* NATO secretary-general papers over differences on
* Obama hosts second of back-to-back global summits
* France sticks to accelerated pull-out timetable
By John Irish and Andreas Rinke
CHICAGO, May 20 NATO leaders charting a path out
of Afghanistan sought on Sunday 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
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 industrialized 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
re-election chances in November, urged NATO leaders to ratify a
"broad consensus" on a gradual troop drawdown in Afghanistan.
The alliance will formally embrace a pivot in the NATO
mission, putting Afghan soldiers in charge of combat operations
by mid- or late 2013, on the way to pulling out most of the
130,000 NATO troops by the end of 2014, U.S. officials said.
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 percent of the French public wanted a
pullout this year. France has about 3,400 troops in Afghanistan.
While insisting he remained committed to NATO, Hollande told
reporters he would "ensure our soldiers come back before the end
Hollande's comments underscored the challenge for Obama, who
has steadily narrowed his goals in Afghanistan, in plotting a
more gradual withdrawal that will not open the way for a Taliban
Seeking to paper over differences, NATO Secretary-General
Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed confidence the alliance would
"maintain solidarity" despite France's decision. "There will be
no rush for the exits," Rasmussen told reporters.
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
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.
With heavy security in place for the Chicago summit, police
in riot gear clashed with protesters at the end of an anti-NATO
rally by thousands of demonstrators. Baton-wielding officers hit
black-clad anarchists, some with bandanas over their faces.
Several people were injured.
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
Hollande has pledged to coordinate his pullout of "combat
troops" with NATO allies and though he has been vague on the
details, he has said a very limited number of soldiers would
remain to train Afghan forces and bring back equipment beyond
Essentially conceding Hollande was unlikely to be dissuaded,
General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, played
down the impact, saying "we have the capacity, using our current
force structure, to ensure there is no degradation in security."
Careful French comments on the issue illustrated 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 were walking a cautious line in discussions
this weekend on long-term funding for the Afghan police and
army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is at the core of NATO
strategy for leaving Afghanistan smoothly.
The Obama administration, unwilling to be solely on the
hook for the $4.1 billion annual price tag, has been seeking
promises from its allies to give $1.3 billion a year for Afghan
While there are few doubts allies will eventually provide
support, NATO appeared unlikely to meet that goal by the end of
the meeting. ID:nL1E8GIERC]
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 was likely to encounter friction in interactions
with NATO leaders who have been pressing Islamabad to reopen
routes used to supply NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan
closed those routes in protest when U.S. aircraft killed 24
Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November.
It was seemed increasingly doubtful an agreement on those
routes would be reached this weekend as U.S. officials had
hoped. Allen told Reuters he was confident a deal would
eventually be struck but "whether it's in days or weeks, I don't
Zardari, in talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,
pressed for a "permanent solution" to U.S. drone strikes that
have fueled tensions between the two uneasy allies.
After the first day of the summit, NATO announced a
milestone in the effort to provide a pan-European missile
defense system, saying it had reached "interim capability."
Russia is adamantly opposed to the missile shield, seeing it as
a security threat despite U.S. insistence it is meant to defend
against Iranian missiles.
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 U.S. 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.