NEWPORT, Wales — NATO’s optimistic proclamations on Afghanistan went head-to-head with a bleak reality on Thursday as leaders of the alliance met to discuss the final chapter in their aid to that country after nearly 13 years of war.
President Barack Obama and other NATO heads of state are meeting at a posh resort not far from the Welsh capital of Cardiff. Such events are typically well-scripted and offer few surprises, but this summit finds the alliance facing a myriad of security issues that challenge its capabilities and purpose.
Officials were careful to avoid any loaded talk of a “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan, and they readily acknowledged that there is a long road ahead, but NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that the alliance is proud of its achievements.
“For over a decade, NATO allies and partner nations have stood should to shoulder in our most challenging combat mission,” Rasmussen said during remarks before a closed-door session to discuss the future of NATO involvement in Afghanistan. “We have done what we pledged to do.”
But the news out of Afghanistan continued to cast a cloud of uncertainty over the discussions. As NATO heads of state gathered in Wales on Thursday, at least 12 Afghans died and more than 200 were injured by a suicide attack; NATO’s International Security Assistance Force announced that another coalition soldier had died during an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan, underscoring the fact that more than 40,000 NATO and partner troops remain in the war-torn country.
And in an embarrassing incident, British media reported that a senior Afghan Army officer sought asylum upon arriving in the United Kingdom, although Afghan officials denied that he was part of the official delegation.
In addition, an unresolved presidential election meant there was no Afghan head of state to fete at the summit, complicating any messages of closure and undermining talk of future plans.
More immediately, the election dispute has left a critical agreement over future international troop commitments unsigned. Financial donors have said a peaceful political transition is a prerequisite for the future aid upon which Afghanistan relies.
Rising levels of violence have led Afghan officials to ask for more money to maintain the current number of some 350,000 security forces, rather than reducing them as envisioned by plans made several years ago.
While Rasmussen did not announce specific numbers, NATO officials privately admitted that contributor nations have resigned themselves to funding a larger number of Afghan troops than originally planned, at least for the near future.
“Today, nations renewed their financial commitments to support the sustainment of the ANSF, including to the end of 2017,” a declaration released on Thursday by NATO read. “We also urge the wider international community to remain engaged in the financial sustainment of the ANSF.”
Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Muhammadi, who was sent to represent Afghanistan appeared satisfied with the response he received at the summit.
“The international community has strong support for Afghanistan,” he told Stars and Stripes after the meeting with NATO leaders. “We came away with a reaffirmation of NATO’s continued support for Afghanistan.”
NATO donors pledged to help Afghanistan fund its security forces to the tune of $5.1 billion per year, an increase over what was expected during the last NATO summit in 2012, Muhammadi said.
But the challenges in Afghanistan have been overshadowed by NATO’s Cold War foe, Russia, and the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq. Later on Thursday, NATO leaders moved on to the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s involvement in the region, seen as one of the most pressing challenges to the alliance.
The final day of the summit on Friday will feature sessions examining the future of NATO, a topic also expected to be dominated by Ukraine, as well as the bloody conflicts in the Middle East. Top American officials such as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are expected to meet with their counterparts in closed-door discussions.
U.S. officials say leaders will seek to use the experience in Afghanistan to lay the foundation for NATO’s future.
“We’re moving into a world in which NATO will be less salient in Afghanistan, but in which we want to capitalize on the lessons that we’ve learned, the partnerships that we’ve built — what we’re calling the interoperability platform that has emerged where NATO members have learned to work with a very wide range of countries across the globe,” Charles Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters during a conference call last week.