The summit of NATO’s discontent

Just days before a NATO summit that leaders had hoped would present a carefully scripted display of unity on Afghanistan, the inauguration of a French president committed to an early drawdown has instead intensified a rush for the exits from an unpopular war.

In advance of this weekend’s summit in Chicago, the Obama administration and senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have been scrambling to ensure that alliance members remain committed to keeping troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, and to paying billions of dollars after that to prop up the Afghan government.

But that unanimity is in doubt with the arrival of French President Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader who campaigned on a vow to withdraw all 3,300 French troops by the end of this year.


Hollande’s victory sent a shock wave through NATO and sparked a highly unusual diplomatic campaign by the U.S. and other governments to persuade Hollande to reconsider his pledge.

Philip Gordon, an assistant secretary of State who is the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that he would park himself in Paris “for as much time as necessary” to try to talk the new French government into changing its mind.

Because Hollande reportedly won’t announce his decision until after the May 20-21 summit, his presence in Chicago will be an uncomfortable reminder of divisions in the alliance.

NATO members “are chafing at the bit to get out” of Afghanistan, Charles Kupchan, a specialist on NATO and former Clinton administration official, told the same Senate committee hearing.

The Netherlands withdrew its entire 1,900-troop contingent in August 2010 after widespread public opposition to the Afghan mission helped bring down the Dutch government. Canada downsized to 508 troops from 2,700 in August, and to training from a combat role, after a debate over whether Canada was bearing a disproportionate share of NATO casualties.

Australia, which is not a member of NATO, will start to withdraw its 1,550 troops this year, and most will be out by the end of 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said last month.

Political rivals said her goal was to allow her party to declare the Afghan mission mostly over before elections next year.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta surprised NATO allies in February when he told reporters that the administration wanted to hand off the lead in combat operations to Afghan security forces by late next year, not in 2014 as earlier planned.

The goal may mean little in practice, because Afghan troops still rely heavily on U.S. support. But it was a sign that the Obama administration would argue in an election year that it was stepping up its own plans for easing out of the war.

American support for the mission has fallen to 27%, according to an Associated Press-GFK poll this month. Even among Republicans, support has fallen to 37% from 58% last year, the poll found.

Jorge Benitez, a NATO analyst for the Atlantic Council of the United States, said moves by the Dutch, Canadians, Australians and even the Americans “have really pulled the cork out of the bottle. It could be that more countries will now say, ‘We have the leeway to go early.’ ”

Another possibility, he said, is that NATO will work out a face-saving solution in Chicago that allows members to scale back their combat role even while officially agreeing that combat operations will continue until the end of 2014.

America provides about 90,000 of the 130,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. Britain’s 9,500 troops form the second-largest continent, followed by 4,900 German troops.

NATO and U.S. officials say publicly that the alliance remains committed to maintaining a reduced combat force on the ground until the end of 2014, as the members agreed at the last NATO summit, in Lisbon, 18 months ago.

NATO members are pushing a message of unity for several reasons. They hope to convince the Taliban and other militant groups that they are committed for the long term so the insurgents agree to peace negotiations, rather than just waiting until the West leaves.

But the message isn’t always clear. President Obama is running for reelection on a claim that ending America’s role in the war has been one of his top foreign policy successes.

Speaking recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, Denis McDonough, listed winding down of the Afghan expedition as the administration’s No. 2 foreign policy accomplishment, after the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

A senior Western diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous in discussing a sensitive subject, acknowledged that the French election and the mixed messages around the globe had stirred “deep mutual suspicions” in the alliance.

“People are watching over their shoulders,” he said.