Obama Returns Touting NATO Successes

President Obama came back from Portugal talking up his wins at the NATO summit. The president got Russian buy-in on efforts to build a missile-defense system for Europe, and persuaded NATO leaders and Afghanistan's president to agree to his plan to gradually reduce allied forces there over the next four years and put Afghans in control of security by the end of 2014.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Obama is back in Washington today after what he called a successful summit of NATO leaders in Portugal. The president managed to get Russian buy-in on efforts to build a missile defense system for Europe. He also got NATO leaders and Afghanistan's president to gradually reduce allied forces there over the next four years and put Afghans in control of security by the end of 2014.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Lisbon.

ERIC WESTERVELT: After more than nine years of war, the Afghan mission is increasingly unpopular with European voters, especially as the sovereign debt crisis and financial woes continue to rattle nerves from Athens to Lisbon.

(Soundbite of drumming)

WESTERVELT: On Saturday, thousands took to central Lisbon's well-swept streets to protest NATO and its mission in Afghanistan. Some held signs that read: jobs not war.

Jack Faht(ph), a French Communist activist, traveled from Paris to take part. He says Europeans are fed up with what they see as an endless war.

Mr. JACK FAHT: After years and years, the situation is worse and worse. So, many, many people in Europe are asking themselves what is the solution? Maybe it's too difficult, you know. Everybody knows that it's a very complicated situation but NATO isn't the solution; it is a part of the problem.

WESTERVELT: A few miles away inside a sprawling, heavily guarded convention center, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was making the case for extending the combat mission for at least another four years.

Secretary-General ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (NATO): We are attacking the Taliban strongholds and we are making progress, and we will see steady progress in the coming months and years.

WESTERVELT: Rasmussen stood beside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to announce agreement on the new NATO strategy. It envisions gradually turning security control over to Afghan forces starting next July, with the aim of Afghans in full control by the end of 2014. President Obama said the goal is to end the kind of American combat mission now under way in Afghanistan by the end of that year. But past that date, the president cautioned, that it's hard to foresee what kind of U.S. role will remain.

President BARACK OBAMA: Certainly our footprint will have been significantly reduced. But beyond that, you know, it's hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary to keep the American people safe as of 2014.

WESTERVELT: The president and Secretary Rasmussen both stressed that the handover plan does not mean NATO will walk away after 2014. But Rasmussen said the majority of foreign forces, if all goes well, would leave and those remaining would be mostly trainers and advisors.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: I don't foresee ISAF troops in a combat role beyond 2014 provided, of course, that the security situation allows us to move into a more supportive role.

WESTERVELT: President Karzai has repeatedly clashed in public with NATO over strategy and tactics. Recently, he said night raids by foreign forces fueled the insurgency and were counterproductive. But on Saturday, Karzai praised this NATO agreement.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): This strong commitment by the international community will be matched by determination and hard work by the people of Afghanistan. The two combined will give us the results of an effective, irreversible and sustainable transition.

WESTERVELT: But little in Afghanistan has proved irreversible. Karzai's government is still widely seen as ineffectual and corrupt. There's fear the Taliban will simply wait it out. The insurgency remains robust despite intense military pressure.

Allied deaths have reached record levels this year - more than 650 killed - and the Taliban have launched attacks in parts of the country once seen as safe.

Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says while the U.S. calls the 2014 draw-down plan a transition strategy the Europeans see it as an exit strategy.

Mr. NICK WITNEY (Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations): Public opinion has swung very strongly against the Afghan engagement. We think it's actually making us more vulnerable to terrorism here, not less. Certainly, as far as European allies are concerned, we're getting out within that time frame, ready or not.

WESTERVELT: As for the Taliban waiting out NATO, Witney says we'll be lucky if they wait. In some parts of the country, they're winning.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Lisbon.

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