Allies' course on Afghan war 'irreversible'

2012-05-22 10:02

Chicago - World leaders locked in place their exit path from the war in Afghanistan on Monday, affirming they will close the largely stalemated conflict at the end of 2014 but keep their troops fighting and dying there for two more years in the meantime.

President Barack Obama, presiding over a sprawling war coalition summit in his hometown, summed up the mood of all the nations by saying the Afghanistan that will be left behind will be stable enough for them to leave but still loaded with troubles.

In essence, the partners, led by Obama, are staying the course, sticking with a timeline long established and underscoring that there will be no second-guessing the decision to leave.

"I don't think there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say, 'This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home'" Obama said. "This is a process, and it's sometimes a messy process."

Obama never spoke of victory.

Afghan forces for the first time will take over the lead of the combat mission by the middle of 2013, a milestone moment in a long, costly transition to control.

Strength of coalition tested

It will be "the moment when throughout Afghanistan people can look out and see their own troops and police stepping up to the challenge", said the Nato chief, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Even as backups, though, US forces and all the rest will face surprise attacks and bombings until the war's end.

Since 2010, the allies have been planning to finish the war at the end of 2014, even as moves by nations such as France to pull combat troops out early has tested the strength of the coalition.

The shift to have Afghan forces take the lead of the combat mission next year has also been expected. Leaders presented it as a significant turning point in the war.

What the world is poised to leave behind is an Afghanistan still riddled with poverty, corruption and political instability.

Yet, out of money and patience, the US-led partnership said it is confident Afghanistan will be stable and prepared enough to at least be able to protect itself -and, in turn, prevent its territory from becoming a launching pad for international terrorism.

High political stakes

Questioned about what will happen if Afghanistan eventually falls apart, Obama signalled there is no turning back. "I think that the timetable that we've established is a sound one, it is a responsible one. Are there risks involved in it? Absolutely."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the leaders were "making a decisive and enduring commitment to the long-term future of Afghanistan. The message to the Afghan people is that we will not desert them. And the message to the insurgency is equally clear: You cannot win on the battlefield. You should stop fighting and start talking."

The political stakes are high for the US president, who will go before voters in November with tens of thousands more troops in Afghanistan than when we took office.

His emphasis will remain that he is methodically winding down the war, after closing out the one in Iraq; US voters desperate for better economic times have long stopped approving of the war mission.

Wary of creating a vacuum in a volatile region, the nations promised a lasting partnership with Afghanistan, meaning money, people and political capital.

The United States has already cut its own deal with Afghanistan in support of that goal, including a provision that allows US military trainers and special forces to remain in Afghanistan even after the war ends.

Tension with Pakistan

Nato said it will keep providing "long-term political and practical support" to Afghanistan after 2014, but added: "This will not be a combat mission."

The war dominated the summit, with the uneasy presence and ongoing tension with Pakistan eroding some of the choreographed unity.

Pakistan has not yet agreed to end the closure of key transit routes into Afghanistan - retaliation for American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers months ago - and the issue hung over the summit.

Obama had no official talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, although the two chatted briefly. Obama spoke of progress on the standoff and with Zardari overall, but he added: "I don't want to paper over real challenges there. There's no doubt that there have been tensions."

Despite the size of the coalition, the war remains a United States-dominated effort.

The US has 90 000 of the 130 000 foreign forces in the war. Obama has pledged to shrink that to 68 000 by the end of September but has offered no details on the withdrawal pace after that, other than to say it will be gradual. There were just over 32 000 US troops there when he took office in 2009.

Fundraising goal

The fighting alliance called negotiation the key to ending the insurgency in Afghanistan, but avoided mentioning the Taliban by name. The insurgents walked away from US-led talks in March, and urged the Nato nations to follow the lead of France in pledging to remove combat forces ahead of schedule.

The alliance agreed on a fundraising goal to underwrite the Afghan armed forces after the international fighting forces depart.

The force of about 230 000 would cost about $4.1bn annually - the bulk of it paid by the United States and countries that have not been part of the fighting force.

US and British officials said during the summit that pledges total about $1bn a year so far and that fund-raising is on track to make up the rest.

French President Francois Hollande said the US had requested a little less than $200m but was non-committal, saying France was "not bound by what Germany or other countries might do".