By Charlene Porter
Drawing a road map for NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and agreement on steps to increase the alliance’s defense capabilities are the notable achievements of the NATO summit, President Obama said May 21 as he delivered a final assessment of the meeting held over the weekend in Chicago.
Citing an “unwavering commitment to collective defense,” Obama said NATO nations agreed to invest in defense capabilities and new technologies that meet the alliance’s security needs.
The 63-year-old alliance is also making progress on its missile-defense system, and Obama recognized other NATO nations for increasing their leadership in this area. “Our defense radar in Turkey will be placed under NATO control,” Obama said. “Spain, Romania and Poland have agreed to host key U.S. assets. The Netherlands will be upgrading radars.”
Obama also emphasized that a NATO missile-defense system is not intended to compromise Russia’s strategic deterrent. “I continue to believe that missile defense can be an area of cooperation with Russia,” he said.
Another important achievement of the summit was agreement to wind down the 10-year operation in Afghanistan with “a plan that trains Afghan security forces, transitions to the Afghans and builds a partnership that can endure after our combat mission in Afghanistan ends,” Obama said.
The troops from NATO nations will steadily draw down as Afghan National Security Forces take the leadership role by the middle of next year, with NATO troops remaining in a support mode. By the end of 2014, Obama said, the plan calls for Afghan forces to take full responsibility for the security of their country.
But NATO involvement in Afghanistan’s future will not end there, Obama said, and the partnership with Kabul to defeat al-Qaida and bring progress to the long-beleaguered nation will continue.
Non-NATO nations have been longtime participants in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and they too met with NATO leaders to craft this road map to war’s end. Obama called the meeting of such a wide range of nations “unprecedented”; it included 28 NATO members and 13 leaders from European, Middle Eastern, North African and Asian nations.
“Each of these countries has contributed to NATO operations in different ways — military, political, financial — and each wants to see us do more together,” Obama said. “To see the breadth of those countries represented in that room is to see how NATO has truly become a hub of global security.”
A key goal of the Afghanistan operation has been to expel al-Qaida from the nation and close down its safe haven there, a goal that Obama said has been met. But as the NATO summit ended, a terrorist attack in Yemen, blamed on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), killed more than 100 people and injured close to 200, according to news reports.
A journalist questioned the U.S. president about that attack, and whether it could be a sign that Yemen is sinking into anarchy. Obama noted the strong counterterrorism partnership that the United States has formed with the Yemeni government.
“We’re going to continue to work with the Yemeni government to try to identify AQAP leadership and operations and try to thwart them,” Obama said. “That’s important for U.S. safety. It’s also important for the stability of Yemen and for the region.”
Ending his briefing on a positive note, Obama saluted the city of Chicago, a first-time host to a summit of this kind. The president was not shy in expressing his pride in his hometown.
“People had a wonderful time and I think the Chicagoans that they interacted with couldn’t have been more gracious and more hospitable,” he said. “So I could not have been prouder.”
The NATO summit was met with significant protests on the Chicago streets, with denunciations of the alliance’s defense strategy and calls to end the Afghan war. But protesters did not derail the meeting; instead, Obama said, the protesters have NATO to thank for their freedoms.
“Part of what NATO defends is free speech and the freedom of assembly,” Obama said.