May 21, 2012

Obama Leaves NATO With Message On Winding Down Afghan War

U.S. President Barack Obama and NATO allies set in motion a plan to extract their forces from the long, unpopular war in Afghanistan, leaving the Afghans with broad promises of support once the coalition leaves in 2014.

A last-minute flurry of diplomacy failed to break a stalemate with Pakistan over closed supply routes. Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari spoke briefly twice yesterday to show both are committed to a resolution that will mean money for Pakistan and a way to remove expensive equipment and supplies from Afghanistan as the drawdown takes place.

On the closing day of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit in Chicago, the U.S. and its allies ratified a strategy that puts Afghan forces in the lead combat role by mid-2013 leading to the departure of coalition forces by the end of 2014.

“We leave Chicago with a clear road map,” Obama said at a news conference after the agreement was announced. “Our coalition is committed to this plan to bring our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end.”

Obama, who is seeking re-election in November, capped four days atop the foreign policy stage with the NATO summit in his adopted hometown of Chicago preceded by a two-day meeting with leaders from the Group of Eight countries at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, focused on the European sovereign debt crisis and the possibility of Greece leaving the euro zone.

Presidential Campaign

U.S. politics were never far from the surface during the two gatherings.

During the same news conference where he spoke about the future of Afghanistan and how he wouldn’t “paper over” differences with Pakistan, Obama was asked about his campaign’s ad tying Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to job losses at a steel company owned by Bain Capital LLC, Romney’s former private equity firm.

Obama said such lines of attack are fair game and “what this campaign is going to be about.”

The G-8 summit had its own connection to the U.S. campaign, which is dominated by the economy. “What happens in Greece has an impact here in the United States,” Obama said.

From the NATO summit, the president flew to Joplin, Missouri, to deliver a high school commencement address in a town devastated by a tornado last year. Tomorrow, following a speech to graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Obama heads to California to raise money for his campaign.

Cary R. Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said the outcomes of the G-8 and NATO summits will probably have a “negligible impact” on the election.

Voter Interest

“Voters are not concerned about international affairs per se and do not make the link betweenEurope’s economic crisis and the health of the U.S.’s own economy,” Covington said in an e- mail. “By the time August rolls around no one will even remember that the meetings took place, much less that Obama had a leading role in them.”

Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corp. (RAND), a policy institute based in Santa Monica, California, said Obama did about “the best that he could do” with the NATO summit given the challenges of Afghan governance, and war-weariness and fiscal pressures facing the U.S. and allies.

“He’s determined to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan but at the same time try to do it in a way that would keep the place from collapsing if it’s at all possible,” he said.

The question remains whether Obama can “slow down the rot and leave some semblance of a stable situation,” Larrabee said.

While U.S. officials did not release any totals, they said they were close to securing sufficient funding from other countries to help the U.S. pay for an estimated $4.1 billion a year to help Afghan security after the war’s end.

Pakistan Negotiations

The failure to reach a deal with Pakistan was disappointing, said David W. Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general and senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, a policy institute in Washington.

Zardari said during a NATO meeting yesterday that he directed the defense committee of the cabinet to finish negotiations toward opening the supply routes, according to a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting wasn’t public.

Obama described his own talks with Zardari as “very brief.”

“I don’t want to paper over real challenges there,” Obama said. “There’s no doubt that there have been tensions” with Pakistan and the U.S. and coalition forces. “I think they are being worked through, both military and diplomatic channels.”

Karzai, in an interview with CNN afterward, described the interaction with Obama and Zardari as “just a photo opportunity.”

Routes for Pullout

For the U.S., Barno said getting the Pakistani routes reopened “is not extraordinarily time-sensitive.” The urgency will come as the combat mission ends, and U.S. and NATO allies need to get equipment out of Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the summit that “it will be quite a logistical challenge to draw down the number of troops in the coming months and years, so we need a number of transit routes and obviously the transit routes through Pakistan are of great importance.”

With the Pakistan routes closed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met yesterday at the summit with senior ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all countries that support the so-called northern distribution network through which NATO forces are receiving supplies, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little.

Remain ‘Combat Ready’

“President Obama laid out the stakes clearly to the alliance and the regional partners on the importance of transit routes,” said Mark Jacobson, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fundand a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.

“No doubt in my mind that the Central Asian nations are willing to pick up the routes if Pakistan will not come to an agreement, and, in the end, it will mean less money for Pakistani truck drivers,” Jacobson said.

The transfer of security missions to Afghan forces in the summer of 2013 doesn’t represent an “accelerated road map” for the withdrawal of NATO combat troops, Rasmussen said.

“We will remain combat ready” until the end of the International Security Assistance Force mission in 2014, Rasmussen said. Still, there will be a “gradual” drawdown during the transition period from mid-2013 to the end of 2014, he said.