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Afghanistan Tops Agenda at Upcoming NATO Summit in Portugal

NATO leaders will convene next month in Portugal at a moment when NATO casualties in Afghanistan are rising and there are growing reports of corruption in Karzai’s government. Recession-battered nations large and small are cutting their defense budgets, and the summit will take place weeks after a U.S. election that could call into question the clout and longevity of the Obama administration. Leaders from the United States and Europe will gather in Lisbon to issue declarations about NATO’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan, as well as its strategic plans to be a global force well beyond Europe’s borders.

In Washington, much of the debate about Afghan policy has centered on President Obama’s pledge to start drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011. But at the NATO summit, leaders will focus on 2014 as the deadline for a transfer of security responsibilities in all Afghan provinces from NATO to local forces. And as U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder made clear in a Friday morning briefing, the U.S. and NATO plan to keep a troop and training presence beyond 2014. Whether parliaments and voting publics in the NATO nations will go along with this ambitious agenda remains to be seen.

Summit preparations have taken place under the radar of much of official Washington. Daalder’s briefing for a group of policy wonks and journalists at the Talking Points Memo Forum and New America Foundation offered one of the first opportunities for an in-depth look at what is on the agenda.

As Daalder explained, the NATO plan is to transfer security responsibilities to the Afghan government, province by province, by the end of 2014. He cited the current campaign in Kandahar as an example of Afghans taking a bigger role in the fight against the Taliban. Daalder said the force there is split evenly between Afghan and NATO troops.

The 2014 deadline “does not mean the U.S. and NATO will be gone,” Daalder said. “The international capability will be in support, not in the lead.”

Beyond Afghanistan, Daalder said the NATO leaders are expected to sign off on a “new strategic concept” that will describe how the alliance plans to deal with the 21st century world.

NATO formed in response to the threat of Soviet expansion in post-World War II Europe, and is now looking well beyond those frontiers to cooperative security and partnerships with countries such as Australia, India, China and Brazil.

The threats are no longer primarily from armies moving across borders, but from missiles and cyberattacks.

What will be raised once again in Lisbon is the contentious issue of a missile defense system for Europe that Russia does not perceive as a threat to its security. After nearly three decades of attempts to resolve the issue that have proven futile, leaders will revisit it during the summit.

The gathering in Lisbon will cap off a heavy travel schedule for President Obama, who will depart for a tour around Asia three days after Tuesday’s midterm elections before attending the summit November 19-20. In addition to the summit, there will be top level meetings with Russian President Medvedev and a U.S/European Union gathering.

Senior correspondent Margaret Warner will be covering the Lisbon summit for the NewsHour. Follow Margaret on Twitter.

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