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Obama and the NATO General: Different views on Afghanistan

President Obama, his re-election in the balance and polls showing Americans increasingly opposed to the war in Afghanistan no doubt on his mind, opened NATO’s Chicago summit Sunday emphasizing the day when “the Afghan war as we know it is over.”

But the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, had a different message. Noting “there is a narrative out there” that combat involving the US will end in 2013, General Allen said the reality is that US soldiers would be fighting right up until NATO ends its combat mission in December 2014.

The difference in the two men’s messages reflects their two different offices: One must appeal to voters who are anxious for the war to end, and the other must command a war taking into account the reality he confronts on the ground.

The two interpretations, while not harmonious, are not contradictory. The statements came at a summit where leaders are expected to accelerate the handing over to the Afghans of the lead role in combat operations. That could happen by mid-2013. NATO leaders had already decided in 2010 to end the alliance’s combat mission in December 2014.

Obama did say, as he always does in speaking of Afghanistan, that “difficult days” still lie ahead. But his emphasis was elsewhere when he said the summit ending Monday was about “painting a vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.”

For his part, Allen acknowledged that the Afghans will take the lead of the war in the coming year, but he said “it doesn’t mean that we won’t be fighting, it doesn’t mean there won’t be combat,” he said.  That’s important, he added, “because there is a narrative out there that combat operations for the US stops at milestone 2013. That is not, in fact, correct.”

Allen also said that the scheduled drawdown of US forces to some 68,000 by September – in effect the withdrawal of the “surge” forces Obama ordered in late 2009 – does not mean the US and NATO won’t return to fight the Taliban in areas they’ve turned over to Afghan responsibility.

“If we detect that there is in fact a Taliban presence beginning to surge in behind our forces [who have left],” Allen said, “we have forces that are available that we intend to put in … to prevent that from happening.”

NATO leaders are also expressing optimism that the international community will come up with the money to keep the Afghan security forces up and running after 2014, but no hard figures are so far on the table.

At a press conference closing out the summit’s first day Sunday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was confident that international support would be forthcoming. “I’m optimistic about reaching the overall goal of finding about $4 billion a year for financing the Afghan Security Forces,” he said.

As one of the world’s poorest countries, Afghanistan simply does not generate the revenue to finance on its own the army and police it needs, especially as it faces an active and in some areas resurgent insurgency.

The Chicago summit is “not a pledging conference,” Mr. Rasmussen noted, but he said that a number of financial commitments already announced were encouraging. The early assumption is that the US would pick up about half of the annual $4 billion price tag, but some experts say it is unclear where the other $2 billion would come from.

Rasmussen said it would not just be NATO and partner countries who would be expected to contribute financially to Afghanistan’s security, but the wider international community. That is one reason, he said, that the NATO summit would not provide a full picture of funding for the security forces.

“Don’t expect exact figures from this summit,” he said, “but I am confident we are on the right track.”

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