Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. has firmed up commitments from NATO allies to end combat missions in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as planned and to provide about $4 billion a year to fund Afghan security forces.
Panetta and Clinton, who attended a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels today, said the alliance strategy is working and the security transition to Afghan forces is on track.
Financing the stand-alone Afghan force has taken on greater urgency as Western allies head for the exit after more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan. NATO is committed to Afghanistan’s success in providing security and governance to its people, Panetta said at a press conference at the alliance headquarters.
“If the Afghans win, we win,” Panetta said.
Clinton said “the transition is on track” to hand security missions to the Afghan forces. The Afghans “are increasingly standing up for their own security,” she said at a joint press conference with Panetta.
The primary focus of the defense and foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels was on discussing the security strategy for Afghanistan in preparation for the NATO summit in Chicago next month. The NATO allies seek to agree on the next phase of the transition to support the goal of ending combat missions in 2014, to define the relationship with Afghanistan after 2014 and to work with the Afghans to ensure that the security forces are funded.
NATO made progress toward providing about $4 billion annually to help Afghanistan pay for its security forces.
Australia this week said most of its troops will come home by mid-2013 and the front-runner in the French presidential campaign, Francois Hollande, is pledging a pullout by the end of 2012.
A “number of allies” announced financial contributions today, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels. “Together with the rest of the international community, we will play our part and pay our share in and sustaining Afghan security forces at the right level,” he said.
Afghan soldiers and police officers totaled about 337,000 in mid-March and are scheduled to peak at 352,000 in October before gradually dropping back after 2014 to about 230,000. American estimates put the cost of fielding the Afghan army and police at $4 billion to $6 billion a year, depending on the size of the force.
Panetta went into today’s meeting looking for about 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) from NATO allies to go along with $500 million from the Afghan government. The U.S. hasn’t announced whether it will put in the roughly $2.2 billion still needed.
The U.K. today announced it will contribute 70 million pounds ($112 million) for Afghan forces.
Rasmussen called the total $4 billion sum the “planning basis” and didn’t disclose which countries made offers or how much. A breakdown of contributions by country won’t come until after a summit of alliance leaders hosted by President Barack Obama in Chicago on May 20-21, he said.
In the latest incident that may strain relations between coalition forces and Afghan officials and citizens, the Pentagon said today it would investigate photos published by the Los Angeles Times that the newspaper said showed U.S. troops “grinning and mugging” as they held up body parts of dead Afghan insurgents.
“These events took place apparently a couple of years ago, and I consider them an isolated event,” Rasmussen said. “Such very unfortunate incidents do not in any way define our relationship with the Afghan people.”
Tensions were exacerbated by last month’s murder of 17 Afghan civilians, for which U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales faces charges, following the burning of Korans at an American base and a video that showed U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Afghans they had killed.
NATO allies are fine-tuning the timetable for winding down the mission, as war weariness and the political calendar in the West swamp doubts about Afghanistan’s ability to govern itself.
U.S. and NATO officials painted Australia’s announcement yesterday that the majority of its 1,500 troops will be out by mid-2013 as in line with the established schedule. Australia will keep trainers and special forces in Afghanistan after 2014, a U.S. official told reporters.
“The Australian announcement is fully within the framework we have outlined for a gradual transition to Afghan responsibility,” Rasmussen said.
Defense ministers also consulted on the alliance’s need for technologies and weapons systems over the next 10 years as the U.S. and European nations wrestle with tight budgets. The goal is to pool resources and share capabilities such as airlift, munitions, intelligence and surveillance, missile defense and cyber-security.
Rasmussen said the Chicago summit will also declare that the equipment and command systems are in place to provide initial limited coverage of NATO’s European territory from a missile attack. The project has led to friction with Russia.
In Chicago “our ambition is to declare an interim missile defense capability,” he said. “Today we made clear that we are all determined to make that happen.”