It is the biggest summit in the history of NATO. The 28 members of the alliance, as well as representatives from more than 60 states, plan to meet on Sunday and Monday to discuss the future of the alliance.
US President Barack Obama has invited the guests to his hometown of Chicago, which is currently enjoying an early summer warmth. The issues include everything from "Smart Defense" (how to pool resources so that limited defense budgets can be maximized) to the missile defense system for Europe (a project that has caused considerable tension with Russia) up to the future of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
But for Obama, the top item on the agenda is possibly the most pressing - the future of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The plan is for an orderly withdrawal of all NATO troops by the end of 2014. The newly elected French President Francois Hollande, however, has already announced that he intends to bring all French troops home by the end of this year.
There is also a considerable lack of support for the Afghanistan mission in other countries, such as Germany, for example. Chancellor Angela Merkel is also at the summit, along with her Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, and Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière.
Warnings over hasty retreat
Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel is warning against a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. Speaking at an event organized by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, he said only "if the exit plan is implemented with the appropriate care, can we hand over an Afghanistan in 2014 that fulfils the minimum of alliance conditions."
Riedel was chair of the White House review to overhaul of US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. "I expect the new French president to come under extreme pressure from the other alliance partners at the NATO summit not to withdraw too hastily," he said.
Riedel also pointed out logistical problems that could complicate an accelerated withdrawal. In particular, the closure of Pakistan's borders to NATO troops is currently giving the alliance a huge headache that is making all troop movements in and out of Afghanistan expensive and complicated.
Pakistan closed its borders after a NATO airstrike accidentally killed 24 of its soldiers last November, but press reports suggest that there is movement on this issue behind the scenes. Pakistan is reportedly prepared to re-open the border and give up its demand that the US officially apologise for the incident. Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari is also attending the NATO summit.
How well trained are the Afghan troops?
Despite the ongoing problems, according to Riedel, there is mainly good news coming from Afghanistan at the moment. There has been considerable progress in comparison to the last few years, he says. The leadership of terrorist organization al Qaeda is seriously damaged, the Taliban's influence has stagnated and NATO can claim success in training security forces, which "now have 350,000 men – twice as many as three years ago," says Riedel.
He is convinced that the Afghan troops are well-trained enough to keep the Taliban in check after 2014, "even without support from foreign combat troops."
But other experts doubt the capacity of the Afghan soldiers. In a paper written by Lieutenant General David Barno, Andrew Exum and Matthew Irvine for the defense policy think tank Center for a New American Security, US troops were criticized for neglecting the training of Afghan security forces in favor of carrying out operations themselves.
"Tens of thousands of US and coalition infantrymen are required to take the war to the Taliban and its allies, while the Afghan units that are scheduled to take over the war by 2014 remain largely untested – and are perhaps far from ready," they wrote.
But Riedel believes that other problems are more pressing – especially corruption and drug dealing: "Anyone who thinks that these things will disappear after 2014 is living in a fantasy world," he said.
What will happen after 2014?
In Chicago, the post-2014 aftermath promises to be just as important as the pre-2014 withdrawal. At the start of the month, Obama signed a partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that is meant to regulate bilateral relations until 2024. In it, the Americans committed themselves to financially and logistically supporting Afghan security forces in exchange for access to bases in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda.
In his monthly press conference, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced: "I expect that NATO will continue to train, instruct and assist Afghan security forces." He insisted that this would not be an International Security Assistance Force mission by another name, but "a new mission with a new role for NATO."
But financing this new mission remains a controversial issue. He said there would be a donor conference in Tokyo in July which would deal exclusively with this issue, though Rasmussen also made clear that he expected the first commitments to be made in Chicago.
"It is very much in our interest for the progress that has been made with much sacrifice be preserved," Rasmussen said, adding that they must ensure that terrorists never use Afghanistan again as a base to launch attacks on a NATO country.
Obama's national security advisor, Tom Donilon, drew attention to previous financial commitments – Britain promised $110 million a year (86 million euros), Australia $100 million, while Germany promised $195 million per year from 2015. Germany has also signed a partnership agreement with Afghanistan. Donilon is counting on further financial commitments to be made in Chicago.
At the G8 summit in Washington, which immediately preceded the NATO summit, however, participants confined themselves to a general statement of support, rather than concrete financial promises.
The statement, signed by the world's seven biggest industrial countries and Russia, said merely that "steps should be taken to lessen the economic impact of the state of transition and support the development of a sustainable Afghan economy."