There will be no quick exit for international forces from Afghanistan, the secretary general of NATO warned this morning at a high-level conference in Kabul.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the meeting of foreign ministers that coalition troops would stay in the country even after Afghan troops had taken complete control of security.
He said that when the full transition finally happened, "international forces won't leave, they will simply move into a supportive role".
The scale of the problem facing the Nato forces as they move to hand over control of security in the country was underlined today when an Afghan soldier killed two US civilians and another Afghan soldier at a weapons training area in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north.
The Afghan soldier appears to have turned on his colleagues, shooting the two Americans and the Afghan before himself being killed.
The incident comes just days after another renegade Afghan soldier killed three British soldiers in their base near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
Opening the conference, held in a government building in central Kabul, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said he "remained determined" that Afghan security forces should take full responsibility of all military and police operations by 2014.
For most European countries, any transition to Afghan control that would allow them to take their troops home cannot happen swiftly enough.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the conference, the first of nine international meetings to be held in Afghanistan since 2001, marked the "beginning of a very fundamental transition" to Afghan control.
But Rasmussen said the shift would happen slowly, and on the basis of "conditions, not calendars".
"Transition will be done gradually – on the basis of a sober assessment of the political and security situation, so that it is irreversible," he said.
Highlighting the difficulty of locking down the Afghan capital with so many big-name politicians attending the conference, rocket fire on the outskirts of the city earlier forced a plane carrying Ban and Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, to be diverted as it tried to land. They touched down instead at the US airbase in Bagram, outside Kabul, from where they traveled by helicopter to the conference.
"A few unguided rockets landed on the outskirts of Kabul city last night and in the early hours of the morning," said Lieutenant Commander Katie Kendrick, a spokeswoman for the international military coalition.
Addressing the meeting of some 68 delegates from different countries and international organizations, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, defended her country's decision to start withdrawing some of its troops in July 2011.
The deadline, set last year in a speech by Barack Obama, has been widely criticized for fueling concerns that the US will not stay the course.
Clinton said the date showed both the country's "sense of urgency and our strength of resolve".
"The transition process is too important to push off indefinitely," she said.
"But this date is the start of a new phase, not the end of our involvement. We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission of achieving a stable, secure, peaceful Afghanistan. Too many nations – especially Afghanistan – have suffered too many losses to see this country slide backward."
Ahead of her speech Clinton promised a group of leading Afghan women that the US would not abandon women's rights as it tries to reach a political solution.
Afghan women and human rights groups have expressed fears that the Afghan government would jettison women's rights as part of efforts to reach a political settlement with the Taliban. Under the Taliban women faced widespread intimidation and harsh restrictions on their lifestyles. They were banned from work and education, and forced to cover themselves from head to toe in burqas.
"[A deal] can't come at the cost of women and women's lives," said Clinton. "We are aware of the concerns that many of you have expressed about the reconciliation process and we understand why you would have those concerns," she said.
"I speak from experience when I say that the work of Afghan women and civil society groups will be essential to this country's success.
"If these groups are fully empowered to help build a just and lasting peace, they will help do so. If they are silenced and pushed to the margins of Afghan society, the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted," she said.
Most speakers stuck closely to a script that stressed the importance of transition, fighting against corruption and improving the capacity of the Afghan government.
The only exception was the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, who delivered an angry speech far exceeding his allocated five minutes, laying the blame for years of deteriorating security and civilian causalities on international forces in Afghanistan.
Karzai gave an unusually detailed speech that carried the hallmarks of the main conference organizer, Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank technocrat who fought a bitter election campaign against Karzai last year.
He said Afghanistan was re-emerging as "the Asian roundabout" for trade in the region and that the country's vast untapped mineral wealth makes "state-building affordable".
While the international community had pledged adequate funds for the next three years, he said resources should be focused on a limited number of national programs.
Afghanistan has called for far more international aid to be given directly to the Afghan government, a proposal that has sparked fears that the money will be siphoned off by corrupt ministers.
Karzai promised new measures on corruption that would see "the speedy prosecution of offenders".
Security around the conference has been extremely tight, although the capital did come under rocket attack last night.
A police official said the Afghan intelligence service arrested a number of insurgents who were hiding in a house in the city.