Fate of Afghanistan is hot topic for NATO

Chicago meeting lures thousands of protesters

Demonstrators flow out of Grant Park in Chicago on Sunday during the weekend NATO summit. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told heads of state that while NATO troops will cede the lead role in fighting the Taliban and insurgents in 2013, NATO troops still will remain in the line of fire. Enlarge photo

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Demonstrators flow out of Grant Park in Chicago on Sunday during the weekend NATO summit. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told heads of state that while NATO troops will cede the lead role in fighting the Taliban and insurgents in 2013, NATO troops still will remain in the line of fire.

CHICAGO –President Barack Obama and NATO allies declared Sunday that the end of the long and unpopular Afghanistan war is in sight even as they struggled to hold their fighting force together in the face of dwindling patience and shaky unity.

From his hometown and the city where his re-election operation hums, Obama spoke of a post-2014 world when “the Afghan war as we understand it is over.” Until then, though, remaining U.S. and allied troops face the continued likelihood of fierce combat.

Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, offered a stern warning Sunday that the plan to give Afghan forces the lead in fighting next summer won’t take coalition troops out of harm’s way. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t be fighting,” Allen said. “It doesn’t mean that there won’t be combat.”

The fate of the war is both the center of this summit and a topic no one is celebrating as a mission accomplished. The alliance already has one foot out the Afghanistan door, Obama has his ear attuned to the politics of an economy-driven presidential election year and other allies are pinching pennies in a European debt crisis.

As NATO powers and other nations contributing to the war effort gathered, the alliance’s top officer, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asserted that “there will be no rush for the exits” in Afghanistan. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged,” he said.

In fact, the strategy has shifted many times during the course of more than 10 years of war, and the goal narrowed to objectives focused on the long-term security of the mostly Western nations fighting there. The timetable also has moved, despite the overall commitment to keep foreign forces in Afghanistan into 2014.

Thousands of protesters marched through downtown Chicago on Sunday in one of the city’s largest demonstrations in years, airing grievances about war, climate change and a wide range of other complaints as world leaders assembled for the summit.

The protest, which stirred worries about violence in the streets, was largely peaceful until the end, when a small group of demonstrators briefly clashed with a line of police who tried to keep them from the lakeside convention center where President Barack Obama is hosting the gathering.

Three activists who traveled to Chicago for the summit were accused Saturday of manufacturing Molotov cocktails in a plot to attack Obama’s campaign headquarters, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home and other targets.

Defense lawyers argued that the police had trumped up the charges to frighten away peaceful protesters. They told a judge it was undercover officers who brought the firebombs to an apartment in Chicago’s South Side where the men were arrested.

On Sunday, police said two other men were in custody after being accused of planning to make Molotov cocktails to be used during the NATO summit.

Sebastian Senakiewicz, 24, was charged with one felony count of terrorism/making a false threat. Mark Neiweem, 28, was charged with attempted possession of explosives. Both men were scheduled to appear in court later Sunday. It was not immediately clear if those arrests were related to the other three.

Tension over newly elected French President Francois Hollande’s pledge to end his country’s combat mission two years early infused the meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly cited the credo of the allies in the Afghanistan war, “in together, out together,” and her foreign minister cautioned against a “withdrawal competition” by coalition countries.

Hollande said he was merely being pragmatic in keeping a campaign pledge to pull combat troops this year but this still would “let the alliance continue to work.”