'No rush for the exits' by NATO coalition in Afghanistan
NATO leaders insisted last night that the Afghanistan fighting coalition will remain whole despite France's plans to remove combat troops early.
Afghanistan was expected to dominate the two-day NATO summit, which caps an extraordinary weekend of international summitry.
On Saturday, leaders of the world's leading industrial nations in the Group of Eight wrapped up two days of talks, mostly about the European economic crisis, in the Camp David presidential retreat outside Washington.
The NATO summit, in US President Barack Obama's home city of Chicago, comes as public opinion in Europe and the United States is solidly against the Afghanistan war, with a majority of Americans now saying it is unwinnable or not worth continuing.
It also comes as newly elected French President Francois Hollande has said he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end -- a full two years before the timeline agreed to by the US-led NATO coalition.
But NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance remains committed to Afghanistan.
"There will be no rush for the exits," he said. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remains unchanged."
World leaders were looking at Afghanistan's post-conflict future -- from funding for security to upcoming elections.
Mr Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were to meet yesterday on the sidelines of the summit.
Their hour-long discussion was expected to focus on planning for Afghanistan's 2014 elections, as well as the prospect of a political settlement with the Taliban, a senior Obama administration official said.
Mr Karzai has said repeatedly 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 the following year.
The US official said Mr Obama and Mr Karzai also plan a lengthy discussion of prospects for a political settlement or peace pact between Mr Karzai's government and the Taliban-led insurgency.
The Taliban pulled out of US-led talks in March, but separate talks among Afghan and other contacts continue, the US official said.