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Afghanistan tops agenda at crucial NATO summit
Leaders of NATO's 28 member states are meeting in Lisbon for one of the most important summits in the military alliance's history. But will they reconsider the old way of doing business for NATO's critical mission in Afghanistan?
NATO summits, by definition, are not exceptionally exciting affairs. But the Nov. 19-20 gathering in Lisbon has been dubbed “one of the most crucial” in the military alliance’s 61-year history.
By the end of the summit, NATO’s 28-member nations are expected to seal a deal on a new “strategic concept,” the first major overhaul since the last such concept was adopted in 1991.
Much has changed since then of course. Global terrorism is a greater threat than conventional war and Russia is not quite the enemy it used to be during – and shortly after – the Cold War.
In a sign of the changing times, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will join a separate NATO-Russia session on Saturday. For embattled US President Barack Obama, Moscow’s new softening on the European ballistic missile shield issue represents a sign that his initiative to “reset” relations with Russia is working.
But the monster at the summit, the most pressing issue bedeviling the 28 world leaders, defense ministers and numerous senior military officials gathered in Lisbon, is undoubtedly the war in Afghanistan.
Just days before the summit opened, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a statement for the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha calling on Afghans to “entangle the enemy in an exhausting war of attrition and wear it away like the former Soviet Union".
The Afghan offensive has come at a high price for leaders confronting growing domestic opposition to the war. At least 645 coalition troops have been killed so far in 2010, making it the deadliest year since the campaign began in 2001.
New date, new terms: Swap 2011 with 2014, and ‘withdrawal’ with ‘transition’
The Lisbon summit is likely to see a subtle shift in the international mission’s self-imposed and much criticised deadlines in Afghanistan.
The July 2011 date set by Obama to start withdrawing US troops has now been supplanted by 2014 – a date originally set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai – to handover security to Afghan forces. While it’s a deadline that is viewed as realistic, US officials are careful to note that it’s not a date set in stone.
Reporting from Washington, FRANCE 24’s Guillaume Meyer said the new nomenclature attempts to bridge the opposing pressures on the embattled US president. “Obama is no longer talking about an ‘exit strategy’ or an actual ‘withdrawal’ in 2014,” explained Meyer. “They’re now talking about a ‘transition’. So the choice of words is very important because Obama can still keep talking about a fixed date to reassure the American people. But it’s not going to be a withdrawal; it’s a transition because that reassures the military.”
In his summit address Saturday, Karzai is expected to reiterate his call for the handover of security control to Afghan forces by 2014.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 a day before the summit, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the 2014 date was “realistic”. But he also admitted that it posed challenges to NATO’s Afghan mission. "Of course we need to make sure that the Afghans themselves are able to take on that responsibility, so what we need to do is get Afghan soldiers and police officers trained up," said Fogh Rasmussen.
To ‘capture and kill’ – or not
But NATO has little control over some of the prickliest issues confronting its Afghan campaign.
The international community’s difficulties handling the increasingly mercurial Afghan president intensified earlier this week when Karzai lambasted NATO’s strategy to “capture and kill” insurgent leaders.
The Afghan president’s latest outburst during an interview with the Washington Post seriously irked Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, according to US news reports.
Petraeus considers the strategy to target Taliban leaders critical to demonstrate success in the Afghan operations ahead of a White House strategy review due in December.
Pakistan: Not at the table, but critical to the mission
Across the Afghan border, US drone strikes targeting senior militant figures in the lawless Pakistani tribal areas have sparked another clash of opinions between NATO and local officials.
NATO officials consider the elimination of militant safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal region critical to the success of the mission in Afghanistan, not least because the alliance believes elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) are still supporting insurgent groups.
But Islamabad has repeatedly criticized the strikes. Earlier this year, Pakistani officials demonstrated that they could cause serious headaches for NATO when they closed the main supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan. The closure essentially turned NATO convoys into sitting ducks for militant attacks.
Pakistan’s strategy of laying its bets on the Taliban in the eventuality of the international withdrawal had received an unintended push by Obama’s July 2011 deadline.
US military officials hope the new deadlines and policy changes will address this critical issue. NATO officials have stressed that coalition troops freed by the transition to Afghan forces will then be redeployed to other areas in the country where they are still needed.
But that, as NATO officials, Pakistani authorities and the Taliban know, is until the alliance inches closer to the new 2014 deadline.
By all accounts, the much-touted “new NATO” equipped with a new strategic concept will still be grappling with its old Afghan mission in the next few years.