NATO chief says 'no rush for the exits' in Afghanistan

NATO's secretary-general said his organization's commitment in Afghanistan remains strong, as leaders from 60 countries gathered for the alliance's summit in Chicago.

Maintaining security tops list of concerns as pullout nears

NATO's secretary-general, speaking as leaders from 60 countries gather for the alliance's summit in Chicago, says the organization's commitment in Afghanistan remains strong.

"There will be no rush for the exits," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said shortly before the two-day summit opened Sunday. "We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end. Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged."

Military operations by the remaining Western partners are set to wrap up in 2014, and the question on the minds of many is what comes next. Although the ranks of the Afghan army have swelled to almost 350,000 it remains a struggling force that exerts no control over large swaths of the country.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister David Cameron arrive in Chicago Saturday after travelling together from the G8 summit at Camp David. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

NATO says the priority is making sure the transition takes place peacefully.

"We will complete our ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission by the end of 2014, but we will remain committed to our long-term partnership with the Afghan people," Rasmussen recently told reporters.

"I expect NATO will train, advise and assist Afghan security forces. But I do not expect this to be ISAF by another name. That will be a new mission with a new role for NATO."

Canada ended its military mission in 2011 but continues to provide about 900 Canadian Forces personnel to operate training programs. Such programs will continue after 2014, but it's still not clear whether Canada will remain part of it.

'We haven't made any final decisions'

"We will assess what is necessary to make sure that Afghanistan continues to progress towards being a state that is not a threat to global security and that is able to take care of its own security," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week when asked last week about Canada's position.

"Those are our objectives and beyond that, we haven’t made any final decisions."

A demonstrator gestures Saturday during a protest before the start of a NATO summit in Chicago. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

The Canadian government is also being coy about what it is being asked to provide, neither confirming nor denying reports it has been approached to maintain Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan beyond 2014, even though Rasmussen has publicly stated he would welcome Canada’s continued participation.

"We've been there for more than 10 years," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told CBC Radio's The House in an interview that aired Saturday. "The Canadian Forces have done a fantastic job in their training mission. They've paid a heavy price in their combat mission. I'm not prepared to commit to any more than that at this time."

Securing public support for any continuance of a Canadian military role in Afghanistan would likely be politically difficult for Harper.

In addition to the public's aversion to keeping troops on the ground, the Defence Department took one of the biggest hits in March's federal budget, told to trim over $1 billion in spending over the next three years.

"I think we have to be clear and declarative," the NDP's Paul Dewar said in Ottawa last week.

"And we should be saying we've done our part and that's it when it comes to the military side."

Request for funding

However, all NATO partners have been asked to come up with about $4 billion US in annual funding so the Afghan government can maintain its own military once NATO leaves.

It is expected that U.S. President Barack Obama, the host of the summit, will announce that goal has been reached, with the United States contributing at least half of the money.

The commitment is expected to ensure the Afghan military will be able to maintain a force of 225,000 soldiers for at least a decade after NATO leaves, which means more than 100,000 Afghan personnel could be put out of work, a scenario causing some concern.

NATO officials say that is an issue that will be dealt with when the time comes.

Also on the agenda will be discussions of the continuing nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, as well as condemnation of the continuing violent crackdown against protesters in Syria.

Protesters gather

The NATO summit caps an extraordinary weekend of international gatherings. Leaders of the world's leading industrial nations in the Group of Eight convened at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat outside Washington, for two days of talks focused largely on Europe's economic crisis.

Protesters were gathering in Chicago ahead of the summit and thousands were expected to march to the convention centre where the meeting will take place. Hundreds of demonstrators marched in the streets on Saturday. Police said 18 people were arrested in clashes between protesters and police.

Both the G8 and NATO summits were originally scheduled to be held in Chicago, but the White House abruptly announced this spring that the G8 would be moved to Camp David. Officials said the move was aimed at facilitating a more intimate discussion among the leaders at the smaller summit.

Joining the G8 leaders in Chicago are the heads of NATO alliance nations and other countries with a stake in the Afghan war.

Aghanistan President Hamid Karzai has said repeatedly that he will step down from power when his term ends in 2014, paving the way for new elections. NATO's scheduled end of the war was built around those plans, with foreign forces staying until the 2014 election but exiting the country by 2015.

With files from CBC's James Fitz-Morris, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press