NATO's Brussels summit has been overshadowed by a scandal about the conduct of US troops in Afghanistan. US Defense Minister Leon Panetta attempted to limit the fallout.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized on behalf of his ministry and the US government for the conduct of individual US soldiers in 2010. The Los Angeles Times had published photos showing US soldiers in Afghanistan posing with dead insurgents.
"That behavior that was depicted in those photos absolutely violates both our regulations and more importantly our core values.This does not represent, I think, the vast majority of the good men and women in uniform that serve in Afghanistan," Panetta said after the meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers in Brussels.
Panetta hopes that the publication of the photos will not lead to revenge in Afghanistan: "I know that war is ugly and it's violent and I know that young people sometimes caught up in the moment make some very foolish decisions. I'm not excusing that behavior, but neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people and to our relationship with the Afghan people."
"A difficult week"
Panetta said the NATO ministers had not spoken with him about the latest scandal, but diplomats said the release of the two-year-old photos came at a particularly inopportune time as the alliance determines how to proceed with the handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces. Panetta promised that those responsible would be identified and prosecuted.
With respect to the photos and the attacks by Taliban insurgents at the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of a "difficult" week in Afghanistan. "The big picture is clear. The transition is on track, the Afghans are increasingly standing up for their own security and future, and NATO remains united in our support for the Lisbon timetable, and an enduring commitment to Afghanistan."
Withdrawal set for 2014
NATO already set 2014 as its deadline for the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the last such summit, in Lisbon in November 2010. Even then, a certain weariness had set in, almost ten years after the operation against the Taliban and al Qaeda began. There is also the pressure of the enormous cost of the long international deployment of a 50-country coalition.
In recent years, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had to be heavily reinforced to quell the insurgency in Afghanistan. When US President Barack Obama took over the White House from George W. Bush in 2009, there were some 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Now there are 90,000. Added to that are 40,000 troops from other countries. With about 5,000 soldiers, Germany is the third-largest troop contributor after the US and Britain.
Withdrawal from combat role in 2013
The NATO foreign and defense ministers in Brussels once more said that most ISAF troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. By mid-2013, all provinces will be transferred to the responsibility of the Afghan police and military. Currently, 40 percent of Afghan territory is under Afghan control. By the spring of 2013, that figure is due to rise to 75 percent. Panetta expects further setbacks along the way: "This is a war. There will be losses, there will be casualties, there will be incidents of the kind that we have seen in the last few days. But we must not allow any of that to undermine our commitment to our strategy."
Some nations, such as Canada, already left Afghanistan in 2011. The Netherlands has already withdrawn its combat troops but still maintains a training mission. The 5000 German soldiers are preparing for their departure, but the Bundeswehr is responsible for one of the main routes for the withdrawal in northern Afghanistan. German units will probably have to be stationed there until the end, NATO diplomats believe.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned against rushing to end the ISAF mission: "To leave too early would be wrong, because then the terrorists would be in a position to take over everything. And that is also a threat to our security. Leaving too slowly would also be wrong. We are keeping to the disengagement plan and the transfer of responsibility."
The US, by far the largest troop contributor, has not yet produced a definite plan for withdrawal; this will be presented at the NATO summit in Chicago in May. Ultimately, President Barack Obama is running for re-election.
Nor is it yet clear how quickly France will pull its troops out of Afghanistan. The name of the next French president will become known only two weeks before the summit. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, who is fighting for re-election, wants to bring the troops back at the end of 2013. Australia has announced the same date.
At the end of 2014, it is expected there will be about 350,000 ISAF-trained Afghan soldiers and police officers, who will carry out all combat missions independently. NATO will remain engaged as an adviser and trainer even after 2014, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels.
The Afghan army is expected to shrink to 232,000 men after 2014. To pay for these forces will require about 3 billion euros per year, which the ISAF countries are supposed to pay. But there are few concrete funding commitments as yet. Whether the financing of the troops can be arranged at the Chicago summit is unclear. The summit will not be a "donor conference," Rasmussen said.
It is also unclear whether NATO can use land routes through Pakistan, to organize the pullout. The negotiations are ongoing, NATO diplomats say. The airports and barracks that may be used by US troops after 2014 must still be negotiated with the Afghan government.
Author: Bernd Riegert / sgb
Editor: Mark Hallam