Merkel: withdrawal date stands
The leaders of NATO and Germany said on Friday that they were sticking to the current timeline for a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, irrespective of the outcome of Sunday's presidential election runoff in France.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared in tandem after a meeting in Berlin, primarily to prepare for the next NATO summit in Chicago later this month.
"Germany will suggest that we act in exactly the way that we NATO members have previously agreed," Merkel said after the meeting, when asked whether the current withdrawal timetable would hold.
French poll factor in NATO planning
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, currently the frontrunner ahead of Sunday's French presidential election, has said he wants to withdraw French troops from the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan at the end of this year, 12 months ahead of schedule. France is the fifth-largest contributor to the ISAF mission, with roughly 3,300 troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Rasmussen said that he had always known France to be a "reliable partner to the alliance" during his tenure at the top of NATO.
"At the end of the day, all members of the alliance will hold to the principle that we went in together and we will leave together," Rasmussen said.
Afghan Preisdent Hamid Karzai is expected to visit Berlin in the run-up to the Chicago summit, with May 15 mentioned on Friday as a possible date.
"We are also aware that there are financial expectations of us," Merkel said, adding that Afghanistan could rely on international assistance after the troop pullout.
Missile shield invitation
The two leaders responded to Russian criticism of NATO's planned missile shield in Poland - another project likely to be discussed in Chicago.
Russian Defense Minister Angatoly Serdyukov said on Thursday that Russian concerns about the project still prevailed and that "the situation is practically at a dead end." Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern that the project might in fact be targeting Russia, rather than defending against possible attacks from the Middle East or Asia.
"It is categorically not aimed at Russia," Merkel said of the missile shield.
Rasmussen, meanwhile, said that the shield was not technically capable of threatening Russia "in any way," adding that there was no political intention at all to attack Russia.
"The best way for the Russians to see with their own eyes that our system is not directed against them would be to cooperate actively," Rasmussen said, reiterating prior invitations for the Kremlin to participate in the project.
msh/pfd (dapd, dpa)