U.S., NATO ready plan to step back from frontline

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.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — 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 timeline,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted.

The messages aimed at different audiences are both challenged by current events in Afghanistan, where insurgents staged an impressive, co-ordinated 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 the U.S. sees as the key to a safe exit.

U.S. and NATO claims of progress in Afghanistan were overshadowed by publication Wednesday of gruesome photos that purport to show U.S. troops posing with the dismembered corpses of Afghan militants.

“Our strategy is right, our strategy is working,” Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said following meeting of NATO defence chiefs that focused on the calendar for closing down the war and the challenge of paying for Afghanistan’s defence 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 to the weak Afghan government and fledgling military after 2014.

That year is the deadline to 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 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 said 23 nations have so far signed on to a “coalition of committed contributors” to fund the Afghan security forces after 2014. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential, said the list includes the United States and Britain, but also non-NATO members.

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 that 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 Afghanistan does not slide into chaos.

The United States acknowledges that despite progress the U.S. is not meeting its goal of drawing $1.3 billion annually from other nations for the Afghan armed forces.

U.S. and Afghan officials have already said they expect a shift to an Afghan military lead in combat operations by the middle of 2013, although the U.S. stresses that it will still have a large number of forces in Afghanistan as backup.

Those plans are also expected to be detailed at the Chicago meeting, although without specific details about the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

U.S. military leaders have not submitted final proposals for how to ease nearly 70,000 troops into the back seat next year but are working against a firm deadline to end the current combat mission by 2015.

Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Wednesday that the Afghans are on track to take the lead in securing the country by the end of 2013. Azimi said the Afghan Army has already reached its target number of 195,000 troops. Including police and other forces, Afghan security forces now number about 330,000.

The combat shift parallels the withdrawal in Iraq, where U.S. forces pulled back from lead roles but remained in harm’s way for months before a scheduled end to the war.

Obama also hopes to showcase a long-term security pact with Afghanistan in Chicago. U.S. and Afghan officials said they would like to sign the agreement ahead of the summit, with more specific military agreements to follow.

Karzai raised another condition Tuesday with the request for a written annual commitment. The demand threatens to further delay the key bilateral pact and suggests that Karzai is worried that the U.S. commitment to his country is wavering.

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