NATO leaders sought on Sunday to dispel fears of a rush for the exits in Afghanistan even as the Western alliance met to chart a path out of an unpopular war that has dragged on for more than a decade.
President Barack Obama, who once called the Afghan conflict a “war of necessity” but is now looking for an orderly way out, hosted the NATO summit in his home town, Chicago, a day after major industrialized nations tackled a European debt crisis that threatens the global economy.
The shadow cast by fiscal pressures in Europe and elsewhere followed leaders from Obama’s presidential retreat in Maryland to the talks on Afghanistan, an unwelcome weight on countries mindful of growing public opposition to a costly war that has not defeated the Taliban in nearly 11 years.
Obama, hoping an Afghan exit strategy will help shore up his chances for re-election in November, said the summit would ratify a “broad consensus” for gradually turning over security responsibility to Afghan forces and pulling out most of the 130,000 NATO troops by the end of 2014.
But the Chicago talks faced undercurrents of division, especially with France’s new President Francois Hollande now planning to remove its troops by the end of 2012, two years before the alliance’s timetable.
Seeking to paper over differences, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed confidence the alliance would “maintain solidarity within our coalition,” despite France’s decision.
“There will be no rush for the exits,” Rasmussen told reporters. “We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end.”
But signaling tensions over the issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: “We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghhanistan together.”
Obama, meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the summit, said the meeting would agree on a “vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.”
Standing next to Obama, Karzai thanked Americans for “your taxpayer money” and said his country looked forward to the day it is “no longer a burden” on the international community. Karzai’s government has been widely criticized for rampant corruption.
Karzai’s comments underscored the political bind that Obama and other Western leaders face in underwriting a unpopular war effort and the build-up of Afghan forces during a time of budget austerity at home.
Taliban weighs in
Trying to inject itself into the NATO proceedings, the Taliban urged countries fighting in Afghanistan to follow France’s lead and pull their forces out.
“The people of nations allied with America have also shown their opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan,” the Islamist insurgent group said in an emailed statement.
“So the NATO member countries who claim to be the elected representatives of its people and consider their government the people’s government, by the people, for the people: how will they answer the call of their people in this summit?”
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,” Hollande said.
Careful French comments on the issue illustrate the balance NATO leaders must 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 the 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.
Rasmussen, speaking on CNN, 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.”
Shadow of fiscal woes
A last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the carefully choreographed meeting was 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 U.S. 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 U.S. officials had hoped earlier in the week.
General John Allen, the U.S. 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.”
Severe fiscal pressures, including plans for major cuts to defense spending in Europe and the United States, are sure to color the talks in Chicago, as they did those between G8 leaders.
The overarching message from that G8 summit reflected Obama’s own concerns that euro-zone contagion, which threatens the future of Europe’s 17-country single currency bloc, could hurt a fragile U.S. recovery and his re-election chances.
Austerity has played a role in NATO leaders’ efforts to make progress on “smart defense” - making resources go further by encouraging NATO allies to share key capabilities.
NATO is expected to announce a milestone in the effort to provide a pan-European missile defense system, which now has reached “interim capability.” It will also formally endorse an agreement for 14 countries to jointly purchase five U.S.-made unmanned drone aircraft.
Police blanketed the city streets in preparation for what is expected to be protests by thousands near the meeting site. Several days of protests in the run-up to the summit have been lively but peaceful, resulting in fewer than two dozen arrests.