CHICAGO, May 21 − NATO leaders charting a path out of Afghanistan sought yesterday to dispel fears of a rush for the exits in the unpopular war even as France‘s new president vowed to stick by his pledge to withdraw French troops by year’s end.
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 industrialised 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 failed to defeat the Taliban in nearly 11 years of fighting.
Obama, hoping an Afghan exit strategy will help shore up his chances for re-election in November, urged NATO leaders to ratify a “broad consensus” for gradually turning over security 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.
On the summit sidelines, the French socialist made clear he had no intention of backtracking on a campaign promise that helped him win the presidency from Nicolas Sarkozy this month. A poll in January showed 84 per cent of the French public wanted a pullout this year.
While insisting he remained committed to NATO, Hollande told reporters: “I am pragmatic to get the best results for France ... so that the alliance works for our defense and security and to ensure our soldiers come back before the end of 2012 from Afghanistan.”
Hollande’s comments underscored the challenge for Obama, who has steadily narrowed his goals in Afghanistan since taking office in 2009, in plotting a more gradual withdrawal that will not open the way for a Taliban resurgence.
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 signalling tensions over the issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: “We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghanistan together.”
Obama, meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the margins of the summit, said the conference 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 alluded to 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?”
At the summit’s opening session, Obama told his peers: “Just as we have sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand together united in our determination to complete this mission.”
Hollande has pledged to coordinate his pullout of “combat troops” with NATO allies and though he has been vague on the details has said a very limited number of soldiers would remain to train Afghan forces and bring back equipment beyond 2012.
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 US$1.3 billion (RM4.06 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.
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 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 U.S. officials had hoped.
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.”
Fiscal demands, including plans for major cuts to defense spending in Europe and the United States, were 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 US 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 US-made unmanned drone aircraft.
Police blanketed the city streets for 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. − Reuters