The NATO military alliance wrapped up its summit in Chicago on Monday, re-affirming its commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. But disagreements with France and Pakistan threaten to complicate the plan.
The Western allies on Monday endorsed the plan to end their combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014, while re-affirming their commitment to a long-term strategic partnership with the fragile war-torn nation after that date.
Meeting during the NATO summit in Chicago, the allies' re-affirmation of their withdrawal timetable comes nearly 11 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
US President Barack Obama acknowledged that the Taliban - which broke off peace talks with the coalition last March - remained a "robust enemy" and that NATO's withdrawal "will not mark the end of Afghanistan challenges."
"I don't think there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say, 'This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up our equipment and go home,'" the president said. "This is a process, and sometimes that process is messy."
"We can achieve a stable Afghanistan that won't be perfect," he said.
The 28 NATO allies are drumming up some $4.1 billion (3.2 billion euros) in pledges to help support Afghanistan's 230,000-strong military, which is set to lead combat operations in 2013. So far, around $1 billion in commitments have been made, according to US and British officials.
In a statement, NATO called the transition to Afghan responsibility "irreversible," while stating that the alliance would remain engaged in a training and advisory role beyond the 2014 withdrawal of foreign international troops.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the alliance leaders were "making a decisive commitment to the long-term future of Afghanistan."
"The message to the Afghan people is that we will not desert them," the prime minister said. "And the message to the insurgency is equally clear: You cannot win on the battlefield. You should stop fighting and start talking."
There are currently 130,000 foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Around 90,000 of those troops are from the US.
France hastens withdrawal
But the whole coalition is not entirely on the same page, with French President Francois Hollande vowing to stick to his campaign pledge to withdraw France's 3,300-strong contingent by the end of 2012.
In response to reports that Paris would somehow compensate the allies for its hastened withdrawal, Hollande stood firm, saying that France's mission "in terms of action and combat is finished."
"There is no compensation to pay or even be thought of," Hollande said. "We have done our duty and I remind everyone of French losses: 83 men lost their lives, there have been numerous wounded."
The French president also said that Paris had made no commitments to the $4.1 billion pot the alliance is collecting to help fund the Afghan army.
"We have not replied," Hollande said. "In principle we can look at it, but we haven't fixed a sum, and we are not bound by what Germany and other countries may do."
Deal with Pakistan still pending
Washington and Islamabad have so far been unable to reach deal on re-opening overland supply routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan. The routes were closed in a November 2011 cross-border friendly fire incident in which coalition forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Negotiations have stalled over how much the US should pay Pakistan for each truck. Washington has said it is willing to pay as much $500 per truck, while Pakistan is demanding $5,000 and a formal apology for the incident. The Obama administration has offered its condolences, but has not apologized.
During the summit, President Obama publicly snubbed Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, thanking Russia and Central Asian nations "that continue to provide critical transit to ISAF supplies."
President Zardari was invited to the summit at the last minute in a bid to improve NATO's strained ties with Islamabad. Obama said that "diligent progress" is being made on the supply route dispute. The allies are currently supplying their forces by air and via northern routes that US officials estimate to be two to three times more costly than the ones over Pakistan.
The US president only briefly spoke with his Pakistani counterpart during a brief aside that included Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan, and it is in our national interests to see a Pakistan that is democratic, that is prosperous and that is stable," Obama told a news conference when asked about the conversation.
slk/jm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)