- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2012

CHICAGO — Against the backdrop of waning international support and with a vocal domestic anti-war movement making its presence felt on the streets of his hometown, President Obama on Sunday urged NATO leaders to stick to the timetable for pulling out of Afghanistan.

“We still have a lot of work to do and there will be great challenges ahead,” Mr. Obama said. “The loss of life continues in Afghanistan and there will be hard days ahead.”

The president also huddled with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who thanked U.S. taxpayers for helping to rebuild the country.

“Mr. President, I’m bringing to you and to the people of the United States the gratitude of the Afghan people for the support that your taxpayers’ money has provided us over the past decade,” Mr. Karzai told Mr. Obama at the conclusion of their one-hour meeting.

The Afghan leader spoke of “the difference that it has made to the well-being of the Afghan people — to our education and health and the building of the Afghan government.”

Afghan forces will take the lead throughout the nation next year, instead of in 2014, despite uneven performance under U.S. and other outside tutelage so far. The shift is in large part a response to plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Obama is seeking pledges from NATO countries to help pay for the estimated $4 billion per year cost of supporting Afghanistan’s security forces beyond 2014. He also had hoped to use the NATO summit to keep allies such as France from pulling troops out of Afghanistan before 2013.

But newly elected French President Francois Hollande reiterated Sunday his decision to withdraw all 3,400 French combat troops from Afghanistan by year’s end — a full two years before the timeline agreed to by nations in the U.S.-led NATO coalition. In an interview with French reporters here Sunday, Mr. Hollande said he is simply being “pragmatic” in ordering the withdrawal.

Mr. Hollande’s stance was facing some resistance. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle cautioned Sunday in Chicago that “withdrawal competition” among countries with troops in Afghanistan could strengthen the terrorist threat. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country stood “very firmly” behind the principle of “in together, out together.”

Also Sunday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance’s European missile-defense shield now has an “interim capability” to shoot down incoming missiles. The system, aimed at containing threats from rogue states such as Iran, has been a major sticking point in alliance relations with Russia.

As Mr. Obama hosted the security summit in his hometown, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney penned an op-ed Sunday in the Chicago Tribune in which he accused the president of weakening NATO’s mission.

The former Massachusetts governor criticized Mr. Obama for planning more than $1 trillion in defense budget cuts over the next 10 years.

“With the United States on a path to a hollow military, we are hardly in a position to exercise leadership in persuading our allies to spend more on security,” Mr. Romney wrote. “And in fact the Obama administration has failed to exercise such leadership. Quite the contrary; a multiplier effect has set in: The administration’s irresponsible defense cuts are clearing the way for our partners to do even less.”

Chicago prosecutors on Sunday charged two more activists with crimes tied to the NATO summit, accusing one of boasting that he could blow up a downtown Chicago bridge and that he concealed some explosives in a hollowed-out Harry Potter novel.

But defense attorneys said after the men appeared in court Sunday the allegations were trumped up by informants or undercover officers known as “Mo” and “Gloves.” The aim, they argued, was to scare protesters in town for the summit.

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