Securing strong commitments from some of Washington's closest allies on resources still needed in Afghanistan will make or break President Obama's chances of claiming success during the upcoming high-level NATO summit.
Highly orchestrated gatherings of dozens of world leaders often feature more sizzle than policy steak. But when NATO leaders huddle this weekend in Chicago, there will be a lot on the line for the president.
"If the summit concludes with shaky numbers from the allies on forces or resources for the ANSF or they change their missions from combat to just training," says Stephen Flanagan, a former adviser to Madeleine Albright during her tenure as Secretary of State, "that would be a triple whammy for Obama."
At the three-day powwow in Obama's hometown, "Afghanistan will be a major focus, in particular the commitment of the international community to the ANSF on a going-forward basis," says Michael Froman, a deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, referring to the fledgling Afghan national security forces.
"The president made Afghanistan one of the signature features of the summit," says Flanagan. "Now he needs the NATO allies to agree to a few things: Committing to a presence there until 2014, and monetary support for Afghan security forces beyond that."
Over the past several months, several European leaders have openly talked about withdrawing troops before most U.S. forces leave in 2014.
"President Obama can claim success just by avoiding the appearance of a rush to the exits," says Barry Pavel, a former senior White House and Pentagon official.
All eyes will be on newly installed French President Francois Hollande, who vowed on the campaign trail to bring his nation's forces home this year. For Obama, Hollande's attendance "is the huge wildcard," Pavel says.
To claim success, Obama also will have to gain assurance from his European counterparts that they will provide at least $1 billion for Afghanistan's military and police forces, experts say.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is looking to cobble together $4 billion for his security forces, Flanagan says. Karzai wants $2 billion to come from the U.S., another billion from the international community, including NATO members, and about $500 million from his own coffers, with other undecided entities making up any remainder, Flanagan says.
A monkey wrench could come from NATO leaders' collective reluctance to pony up tens of millions of euros because of the ongoing European economic crisis. Obama administration officials say they will urge NATO leaders to formally agree to help pay for the Afghan forces.
"There is a huge deficit there in terms of the budget for the Afghan forces," says Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker. "I hope to see evidence at the summit that NATO members are committed to addressing that."
National security and foreign policy experts' scorecards feature more than just Afghanistan-related columns. They also will be watching to see if Obama and his aides can push NATO leaders to expand the alliance's formal partnerships, like existing ones with Australia and Israel.
"There won't be an actual deliverable on partnerships coming out of Chicago," says Flanagan. "But Obama needs to be able to show the alliance is at least open to working with other nations."
That is especially true as U.S. and European national military spending shrinks, limiting the number of aircraft, helicopters and other platforms the alliance can afford.
Pavel says one region with which the alliance could forge new partnerships is the Middle East.
"Nations there are screaming for a closer relationship with NATO. ... Many of the Gulf Cooperation Council states are very concerned about the Iran threat," says Pavel. "The alliance is involved in the Middle East whether all the members like it or not."
With the cloud of budgetary and financial woes hanging over the summit, Obama must press European countries to "trot out four to six groups of nations that will work together to buy certain systems," Pavel says.
"For instance, if all the eastern European nations pooled money to buy F-16s, they could afford them. They could share jets and pilots," Pavel says. "But a F-16 buy would bankrupt any European defense budget individually. That's really good stuff, and we need to do more of it."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.