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NATO Summit To Reaffirm Afghan Commitment


All right. As protestors make their preparations outside, inside the NATO summit, there's an expectation that leaders will showcase a unified, long-term commitment to Afghanistan after the 2014 troop drawdown. The United States already signed a strategic security pact with Afghanistan, pledging support for that country until 2024. The Obama administration hopes to convince other countries at the summit to do the same, but as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, it could be a hard sell.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The two-day NATO summit is a chance for the alliance to hash out problems and projects in Afghanistan. But this summit is bigger than just the alliance, says Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

DAMON WILSON: This isn't just a NATO summit. It's a summit of our Afghan partners. You've got 50 heads of state, or leading representatives, coming into Chicago. It's a forcing event to say, OK, Afghanistan is still on the radar screen.

NORTHAM: It's not that Afghanistan is forgotten, but analysts say after a decade-long involvement, there's a weariness among European NATO members. It's become a hard sell to the public for many leaders, especially in Europe, where many member states are reeling from the grinding debt crisis. Heather Conley is director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She says the U.S. is looking for a commitment from its allies.

HEATHER CONLEY: It's going to be tricky. These are about financial commitments, and Europe is undergoing a transformative moment due to this debt crisis. And it's going to be a challenging issue to help get our European colleagues to continue to support initiatives many years from now.

NORTHAM: But James Townsend, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, says the allies understand that they've invested a lot in Afghanistan and aren't going to just pack up and go home.

JAMES TOWNSEND: We have not seen allies running for the exits, we've not seen allies saying look, we've been in this so long it's time for us to go and look in other areas.

NORTHAM: Townsend says it's critical to build on the tenuous gains made in Afghanistan, to continue developing the fragile health care and education systems, and to help build the government.

The U.S. in particular is looking for NATO allies to help train Afghanistan's security forces, once the bulk of combat troops withdraws at the end of 2014.

Mark Jacobson, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says there may be more political will for cash-strapped European nations to contribute small training forces.

MARK JACOBSON: It's also easier to keep trainers, who are largely behind the wire, and not out doing the patrols, and not out engaged, day-to-day, in the combat operations, it's much easier to keep political support for that type of mission than it has been to keep political support for the current mission.

CONLEY: Heather Conley says contributing NATO allies will be watching carefully to see that any support they do commit isn't squandered in the post-2014 era.

If allies see backsliding in mass and gross corruption, if they see where women's rights starts being denied women on a very large scale, if security starts really being challenged fundamentally, so that development aid can't get in, then there's going to be a very deep soul-searching moment for our European allies: is this worth it?

NORTHAM: There could be spoiler or two at the summit, which could affect commitment, says the Atlantic Council's Damon Wilson. If, for instance, Pakistan and the U.S. fail to reach an agreement to reopen transit corridors that shuttle supplies through Pakistan into neighboring Afghanistan. Wilson says it would also send a bad signal if France's new president, Francois Hollande, confirms his campaign promise to pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year.

WILSON: How can he navigate the path between the fact that he's made a pretty clear commitment in the campaign, without turning his back on his allies? It is his first visit to the United States as a new French president, he can't come here and blow up President Obama's summit in his home town.

NORTHAM: Wilson says the French leader will be in a tough position when he meets his allies in Chicago.

Jackie Northam, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.