Stephen Harper will pledge money to help Afghanistan pay for its own army after foreign troops leave in 2014, but he has so far resisted pressure to extend the Canadian Forces training mission there, officials say.
At a NATO summit in Chicago where the alliance’s leaders were keen to show their war-weary publics that they’re sealing an accelerated exit strategy, the Prime Minister was in no rush to commit Canadian trainers to stay after 2014, when most other foreign soldiers will be gone.
Instead, he is set to announce Monday that Canada will offer financial assistance to help pay for Afghanistan’s own army and police – joining other nations in contributing to meet Kabul’s projected $4-billion-plus budget shortfall.
The Obama administration has led a campaign to persuade allies to commit funds, asking Canada to pledge $125-million a year for the three years after 2014 – although Canadian officials wouldn’t say Sunday how much Ottawa will pony up. Comparable nations, including Australia, Britain and Germany, have each pledged between $100-million and $200-million a year.
NATO, keen to ensure that plans to withdraw combat troops over the next two years don’t appear to be a rush to abandon Afghanistan, had also looked for Canada to extend the mission of about 950 trainers past 2014 – with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen applying new public pressure on Mr. Harper as the summit opened Sunday.
But Canadian officials said Mr. Harper will not commit to extending the training mission at this summit – although they would not say whether he will categorically rule out an extension at a later date.
“A lot of discussion here today [is]about what happens post-2014, and a key discussion around sustainability,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay told reporters at the summit. “So that doesn’t necessarily mean troop contributions, or trainers. That means giving the Afghans the resources that they need to continue to make progress, and hold the fort.”
The NATO goal is to raise pledges of $4.1-billion per year, but even that is likely only to pay for a smaller Afghan force than the current 352,000. The NATO leaders are expected to endorse a reduction, perhaps to as low as 228,500 soldiers and police.
The thorny questions about whether the sums will be enough, and whether Afghanistan’s government can survive against insurgents when most foreign troops are withdrawn, have been given relatively scant attention at this summit. In Chicago, the emphasis has been on speeding the exit strategy, and the pledges of funds for Kabul to pay its own troops are part and parcel of that.
NATO leaders here will formally embrace plans to speed the exit strategy, handing over the lead role in combat to Afghan forces by mid-2013 – rather than 2014 – and shifting to a “support” role. The foreign combat troops – which currently number 130,000, including 90,000 U.S. troops – are to leave by the end of 2014.
But some will go sooner: France’s new President, François Hollande, confirmed that his country’s troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year.
Mr. Obama, at a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Sunday before the summit opened, even looked forward to a not-so-distant future when war would be over. NATO leaders, he said, would be “painting a vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.”
It only took one peek outside Chicago’s heavily fortified McCormick Place, the convention centre where leaders of NATO countries met, to see why he’s rushing to see a brighter future after a decade of war: In Mr. Obama’s own home turf of Chicago, thousands of anti-war protestors gathered outside, with some engaging in a shoving match with police.
For Mr. Obama and many NATO leaders, the issue is not that their summit attracted protestors, but that the protestors’ message increasingly reflects the public mood, with support for the war at a low level in many NATO countries
Mr. Obama, running for re-election in November, is clearly seeking to ensure Afghanistan is not an issue, and hopes this summit will offer a show of global support for a quick exit strategy.
“The loss of life continues in Afghanistan. There will be hard days ahead,” he said at his meeting with Mr. Karzai. “But we’re confident that we are on the right track, and what this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind the strategy that we’ve laid out.”