No ‘rush for exits’ in Afghan war: NATO chief

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NATO chief on Sunday sought to dispel fears of a rush for the exits in Afghanistan even as the Western alliance met to chart a path out of an unpopular war that has dragged on for more than a decade.
President Barack Obama, who once called the Afghan conflict a “war of necessity” but is now looking for an orderly way out, hosted the NATO summit in his home town, Chicago, a day after major industrialized nations tackled a European debt crisis that threatens the global economy.
The shadow cast by fiscal pressures in Europe and elsewhere followed leaders from Obama’s presidential retreat in Maryland to the talks on Afghanistan, an unwelcome weight on countries mindful of growing public opposition to a costly war that has not defeated the Taliban in nearly 11 years. Obama, hoping an Afghan exit strategy will help shore up his chances for re-election in November, said the summit would ratify a “broad consensus” for gradually turning over security responsibility to Afghan forces and pulling out most of the 130,000 NATO troops by the end of 2014.
But the Chicago talks faced undercurrents of division, especially with France’s new President Francois Hollande now planning to remove its troops by the end of 2012, two years before the alliance’s timetable.
Seeking to paper over differences, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed confidence the alliance would “maintain solidarity within our coalition”, despite France’s decision.
“There will be no rush for the exits,” Rasmussen told reporters. “We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end.” But signaling tensions over the issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: “We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghanistan together.”
She dismissed any notion that an early French departure would place an extra burden on the German contingent in Afghanistan.
“I think France will make it clear at the summit what form its commitment will take. I think we still need to wait a little bit longer. We would hope that France would stay within ISAF,” she added.
Obama, meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the summit, said the meeting would agree on a “vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues”.
Standing next to Obama, Karzai thanked Americans for “your taxpayer money” and said his country looked forward to the day it is “no longer a burden” on the international community. Karzai’s government has been widely criticized for rampant corruption.
Karzai’s comments underscored the political bind that Obama and other Western leaders face in underwriting a unpopular war effort and the build-up of Afghan forces during a time of budget austerity at home.
The US president earlier said the two-day summit would ratify the broad consensus of American allies to achieve a complete transition to Afghan security control after more than a decade of war.
“What this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind the strategy that we have laid out,” he said.
“Now it is our task to implement it effectively and I believe that we can do so in part because of the tremendous strength and resilience of the Afghan people.” “We recognize the hardship that the Afghan people have been through,” Obama said.
“Both of us recognize that we still have a lot of work to do. The loss of life continues in Afghanistan. There will be hard days ahead, but we’re confident that we’re on the right track.”
Afghan President Karzai came armed with a firm demand for $4.1 billion (3.2 billion euros) a year to fund his security forces after the pullout.
The United States is expected to foot half the bill while hoping the international community will stump up the rest.
Washington is also hoping that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will agree to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan closed in November after US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani troops.
But the US-Pakistani talks on reopening vital supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan have stumbled over Islamabad demand to charge steep fees for trucks crossing the border.