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After all the handshakes, pledges, tough talk and edgy good will, the message that emerged from the latest NATO gathering about Afghanistan came with a disclaimer. Foreign combat troops will leave by the end of 2014 but that target date comes with a string of 'ifs,' 'ands' and 'buts.'

The two-day summit that ended Saturday in Lisbon committed NATO countries to an open-ended involvement in Afghanistan. While the leaders of the European-American alliance set a goal of withdrawing their combat troops over the next four years, they also signed an accord with Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledging long-term military and reconstruction assistance.

They also endorsed a plan to start handing off responsibility for security to Afghan forces next spring, with foreign troops switching to a support and training role and with the aim of completing the transfer within four years.

But NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen officials said the date was not a deadline. Combat operations could continue beyond 2014, he warned, and the pace of the transition will have to be determined by conditions on the ground in each town, district and province.

The meeting brought together leaders of the countries that have troops on the ground, 28 of them members of NATO and 20 others that joined the international force over the nine years that it has slogged away in Afghanistan.

Political support among NATO leaders for an extended military engagement is already wearing thin.

The Dutch ended their combat role this summer, withdrawing their 1,950 troops after four years in Uruzgan province in the centre of the country.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the summit that Canada would not budge from its plans to withdraw its military forces next year. He said the 950 military trainers that Canada has agreed to send in their place will leave March of 2014, regardless of whether other allied forces remain in Afghanistan until the end of that year or beyond.

The rest of the assembled presidents and prime ministers, many with elections looming in the next two years, had clearly hoped to bring home a less ambiguous timetable for withdrawal so that they could face down growing domestic opposition to the war.

Instead, they got a sobering assessment of the situation on the ground from General David Petraeus, the American commander of the 130,000-strong international force.

"After several years during which security deteriorated and governance stalled, we have regained the initiative," he told them in a prepared statement at the closed-door meeting.

"Continued patience will enable us to sustain it," he added, "despite the inevitable setbacks that lie ahead."

Some 150,000 allied soldiers, the bulk of them American, are now deployed in Afghanistan. They have faced their most intensive fighting, and sustained their highest casualties, in the past year as the United States moved in 30,000 extra troops.

British and German leaders, as did President Barack Obama, said they intended to thin out their forces but were prepared to keep some troops in the country if needed beyond 2014.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in an interview with Sky News after the summit, said some of the country's 9,500 soldiers would stay on to train Afghan forces or deliver aid. "There will not be British troops in large numbers and they won't be in a combat role" by 2015, he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, was already anticipating a quicker drawdown. Although NATO officials said they could not say where the first transfers to Afghan forces were likely to occur, Mr. Sarkozy told reporters in Lisbon that some 40 districts have been deemed secure enough to be handed over to Afghan security forces.

He said one of them is in Kapisa province where most of the 3,000 French soldiers are deployed, and that one would be transferred next year.

The summit laid bare the frustrations of many of the NATO country leaders with Mr. Karzai.

They acknowledged that Mr. Karzai, as a fellow politician, he has his own constituency to win over by making good on his campaign promise to have international troops transfer authority over his country's affairs by 2014. But they also publicly admonished him to more to clean up corruption and appoint local officials on the basis of competence rather than political favouritism.

Four years probably will not be enough, according David Sedwill, the top NATO administrator in Afghanistan and the civilian counterpart to Gen. Petraeus. He told the NATO leaders that they can encourage the Afghan government to establish the rule of law, but four years may not be enough.

Mr. Sedwill, a British diplomat, described a visit he made to the city of Marjeh in Helmand province earlier this year after allied forces pushed out the Taliban. The community was traumatized, he said, but less by their experience with the Taliban than by with the "brutal and predatory" Afghan police who were in charge before the insurgents took over.

"By 2014," he said, "there will still be pockets of tribal, ethnic, criminal and political violence throughout Afghanistan."