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News, May 2012
NATO Summit in Chicago Endorses Gradual Withdrawal from Afghanistan, France Exits Early
NATO members discuss missile defense amid protests
CHICAGO, May 21, 2012 (Xinhua) --
Leaders of NATO allies on Sunday agreed on over 20 multinational defense programs to enhance the missile shield capability, while an anti-NATO protest outside the summit venue escalated into a clash.
The alliance now has an interim ballistic missile defense capability, the first step toward the long-term goal of providing "full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territories and forces," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after heads of state and government met for the first day of the summit.
"Our system will link together missile defense assets from different allies' satellites, ships, radars and interceptors under NATO command and control. It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euroatlantic area," said Rasmussen.
He also said NATO has made progress on "smart defense," which means pooling resources together to acquire costly capabilities in the age of austerity.
Leaders approved "a robust package of more than 20 multinational projects to provide the capabilities we need, at a price we can afford," the NATO chief said.
The package includes the establishment of a 17-billion-dollar Alliance Ground Surveillance system, in which NATO countries will purchase five Block 40 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft equipped with an advanced ground surveillance radar sensor as well as the associated command and control base stations.
The programs also include the extension of Baltic Air Policing, in which NATo allies' fighter jets patrol the skies of the three Baltic nations, allowing them to forego the acquisition of expensive planes, and focus their security resources on other high-priority NATO capabilities and operations.
"In these difficult economic times, we can work together and pool our resources," said U.S. President Obama at the summit opening.
Hours ahead of the summit, Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss NATO's future commitment to Afghanistan. Karzai said Afghans are "looking forward to an end to this war," and are "fully aware of the task ahead and what Afghanistan needs to do."
Leaders will focus their discussion on the future of Afghanistan on Monday, which "will send a strong signal of commitment to the Afghan people," said Rasmussen. But he also acknowledged the meeting would not be a "pledging session," as few countries are expected to attach a dollar figure to the support.
As Obama and Karzai met in the morning, thousands of protestors rallied nearby to denounce the war in Afghanistan, hoping their anti-war message would penetrate the walls of the convention center.
The demonstration, led by dozens of U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars wearing uniforms or anti-war T-shirts, were surrounded by police. Several veterans threw their service medals from the stage. Protests folded an American flag and later carried an Afghan flag to symbolize the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.
Although the rally began with orderly organization, a pitched battle broke out in the evening as protesters were dispersed and some rushed through the barricade set by the police.
Chicago police said at least 18 people had been arrested. Local television reported that one police officer was slightly injured.
NATO shows unity on Afghan war after French exit plan
NATO will hand over the lead role in combat operations to Afghan forces across the country by mid-2013, alliance leaders said on Sunday as they charted a path out of a war that has lost public support and strained budgets in Western nations.
A NATO summit in Chicago on Monday will formally endorse a U.S.-backed strategy for a gradual exit from Afghanistan, a move aimed at holding together an allied force scrambling to cope with France's decision to withdraw its troops early.
President Barack Obama and NATO partners want to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in a conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
"There will be no rush for the exits," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said as the summit got under way.
He sought to put up a show of unity even as France's new President Francois Hollande vowed to stick by his pledge to withdraw French troops by year's end, two years earlier than the alliance timetable.
NATO's plan is to shift full responsibility to Afghan forces for security across the country by the middle of next year and then withdraw most of the alliance's 130,000 combat troops by the end of 2014, Rasmussen said.
While foreign forces will continue to fight the Taliban and other militants as necessary - and it may be very necessary - the new mission for U.S. and NATO troops will assume a new focus on advising and supporting Afghan soldiers.
Looking toward the November presidential election, Obama - who once called the Afghan conflict a "war of necessity" but is now looking for an orderly way out - sought to dispel the notion that shaky allies will leave U.S. troops to carry the ball alone.
Obama warned of "hard days" ahead as he hosted the summit in his home town, Chicago, a day after major industrialized nations tackled a European debt crisis that menaces the global economy.
The shadow cast by fiscal pressures in Europe and elsewhere followed leaders from Obama's presidential retreat in Maryland to the talks on Afghanistan, an unwelcome weight on countries mindful of growing public opposition to a costly war that has failed to defeat the Taliban in nearly 11 years of fighting.
Obama made clear he expected NATO powers to formally embrace the Afghanistan transition plan, which had already been widely telegraphed by the Pentagon earlier this year.
But the Chicago talks faced undercurrents of division.
Hollande insisted he had no intention of backtracking on a campaign promise for an accelerated troop pullout, which helped him win the presidency from Nicolas Sarkozy this month. He said had reached a "common agreement" on the matter with fellow leaders and he would release details in coming weeks.
A poll in January showed 84 percent of the French public backed an early troop withdrawal. France has about 3,400 troops in Afghanistan.
"French combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year," Hollande told reporters. "In 2013, only trainers for police and officers of the Afghan army will remain and this will be done within the framework of ISAF."
Hollande's comments underscored the challenge for Obama, who has steadily narrowed his goals in Afghanistan, in plotting a more gradual withdrawal that will not open the way for a Taliban resurgence.
"We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghanistan together," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.
Karzai thanks U.S. taxpayers
Obama, meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the margins of the summit, said the conference would agree on a "vision 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 with Afghanistan continues."
Standing next to Obama, Karzai thanked Americans for "your taxpayer money" and said his country looked forward to the day it is "no longer a burden" on the international community. Karzai's government has been widely criticized for rampant corruption.
Karzai's comments alluded to the political bind that Obama and other Western leaders face in underwriting a unpopular war effort and the build-up of Afghan forces during a time of budget austerity at home.
With heavy security in place for the Chicago summit, baton-swinging police clashed with anti-war protesters marching by the thousands near the summit venue. Lawyers representing the demonstrators said at least a dozen people were injured, some with head wounds from batons, and more than were arrested.
Trying to inject itself into the NATO proceedings, the Taliban urged countries fighting in Afghanistan to follow France's lead and pull their forces out in accordance with anti-war sentiment in the West.
Obama told the summit's opening session: "Just as we have sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand together united in our determination to complete this mission."
Essentially conceding Hollande was unlikely to be dissuaded, General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, played down the impact, saying "we have the capacity, using our current force structure, to ensure there is no degradation in security."
Careful French comments on the issue illustrated the balance NATO leaders must strike as they seek to avoid the appearance of splits with NATO partners without alienating voters who want to see a swift exit.
Alliance leaders walked a cautious line in discussions this weekend on long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is at the core of NATO strategy for leaving Afghanistan smoothly.
The Obama administration, unwilling to be solely on the hook for the $4.1 billion annual price tag, has been seeking promises from its allies to give $1.3 billion a year for Afghan forces.
While there are few doubts allies will eventually provide support, NATO appeared unlikely to meet that goal by the end of the meeting.
Pakistan's Zardari is last-minute guest
A last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the carefully choreographed meeting was President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, whose western tribal areas provide shelter to militants attacking Karzai's government and NATO forces.
Zardari was likely to encounter friction in interactions with NATO leaders who have been pressing Islamabad to reopen routes used to supply NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan closed those routes in protest when U.S. aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November.
It seemed increasingly doubtful an agreement on those routes would be reached this weekend as U.S. officials had hoped. Allen told Reuters he was confident a deal would eventually be struck but "whether it's in days or weeks, I don't know."
Zardari, in talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pressed for a "permanent solution" to U.S. drone strikes that have fueled tensions between the two uneasy allies.
A senior U.S. State Department official said in a statement their discussion included reopening NATO supply lines in Pakistan, taking joint action against extremists, including al-Qaeda.
Hollande faces NATO wrath over Afghan troop pullout
France 24, May 21, 2012, By FRANCE 24 (text)
The thorny issue of international efforts in war-torn Afghanistan caused friction on Sunday as a two-day summit of NATO leaders summit kicked off in Chicago.
With the Taliban still highly active and continuing to launch deadly attacks, the future of the military mission in Afghanistan is a growing concern among NATO leaders. Reports that two NATO soldiers were killed in the south of the country as the leaders gathered in Chicago underlined the volatile security situation.
France’s new president François Hollande has caused consternation by reaffirming his pre-election pledge to withdraw his country’s troops by the end of 2012, two years before NATO’s planned pullout.
His decision was not expected to go down well with the other leaders of the 28 member states when he comes face-to-face with them over the next two days.
Less than a week into his new job, Hollande remained steadfast, standing by his pledge when he met US President Barack Obama at the White House for the first time on Friday.
“The decision is a sovereign act,” Hollande said, tactfully adding that any withdrawal would be “coordinated with our allies”.
“There will be several meetings over the coming days with the Minister of Defence and the military leaders to organize the withdrawal,” Hollande said.
In recent days, Hollande has tried to play down the potential for any row with Obama and other Western nations. He insists only “combat troops” will be withdrawn, while training personnel and those in charge of military and logistical equipment could remain.
Some analysts doubt the withdrawal of France’s 3,300 soldiers out of a total NATO force of 130,000 will hamper the overall exit strategy.
“There will be a complex discussion over the withdrawal of materials and the reorganisation of the mission, but there is no reason for it to be too traumatising,” said François Heisbourg, president of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Hollande is expected to brief NATO leaders on the finer details France’s exit plan over the next two days.
He will also discuss the exit strategy with Afghan President Hamid Karzai when the two leaders meet for the first time on Sunday. Karzai supports Hollande’s decision for the early withdrawal of France’s troops.
Losing the appetite for war
In Obama, Hollande may have found an ally for his stance on the eurozone crisis, but the US president is also the man he is most likely to anger if he sticks to his guns.
The White House confirmed this week that it remained on track to hand over security operations to the Afghan National Security Forces only at the end of 2014, and that Chicago would provide a forum to discuss the “responsible” winding down of the war.
The French and American positions on Afghanistan widened even before Hollande assumed office this month. After the killing of four French soldiers in January, former president Nicolas Sarkozy temporarily halted French training of Afghan soldiers.
At the time, Sarkozy, who struggled to cement ties with Obama throughout his mandate, evoked the possibility of an early withdrawal, but later reassured Washington, saying he would respect the coalition’s timetable.
An early French exit from Afghanistan could be potentially embarrassing for Obama, who is waging his own battle to win a second term in office.
France’s commitment of 3,300 troops is the fifth-largest national contingent in the NATO-led force. The presence of French forces in Kabul and southeastern Afghanistan – areas of fierce resistance – has cost the country 82 soldiers since 2001.
While that figure is a small fraction of the total casualties suffered by the alliance – over 2,500 – the war effort has become increasingly unpopular at home. Opinion polls indicate that three-quarters of people in France are now opposed to their army’s presence in the country once ruled by the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the French army has won great respect from its American and British counterparts for its record in Afghanistan, according to Alexandre Vautravers, head of the international relations department Webster University in Geneva and a military history expert.
France’s specialised Alpine battalions have been a significant asset in the country’s high altitude battlefields.
The military scholar said an early withdrawal of French combat troops would deal a significant blow to the NATO coalition. “There is a real concern over who will fill in for the French troops. The Germans and Italians don’t seem able or willing. Not a lot of countries are ready to take France’s place,” he said.
High stakes for Hollande
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France Inter radio on Friday morning that Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed with France over early troop withdrawal, as he reassured voters that Hollande would not backpedal on his pledge.
Nevertheless, observers expected Hollande to demonstrate some flexibility or risk tarnishing critical relationships – and not just with Obama.
A sudden and unilateral disengagement would irritate Washington, but also leaders in London, Berlin and Rome, who have a long list of issues for discussion with France’s new head of state in the context of the European Union.
An Afghan exit could also weaken the new president’s support in France. “Such a decision will alienate the French military, who has invested and endured a lot in the past decade. It will widen the gap between the French political and military leadership,” Vautravers warned.
Whether Hollande adopts an unbending stance or adjusts to shifting winds at the Chicago summit, Vautravers said not to expect any big military overhaul in the short term.
"As Obama discovered when he came to power, the military is a big ship," he said. "Any turn of its helm will not produce any change in direction for at least six months."
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