US President Barack Obama and fellow NATO leaders solidified plans on Monday for an “irreversible transition” in Afghanistan, affirming their commitment to ending the deeply unpopular war in 2014 and voicing confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to take the lead for securing their country even sooner.
The alliance leaders, meeting for a second day of talks in Obama’s hometown, declared in a summit communique that while NATO would maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan after 2014, “this will not be a combat mission.”
NATO and its partner nations formally agreed that Afghan security forces would take control of any combat in the summer next year, with NATO sliding into a support role.
Obama called the transition “the next milestone” in bringing the nearly 11-year war to a close.
“This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014,” Obama said as he opened a meeting of NATO leaders and other countries that have participated in the war.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghans were already leading security operations in half the country and were on pace to meet next year’s targets.
“Transition means the people of Afghanistan increasingly see their own army and police in their towns and villages providing their security,” Rasmussen said. “This is an important sign of progress toward our shared goal: an Afghanistan governed and secured by Afghans for Afghans.”
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s presence cast a shadow over the summit. The US and Pakistan remain at odds over Pakistan’s closure of key routes used to send supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan closed the supply lines in November last year following a US airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. While both sides have indicated the issue will be resolved, no deal came during the NATO meetings.
Obama thanked other nations in Central Asia and Russia for their roles in providing “critical transit” for supplies, but pointedly made no mention of Pakistan.
As NATO leaders herald the Afghan war’s end, they face the grim reality of two more years of fighting and more of their troops dying in combat.
Some NATO countries, most recently France, have sought to end their combat commitments early. The Taliban and its allies have warned that they are waiting to fill the void in Afghanistan after NATO leaves.
Many alliance leaders, Obama chief among them, have a political incentive for trumpeting that drawdown plan, given the growing public frustration.
At the conference, leaders also discussed how the international community would finance Afghan security forces after 2014. With none of the NATO countries having the stomach to pursue the war much longer, the only viable option is to support an Afghan army and police force capable of defending the country against the Taliban and its allies.
NATO estimates it will cost about US$4.1 billion a year to finance the forces. The Afghan government will pay about US$500 million of that and the rest will come from donor countries, many of which are struggling with deficits and the specter of recession.