Harper pledges Afghan funds after troops exit in 2014

Canada is pledging $110 million annually to help fund the embattled Afghan National Army after the withdrawal of Canadian soldiers in March 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.

$110M annual commitment for Afghan army after NATO withdrawal

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a closing press conference on Afghanistan during the NATO Summit in Chicago on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada is pledging $110 million annually to help fund the embattled Afghan National Army after the withdrawal of Canadian soldiers in March 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.

The funding commitment is for three years, starting in 2015 and expiring in 2017, according to a statement from the Prime Minister's Office.

Harper made the announcement on Monday afternoon at a summit of NATO leaders in Chicago, where U.S. President Barack Obama has been trying to drum up international support for the alliance's post-combat involvement in Afghanistan.

NATO leaders used the summit to affirm their commitment to ending the deeply unpopular war in 2014 and voiced confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to take the lead for securing their country even sooner.

The alliance leaders formally agreed to a strategy that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops as they held a second and final day of NATO meetings in Chicago, Obama's hometown.

Afghanistan fatigue

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the March 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan is the earliest possible date. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The arc of Harper's views on Afghanistan might have been summed in his body language as he and other NATO leaders began their final day of meetings to discuss the alliance's problem child.

Harper was once the strongest proponent of the war in Afghanistan, vowing Canada woudn't cut and run.

But at the meeting, he rocked back and forth in his chair and didn't even bother to stifle a yawn.

"If you asked me frankly, would I wish it was earlier, I would say yes," Harper said of the 2014 final pullout.

"But I think we're doing it as early as is feasible."

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They declared in a communiqué that while NATO will maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan after 2014, "this will not be a combat mission."

Harper described Canada's contribution as generous, saying it was designed to set an example for other nations to follow.

It is estimated that it will cost $4.1 billion a year for Afghanistan to run its security forces once the NATO-led coalition pulls out in 2014.

Canada had been asked to consider leaving some soldiers in Afghanistan post-2014 to continue to help with training, but Harper said the deadline is firm.

He said it is not an abandonment of Afghanistan but a transfer of responsibility to the Afghans.

The coalition of 50 NATO members and allies declared an "irreversible transition" that will put Afghan forces in the lead of the combat mission by the middle of next year.

Even in a backup role, though, the U.S. forces and all the rest will still face combat and attacks until the war's end.

In essence, the partners, led by Obama, are staying the course, sticking with a timeline long established and underscoring that there will be no second-guessing the decision to leave.

Since 2010, they have been planning to finish the war at the end of 2014, even as moves by nations such as France to pull combat troops out early has tested the strength of the coalition.

NATO 'will not desert' Afghans, Cameron says

The shift to have Afghan forces take the lead of the combat mission next year has also been expected. Leaders presented it as a significant turning point in the war.

It will be "the moment when throughout Afghanistan people can look out and see their own troops and police stepping up to the challenge," said the NATO chief, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. It is time, Obama said, to "responsibly bring this war to an end."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the leaders were "making a decisive and enduring commitment to the long-term future of Afghanistan.

"The message to the Afghan people is that we will not desert them. And the message to the insurgency is equally clear: You cannot win on the battlefield. You should stop fighting and start talking," Cameron said.

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The political stakes are high for the U.S. president, who will go before voters in November with tens of thousands more troops in Afghanistan than when we took office. His emphasis will remain that he is methodically winding down the war, after closing out the one in Iraq; U.S. voters desperate for better economic times have long stopped approving of the war mission.

The war dominated the summit, with the uneasy presence and ongoing tension with Pakistan eroding some of the choreographed unity.

Obama had no official talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, although the two chatted briefly along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Deep conflicts remained over Pakistan's closure of key transit routes that NATO needs to support troops in Afghanistan — and to get those troops out.

The fighting alliance called negotiation the key to ending the insurgency in Afghanistan, but avoided mentioning the Taliban by name. The insurgents walked away from U.S.-led talks in March, and urged the NATO nations to follow the lead of France in pledging to remove combat forces ahead of schedule.

With files from The Canadian Press