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Afghanistan Top Agenda Item at NATO Chicago Summit

A banner is seen hanging in advance of the upcoming NATO meeting in Chicago, May 14, 2012. A banner is seen hanging in advance of the upcoming NATO meeting in Chicago, May 14, 2012.
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A banner is seen hanging in advance of the upcoming NATO meeting in Chicago, May 14, 2012.
A banner is seen hanging in advance of the upcoming NATO meeting in Chicago, May 14, 2012.
Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda when heads of state and government from the 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meet in Chicago Sunday and Monday.

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 130,000 member United Nations-mandated contingent known as the “International Security Assistance Force,” or ISAF.  ISAF’s main goal has been to help Afghan authorities provide security and stability in order to create conditions for the country’s reconstruction and development.

2014 deadline

Analysts say the Chicago summit will reaffirm NATO’s decision to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014 while remaining committed to a long-term partnership with the Afghan people.

Sean Kay is a NATO expert at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

 “If you look at the domestic politics inside the NATO countries, be it France or here in the United States where public support for this war has just cascaded, it’s pretty clear where the direction is,” says Kay.

“And so the question for NATO now is really one of how to manage a gradual and responsible exit from the country that at least gives the Afghan people a fighting chance to stand up on their own, with continued assistance, but really with Afghans in the lead.”

Kay says that keeping the 2014 exit date is crucial, adding that, “You really need that timeline to send a message to the Karzai government and other people in Afghanistan that they can’t just be dependent on America forever there.

“They do have to take responsibility for their own country,” he says. “And so to the extent that we would be engaged in the future, it is going to have to be in a significantly scaled back and largely supportive role, while maintaining the counterterrorism capability as needed.”

NATO’s general rule in Afghanistan has been “in together, out together,” but analysts say that is becoming a problem.

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French challenge

Kay says NATO officials at the summit will have to persuade the newly elected president of France, Francois Hollande, not to withdraw the 3,300 French troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year as he pledged during the presidential campaign.

“If the allies are starting to bail, then that creates a problem for America’s commitment to the war - because absent allies, then the United States is left holding the bag alone and that will not be sustainable with the United States public,” Kay says.

Charles Kupchan, a NATO expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says even if the French withdraw on their own, it would not mean the end to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

“Would the NATO mission come apart at the seams if French troops left? No,” concludes Kupchan. “Would it send the wrong signal, that is to say suggest that the coalition is unraveling prematurely? Yes. That’s why I think Hollande will be under pressure to moderate his position.”

Possible way out

But Kupchan says there may be a way out, possibly with Hollande getting only some of the French troops out, or at least out of combat, early on.

“Hollande might reduce the mission definition for the French contingent so that they are not engaged in high-intensity combat in the same way that they have been before,” Kupchan says. “But at the same time, he will agree to continue to have some kind of French mission in the country through the end of 2014.”

Kupchan and others say NATO alone cannot stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. He and other analysts say the international community must also provide the necessary economic and financial help to aid the government of President Hamid Karzai.

But these experts also say this may be difficult because resources are scarce given the economic situation in many industrialized countries these days.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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