President Obama today repeated his pledge to start the process of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July, and expressed confidence that the Afghans will be able to take responsibility for their security in 2014.
Whether all U.S. troops can be withdrawn in 2014 remains to be seen, Obama said, saying it depends on how well things are going against Taliban insurgents.
"I'll make that determination when I get there," Obama said at a news conference after a NATO summit.
The president also defended aggressive airport security pat-downs during the news conference. He said they are necessary to protect passengers from terrorists who try to hide explosives on their bodies, such as the "underwear bomber" who tried to blow up a plan last Christmas.
Some play-by-play from the news conference:
11:48 a.m. -- In an opening statement, Obama says the U.S. and NATO are "united" on meeting the challenges of Afghanistan, including a plan to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans in 2014. Notes that Afghan President Hamid Karzai agrees with the plan, and that the U.S. will remain a long-term partner of Afghanistan.
Obama also discusses new plans for a joint U.S.-NATO missile defense plan, and improved NATO relations with Russia. "We see Russia as a partner, not an adversary," Obama says.
"Overall, this has been an extremely productive two days," Obama says of the NATO summit.
Also, the U.S. host the next NATO summit, in 2012, the president announces.
11:55 a.m. -- Margaret Warner of PBS asks about the proposed New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, currently hung up in the Senate over Republican objections.
Obama noted that NATO allies overwhelmingly back the New START treaty, saying it is essential to U.S. and European security -- that includes many Russian neighbors, who point out that without the treaty there is now way to watchdog Russia's nuclear arsenal.
"Ronald Reagan said, 'trust but verify,'" Obama says, invoking a Republican hero. "We can't verify right now."
"This is a classic area where we have to rise about partisanship," he adds.
12:02 p.m. -- Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post asks about Obama's conversation with today with Karzai, who has criticized U.S. and NATO military actions in his country.
Obama notes that Karzai leads a nation that has seen "30 years of war," and is eager to assert sovereignty. He adds that Karzai is the one who suggested the 2014 hand-off date for Afghanistan security responsibility. "We want him to be as assertive as possible," Obama says.
Obama says little about today's conversation with Karzai, but adds that they have "ongoing conversations" and "we're trying to make sure our goals aligned." Says the two have "made progress," despite all the"noise" in the press.
12:09 p.m. -- Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal asks about the "surge" in Afghanistan, and if plans are on track to start withdrawing troops in July.
Obama basically says yes. He says the injection of 30,000 new U.S. troops has helped create progress in Afghanistan, and "we are in a better place now than we were a year ago" -- and that means we can "begin thinning out our troops" in certain areas of Afghanistan starting next year. Obama cited the July 2011 date in announcing the search plan a year ago.
Getting back to Karzai, Obama says the U.S. has to be sensitive to his concerns and the concerns of the Afghan people. But the U.S. is also making big contributions, and its concerns have to be taken into account by Karzai. This can led to some "blunt" conversations, the president points out.
12:15 p.m. -- Chuck Todd of NBC News returns to START -- is Republican opposition purely political? Chuck also asks about all the hoo-ha surrounding airport pat-downs.
Obama says Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a key Republican opponent, is "well motivated" and wants to protect American security. Notes that Kyl hasn't specifically opposed the treaty. Obama again ticks off his reasons why START should be ratified by the Senate.
As for airport pat-downs, Obama cites the attempted airplane attack by the underwear bomber of last Christmas; it's important that people with explosives on their persons not be able to get on airplanes. Says security procedures should be constantly evaluated, and he is talking with his counter-terrorism team about them.
12:22 p.m. -- Bill Plante of CBS News asks about the 2014 "deadline" in Afghanistan -- would Obama keep some combat troops there after 2014 if necessary?
Obama notes that Bill used the phrase "if necessary." The president says the U.S. is committed to helping Afghanistan, though he expects the Afghans to be in the security lead after 2014. Says it is quite possible that the U.S. will need a "counter-terrorism capability" in Afghanistan after that. But he notes its hard to say exactly what will be necessary in 2014.
"I'll make that determination when I get there," Obama says.
12:26 p.m. -- A Portuguese journalists asks how the U.S. might help with Europe's economic problems.
Obama says the U.S. should promote economic growth and higher employment, and work with other countries. "We're all interconnected now in a global economy," Obama says.
Obama also praised his Portuguese hosts.
And we're out at 12:32 p.m.