- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2012

CHICAGO — NATO leaders reached an agreement Monday to turn over control of Afghanistan’s security to its own troops by the middle of 2013, endorsing a plan backed by the Obama administration to phase out the U.S. lead in the unpopular war.

At a two-day summit in Mr. Obama’s backyard, the NATO allies supported the exit strategy that calls for the withdrawal of NATO combat troops by the end of 2014. Mr. Obama hailed the group’s progress on winding down the decade-long war.

“Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission,” Mr. Obama said at a summit session Monday. “I am confident … that we can advance that goal today and responsibly bring this war to an end.”

But the path ahead is far from certain. As if to underscore the problems remaining, new French President Francois Hollande skipped Mr. Obama’s remarks at Monday’s session, arriving to take his seat only after Mr. Obama had finished speaking. Mr. Hollande campaigned on a pledge to remove France’s 3,400 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and he has publicly resisted efforts by Mr. Obama to reconsider his vow.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sounded resigned Monday to Mr. Hollande’s pullout of French troops from Afghanistan.

“He will withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan during this year,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “He has made clear that France stays as a member of ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] and France will continue to contribute in different ways.”

The NATO communique on Afghanistan also did not explain how the 28-nation alliance intends to prevent the Taliban from regaining its strength after NATO troops depart. The statement called the plan to phase out foreign combat troops “irreversible.”

NATO said its International Security Assistance Force will hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and withdraw most of its 130,000 troops by the end of 2014. The communique confirms in more detail a framework first forged at a summit in Lisbon in 2010.

Mr. Rasmussen said the size of the NATO force, now numbering about 130,000 troops, will not be reduced “dramatically” by the middle of next year and that NATO’s announcement “does not represent an accelerated roadmap.”

The secretary-general couldn’t specify how many NATO nations will continue to support Afghanistan’s security operations in the coming years.

“I don’t think people have made up their mind yet,” he said.

Mr. Rasmussen also acknowledged that the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan could be complicated by Pakistan’s decision to close some major routes into the country, after tensions over the killings of Pakistani soldiers on the border.

“Obviously we would like to see a reopening of the transit routes as soon as possible,” Mr. Rasmussen said, calling it “quite a logistical challenge to draw down” troops without access to them.

Mr. Obama said NATO has made “important progress” in the past two years in Afghanistan.

“Our forces broke the Taliban’s momentum,” Mr. Obama said. “More Afghans are reclaiming their communities.  Afghan security forces have grown stronger.”

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