NATO endorses strategy to end Afghan war but risks remain

May 22, 2012

By Matt Spetalnick and Missy Ryan

CHICAGO, May 21 (Reuters) – NATO set an “irreversible” course out of Afghanistan on Monday but President Barack Obama admitted the Western alliance’s plan to end the deeply unpopular war in 2014 was fraught with peril.

A landmark NATO summit in Chicago endorsed an exit strategy that calls for handing control of Afghanistan to its own security forces by the middle of next year but left questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after allied troops are gone.

The two-day meeting of the 28-nation military bloc marked a major milestone in a war sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks that has spanned three U.S. presidential terms and even outlasted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Obama and NATO partners sought to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in Afghanistan – a conflict that has strained Western budgets as well as patience – while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.

“We are now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan,” Obama told the summit’s closing news conference.

“Are there risks involved? Absolutely,” Obama conceded, saying the Taliban remained a “robust enemy” and NATO’s gains on the ground were fragile. But he insisted the overall strategy, which offered few specifics on the pace of withdrawal, was sound.

Even in NATO’s outward show of solidarity, it was clear that differences remained after nearly 11 years of military engagement that has failed to defeat Taliban Islamists.

Alliance leaders acquiesced to new French President Francois Hollande’s insistence on sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw France’s 3,400 troops by Dec. 31, two years ahead of NATO’s timetable. While there was no sign this would send others rushing for the exits, leaders could face pressures at home.

But despite a face-to-face encounter with Pakistan’s president, Obama failed to resolve a dispute overhanging the summit – Islamabad’s refusal to reopen supply routes to NATO in Afghanistan seen as vital to an orderly withdrawal.

The summit’s final communique ratified plans for the NATO-led army to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of the following year.

The statement deemed it an “irreversible” transition to full security responsibility for fledgling Afghan troops, and said NATO’s mission in 2014 would shift to a training and advisory role. “This will not be a combat mission,” it said.

Doubts remain, however, whether Afghan forces can stand up against a still-potent Taliban insurgency and whether President Hamid Karzai’s government, widely criticized for rampant corruption, will be up to the task.

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