Afghanistan Commitment Tests Obama’s Influence in NATO

Staying the Course in Afghanistan Tests U.S. Influence in NATO
Supporters of the 'Stop the war' coalition and 'Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament' demonstrate outside the American Embassy in central London on May 19, 2012. As the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and partner nations gather for their Chicago summit today and tomorrow, the effort to reach consensus on the way ahead in Afghanistan will test Obama’s diplomatic skills and also the political cohesion and staying power of the 63-year-old group. Photographer: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama faces the task of persuading financially pressed European governments and their war-weary citizens to back Afghanistan’s security over the next decade.

Obama met this morning in Chicago with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is sometimes harshly critical of his NATO allies. Obama is seeking to prevent a rush to withdraw from Afghanistan by U.S. allies ahead of 2014, when Afghan forces are to take over full security. The U.S. also wants allies, many enduring budget cuts, to help cover the $4.1 billion a year needed to finance Afghan security forces after 2014.

“What this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind this strategy we’ve laid out,” Obama said after his talks with the Afghan leader. The alliance has 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.”

As the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and partner nations gathered in Chicago, the effort to reach consensus on the way ahead in Afghanistan will test Obama’s diplomatic skills and also the political cohesion and staying power of the 63-year-old group.

“It’s important to reaffirm the relevance of the alliance,” said Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corp., a policy institute based in Santa Monica, California.

Sticking Together

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen today affirmed the timetable set by the allies for handing over full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014.

Allies that entered Afghanistan together should withdraw together and Germany will “resolutely defend” that stance, Merkel told reporters in Chicago.

“There will be no rush for the exits,” Rasmussen said at a briefing. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.”

The summit takes place as Europeans and the U.S. are cutting defense spending and as NATO has avoided being drawn into the crisis in Syria, which borders alliance-member Turkey.

While last year’s military actions in Libya were proclaimed an alliance success, they exposed the Europeans’ reliance on U.S. military equipment such Tomahawk cruise missiles and airborne reconnaissance and refueling.

The NATO leaders in Chicago are expected to agree on a “smart defense” initiative, which calls for sharing technologies and weapons systems. The goal is to pool resources to acquire capabilities that may be too costly for a single country, such as airlift, intelligence and surveillance, missile defense and cybersecurity.

Recast Alliance

Born in 1949 as a Cold-War alliance to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union, NATO has sought to recast itself by expanding membership, partnering with nations in Eastern and Central Europe and deploying its military power in places such as the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan.

Between 2008 and 2010, at least 16 European NATO members have cut defense spending, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Total defense spending by European NATO members in 2011 was 10 percent below their combined spending in 2008, according to alliance data.

Because of austerity-driven cuts in Europe and the U.S., NATO may be constrained in its ability to carry out some future missions, said Larrabee, who was a U.S. National Security Council staff member during the Carter administration. Such constraints “will intensify the debate” on what security NATO will provide beyond Europe to where most future threats lie, Larrabee said during a teleconference on May 18.

Expensive Operations

Many alliance members “are not very comfortable” with operations such as Afghanistan “in which they do not see a strong national interest and which are expensive and which involve in many cases casualties,” he said.

France’s new President Francois Hollande said May 18 that he is sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

“At what pace combat troop will withdraw is France’s business,” he said yesterday, while attending the Group of Eight summit at Camp David, Maryland. He said a “few remaining troops” will work on training and equipping Afghan forces.

France now has 3,308 troops in Afghanistan, according to information provided by the International Security Assistance Force on its website. Hollande said May 18 that France would support Afghanistan in a “different way.” NATO members will discuss during the summit whether that may entail trainers or other forms of assistance.

Rasmussen said he was “not surprised” that Hollande is planning to keep his campaign promise. He said France can support the alliance in other ways.

$4.1 Billion Annual Cost

Hollande’s position may frustrate U.S. efforts to keep European combat forces in place through 2014, and to get NATO partners to help underwrite an estimated $4.1 billion a year in assistance to Afghan security forces over the following decade.

Financing the stand-alone Afghan force has taken on greater urgency as Western allies start departing after more than a decade of warfare, the longest combat operation in NATO’s history.

Afghan soldiers and police officers totaled about 337,000 in mid-March and are scheduled to reach 352,000 this year. The coalition has agreed with Afghan leaders to begin paring the force after 2014 to about 230,000.

Maintaining those numbers of Afghan security forces would cost about $4 billion, with the U.S. seeking $1.3 billion from allies and with the Afghanistan government contributing about $500 million annually, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 10.

‘Under Strain’

Over the past month, since defense and foreign ministers met at NATO headquarters in Brussels in preparation for the summit, several countries have announced financial pledges for Afghan security forces, including Britain with 70 million pounds ($112 million) and Germany with $190 million a year.

NATO nations are reducing their military budgets, including the U.S. which is slated to cut $487 billion over the next ten years. The U.S. military may face another $500 billion in cuts if Congress and the White House do not agree by the end of this year on other ways to reduce the budget deficit.

“The cohesion of the Atlantic community is under strain from economic crisis, political paralysis and the emergence of new global powers in Asia,” said R. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration, who co-authored an Atlantic Council report on the future of NATO.

Testing Time

In the past year, NATO nations have faced two major tests - - a debt crisis and declining military budgets, said Burns, who is a board director at the Atlantic Council in Washington and a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the summit, NATO allies will also discuss NATO’s long standing Baltic air policing missions over the air space of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and progress on NATO’s missile defense system.

Russian opposition to the new NATO ballistic missile defense capability is considered a key obstacle to implementation, according to a May 14 Congressional Research Service analysis by Paul Belkin.

“Rhetoric from Russian policy makers has become increasingly hostile to the NATO plan,” Belkin said. Russian leaders have also asked for legal guarantees that the NATO system will not be aimed at Russia, Belkin said.

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