NATO prepares to depart Afghanistan
By Dale McFeatters
If a date can be affixed to when the war in Afghanistan began to end, Monday is as good as any. That's when NATO leaders meeting in Chicago announced an "irresistible transition" to having all the alliance's combat troops out by the end of 2014.
At least that's the agreed-upon plan. Whether it is an orderly, calibrated handover to Afghan security forces, scheduled to take place in the middle of next year, or whether the NATO presence just sort of fizzles out remains to be seen.
Giving credence to the fizzle option was France, whose newly elected president, Francois Hollande, announced that the French would be pulling out by the end of this year, two years early. The French have only 3,300 troops there, but given the nation's importance to the alliance, it gives political cover to other countries that want to get out earlier.
Sometime next year, according to President Barack Obama, "The Afghan war as we know it is over."
Maybe not so over. The U.S. is committed to staying on in an advisory and training role until 2024. And Obama's national security adviser on Afghanistan, retired Gen. Douglas Lute, said, "After this milestone in 2013 (when the handover is to be complete), there will still be combat capability, combat authority and an expectation there will be combat."
But it was clear from the Chicago summit that it will be mostly us staying on, with maybe a handful of others, and mostly our money as efforts have been going slowly to have others chip in on the $4.1 billion annual cost of a continued presence.
(Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, apparently without sarcasm or tongue in cheek, thanked the American taxpayer for supporting the 11-year war. If he really wants to thank us, he can create a government honest and effective enough to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban and the warlords after the West departs.)
If there was a sour note at the summit, it was invited guest Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari arriving without a plan to reopen NATO's supply lines, which have been closed since a misdirected U.S. airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Zardari apparently wants a formal U.S. apology beyond the regrets and condolences already offered, and he wants a major increase in the fees NATO pays to haul supplies across Pakistan.
Obama refused a sit-down meeting with Zardari and spoke to him only in passing at the Chicago summit. There was open discussion at the summit of negotiating an agreement with neighboring Uzbekistan to begin the process of removing NATO troops and their equipment.
Zardari must surely see that, as the NATO presence winds down, so does his influence. After next year, it's too late to say, "Come back. All is forgiven."
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).