Leaders of NATO nations, in a joint declaration concluding their summit meeting in Chicago, offered assurances Monday of “their enduring commitment to Afghan security beyond 2014.” But they also stressed that by the end of that year, “NATO will have made the shift from a combat mission to a new training, advising and assistance mission.”
That sounds like good, and long overdue, news for the United States and our NATO allies after more than a decade of a difficult military mission.
Unfortunately, it could sound like good news to the Taliban, which though forced from power in Afghanistan by the U.S.-led intervention in the months following 9/11 remains a serious threat to the shaky Afghan government. If turning the fight against the Taliban over to Afghan security forces were an easy task, it would have been done long ago.
And though NATO launched air strikes in Libya last year, helping speed the downfall of brutal dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the dignitaries in Chicago were silent on the ongoing carnage in Syria.
Yet at least the summit produced that statement of unity about supporting the Afghan government’s protracted struggle against the Taliban beyond Jan. 1, 2015.
The joint declaration also emphasized that any lasting peace in that war-torn nation “must be inclusive and representative of the legitimate interests of all Afghan people, regardless of gender or status.”
Again, that sounds grand. So does NATO’s restated goal of preventing al-Qaida from regaining its bases of operation in Afghanistan after being forced to retreat into Pakistan 10 years ago.
But talk’s cheap. And while the high costs, in blood and treasure, of NATO’s Afghanistan effort have paid some dividends, if the government there falls, the Taliban — and maybe even al-Qaida — could become larger menaces beyond that nation’s borders.
President Barack Obama acknowledged that hard reality during a speech at the summit Monday. He also, however, fairly stressed “important progress” over the last two years in upgrading the Afghan forces’ capabilities. And he said later Monday that “diligent progress” is being made toward convincing Pakistan to re-open NATO supply routes that it closed after a U.S. air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers six months ago.
Too bad the new French head of state didn’t show up in time to hear the U.S. president’s speech.
President Francois Hollande’s absence was particularly conspicuous in light of President Obama’s support for his economic proposals during the G-8 summit at Camp David over the weekend. President Hollande, unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, generally favors “growth” over austerity in addressing Europe’s persisting fiscal woes.
President Hollande made additional news at the summit by sticking with his Socialist Party campaign promise that French combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by year’s end, a year earlier than planned by his predecessor and recently defeated election opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy.
But unlike France’s pending abandonment of the mission, NATO’s incremental exit and stated resolve offers hope for Afghanistan.
The crucial test over the next 18 months is for NATO and its Afghan allies to diminish the Taliban’s hopes for regaining power.