Search for way out of Afghanistan central to Nato talks in Washington

Fri, May 18, 2012, 01:00

SUMMIT PREVIEW:The US will seek financial pledges just as Nato members are cutting defence budgets

NATO WILL focus on extricating itself from the longest war in its history, in Afghanistan, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit in Chicago on Sunday and Monday. As of yesterday, 1,959 US service members had died in Afghanistan.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, portrayed Afghanistan as a “good news story” in a pre-summit seminar.

“The combination of the Navy Seal raid that killed bin Laden and the drone attacks that have decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership could not have been achieved without the US presence in Afghanistan,” Riedel said. “We have halted the Taliban’s momentum.”

The Afghan civil war will continue, Riedel admitted, but at the very least, the Afghan government will be able to control Kabul and “extend its writ” into the north and centre of the country.

The US is eager to avoid a rush to the exits. French president François Hollande promised to withdraw France’s 3,308 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. “He will be ganged up on in Chicago,” Riedel predicted. One possible compromise would be for France to nominally convert its soldiers from a “combat” to a “non-combat” role.

Afghan forces are scheduled

to reach 352,000 this year, with the goal of assuming full responsibility for security by the end of 2014. The US estimates it will cost $4 billion (€3.15 billion) a year – roughly what it gives to Israel and Egypt annually – to maintain them. Washington will seek financial pledges from member states in Chicago, at a time when Nato members are reducing their own defence budgets. Germany has already pledged $190 million (€149.5 million) a year; Britain $112 million (€88.1 million).

Though they’re still haggling over the price, Washington and Islamabad are nearing agreement on ending Pakistan’s six-month- old ban on Nato troops and material passing through Pakistan on their way in and out of Afghanistan. As a result, the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has been invited to the summit. US officials hope he will restart negotiations between Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, and persuade his own armed forces and intelligence services to stop harbouring extremists.

Thirteen non-Nato members of the Partnership for Peace programme, who have served alongside Nato forces in Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo, will also attend the summit. David Donoghue, the political director of the Department of Foreign Affairs, will represent Ireland.

The violence in Syria will be one of the most intractable issues at both the G-8 and Nato summits.

“The big question concerns the opposition,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at Brookings. “The Annan plan [drawn up by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan] has failed. Diplomacy had its chance. The participants will be asking if change can be effected, but with limited exposure.”

Riedel said: “Syria is descending into what is going to be a truly awful civil war, with very little room for compromise between Sunnis and Alawites.

“Al-Qaeda is moving into the chaos, and sectarian strife is already spilling into northern Lebanon.”

The US has been drawn into

a steady escalation of pressure against Damascus and involvement with the opposition, despite its desire to limit its exposure, Byman said. “Libya was the last effort for the Europeans. They’re overwhelmed by Greece now. . . There was a presumption that Bashar al-Assad’s regime would fall. Neither the government nor the opposition are strong enough to win. Now Syria risks engulfing or hijacking all that was positive in the Arab Spring.”

Riedel noted that Turkey’s importance as a Nato ally had increased dramatically because of the “Arab Spring”. Its moderate Islamist government is an example to Egypt, and its

shared border with Syria makes

it “the key to the Syrian question . . . Nato should really make Turkey feel very welcome.”

G-8 and Nato leaders must also grapple with the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran dominating the Persian Gulf, amid a new cold war between Sunni and Shia Islam, said Suzanne Maloney, the Iran specialist at Brookings.

Threats of an Israeli attack on Iran appear to have receded, and there was guarded optimism after the last round of talks between the P5 + 1 (UN Security Council members plus Germany) in Istanbul, Maloney said. Some type of “confidence-building measure” involving Iran’s medical reactor may be reached at further talks in Baghdad next week.

But two severe new sets of sanctions, blocking transactions with Iran’s central bank and Iranian sales of petroleum to Europe, will take effect in July.

“Ultimately, Iran is very clear about its unwillingness to give up its enrichment programme, while the US and its allies are clear that the enrichment programme must be stopped,” Maloney said.

While these issues are being discussed, at least 10,000 protesters from the Occupy movement and other groups plan to demonstrate in Chicago.