CHICAGO (Reuters) - 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 end.
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 of 2012.”
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 resurgence.
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 signaling 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 corruption.
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.
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 mission.”
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 2012.
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 forces.
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]
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 know.”
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.