the apparent agreement that the endgame must begin, the tensions over how to get there have become all too evident.

Mr. Karzai and Gen. Petraeus have been taking pot shots at each other, through the media, in the run-up to the summit, with the Afghan leader calling on the Americans to lower their profile and the commander letting it be known that such talk undermines his counterinsurgency strategy.

NATO officials do not rule out further fireworks at the summit, where they expect Mr. Karzai to come in for some scolding over his governance and the widespread corruption in the country.

"There's no question they're going to show they're not happy," said one European diplomat. "It's just a question of whether somebody berates him in public."

Mr. Karzai is likely to fire back with his own frustrations. His government controls just about 20 per cent of the money that is pouring into Afghanistan for budget support and reconstruction, an imbalance that he has said feeds corruption and back-channel deals as it creates opportunities for some to get rich by providing services to foreign organizations.

Not long ago, NATO leaders were selling the Afghan mission to their publics as a war on terrorism and a mission to defeat al-Qaeda. Now they are describing it as a quagmire. "Afghanistan is a trap for all the contingents that are there," Alain Juppé, the newly appointed French Defence Minister, said yesterday.

The majority of Taliban attacks this year are concentrated in three provinces. One is Kandahar, where Canadian forces are based. Another is Helmand, where British forces have been concentrated, and the third is Kunar province in the eastern part of the country where a Scottish aid worker was killed last month.

A few provinces, generally where the majority of the population is not ethnic Pashtun, are already considered basically Taliban-free, according to NATO officials, and may be the first to be declared secure enough to be formally transferred to Afghan control.

Still, the 2014 deadline remains very much a moving target.

Prime Minister David Cameron said this week that he expects to start drawing down British forces in 18 months to two years. In Kabul yesterday, though, NATO's top civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, warned that pacifying some areas and getting stable local governments in place could take longer.

"There might still be one or two parts of the country where the transition process is ongoing and that might last into 2015 or beyond," he said. "This is the point about 2014. It's not an end of mission. It's not even a complete change of mission, but it is an inflection point where the balance of the mission would have shifted."

While Afghanistan is the centre of gravity, the official centrepiece of the summit is to be the adoption of a new "strategic concept" for NATO that identifies threats to the alliance and means to meet them.

The last mission statement dates from 11 years ago, before the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the preoccupation with the nuclear ambitions of countries such as Iran. The new threats, among them cyber-attacks that could play havoc with the global financial or energy systems, are expected to be included.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is also pushing for a NATO defence shield against ballistic missiles that would integrate the radar and interceptor systems of alliance members. At least 30 countries, he has said, have or are trying to acquire missile technology that could target Europe and beyond.

Iran is one of those, but the strategy document is unlikely to name it or other countries as threats to the alliance. Turkey, one of the oldest NATO members, opposes singling out Iran and most countries apart from the United States have indicated they do not want the issue to upset the consensus on the mission statement or missile defence project.

"There is no reason to name specific countries," Mr. Rasmussen said this week, "because there are already a lot of them,"

The summit is also meant to revive formal contacts between NATO and Russia that broke off after the 2009 conflict in Georgia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to come to Lisbon and agree to participate in a joint study of how Russia might co-operate in a NATO-based missile defence system and provide passage for military cargo going out of Afghanistan. Some shipments going into the country now pass through Russian territory.

Russian suspicions of NATO, which reached out to former East bloc states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had stalled previous efforts to find common ground. Further expansion, though, is now off the table. "My strong sense," said Mr. Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, "is that Russia shares our view that the time has come to stop worrying about each other."