After nearly 10 years of costly war in Afghanistan and little to show for it, NATO members clearly want out -- and as quickly as possible. At a summit in Chicago on Monday they agreed to just that, announcing they had finalized a plan for a complete withdrawal from the country by 2014, leaving only training units behind.
United States President Barack Obama, who hosted the two-day summit in his hometown, assured that Afghanistan would be stable enough to carry on without the support of international troops, but admitted that the country would continue to grapple with major problems.
With this agreement the partners are essentially adhering to an already established timeline for ending the lengthy conflict in Afghanistan by withdrawing some 130,000 NATO-led troops. The country's own forces are expected to take control of the combat mission by mid-2013, at which point Western forces will transition into a back-up role.
Though there are doubts about how well Afghanistan will deal on its own with widespread poverty, violence and political unrest, Obama said the decision was irreversible.
A 'Responsible Timetable'
"I think that the timetable that we've established is a sound one, it is a responsible one," said the president. "Are there risks involved in it? Absolutely."
NATO said that while it would continue to provide "long-term political and practical support" after 2014, this aid would not involve combat.
Meanwhile, tensions with Pakistan over crucial supply routes needed for the withdrawal overshadowed the summit. The country blocked off the routes in retaliation for US airstrikes that resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers earlier this year. Though no resolution has been reached, Obama said there had been progress in negotiations.
Another small hiccup came during the summit when new French President François Hollande said he would keep a campaign promise to withdraw the majority of his country's 3,300 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Some of the country's troops will remain to provide training.
German commentators on Tuesday question whether Afghanistan can truly handle a NATO troop withdrawal, suggesting that the timing has more to do with alliance members' domestic concerns.
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) may have won all of its battles, but no one talks of victory any longer. The reason for the war was eliminated with Osama bin Laden's death."
"With the current strategy, southern and western Afghanistan can't be secured in the long term. Thus they will have to concentrate on the more stable provinces, as experienced US diplomats suggest. ... Where Afghan security forces can hold their positions, they will need further support from American forces on the ground and in the air, in a strategy that no longer focuses on occupation, development and retention, but on defense, security and reinforcement. Along with this comes forming an Afghan national army that lives up to its name, rather than training the police force, which remains weak and ineffective. Forces will also have to ally themselves with warlords and give up the nice idea of a federal republic of Afghanistan for a complex balance of the actual powers. If the withdrawal ends in lawlessness and Afghanistan falls into bloody chaos, then it would be a disaster for NATO."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"This troop reduction is meant to create the appearance that the war in Afghanistan is over. Just as it was with Iraq, the issues will fall away from the front pages and the minds of the voters. But the war will go on, just as it does in Iraq. The war goes on, with no peace in sight, but its appearance has changed."
"Everything points to the fact that NATO countries' handover plan is over-hasty, sugarcoats the reality in Afghanistan and, in the worst case, will help lead to a civil war there. But we can be certain that we'll only get the good news out of Chicago: Everything is going according to plan."
The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The now-finished NATO summit in Chicago has once again revealed the basic problem of the alliance: It lacks solidarity. ... There are reasons for this egocentric approach within the alliance. The people have grown weary of war. The leaders are mainly focused on the battle with the financial markets and no longer have time for complicated conflicts like the one in distant Afghanistan."
"Every attempt to give NATO a new identity has failed. The strategic concept is a masterpiece in concealing differences. And since it spread to the east there is yet another rift. The eastern members still see Russia as the biggest danger, while the Western states are trying to make the country a close partner."
"If NATO still wants to make a difference, it will have to manage some clarity about its situation. But in the end, they may recognize that the alliance no longer exists. Still, this risk is more bearable than the prospect of further years spent in a political coma."
SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:
"No wonder that the world leaders were happy, especially US President and host Barack Obama. Now, after the failed Iraq mission, he can keep his promise to end America's second hopeless war. Other leaders have similar situations. Not a single NATO country still has a voter majority in favor of continuing the Afghan mission. Many governments, including the one in Berlin, have promised to bring their soldiers home. Now they can deliver."
"But behind the successful staging in Chicago lurk a few pitfalls ahead of the 2014 withdrawal. The alliance will continue to face fears that certain members will withdraw earlier than planned. The reaction to the expected announcement by the new French president that he would remove some 2,000 of his 3,100 soldiers by 2012 illustrates this nervousness."
"The 'conditions on the ground' in Afghanistan weren't even brought up in Chicago. Commanders there still have major doubts about the capabilities of the Afghan army. And just as uncertain is the political situation with President Hamid Karzai, the erstwhile great hope of the West. Initially he wanted to leave office in 2014, when a new leader would be elected. But now he is considering pushing the election back and is searching for a suitable candidate. All the same, Karzai could also massively manipulate the election as he did in 2009. And that kind of election fraud would not look good ahead of the end to a successful NATO mission."
The conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The US' strategic view is increasingly focused on Asia and away from Europe. For the younger generation of politicians in Washington, keeping up trans-Atlantic relations is no longer self-evident. ... In principle, that's not a dramatic development. After the fall of the Soviet threat, it was inevitable that interests would diverge -- at least to a certain extent. The common missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan initially covered up the fact that Europeans and Americans won't necessarily act in concert in a globalized world. Last year's Libya war was already something of a prototype for a NATO à la carte that is starting to take shape. Those taking part in an operation have an actual interest in it. In the case of Libya, even the US remained in the background. That's why non member states like Australia play such a major role already today. In Afghanistan, they are providing more soldiers than many members."
"In that sense, the US could better afford a NATO that is more flexible in that way than could its European allies. Although the US is also implementing austerity measures, the country remains a world power capable of acting around the world. No country in Europe can make that claim, as the Libya war showed once again. Europe, which already has a tendency to be mostly interested in its own issues, barely has a diplomatic foot in the door in Asia and other developing regions. Asia will actually overtake Europe in arms spending this year. That is a sea change whose weight will be felt in many strategically important places."
"In Chicago, NATO tried to counter this development with stronger military-technological cooperation for the collective purchase and use of expensive machinery. The idea makes sense, but will raise questions in Germany that many people won't like. Will it really still be possible for Germany's parliament to have to approve any deployment of troops that the country has provided in the future? The price of ambitious cooperation is the loss of national sovereignty, when it comes to both NATO and the euro. And this can't be improved with better management of deficits. Once again Europe will need to seriously discuss what security is worth to it. The generous social-welfare state has not only driven many countries into debt, but also made them more vulnerable to foreign enemies."