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This week, the Afghan and American governments reopen talks on a strategic partnership agreement. They're talking over how many American troops will stay in Afghanistan past the end of the NATO mission there in 2014. The resumption of these talks comes amid contradictory statements from U.S. officials and NATO members about what they want to do and how long they want to do it. That leaves Afghans wondering what's ahead - uncertainty that may help the insurgents, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Since President Obama arrived at the White House promising to carefully draw down from Afghanistan, several dates have been mentioned. First, Obama said troops would begin pulling out summer of 2011. Then a NATO meeting pushed the end of the international military mission here to 2014.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta muddied the waters further, suggesting that the American combat mission might end by 2013. American officials have downplayed the mixed message, and the Afghan Foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai says Kabul is not concerned.

JANAN MOSAZAI: Well, frankly, we're not confused about it. We have always maintained that Afghan security is an Afghan responsibility. We have a plan with NATO, with our NATO alliance partners for the transitions process, that it will be a conditions-based, gradual process to be completed by the end of 2014.

LAWRENCE: Mosazai says that if conditions allow foreign forces to leave sooner, that would be welcome news. But he says Afghanistan will need international support for many years to come. Specifics of that support will be included in the partnership agreement that Kabul and Washington are still hammering out. Until that deal is signed, the uncertainty will remain.

HAJI KHALIFA MOHAMMAD SHAH: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Reached by phone, Haji Khalifa Mohammad Shah is a tribal elder from the Marjah district of southern Helmand province. He says no strategy has been made clear to him for security in the future.

U.S. Marines are credited with pushing the Taliban out of Marjah during the troop surge of the past two years. Now they're pulling out, but Haji Khalifa says he's hearing too many messages at once from the Afghan government, from the U.S., and from other NATO governments.

SHAH: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: He quotes an Afghan proverb that says: With too many midwives, the baby comes out backwards. Haji Khalifa is blunt about what he's doing. His tribe is reaching out to both the Taliban and the government, because he's not sure which one will prevail if and when American troops leave.

GENERAL HADI KHALED: It's very dangerous. People, they start to deal, for their own protection.

LAWRENCE: General Hadi Khaled is Afghanistan's former deputy interior minister. He says the mixed message is leaving many Afghans unable to feel confident about the future. Suggestions about how many American troops will remain range from 5,000 to 30,000, he says.

The same applies for the size of the Afghan force after 2014. NATO governments have recently begun to lower the estimate of how large an Afghan Army and police force they will be willing to finance. Khaled blames some of the confusion on election-year politics in the U.S. and elsewhere, which can make politicians say almost anything, he says. In the meantime, the Taliban are spreading the word about their planned return in 2014, says Khaled.

KHALED: No one knew what happens with Afghanistan. Just we know that Talibs and al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Taiba, fundamentalist extremists, plus they prepare themselves properly for 2014.

LAWRENCE: This week's resumption of talks on the strategic partnership is a step towards answering some of the many outstanding questions. Both sides are pushing for an agreement in time for the NATO summit in Chicago this May, at which point Afghans and Americans should have a much clearer picture of how many U.S. troops are staying in Afghanistan for the long term.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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