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'Large presence in Afghan can be counterproductive'

May 22, 2012 11:47 IST

United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday said having a large footprint in Afghanistan can be "counter-productive" in the long run and that it was time to pull back

troops and turn attention to domestic woes, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliance agreed on a 2014 end to the Afghan mission.

Obama said at a news conference in Chicago at the conclusion of the two-day NATO Summit that a decade of presence in a foreign country can not only cause a strain on the troops but also to the local population "which at a point is going to be very sensitive about its own sovereignty".

"Frankly, the large footprint that we have in Afghanistan over time can be counterproductive," Obama said endorsing the 2014 withdrawal timetable.

In Chicago, leaders of over 60 countries declared that the mission of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan would end in 2014, and NATO would have a new mission and role in Afghanistan after 2013 when all the international forces withdraw and Afghan security forces take over the mantle of the nation's security.

Obama agreed that while there were risks and challenges involved with the plan but it was time the Afghan security forces start taking responsibility for their country.

"I think it is the appropriate strategy whereby we can achieve a stable Afghanistan that won't be perfect, we can pull back our troops in a responsible way and we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we've been making in Afghanistan here back home, putting people back to work, retraining workers, rebuilding  our schools, investing in science and technology, developing our business climate," he said.

Obama said in areas where ISAF had presence, the Taliban have lost their foothold, and there has been genuine improvement in Afghan national security forces' performance, though the Taliban at large remains a robust enemy and gains made were still fragile.

"I don't think that there is ever going to be an optimal point where we say, this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home. This is a process and it's sometimes a messy process, just as it was in Iraq," he said.

Leaving Chicago with confidence and a clear roadmap, Obama said the US and its coalition partners are making substantial progress against defeating Al Qaeda and denying it safe haven, while helping the Afghans to stand on their own.

He said while 2013 will see Afghans taking responsibility for their country, NATO will continue to train, advise, assist, and support Afghan forces.

"Today the international community also expressed its strong support for efforts to bring peace and stability to South Asia, including Afghanistan's neighbours," he said.

Earlier, NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the alliance will have a new mission and role in Afghanistan after 2013.

"Let me be clear: this will not be ISAF under a different name... It will be a new mission, with a new role for NATO," he said after the meeting also attended by Afghan President Hamid, and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. The latter was conspicuously absent from the post meeting photo session of the leaders.

"Today, we reaffirmed our strong commitment to support the training, equpping, financing and capability development of Afghan forces in the years to come," Rasmussen said.

The NATO Chief said Afghan Forces will reach their full surge strength of 352,000 ahead of the scheduled deadline in October. The decision to gradually reduce these forces to a sustainable level will be taken once the transition process is complete after 2014 based on the assessment of the security situation and the capability of the Afghan forces.

Noting that the insurgency is under pressure as never before and the Afghan Security forces are growing in strength and confidence, Rasmussen said there was broad agreement that the Afghan security forces were well on track to take full security responsibility across the country by the end of 2014.

"A peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan will benefit the whole region and beyond. Many challenges remain, but we are determined to succeed. And based on today's discussions, I am confident we will," Rasmussen said.

Leaders of the NATO-led ISAF mission countries pledged to have a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, given that they still have a long way to go in the fight against terrorism and achieving political stability and satisfactory-level security in the country, to have another NATO-led mission post 2014.

The new mission, a joint declaration said, would have the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

"As the Afghan economy and the revenus of the Afghan government grow, Afghanistan's yearly share will increase progressively from at least $500 m in 2015, with the aim that it can assume, no later than 2024, full financial responsibility for its own security forces. In the light of this, during the Transformation Decade, we expect

international donors will reduce their financial contributions commensurate with the assumption by the Afghan government of increasing financial responsibility," the declaration said.

Sustained international help will prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a "safe haven" for terrorists, the declaration said.
Lalit K Jha in Washington
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