By JULIE PACE and ALAN CLENDENNING
LISBON, Portugal -- NATO nations formally agreed Saturday to start turning over Afghanistan's security to its military next year and give local forces full control by 2014. President Barack Obama said for the first time that his goal is to end U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan by that year.
But Obama cautioned it's "hard to anticipate" the exact American role in Afghanistan four years from now.
"There may still be extensive cooperation with the Afghan armed services to consolidate the security environment," Obama told reporters at NATO's summit in the Portuguese capital.
He said that the goal was similar to the U.S. transition from the lead combat role in Iraq, and that he envisioned a "training and support function" for the U.S. and its European allies lasting beyond 2014.
"My goal is to make sure that, by 2014, we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead, and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort that we're involved with now," Obama said.
He added: "Certainly, our footprint will have been significantly reduced. But beyond that, you know, it's hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary," Obama told reporters at the conclusion of two days of meetings of the trans-Atlantic, 28-nation alliance.
Later, a senior U.S. official sought to clarify Obama's remarks, and said the president's goal still remains to end combat missions in Afghanistan by 2014. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The nine-year war has become increasingly unpopular among NATO's European allies, and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he did not expect NATO troops to stay in the fight against the Taliban after 2014.
"I don't foresee ISAF troops in a combat role beyond 2014, provided of course that the security situation allows us to move into a more supportive role," Fogh Rasmussen said, using the acronym for the International Security Assistance Force, led by NATO.
A U.S. official said a decision on changing the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is not imminent because it is still unclear what the security needs and resources will be as the 2014 transition proceeds. Each NATO member country will make an individual decision on when their combat mission will change, the official said.
The U.S. view may reflect a reluctance to forecast when combat will end, in order not to give the Taliban a sense of hope for outlasting their adversary. It may also indicate less certainty by the U.S. that Afghans will be able to take full control by 2014, and perhaps a greater eagerness among the Europeans to be done with a nine-year war.
Seeking to discount the apparent difference in views on combat beyond 2014, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that just because the U.S. hasn't decided to end its combat mission in 2014 doesn't mean it couldn't eventually.
Asked about the matter while visiting Chile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested to reporters that a combat role for U.S. forces in Afghanistan was unlikely beyond 2014, but he did not rule it out.
"I anticipate that the international forces, some fraction of them, will remain to do training and to provide support for the Afghans," Gates said. "But I think anything that remains after 2014 will be very modest and very much focused on the kind of training and advise and assist role that we are now taking on in Iraq."
The U.S. officially ended its combat role in Iraq on Aug. 31, 2010.