CHICAGO: NATO leaders gathered in Chicago today to chart a path out of Afghanistan as war-weary Western nations seek to fend off dissent in their alliance and ensure Afghanistan can hold a still-potent Taliban at bay when foreign troops withdraw.
The Obama administration, looking ahead to the November presidential election, is expected to emphasize a common alliance vision for gradually pulling most of the NATO force of around 130,000 by the end of 2014. It will also highlight Afghanistan’s strides toward taking charge of its own security.
In addition to the shared fiscal stress, the talks may be characterized by undercurrents of division between leaders in Washington, Brussels and in other nations, like France, who are more eager to go home.
France’s new leader, Francois Hollande, repeated a pledge during his inaugural visit to Washington last week to pull “combat troops” from Afghanistan this year. He has said an extremely limited number of soldiers would remain to train Afghan forces and bring back equipment beyond 2012.
“This decision is an act of sovereignty and must be done in good coordination with our allies and partners,” said Hollande, who will discuss his exit plans with Afghan President Hamid Karzai today. Yet Hollande has declined to define the details of his withdrawal, saying that was France’s “business.”
The careful French comments, leaving room for various interpretations, illustrate the balance NATO leaders strike as they seek to avoid the appearance of splits with NATO partners without alienating voters who want to see a swift exit.
Alliance leaders may use the same approach in discussions this weekend of long-term funding for Afghan police and army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is at the core of NATO strategy for exiting Afghanistan smoothly.
The Obama administration has been seeking promises from its allies in Afghanistan to give $1.3 billion a year for Afghan forces. While there are few doubts allies will eventually provide support, it appeared unlikely heading into the summit that it would meet that goal by the end of the meeting.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking on CNN on Sunday, said a key motivation for coughing up the funding is “at the end of the day it is less expensive to finance the Afghan security forces to do the combat than to deploy our own troops.”
A last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the carefully choreographed meeting is President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, whose western tribal areas provide shelter to
militants attacking Karzai’s government and NATO forces.
Zardari may encounter friction in interactions with NATO leaders who have been pressing Islamabad to reopen routes used to supply NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan shut those routes in protest when US aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November.
It was unclear whether a deal reopening those roads would occur this weekend as US. officials had hoped earlier in the week.
General John Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters he was confident a deal would eventually be struck but “whether it’s in days or weeks, I don’t know.”
Though Obama had no plans to hold one-on-one talks with Zardari in Chicago, a meeting was set at the last minute with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday, suggesting a mutual effort to ease strains.