Tuesday, December 12, 2017

U.S., NATO officials make plans to underwrite Afghan military

BRUSSELS — Several NATO allies promised Wednesday to underwrite Afghanistan's armed forces after foreign troops depart, as the United States and other nations plan to pull away from the front lines in Afghanistan next year.

U.S. officials were at pains to show that the pressure to close down an unpopular war will not leave Afghanistan's fragile government and unsteady military in the lurch.

"There is no change whatsoever in the time line," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted.

The messages, aimed at different audiences, are challenged by current events in Afghanistan, where insurgents staged an impressive, coordinated attack last weekend that struck at the heart of the U.S.-backed government and international enclave in Kabul. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders are boycotting peace talks that the United States sees as the key to a safe exit.

"Our strategy is right. Our strategy is working," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said after a meeting of NATO defense chiefs that focused on the calendar for ending the war and the challenge of paying for Afghanistan's defense for years to come.

"We cannot and we will not abandon Afghanistan," he said. Also attending the meeting was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The allies are finalizing a plan to shift primary responsibility for combat to Afghan forces and firming up a strategy for world support for the weak Afghan government and its fledgling military after 2014.

That year is the deadline for the NATO-led war to end, although it is clear that many nations will have long since stopped any active front-line combat and some will have pulled out completely.

Panetta glossed over sharp remarks from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had said Tuesday that he wants a written promise of at least $2 billion annually from the United States for military support.

Fogh Rasmussen would not name the nations that have signed up for ongoing support, and NATO officials said the pledges will be a centerpiece when President Barack Obama hosts fellow leaders for a NATO summit in Chicago next month.

However, a NATO diplomat told the Associated Press that 23 nations have so far signed on to a "coalition of committed contributors" to fund the Afghan security forces after 2014. The diplomat said the list includes the United States and Britain, but also non-NATO members, such as South Korea, Montenegro and Georgia.

Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance expects a bill of about $4 billion annually to sustain the Afghan fighting forces, which he called a "good deal," since it is cheaper than the cost of war.

But it is not clear whether several European governments have the budget or the will to keep paying.

The United States expects to pay much of the cost, but U.S. officials say Washington cannot foot the bill alone. Washington wants more nations outside NATO, such as China and Russia, to chip in, arguing that everyone has a stake in ensuring that Afghanistan does not slide into chaos.

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