BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO foreign and defense ministers will refine plans for withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan this week in a meeting that comes after an insurgent attack in the heart of Kabul and recrimination from the alliance’s Afghan allies.
The meeting, at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, will prepare the ground for a NATO summit in Chicago next month which will detail pullback plans, and outline funding and measures to try to ensure Afghanistan does not collapse into civil war.
Ministers will also discuss ways to maintain defense capabilities while their budgets are under pressure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is also expected to attend on the meeting Thursday and discuss NATO’s missile defense system - which Russia sees as a threat.
The series of high-level meetings comes at a crucial time for the North Atlantic alliance.
Though NATO was the focus of U.S. defense efforts in the decades after World War Two, President Barack Obama announced in January that the United States would concentrate more on the Pacific region. U.S. officials have also become critical of what they say is Europe’s under-funding of defense.
“We’re at a pivotal point for the alliance,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta told reporters in Washington before leaving for Brussels. “We’ll also be working to ensure that NATO itself has the right military capabilities that will be needed for the future.”
A timetable agreed at the last NATO summit, in 2010, called for the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, after which responsibility for security would be handed over to Afghan forces. Western countries would help finance security and development in Afghanistan after that, according to the plan, and some troops would stay on to provide training.
But a series of violent incidents has further shaken Western public support for operations, and individual allies have announced earlier-than-expected withdrawals.
An insurgent attack in the heavily guarded diplomatic district of the Afghan capital on Sunday highlighted the lack of progress NATO has made in bringing security to Afghanistan, more than 10 years after the Taliban were forced from power.
Fighting raged for 18 hours in central Kabul before Afghan forces backed by NATO troops killed the last of the 35 insurgents in a dawn raid. Eleven Afghan troops and four civilians also died in the fighting.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday’s attacks had been an intelligence failure for Afghanistan and “especially for NATO”, and on Tuesday referred to the Taliban as brothers.
Edward Burke, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank said insurgents had received funding siphoned off from international aid sent to help Karzai.
“For many European governments, they feel the Karzai administration is too corrupt and too indifferent to the requests of its allies,” said Burke. “Many European governments in a time of austerity don’t see the rationale.”
Spain last year said 40 percent of Spanish troops would return home by the first half of 2013 - accelerating withdrawal plans by a few months, according to one newspaper.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is currently campaigning for re-election, announced France would pull out of Afghanistan completely at the end of 2013, instead of in 2014 as previously planned after four French troops were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier.
Australia said on Tuesday it would start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this year, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she expected all international forces there to be playing a supporting role for Afghan forces by mid-2013. Australia had been expected to withdraw towards the end of 2014.
Nevertheless, as Western forces prepare to leave, NATO officials are increasingly praising the ability of Afghan security forces, who analysts say have been plagued by ill-discipline, low levels of education and poor pay.
The response to Sunday’s attacks came almost wholly from local security forces, and the failure of the attacks to cause mass casualties demonstrated the forces’ capabilities, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told a news conference on Monday.
“They defeated the attacks and they did that largely on their own,” she said. “They are getting more capable by the day.”
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Jon Hemming