Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Obama Says NATO Focus Is on Support for Afghanistan Offers Reassurance as New French President Pledges Early Withdrawal

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Obama Says NATO Focus Is on Support for Afghanistan Offers Reassurance as New French President Pledges Early Withdrawal

Article excerpt

President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders sought to demonstrate Sunday that the coalition in Afghanistan isn't unraveling following a pledge by newly elected French President Francois Hollande to withdraw from Afghanistan ahead of the previously set timetable.

"The world is behind this strategy that we've laid out," Mr. Obama said after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and before the opening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago. "Now it's our task to implement it effectively."

With public support for the war waning after more than a decade and defense budgets being strained in the U.S. and Europe, Mr. Obama plans to have the U.S. and its partners switch from the lead combat force in Afghanistan to supporting Afghan units by next year. Under the president's strategy, Afghanistan will take responsibility for the country's security by 2014.

The president's emphasis on solidarity reinforced remarks made earlier Sunday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that coalition forces in Afghanistan wouldn't leave prematurely.

"There will be no rush for the exits," Mr. Rasmussen told reporters Sunday. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged." He said he was "not surprised" Mr. Hollande is vowing to keep a pledge he made while campaigning for office.

"We very firmly support the idea of 'in together, out together,' " Ms. Merkel said. "We and the United States share that philosophy," she said, adding that she expected Mr. Hollande will "make it clear" how France will stay engaged in Afghanistan.

Mr. Hollande said on Friday France would support Afghanistan in a "different way" and he would abide by his campaign pledge to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Prime Minister David Cameron of the U.K., which has the second- biggest contingent of troops in Afghanistan after the U.S., said the goal remains preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorist training camps.

"I'm very confident that one way or the other our troops will come home and Afghanistan will be looked after by Afghan security forces," Mr. Cameron said.

Even with the withdrawal date set, Mr. Obama, who visited Afghanistan on May 2 to sign an agreement with Mr. Karzai on the transition, warned there are still "hard days ahead."

Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the Taliban remain "a resilient and capable opponent" that will keep fighting Afghan forces after the U.S. and allied front-line role shrinks.

"We fully expect that combat is going to continue," he said at a briefing in Chicago. Even as Afghan forces take more of a lead role in counterinsurgency operations next year, he said any notion that U.S. combat operations will stop in 2013 "is not in fact correct. …

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