Afghanistan, Russia, and NATO's Future Should Dominate Chicago Summit

While finances loom over Chicago, NATO brass will focus on Afghanistan, Russia, alliance's future.

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NATO soldiers run during a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban launched a series of coordinated attacks on as many as seven sites across the Afghan capital, targeting NATO bases, the parliament and Western embassies.

The black clouds of the American and European economic crises will loom ominously over NATO leaders when they assemble next week in Chicago for three days of high-level talks.

But Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations and Georgetown University says NATO leaders should avoid the urge to focus on the U.S. and European economies and should instead key on the future of Afghanistan operations and the alliance itself. "Chicago is not the place for discussion of how to stabilize the euro zone or breathe new life into the European project," Kupchan says. "Nor is it the appropriate venue for debate about restoring Western economies to full health and rebuilding popular confidence in democratic institutions."

Instead, Kupchan and other experts and lawmakers say the world leaders should focus on a long-term plan for maintaining a Taliban- and al Qaeda-free Afghanistan. The experts and lawmakers also say the leaders must debate a number of issues to ensure the alliance remains, as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry put it Thursday, "a fundamental element of national security."

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Here are three issues that will dominate the Windy City summit, slated for May 19-21:

Afghanistan. The Obama administration very much wants NATO member nations to approve a long-term plan under which the U.S. and European nations will provide military, economic, political, and other kinds of assistance to Afghanistan for years to come.

NATO leaders are expected to etch in stone a 2013 milestone date when the official mission of American and NATO forces will "shift from combat to support" of indigenous forces, Phillip George, a senior State Department official, told senators Thursday. Alliance leaders also are slated to approve a plan to help pay for Afghanistan's military and police forces.

With some top allies, like France, wavering on President Obama's plan to keep most U.S. and NATO forces there through 2014, administration officials hope NATO members use the summit to make clear they're in it for the long haul. To that end, Obama administration officials announced Thursday a senior U.S. delegation already is headed to France for talks with President-elect Francois Hollande's team. Washington wants Hollande to reverse his campaign vow to remove all French forces this year.

With a gross domestic product of just $17 billion, according to the World Bank, Kabul will need all the assistance it can get to pay for the 352,000-personnel military and national police force NATO is building. "A long-term solution also needed to be found for shouldering the cost of sustaining the ANSF, a cost currently estimated at some $8 billion ... or 50 [percent] of the estimated Afghan GDP," states a NATO white paper.

U.S. officials have work to do, however. Washington has enough trouble just getting alliance members to properly finance NATO, and the European economic crisis has cast new doubt on Europe's ability--and willingness--to write large checks annually for the Afghan forces. U.S. officials will ask NATO members to agree to pay a large chunk of the 1 billion euro annually that Gordon says the administration's wants the international community to fork over each year.

"There is a huge deficit there in terms of the budget for the Afghan forces," Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told U.S. News & World Report on Thursday. "I hope to see evidence at the summit that NATO members are committed to addressing that."

 Russia. When NATO members scan the room next Saturday for the first time, they won't see Vladimir Putin, the once-and-again Russian president. He is sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, telling Obama via telephone that he is too busy forming his cabinet to cross the Atlantic. What some quickly dubbed a snub underscores the prickly relations between Russia and the alliance.

Gordon was nonchalant Thursday when asked about Putin's decision, telling a Senate panel "and that's that" after describing how Obama was informed. With Putin back at the helm--officially--in the Kremlin, "we'll see" how the U.S. and NATO relationships with Moscow evolve, Gordon added with a shrug.

Russian officials are miffed that a missile defense shield Washington and several of its NATO partners are planning to install in Europe is designed to take down Moscow's missiles. U.S. and alliance officials, who were just in Moscow for a missile defense forum, have repeatedly told their Russian counterparts the system is designed to intercept Iranian missiles, not Russian ones. "Let me be clear, NATO is not a threat to Russia, and Russia is not a threat to NATO," Gordon said, noting Putin was either president or prime minister over the last decade, when Washington and Moscow have inked a list of sweeping pacts.

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NATO's Future. As European nations shrink their militaries and shed combat troops and equipment, there is much consternation about what the alliance should do--and can do--in the future. One of the White House's core goals for the Chicago powwow is "maintaining NATO's core defense capabilities during this period of austerity and building a force ready for future challenges," Gordon said.

Kupchan warns any notions of turning it into "an all-purpose vehicle of choice for military operations around the world would likely lead to its demise, not revitalization." While some officials and experts have talked about adding members outside Europe, Kupchak warns doing so would "saddle it with unsustainable burdens and insurmountable political divides."

NATO nations, especially France and the U.K., won high marks for their prominent roles in the 2011 campaign that drove Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi from power. There has been talk in national security circles that the Libya campaign of air strikes is a model for the kinds of things NATO should be geared to do in the future. But Kupchak says "the Libya operation does not represent a model for the future" because many of its features "would be difficult to replicate" for missions in other parts of the globe.

Given Europe's financial woes, Kerry says alliance members must "set priorities" and "decide what's important and what's less important."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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