WASHINGTON --President Barack Obama made a quick trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday to sign an agreement with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai about the future of the nation once troops leave in 2014 -- with many details to be filled in at the upcoming Chicago NATO Summit.
"This month, at a NATO Summit in Chicago, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year," Obama said in a speech made from the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
". . . In Chicago, we will endorse a proposal to support a strong and sustainable long-term Afghan force," Obama said. And in Chicago, "the international community will express support for this plan and for Afghanistan's future," he said.
The summit, May 20-21 at McCormick Place, has three broad issues on the agenda:
† Supporting Afghanistan as the nation is transitioning to take control of its own security.
† Bolstering NATO's defense capabilities -- including the use of unarmed drones and missiles.
† Strengthening and showcasing NATO partnerships -- within NATO and with allies who are not members of NATO.
The cast in this summit -- NATO's biggest -- includes about 60 global leaders with their teams of defense and foreign ministers, top military brass and ambassadors.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the world's strongest military and political alliance, has 28 members. The Chicago summit also includes 22 members of the International Security Assistance Force -- known as ISAF -- NATO plus non-NATO countries supporting the military operation in Afghanistan.
On May 20, the NATO members will meet among themselves.
On May 21, the session will include NATO/ISAF partners and other invitees, including representatives from the European Union, World Bank and the United Nations. This meeting also will include Russia and other central Asian states contributing to the NATO/ISAF mission by supporting supply lines in and out of Afghanistan running through those countries.
"There is so much activity taking place at major summits like this, with different groupings and configurations, that it almost feels like multiple rings of a circus. But in the end, we find real substantive outcomes that bring the Alliance together to move forward on key priorities," Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council, told the Sun-Times.
In the runup to the Chicago summit, NATO officials have been holding series of meetings to reach consensus on the issues to be discussed in Chicago -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were at NATO headquarters in Brussels with their counterparts last month.
NATO is expected to produce one major declaration or communique at the end of the summit.
"That is something that is being negotiated in real time as we are working through all those 'deliverables,' " Sherwood-Randall said.
The issue of Afghanistan's future has a variety of components -- including forging agreements for paying for assistance because Afghanistan is not ready to stand on its own.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, discussing the summit on Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, underscored the point about everyone chipping in: Rasmussen "made clear that the NATO allies and partners will pay their fair share to finance sufficient and sustainable Afghan forces after 2014."
One U.S. pre-summit goal already has been met: Last week, Obama and Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement. Several other countries signed similar agreements with Afghanistan. Those agreements are broad, by intent; the summit will create a game plan, goals and timelines.
Clinton, speaking last month to the World Affairs Council about the NATO summit and Afghanistan, said "in Chicago, we will work to define the next phase in this transition, in particular, we will look to set a milestone for 2013, when the ISAF will move from a predominantly combat role to a supporting role, training, advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces while participating in combat operations when necessary."
The second agenda issue is about a smarter use of NATO military muscle, tailored to the threats of this era -- a far different time than when NATO was created, in 1949, at the beginning of the Cold War.
The approach also deals with the financial realities -- nations are strapped for cash and NATO is pushing for more pooled resources.
"In Chicago, we will take the next steps, by approving a specific set of commitments and measures, and embracing the new approach we call Smart Defense," Rasmussen said.
Sherwood-Randall, in an April 30 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies previewing the summit, said the NATO nations leaders are expected to approve a "Deterrence and Defense Posture Review" that will "identify the approximate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities that NATO needs to meet 21st century security challenges."
Expanding NATO partnerships is an issue as the alliance has taken on operations -- such as in Afghanistan and Libya that are out of the geographical area of NATO members -- to deal with threats to NATO members.
Said Clinton: "In Chicago, we will build on these partnerships. . . . We'll recognize the operational, financial ad political contributions of our partners across a range of efforts to defend our common values in the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa."