Only One Year of U.S.-Led Fighting Left

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President Obama and his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, at the NATO summit in Chicago on Sunday

President Obama’s goal at the NATO summit this week is looking increasingly clear: wrap up U.S. troops’ combat role over the coming year, and get the allies to pay more money to enable the Afghan military to fill the gap.

All signs are that NATO will agree to the first of those two goals Monday in Chicago.

That will permit NATO to withdraw most – perhaps the overwhelming majority — of the 130,000 troops still fighting in Afghanistan. The pullout will come more than a decade after the U.S. led a post-9/11 invasion of the country that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. The U.S. currently has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, a number slated to fall to 68,000 by this fall.

Washington also is seeking allied help in paying the estimated $4.1 billion bill to support the Afghan military beyond 2013. It is seeking $1.3 billion in annual pledges, but that is going to prove difficult amid Europe’s economic woes.

Pentagon officials pushed back against a story in Sunday’s New York Times reporting that “the generals were cut out entirely” from the planning of the U.S. handoff of combat responsibility to Afghan forces by mid-2013. The U.S. military endorsed the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan announced by Obama in late 2009, but most opposed his two-year limit on their deployment.

Given the nation’s war-weariness – the war has cost 1,976 U.S. lives so far, and an estimated $642 billion through next year – Obama wants to be able to declare this fall that the U.S.-led Afghan war is finished. “The Afghan war as we understand it is over,” Obama told reporters Sunday, when U.S. combat forces leave at the end of 2014.

He was plainly rehearsing a line you can expect to hear repeatedly prior to his bid for a second term in November. In contrast, likely GOP candidate Mitt Romney and the Republicans have charged that Obama is rushing to the Afghan exits and not doing enough to ensure the Taliban can not retake power after the U.S. leaves.

But make no mistake: the U.S. is on its way out of Afghanistan. Obama refused to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the summit because Pakistan has so far refused to re-open supply routes it shut down after an errant U.S. attack killed 24 Pakistani troops last year. While there are other ways out of Afghanistan – on the ground through Uzbekistan, and via air – shipping war materiel back to the U.S. through Karachi would be far faster and cheaper.

“We need to work to get the Pakistani lines back open, back up so that we can get equipment out,” says Marine Major General John A. Toolan Jr., just back from a year in Afghanistan. “You know if they want us out of there by 2014, Pakistan’s going to have to open up their lines or we just can’t get out of there by then.”