NATO allies declared that the end of a long and unpopular Afghanistan war is in sight even as they struggled to hold their fighting force together as France’s new President announced plans to pull troops out early.
The fate of the war is the centre of the two-day NATO summit that opened on Sunday in Chicago. The alliance already has one foot out of the Afghanistan door, with the Europeans pinching pennies in a debt crisis and President Barack Obama with an ear attuned to the politics of an economy-driven presidential election year.
Still, some cautioned against following France’s example while others played down stresses in the fighting alliance.
“There will be no rush for the exits,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.”
The military alliance is pledged to remain in Afghanistan till 2014, but will seal plans during the summit to shift foreign forces off the front lines a year faster than once planned.
Afghan forces will take the lead throughout the nation next year, instead of in 2014. The shift is in large part a response to the plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States, contributors of most of the 130,000 foreign troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency. A majority of Americans now say the war is unwinnable or not worth continuing.
‘Hard days ahead’
Mr. Obama, who was hosting the summit in his hometown and the city where his re-election operation hums, spoke of a post-2014 world when “the Afghan war as we understand it is over.” Until then, though, remaining U.S. and allied troops face the continued likelihood of fierce combat.
“We still have a lot of work to do and there will be great challenges ahead,” Mr. Obama said. “The loss of life continues in Afghanistan and there will be hard days ahead.”
In fact, the strategy has shifted many times over the course of more than 10 years of war, and the goal narrowed to objectives focused on the long-term security of the mostly Western nations fighting there. The timetable has also moved, despite the overall commitment to keep foreign forces in Afghanistan till 2014.
Tension over newly elected French President Francois Hollande’s pledge to end his country’s combat mission two years early infused the meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly cited the credo of the allies in the Afghanistan war, “in together, out together,” and her foreign minister cautioned against a “withdrawal competition” by coalition countries.
The Taliban are urging nations fighting in Afghanistan to follow France’s lead and pull their international forces from the war this year.
“We call upon all the other NATO member countries to avoid working for the political interests of American officials and answer the call of your own people by immediately removing all your troops from Afghanistan,” the group said in a statement before the meeting.
While France’s new posture obviously rattled the leaders, Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said: “The mantra of this particular mission has been in together, out together,” he told reporters. “And I’m not seeing, frankly, many voices being raised that would oppose that.”
Mr. Obama said NATO envisions a decade of transformation after 2014, with the United States still contributing money and forces.
“What this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind the strategy that we’ve laid out,” Mr. Obama said after lengthy talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “Now it’s our task to implement it effectively.”
Karzai said his nation is looking forward to the end of war, “so that Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies.”
Keywords: NATO summit