NATO leaders on Monday concluded a landmark summit in Chicago where they formally signed an agreement saying the organisation would put Afghan forces "in the lead for security nationwide" by mid-2013.
REUTERS - NATO leaders sealed a landmark agreement on Monday to hand control of Afghanistan over to its own security forces by the middle of next year, putting the Western alliance on an “irreversible” path out of an unpopular, decade-long war.
A NATO summit in Chicago formally endorsed a U.S.-backed strategy that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014 but left major questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after the allies are gone.
The two-day meeting of the 28-nation alliance marked a milestone in a war sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks that has spanned three U.S. presidential terms and even outlasted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
President Barack Obama and NATO partners sought to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in Afghanistan - a conflict that has strained Western budgets as well as patience - while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
A decision by France’s new President Francois Hollande to pull out French troops by the end of December - two years ahead of NATO’s timetable - has raised fears that other allies may also think about a rush to the exits.
“Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission,” Obama told a summit session on Afghanistan. “I am confident ... that we can advance that goal today and responsibly bring this war to an end.”
Alliance leaders, in a final communique, ratified plans for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014.
The statement deemed it an “irreversible” transition to full security responsibility for fledgling Afghan troops, and said NATO’s mission in 2014 would shift to a training and advisory role. “This will not be a combat mission,” it said.
Doubts remain, however, whether Afghan forces will have the capability to stand up against a still-potent Taliban insurgency that Western forces have failed to defeat in nearly 11 years of fighting.
Getting home safely
NATO diplomats said thinking had moved to the logistical challenge of getting a multinational army that size out of the Afghan mountains and deserts and back home - safely and with their equipment.
They said the aim was to sign a framework agreement with Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Uzbekistan, to allow “reverse transit” of NATO supplies from Afghanistan.
NATO has also been trying to persuade Pakistan to reopen its territory to NATO supplies, which Islamabad has blocked since NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers forces in a cross-border incident last year..
But a deal was not expected to be clinched by the end of the summit on Monday.
Mehmet Fatih Ceylan, the senior Turkish foreign ministry official responsible for NATO, said Pakistan, long a crucial route for moving supplies into Afghanistan, would be a main way out for Western forces.
“Countries in the region should also help our efforts for taking people back, together with the materials and other equipment,” he told Reuters. “It’s a big challenge ... and this is a new dimension people are focusing on now - how to take them safe and secure back home.”
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was a last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the summit in Obama’s home town, but showed no signs of budging on the supply routes.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, told Reuters he was confident a deal would eventually be struck, but “whether it’s in days or weeks, I don’t know.”
Frictions remain between NATO and Pakistan over Taliban guerrillas who are still finding sanctuary in Pakistan, in spite of Islamabad’s professed support for the alliance’s mission.
NATO has also been seeking to secure long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is vital for the alliance’s goal of a smooth exit and future Afghan stability.
The United States is unwilling to foot the entire annual bill to maintain the forces after 2014, which is estimated at $4.1 billion, and has been seeking pledges from allies of $1.3 billion, despite austerity measures brought on by Europe’s financial crisis.
Many of the leaders in Chicago came directly from a summit of the Group of Eight wealthy nations that vowed to take all necessary measures to contain the European debt crisis.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said a number of allies had announced concrete contributions. These have included $100 million annually from Britain, $120 million from Italy, $100 million from Australia and $20 million for Turkey.
While he said the summit was “not a pledging conference,” Rasmussen was “optimistic about reaching the overall goal.”
NEW FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER
Seeking re-election in November, Obama has sought to dispel Americans’ concerns that shaky allies will leave U.S. troops to fight alone.
Hollande vowed to stick to his election pledge to withdraw French troops by the year’s end, which helped the Socialist leader win the presidency earlier this month.
Perhaps in return, the Americans are asking for around 200 million euros ($256 million) a year from France for the Afghan armed forces, a French diplomatic source said.
Canada’s Globe and Mail said Canada would announce financial assistance for Afghan forces on Monday, but would resist pressure to extend a military training mission. The newspaper said the United States had been pressing Canada to commit $125 million a year for three years after 2014.
Heavy security is in place in Chicago and police clashed on Sunday with thousands of anti-war protesters and arrested dozens.
Date created : 2012-05-21