NATO Chicago Summit (Day One)

NATO Chicago Summit (Day One)

Institute for the Study of War

As expected, issues relating to the war in Afghanistan are front and center on the first day of the NATO Chicago Summit. Even before the summit began, newly-elected French President François Hollande announced that he intended to uphold his promise to withdrawal all French combat troops by the end of 2012. During his opening remarks on Sunday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged calm, insisting that the NATO alliance “will stay committed and see it through to a successful end. Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged."[1] Some of the key developments over the past several days are:

Early French Withdrawal

During a meeting with President Obama on Friday, French President François Hollande reaffirmed his decision to remove 3,300 French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, which is significant because the French withdrawal comes a full two years before the timeline agreed to by each member of the U.S.-led NATO coalition. France’s commitment of 3,300 troops is the fifth-largest national contingent in the NATO force. Hollande noted that despite his order to withdrawal combat troops, the French would continue to maintain an extremely limited number of soldiers to train Afghan forces and bring back equipment beyond 2012. Hollande added that France would still provide support in other ways, although he did not provide specifics. The French President’s decision increases the burden on the rest of the alliance. Currently, President Obama’s guidance for the continued drawdown of U.S. forces does not include backfilling other international forces, should they decide to end their military commitment before the end of 2014. This may be necessary in the case of Hollande’s decision to pull out 3,300 French combat forces. If the Afghans are unable to shield the security burden, given the additional responsibilities that continue to mount with ongoing transition, the responsibility may fall to the U.S., something that President Obama will have to consider, in consultation with his commanders.

Heading into Chicago, there was concern among NATO partners that Hollande’s decision would spur similarly war-weary countries to also announce an early withdrawal. Thus far, this does not appear to be the case. To the contrary, the French announcement earned a subtle rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who told reporters: "We went into Afghanistan together; we want to leave Afghanistan together," promising that Germany would resolutely defend that stance.[2]

In his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama outlined his vision for the way forward in Afghanistan, which included the infusion of 30,000 additional combat forces, even though he famously insisted that, whether America was winning or losing, the drawdown would begin in just 18 months.[3] The President remarked that the Afghan mission “compel[s] us to act along with our friends and allies.  Our overarching goal remains the same:  to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” Furthermore, the President added that, “To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan.  We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven.  We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.  And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.” Currently, the Taliban still possess the ability to overthrow the government without the sustained engagement and assistance from international combat forces. The cohesion of the alliance and their commitment to their pledge to see the mission through to the end of 2014 remains of critical importance. Though progress has clearly been made and the Taliban’s momentum reversed in several key areas, many challenges remain. In order to meet these challenges and reduce the additional burden on the Afghans and remaining NATO allies, the alliance must hold.

No deal on Pakistan supply lines

Despite President Zardari’s last-minute decision to accept an invitation to attend the summit in Chicago, the U.S. has not reached a deal with Pakistan to reopen Pakistani supply routes which carry NATO goods into Afghanistan. The supply lines were closed in late November 2011 after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in American airstrikes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration appeared optimistic that the U.S. and Pakistan could reach a deal on re-opening the supply lines before the Chicago summit. According to reports, although both sides may be closer to striking a deal, it is unlikely to happen within the next few days. Pakistan has sought an unconditional apology from the U.S. for the November air strikes, but the U.S. has not offered a direct apology. Last week, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders decided to increase their financial demands for reopening the supply routes. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was unlikely the United States would accept Pakistani requests to pay as much as $5,000 per military shipment going into Afghanistan.[4] Before the supply routes were closed in November, NATO convoys were paying an average of about $250 a truck, a senior US official said.

[1] “NATO Chief: No rush for exits in Afghanistan,” MSNBC, May 20, 2012

[2] Tony Czuczka, “German Chancellor Merkel warns against rushing from Afghanistan,” Bloomberg, May 20, 2012

[3] David Sanger, “Charting Obama’s journey to a shift on Afghanistan,” New York Times, May 19, 2012

[4] Missy Ryan and David Brunnstrom, “Pakistani leader may face friction over supply routes at NATO summit,” Reuters, May 20, 2012