US setbacks on Afghan supply route and finance

Tue, May 22, 2012, 01:00

TWENTY-EIGHT Nato allies and 13 partner countries “leave Chicago with a clear roadmap,” President Barack Obama said at the close of a two-day summit yesterday. “Our coalition is committed to this plan to bring our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end.”

The chief innovation of the summit, which was actually announced by defence secretary Leon Panetta last February, is the early transfer of authority to Afghan forces. “Here in Chicago, we reached agreement on the next milestone in this transition,” Mr Obama said. “We agreed that Afghan forces will take the lead for combat operations next year, in mid-2013.”

Yet despite Mr Obama’s claim that “we are leaving Chicago with a Nato alliance that is stronger, more capable and more ready for the future,” concerns persists on three counts: logistics, money and manpower.

In the run-up to the summit, Pakistan and the US were expected to reach agreement on Nato resuming the use of Karachi port and the overland route through Pakistan to ferry supplies to and from Afghanistan. Prior to last November 26th, when US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border, 40 per cent of supplies transited Pakistan.

The US invited President Asif Ali Zardari to Chicago in anticipation of an accord. Mr Zardari apparently expected to finalise the agreement with Mr Obama himself, only to be told that there would be no meeting unless he agreed to the supply routes beforehand.

Mr Zardari also demanded an apology for the deaths of the 24 soldiers, which the US refused to provide. And Pakistan demands that the pre-November fee of $250 for each lorry be raised to more than $5,000 per vehicle.

The Pakistani and US presidents spoke twice, briefly, yesterday. “I emphasised to him we think that Pakistan has to be part of a solution in Afghanistan,” Mr Obama said. “We need to work through some of the tensions that have inevitably arisen after 10 years of our military presence in that region . . . We didn’t anticipate the supply line issue would be resolved by this summit. We are actually making diligent progress on it.”

Ultimately, Mr Obama said, “It is in Pakistan’s interest to work with us to make sure they are not consumed by the extremism in their midst.”

The US had hoped to obtain pledges totalling some $2 billion a year – towards a total of $4.1 billion annually – to finance the Afghan security forces from 2014, when Nato’s withdrawal will in theory be complete, until 2024. “While this summit has not been a pledging conference, it has been encouraging to see a number of countries make significant financial commitments,” Mr Obama said.

French president François Hollande’s insistence that French combat troops will leave Afghanistan this year created anxiety that other Nato allies will attempt to leave early. “There will be no rush for the exits,” Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.”

The summit declaration said that by mid-2013, ISAF will shift “ . . . to the provision of training, advice and assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces.” After 2014, when “the Nato-led combat mission will end”, Nato will began “a new post-2014 mission of a different nature in Afghanistan, to train, advise and assist the ANSF.”

The distinction between fighting, training and advising remains confused. “The Taliban is still a robust enemy and the gains are still fragile,” Mr Obama said. Gen John Allen, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, said “we fully expect that combat is going to continue”.