Pact to wind down war in Afghanistan sans details

The U.S. and its allies in NATO have finalised agreements to wind down the war in Afghanistan, paving the way for President Barack Obama to announce at a NATO summit meeting in Chicago next month that the nearly 11-year-old conflict is close to an end.

But many of the most critical details remained unresolved, chief among them who would pay billions of dollars a year to support the Afghan security forces.

After a day of meetings at NATO headquarters here, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the allies had formalised three crucial commitments: to increasingly move the Afghans into a lead combat role; to keep some international troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the year all U.S. forces are supposed to be home; and to pay billions of dollars a year to support the Afghan security forces.

“The big picture is clear,” Ms. Clinton said. “The transition is on track, the Afghans are increasingly standing up for their own security and future, and NATO remains united in our support.”

Though Ms. Clinton and Mr. Panetta sought to display U.S. and NATO solidarity, there was a great sense of war weariness here, as the NATO meetings on Afghanistan have now entered their second decade. .

Major concerns also remain over attacks like those mounted by the Haqqani network of the Taliban on Sunday, when dozens of attackers crossed hundreds of km to strike at seven secured targets.

Ms. Clinton characterised the attacks as part of the inevitable “setbacks and bad days,” and she praised the Afghan security forces' response as “fast and effective.” Nonetheless, questions intensified about who was actually going to pay for the forces. One thing was clear: The Afghans cannot afford the $4-billion a year that is expected to be needed to support their own army and police force.

“People realise that a bill of that size is well beyond the financial capacity of the Afghan government,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a news conference on Wednesday.

A tentative plan under discussion calls for the U.S. to contribute about $2.2 billion or more of the $4 billion annually, with the Afghan government contributing $500 million and donations from the allies covering the remaining $1.3 billion.

Ms. Clinton said she and Mr. Panetta were “very encouraged” by commitments at the NATO meetings. But senior U.S. defence officials travelling with Mr. Panetta to Brussels on Tuesday acknowledged that they were still short in allied pledges at a time when the financial crisis in Europe has led to cuts in defence budgets.

The officials, who asked for anonymity because they were discussing internal NATO deliberations, would only say they were making “good progress” in soliciting pledges. They declined several times to define that progress in numerical terms.

The $4 billion in spending is for after 2014, when the Afghan security forces are expected to shrink to 230,000 personnel, down from a peak of 352,000 they are to reach this year. U.S. officials have acknowledged that the reduction is driven largely by financial constraints on Afghanistan and its allies. The U.S. and its partners now spend about $6 billion a year on Afghanistan's security forces.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan threw a wrench into the deliberations over the cost of the security forces on Tuesday when he said in Kabul he wanted a written commitment of $2 billion a year from the U.S.

Mr. Panetta quickly batted that aside.

“As both the Secretary of State and I know from our own experience, you have to deal with Congress when it comes to what funds are going to be provided,” he said. “And we don't have the power to lock in money for the Afghans.”

Also unresolved at the NATO meetings was how many international troops, both from the U.S. and its allies, would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. American officials and Mr. Karzai say they are committed to having U.S. forces there, but their number and role has to be negotiated.

There are now about 90,000 U.S. troops in the country. — New York Times News Service

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