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Withdrawal from Afghanistan key issue at NATO summit

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen says goal and strategy “remain unchanged” despite French plans to pull troops out early.

Karzai and Obama at the NATO summit today.
Karzai and Obama at the NATO summit today.
Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Press Association Images

THE NATO ALLIANCE that has fought for a decade in Afghanistan is helping that nation shift toward stability and peace, but there will be “hard days ahead,” President Barack Obama said today.

Alliance leaders insisted the fighting coalition will remain effective despite France’s plans to pull its combat troops out early.

With a global economic crisis and waning public support for the war in the backdrop, world leaders opened a NATO summit confronted by questions about Afghanistan’s post-conflict future: money for security forces, coming elections and more. They were also papering over the crack in the fighting alliance with the planned French withdrawal.

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

The end of the war is in sight, Obama said following a lengthy discussion with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the NATO summit. The military alliance is pledged to remain in Afghanistan into 2014, but will seal plans Sunday and Monday to shift foreign forces off the front lines a year faster than once planned.

Afghan forces will take the lead throughout the nation next year, instead of in 2014, despite uneven performance under US 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, contributors of most of the 130,000 foreign troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency. A majority of Americans now say the war is unwinnable or not worth continuing.

Karzai said his nation is looking forward to the end of war, “so that Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies.”

Obama said NATO partners would discuss “a vision for post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership to Afghanistan continues.”

Newly elected French President Francois Hollande has said he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year’s end — a full two years before the timeline agreed to by nations in the US-led NATO coalition.

“There will be no rush for the exits,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.”

Rasmussen denied there were fresh cracks in the alliance. He suggested a deal will emerge for France to move into a noncombat role but continue to support the international mission.

Strained relations

Before the one-hour meeting with Karzai, a senior US official said the prime topic was planning for Afghanistan’s 2014 elections, as well as the prospect of a political settlement with the Taliban.

Karzai has said repeatedly he will step down from power when his term ends in 2014, opening the way for new elections. NATO’s scheduled end of the war was built around those plans, with foreign forces staying until the 2014 election but exiting the country by 2015.

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Obama and Karzai will discuss ways to ensure that political rivals can compete fairly in the run-up to the election, as well as ways to reduce fraud and support the winner who emerges, the official said.

Past Afghan elections were riddled with irregularities, and the US applied heavy pressure to Karzai to schedule a second round of voting during the last presidential contest in 2009. The run-off was never held because Karzai’s challenger pulled out, protesting what he said was an impossible level of corruption.

The election chapter opened a rift between the US and Karzai, who suspected that the Obama administration wanted to replace him. The Obama administration has mostly repaired its relationship with Karzai, but mistrust remains on both sides.

The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said before the meeting that Obama and Karzai also were to discuss prospects for a political settlement or peace pact between Karzai’s government and the Taliban-led insurgency. The Taliban pulled out of US-led talks in March, but separate talks among Afghan and other contacts continue, the US official said.

The official said Obama believes political reconciliation is essential to the country’s future security.

The Taliban is urging nations fighting in Afghanistan to follow France’s lead and pull their international forces from the war this year.

“We call upon all the other NATO member countries to avoid working for the political interests of American officials and answer the call of your own people by immediately removing all your troops from Afghanistan,” the group said in a statement before the meeting.

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Associated Press

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