From Paul Richter, the Los Angeles Times: Just days before a NATO summit that leaders had hoped would present a carefully scripted display of unity on Afghanistan , the inauguration of a French president committed to an early drawdown has instead intensified a rush for the exits from an unpopular war.
In advance of this weekend’s summit in Chicago, the Obama administration and senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have been scrambling to ensure that alliance members remain committed to keeping troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, and to paying billions of dollars after that to prop up the Afghan government.
But that unanimity is in doubt with the arrival of French President Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader who campaigned on a vow to withdraw all 3,300 French troops by the end of this year.
Hollande’s victory sent a shock wave through NATO and sparked a highly unusual diplomatic campaign by the U.S. and other governments to persuade Hollande to reconsider his pledge. . . .
Because Hollande reportedly won’t announce his decision until after the May 20-21 summit, his presence in Chicago will be an uncomfortable reminder of divisions in the alliance. . . .
The Netherlands withdrew its entire 1,900-troop contingent in August 2010 after widespread public opposition to the Afghan mission helped bring down the Dutch government. Canada downsized to 508 troops from 2,700 in August, and to training from a combat role, after a debate over whether Canada was bearing a disproportionate share of NATO casualties.
Australia, which is not a member of NATO, will start to withdraw its 1,550 troops this year, and most will be out by the end of 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said last month. Political rivals said her goal was to allow her party to declare the Afghan mission mostly over before elections next year.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta surprised NATO allies in February when he told reporters that the administration wanted to hand off the lead in combat operations to Afghan security forces by late next year, not in 2014 as earlier planned. . . .
Jorge Benitez, a NATO analyst for the Atlantic Council of the United States, said moves by the Dutch, Canadians, Australians and even the Americans "have really pulled the cork out of the bottle. It could be that more countries will now say, ‘We have the leeway to go early.’" (photo: Los Angeles Times)