Obama will meet with NATO to ponder Afghanistan’s future

Posted May 17, 2012, at 7:11 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will host the NATO alliance Sunday in Chicago to talk of long-term commitments to Afghanistan, tempered by the fact that the countries are tired of the war, their budgets are strained and they see a need to resist what one analyst called “a rush to the exits.”

The summit comes as the alliance prepares to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014 and debates how to shore up the country after that. Among the issues still to be decided: how fast to pull out U.S. and allied combat forces, how many troops of any kind to leave behind and who’ll pay the Afghan security forces after 2014.

Underlying it all is politics, in the United States and in Europe.

Here, Americans in an election year are eager to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences. By 2-1, Americans want to get our troops out as soon as possible rather than keep them there until the situation has stabilized, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

The United States is pulling out some troops now, and it says it will end combat missions next year but will keep troops there to train Afghans through 2014. The American presence is costing about $100 billion a year.

In France, new President Francois Hollande swept into power in part with a promise to pull French troops out this year, even faster than the accelerated departure that former President Nicolas Sarkozy had promised.

While eager to get combat troops out, Obama and other leaders want a more orderly withdrawal, and they fear that an immediate exit by France could feed hunger to depart too soon. They hope to convince Hollande to slow down his promised rapid withdrawal.

The goal, analysts said, is to turn over responsibility to the Afghans by next year but keep a large allied force there into 2014 to back them up and make sure they succeed.

“We need to be very careful to avoid a rush to the exits,” said Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to three U.S. presidents who reviewed Afghanistan policy for Obama in 2009.

“The appetite for doing much, for much longer, is going to diminish rapidly,” said James Goldgeier, who’s worked for the White House National Security Council and is the dean of the School of International Service at American University.

The next challenge is deciding how many foreign troops to keep there after 2014, and who should pay the $4 billion-a-year cost of the Afghan security force.

Analysts said negotiations were under way on a plan to reduce the size of the Afghan security force from 350,000 troops to 260,000 by 2018.

“They would remain fairly robust and large through 2018, then … reduce to a smaller and more affordable force,” said James Dobbins, a former representative to Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration who’s the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.

The United States expects to pay the biggest share — perhaps half — but it may find allies balking, even at a price that’s much smaller than the war costs were.

“Most allies have not met their pledges to the existing NATO training mission in Afghanistan over the past four years,” said Stephen Flanagan, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“So their willingness to do so after the (NATO) forces are withdrawn, when they are even more dependent on Afghan forces for their security, particularly given the incidents we’ve seen of late, that’s a key question.”

The Obama administration still is debating how many foreign troops will be needed after 2014.

First, it must figure out how many American military trainers will be required, and that will depend on how large an Afghan army the U.S. and its allies are prepared to fund.

Once that number if determined, the U.S. will have to decide how many American troops will be needed as “enablers” to provide logistics, intelligence, air power and other support Afghan that security forces will require. The administration also will have to figure out how many U.S. special forces to base in Afghanistan to pursue al-Qaida and allied terrorist groups.

©2012 the McClatchy Washington Bureau

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