EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's Wolf Blitzer sits down with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an exclusive interview airing Wednesday, April 17 at 4pET on Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.
By Elise Labott, reporting from the NATO meetings in Brussels, Belgium
Around here its known among North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials as "the jumbo": an annual meeting of foreign and defense ministers of NATO countries. This year the stakes are unusually high.
It's the last big meeting for the alliance before the NATO summit in Chicago next month, where the leaders of countries with troops in Afghanistan will make key decisions about the future of the international coalition's mission there.
This week, the task at hand is to produce a working draft of NATO's Strategic Plan for Afghanistan, which seeks to answer three big questions about how to finish the job in the war-torn nation so countries can bring their troops home by the self-imposed deadline of the end of 2014.
Future sustainability of Afghan security forces: The current target for the Afghan force is around 352,000 army and police. After 2014 that number is expected to dip to about 250,000, with a price of $4.1 billion a year. Discussions are ongoing about how to pay for the upkeep. The United States doesn't want to pay the whole amount and U.S. officials say Washington will be asking European and other International Security Assistance Force allies to pay about $1.3 billion of the bill.
Much has been made of whether the Afghan National Army will be ready to assume full responsibility for security before the 2014 deadline. NATO officials and diplomats say the Afghan National Army is becoming more self-sufficient every week, While the focus was once on merely how to fight, Afghan forces are now being trained in engineering, medical services, special operations and logistics, areas that officials call the "finishing touches" to make the army a fully sustainable force
The changing face of the NATO mission: The goal is for all of Afghanistan to be in some stage of transition to Afghan security leadership by 2013. Rather than leading combat missions, the role of ISAF will be to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. That will require an adjustment to the mission and existing NATO structures in Afghanistan.
The third tranche of areas to be handed over to Afghan security are expected to be more difficult than the previous two, which were in areas where there was a relatively light footprint to begin with. President Hamid Karzai is expected to tackle the more difficult areas before coalition troops begin to withdraw at a steeper rate.
NATO's post-2014 role: In 2010 at the NATO summit in Lisbon, the alliance endorsed a plan for Afghanistan that detailed the remaining work for transition to Afghan leadership before 2014. Diplomats say the key deliverable for Chicago is to lay out what NATO's role in the country will be once that transition is complete and the bulk of coalition forces leave.
The recent Memo of Understanding between the U.S. and Afghan governments, which paves the way for a Strategic Partnership Document between the two nations, left the question of an American military presence beyond 2014 vague. It basically says that if the Afghan government wants an American presence after ISAF forces leave at the end of 2014, the United States will consider it. This is more probable than not, say NATO officials, considering the Afghan Air Force will not be fully functional until at least 2016 and the Afghans will need to rely on outside help for battlefield mobility, fire support and medical/casualty evacuation.
Although NATO's traditional role of building defense capacity will continue, the ISAF mission as we know it will not exist. Nor will the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, which currently have military and development professionals working in tandem on Afghan reconstruction. More of the focus is expected to turn to strengthening Afghan capacity in governance and development in order to consolidate the security gains. Officials point to surveys of Afghan people, which consistently rank jobs, tackling corruption and providing basic services as higher priorities than security, and view an upcoming donor conference in July on tackling these issues as equally important to the security transition.
Last week's bloody attacks on Western targets prove the Taliban still have the will and capability to make life difficult for ISAF and Afghan forces, and are likely to fuel doubts among Afghans about whether their government will prevail against the Taliban when the West withdraws. NATO officials are quick to point out that we are likely to still see an insurgency after 2014.
Likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said the goal in Afghanistan should be to defeat the Tablian. But more than a decade into the war, diplomats say the goal is not to destroy the insurgency but to provide a stable environment in Afghanistan so the Taliban and other extremist groups do not pose a threat to the nation.
President Obama, too, abandoned the goal of defeating the Tablian long ago. In his 2009 West Point speech, the president made clear the NATO-led coalition can't kill its way to success in Afghanistan, but needed to give Afghans themselves a stake in their society and the tools to defend their country.
With the clock running out to 2014, the United States and its coalition partners hope the Afghans will have enough of both.