Obama Seeks Afghan Commitments as NATO Summit Closes

Obama Seeks Commitments on Afghanistan as NATO Summit Closes
US President Barack Obama chats with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 20, 2012. Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages

President Barack Obama closes the NATO summit today short of key commitments the U.S. is seeking on Afghanistan, from the reopening of supply lines by Pakistan to guarantees that allies will keep combat troops in place through 2014 and fund Afghan security forces for a decade after.

Obama, in remarks opening today’s session, welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai and thanked governments helping support the campaign without mentioning Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, who also is attending the summit. The three leaders talked briefly at the end of the morning meeting.

As the two-day summit concluded in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization formally set in motion planning for the next stage in the conflict, in which Afghan forces will take the lead in providing security starting next year. By the end of 2014, the U.S. and its allies will pull out combat troops while continuing in training roles.

After 2014, “the Afghan war as we understand it is over,” Obama said yesterday after meeting with Karzai. “The world is behind this strategy that we’ve laid out. Now it’s our task to implement it effectively.”

Obama, who is seeking re-election in November, is focused on wrapping up a war that Americans have grown weary of after more than a decade. A Pew Research Center survey in March found 57 percent of Americans want U.S. troops out as soon as possible.

Sharing Burden

At the same time, Obama is pushing European allies to stay in the fold long enough to share the burden. He’s seeking to show enough unity within NATO to offset fissures exposed by a pledge by newly elected French President Francois Hollande to withdraw from Afghanistan ahead of the previously set timetable.

Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday that coalition forces in Afghanistan wouldn’t leave prematurely. “There will be no rush for the exits,” Rasmussen told reporters. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.”

“We very firmly support the idea of ’in together, out together,’” Merkel said.

Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow specializing in NATO and transatlantic relations at the Atlantic Council, a non-partisan research organization in Washington, said that with the French accelerating their timetable for withdrawal, other nations in the alliance may follow.

Political Pressure

“The political leaders of the governments here don’t seem to see the political problems of the NATO alliance as severe as they actually are,” he said.

“Officially, NATO is still in denial about that,” Benitez said. “They are still paying lip service to the 2014 timetable.”

Even with the withdrawal date set, Obama, who visited Afghanistan on May 2 to sign an agreement with Karzai on the transition, warned today “We have a lot of work to do.”

General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the Taliban remains “a resilient and capable opponent” that will keep fighting Afghan forces after the U.S. and allied front-line role shrinks.

“We fully expect that combat is going to continue,” he said at a briefing in Chicago. Even as Afghan forces take more of a lead role in counterinsurgency operations next year, he said any notion that U.S. combat operations will stop in 2013 “is not in fact correct.”

Electoral Concerns

Allen dismissed questions about whether the withdrawal timetable is keyed to Obama’s electoral concerns. “There is no daylight between the commander on the ground in Afghanistan and the commander in chief,” he said.

The administration is urging financially pressed European governments and their war-weary citizens to back Afghanistan’s security over the next decade. The U.S. wants allies, many of which are cutting budgets, to help cover the $4.1 billion a year needed to finance Afghan security forces after 2014.

Merkel said today at a news conference that NATO has “almost reached” its goal. Germany already has promised to contribute $150 million a year and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said today that Britain will provide $110 million.

“This is a significant contribution but it is a fraction of the cost of a combat mission,” Cameron said.

Awaiting Pakistan Move

The friction with Pakistan presents yet another hurdle for the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- not Obama -- met with Zardari at the summit, with no agreement yet on reopening NATO supply lines through Pakistan. While Obama spoke with Zardari briefly after a morning meeting, there was no plan for a one-on-one meeting while the issue remains unresolved.

Pakistan closed Afghan supply routes from its Karachi port in retaliation for a U.S. air strike that killed its soldiers instead of the targeted militants. The U.S. said it was an accident. Tensions also were heightened by the U.S. raid on the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was hiding.

Some 30 percent of NATO supplies went through Pakistan before the suspension, according to the Pentagon. NATO has switched to northern routes.

Allen said talks with Pakistan are moving “in a positive direction.” As for when the matter will be settled, “I can’t tell you when that will occur,” he said.

Rasmussen said the closure hasn’t had a significant impact on NATO operations. The routes will be more important when allied forces are withdrawing and need to transport heavy equipment, he said.

Equipment Agreement

NATO members yesterday also agreed to jointly fund operations of an airborne ground-surveillance system including five Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk drones, with the initial contract valued at $1.7 billion. NATO also reached what the alliance calls an “interim operational capability” for its shared ballistic missile defense system meant to protect against a potential Iranian threat.

The airborne ground-surveillance system project has been a NATO priority for Obama and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. NATO members yesterday signed the contract for the five unarmed drones, Rasmussen told reporters at the summit. Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop is the prime contractor.

The Alliance Ground Surveillance System, as it is called, will be made available to the alliance between 2015 and 2017. Its main operating base will be at Sigonella Air Base in Italy, according to information provided by NATO on its website.

Missile defense that was once in U.S. hands is now ready to be transferred to NATO command and control, Ivo Daalder, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told reporters yesterday.

Missile Defense

Obama directed the transfer of operational control to NATO of a radar based in Turkey, Daalder said. U.S. Navy destroyers equipped with the Lockheed Martin Corp. Aegis defense system, are also able to operate under the alliance’s control, according to Daalder. The decision, backed by allies in Chicago, means that NATO will “have for the first time a territorial missile defense capability,” Daalder said.

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 won’t be aimed at Russia, Belkin said.

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