- 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 will not be reduced “dramatically” by the middle of next year and that NATO’s announcement “does not represent an accelerated road map.”

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 the routes.

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.”

He said the agreement that he signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month in Kabul “ensures that as Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone.”

“Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission,” Mr. Obama said. “And I am confident, because of the leadership represented here, as well as the leadership of our outstanding armed forces, that we can advance that goal today and responsibly bring this war to an end.”

The United States is trying to persuade its allies to help pay the annual cost of maintaining pay for Afghanistan’s security forces after 2014, projected at $4.1 billion. So far, a handful of countries have pledged a fraction of the $1.3 billion the Obama administration is seeking — the United Kingdom has promised $100 million, Italy has pledged $120 million, with an additional $100 million from Australia.

Mr. Rasmussen said the summit “was not intended to be … a pledging conference.”

“We have seen a lot of encouraging announcements of financial contributions,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “I do believe we are on the right track of reaching the goal of around $4 billion per year.”

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