In advance of the Chicago NATO Summit, the U.S. has been prodding financially stressed nations in Europe to chip in more for defense and help pay about a third of the estimated tab for maintaining Afghan National Security Forces after NATO combat troops pull out by 2014.
NATO has a goal of members spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense; the U.S. spends double that while most of Europe barely makes the benchmark.
I asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta if convincing nations to maintain that 2 percent pledge was realistic given the dismal state of European economies.
"We got to continue to press them to invest in their defense and in their countries' national defense. That really is important. And it is not going to be easy," Panetta said.
"Many of these countries are going through serious budget problems. . . . It is very important that we continue to press these allies to not only develop the capabilities that NATO has to have for the future, but be willing, regardless of tight budgets, to keep up the investment in the national defense.
"We cannot walk away from the commitment that has to be made by everyone in NATO if we are going to be able to meet the threats of the future," Panetta said.
Panetta and I discussed NATO funding and his trip to Chicago for the summit at McCormick Place in an interview where I also asked about his long-time relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The two served in the Clinton White House and both are former chiefs of staff -- Panetta for former President Bill Clinton and Emanuel for President Barack Obama.
Once Chicago landed the summit, Panetta recalled, Emanuel called him "to ask not only what he could do, but he also had a few suggestions where we should hold dinners."
On Sunday, according to City Hall, Panetta is tentatively scheduled to appear with Emanuel at a business roundtable on the Near North Side. On Monday, Panetta will visit the James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, along with Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki. The facility is run through a unique joint VA/Department of Defense partnership.
The future of Afghanistan is a centerpiece of the Sunday-Monday NATO Summit, and there is a concern that some of the countries in NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan are not enthused about being part of a major post 2014 commitment.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon estimated that it will cost $4.1 billion annually to sustain the Afgan Security Force beyond 2014. The U.S. is looking for pledges from allies to come up with about $1.3 billion each year; the Afghan government would throw in $500 million and the U.S. would pay the rest.
What leverage, I asked Panetta, does the U.S. have if nations don't want to stick around Afghanistan?
"In 1989 the international community abandoned Afghanistan to years of civil war; that was followed by Taliban rule," Panetta said. "That was a serious mistake and we will not repeat that mistake. We can't afford to repeat that mistake."
Only the U.S. has made a sweeping commitment to Afghanistan, to provide assistance through 2024.
The timeline will vary for the other partners, Panetta said, but the allied nations, he believes, will step up -- to help with local police, agriculture projects or other training.
What is Panetta hearing from his counterpart defense ministers?
Said Panetta, "They think they would be making a serious mistake if they simply walked away from all of the effort that has been made to try to put Afghanistan on the right path towards success."