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Obama Hosts NATO, Focus on Afghanistan and Alliance Future Global Role

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WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama welcomes NATO leaders to his home town of Chicago this coming weekend for a summit focused on Afghanistan, burden-sharing and other challenges facing the alliance.

The U.S. and NATO are withdrawing from Afghanistan under a timetable that will have all foreign combat forces out by 2014.

Despite high profile Taliban attacks, NATO says Afghan government forces are on track to fully shoulder the security burden.

President Obama, earlier this month. "In Chicago, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year. International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans, and fight alongside them when needed. But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward," he said.

A recently-signed U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement will be supplemented by a NATO announcement of a long-term support strategy.

But the alliance faces decisions about its ability to deal with new challenges amid declining defense budgets.

Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said, "The trend of European defense spending is poor, and, in the long run, if it is not sustained, the alliance will not be able to do [what it has done] for so many years and decades, including most recently in Libya."

NATO will discuss Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's push for "smart defense", involving greater sharing of resources.

Steven Pifer, at the Center on the United States and Europe at The Brookings Institution in Washington, said, "The question with smart defense is how can NATO together spend money so that NATO as an entity has more capability than if countries make independent decisions."

Also, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry says failure of many NATO members to meet financial obligations raises serious questions. "We all understand this is a time for austerity. It is time for austerity for everybody, but we are going to have to set priorities. We're going to have to decide what is really important and what is less important," he said.

Another major issue is missile defense and a U.S. shield system to protect against launches from Iran. Russia objects to the program.

But NATO intends to deploy the system anyway.

In Chicago, NATO leaders will discuss lessons learned from Afghanistan and Libya.

Steven Pifer is among experts saying a key challenge is to come up with a clearer picture of what NATO's role should be. "The focus of NATO the last seven or eight years has been Afghanistan. And right now one of the problems that NATO may have is when you ask NATO what is the purpose, different allies probably give you different answers," he said.

The Chicago summit will be the first time in 13 years NATO leaders have met in the U.S.