NATO leaders agreed Monday to hand Afghan forces the lead for security from mid-2013 as they rush to end the unpopular war and ensure Afghanistan can ward off the Taliban after foreign troops leave.
In a Chicago summit declaration, US President Barack Obama and his 27 military allies confirmed plans to withdraw their combat troops by the end of 2014 and leave behind a training mission.
The leaders declared that the transition process was “irreversible” and would put Afghan forces “in the lead for security nationwide” by mid-2013, allowing US-led troops to gradually shift their focus from combat to support.
“We are gradually and responsibly drawing down our forces to complete the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission by 31 December 2014,” they said in a declaration setting in stone a roadmap agreed in 2010.
As the Taliban remain resilient after a decade of war, NATO leaders sought to reassure Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the international community would not abandon his country after 130,000 foreign combat troops are gone.
A day after anti-war protesters clashed with police near the summit site, allies ordered military officers to begin planning a post-2014 mission that will focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan troops and special forces.
The 28 allies, who discussed Afghanistan over dinner at the American football Soldier Field late Sunday, were to meet with their 22 partners in the Afghan mission as well as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday — in the largest ever gathering in NATO history.
Zardari’s attendance had raised hopes his government was ready to lift a blockade on NATO convoys, but talks on reopening the routes have stumbled over Islamabad’s demand to charge steep fees for trucks crossing the border.
In their declaration, the NATO leaders said it was still working with Pakistan to reopen the border crossing, which was used to bring fuel and other supplies to foreign troops, “as soon as possible.”
Islamabad shut its border to NATO supplies in November after a botched US air raid that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
To ferry troops, food and equipment into Afghanistan, the US-led force in Afghanistan has relied on cargo flights and a more costly northern route network that passes through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Obama said after talks with Karzai on Sunday that there were still “hard days ahead” in a conflict that has left that has killed over 3,000 coalition soldiers, maimed thousands more and left tens of thousands of Afghans dead.
In a sign of growing impatience within the alliance, new French President Francois Hollande refused to back down from his decision to pull troops out in 2012, a year earlier than planned.
“I told everyone I spoke with that this was not negotiable because it was a question of French sovereignty and everyone understood,” he said, adding France would continue to train Afghan forces after 2012.
Karzai said his country no longer wanted to be a “burden,” urging the international community to complete a security transition to his Afghan forces.
The Afghan leader came to the summit armed with a demand for $4.1 billion a year from NATO and other nations to fund his forces, giving them the means to prevent a civil war.
Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in recent days calling for an end to war. Although the rallies have been largely peaceful, scuffles broke out Sunday when some hardcore demonstrators refused police orders to disperse.
Police said 45 people had been arrested and four police officers suffered minor injuries.
The NATO talks come against a backdrop of a changing geopolitical landscape for the 63-year-old organization also grappling with shrinking defense budgets.
Leaders on Sunday launched the first phase of a US-led missile shield for Europe and sought to appease Russian anger over the system by renewing an invitation to cooperate.
Obama and fellow leaders also agreed on a slew of some 20 joint projects to pool military hardware as part of a so-called “Smart Defense” initiative.
[Police blockade Chicago’s Art Institute against demonstrators protesting the NATO summit in the city on May 20 via AFP.]