CHICAGO (Reuters) – NATO leaders sealed a landmark agreement on Monday to hand control of Afghanistan over to its own security forces by the middle of next year, putting the Western alliance on an “irreversible” path out of an unpopular, decade-long war.
A NATO summit in Chicago formally committed to a U.S.-backed strategy that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014 but left major questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after the allies are gone.
The two-day meeting of the 28-nation alliance marked a milestone in a war sparked by the September 11 attacks that has spanned three U.S. presidential terms and even outlasted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
President Barack Obama and NATO partners sought to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in Afghanistan – a conflict that has strained Western budgets as well as patience – while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
Alliance leaders acquiesced to new French President Francois Hollande’s insistence on sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw French troops by December 31, two years ahead of NATO’s timetable. While there was no sign this would send other allies rushing for the exits, leaders could face pressures at home.
“Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission,” Obama told a summit session. “I am confident … that we can advance that goal today and responsibly bring this war to an end.”
The summit’s final communique ratified plans for the NATO-led army to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014.
The statement deemed it an “irreversible” transition to full security responsibility for fledgling Afghan troops, and said NATO’s mission in 2014 would shift to a training and advisory role. “This will not be a combat mission,” it said.
Doubts remain, however, whether Afghan forces will have the capability to stand up against a still-potent Taliban insurgency that Western forces have failed to defeat in nearly 11 years of fighting.
While Obama insisted Afghanistan should never again be used to plot attacks on other nations, a senior British official said: “It is unrealistic to assume that Afghanistan is going to be completely secure and there is no possibility of a terrorist threat re-emerging.”
GETTING HOME SAFELY
A standoff persisted between NATO and Pakistan over Islamabad’s refusal to reopen supply routes to international forces in Afghanistan – crucial to an orderly alliance withdrawal – and no imminent resolution seemed likely.
But a brief encounter between Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the summit photo session suggested hopes remained for working out differences on the issue.
With Europe’s debt crisis hanging over the summit and many member-governments limited by austerity budgets, Obama also was struggling to pin down final commitments from allies for the $4.1 billion a year needed to support Afghan security forces.
The funding – which will undergird Afghan’s capacity to fight the Taliban and is considered vital to an smooth NATO departure – may not be fully realized at the summit, but alliance officials believe it will eventually be provided.
NATO diplomats said thinking had moved to the logistical challenge of getting a large multinational army out of the Afghan mountains and deserts and back home safely.
Frustrated NATO officials have also been trying to persuade Pakistan to reopen its territory to NATO supplies, which Islamabad has blocked since NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border incident last year.
Zardari, who was a last-minute addition to the summit guest-list in Obama’s home town, showed no immediate signs of budging.
As Zardari, an uneasy U.S. partner, sat with other leaders around a circular table, Obama pointedly thanked Afghanistan’s neighbors who have allowed expanded shipments of war supplies since Pakistan closed off ground routes to NATO truck convoys.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, told Reuters he was confident a deal would eventually be struck, but “whether it’s in days or weeks, I don’t know.”
NATO is seeking to compensate in the meantime with a framework agreement with Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Uzbekistan, to allow “reverse transit” of NATO supplies from Afghanistan.
Friction remains between NATO and Pakistan over Taliban guerrillas who are still finding sanctuary in Pakistan, in spite of Islamabad’s professed support for the alliance’s mission.
Long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, which has steadily improved its performance but is still fraught with problems, was also a focus of the summit.
The United States is unwilling to foot the entire annual bill to maintain the forces after 2014, which is estimated at $4.1 billion, and has been seeking pledges from allies of $1.3 billion, despite austerity measures brought on by Europe’s financial crisis.
Many of the leaders in Chicago came directly from a summit of the Group of Eight wealthy nations that vowed to take all necessary measures to contain the euro-zone contagion.
Afghan funding commitments so far include $100 million annually from Britain, $120 million from Italy, $110 million from Canada, $100 million from Australia and $20 million from Turkey. Zardari told a NATO partners meeting Pakistan would also contribute $20 million.
Seeking re-election in November, Obama has sought to dispel Americans’ concerns that shaky allies will leave U.S. troops to fight alone.
Despite pressure from some NATO members to reconsider, Holland vowed to hold to his election pledge to withdraw French troops by the year’s end, which helped the Socialist leader win the presidency this month.
Perhaps in return, the Americans are asking for around 200 million euros a year from France for the Afghan armed forces, a French diplomatic source said.
Heavy security is in place in Chicago and police clashed on Sunday with thousands of anti-war protesters and arrested dozens.