US, NATO ready plan to hand off Afghanistan combat

BRUSSELS (AP) — Several NATO allies promised Wednesday to underwrite Afghanistan’s armed forces after foreign troops depart, as the United States and other nations plan to pull away from the front lines in Afghanistan next year.

U.S. officials were at pains to show that the pressure to close down an unpopular war will not leave Afghanistan’s fragile government and unsteady military in the lurch.

“There is no change whatsoever in the timeline,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted.

The messages aimed at different audiences are both challenged by current events in Afghanistan, where insurgents staged an impressive, coordinated attack last weekend that struck at the heart of the U.S.-backed government and international enclave in Kabul. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders are boycotting peace talks the U.S. sees as the key to a safe exit.

U.S. and NATO claims of progress in Afghanistan were overshadowed by publication Wednesday of gruesome photos that purport to show U.S. troops posing with the dismembered corpses of Afghan militants.

“Our strategy is right, our strategy is working,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said following meeting of NATO defense chiefs that focused on the calendar for closing down the war and the challenge of paying for Afghanistan’s defense for years to come.

“We cannot and we will not abandon Afghanistan,” he said.

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