NATO Plans 'Irreversible Transition' In Afghanistan

President Obama held a press conference Monday afternoon as NATO wrapped up its Chicago summit. Audie Cornish talks to Scott Horsley for more.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour in Chicago, where President Obama wrapped up a NATO summit today, with what he called a clear roadmap for ending the war in Afghanistan. The plan calls for Afghan forces to take the lead in all combat operations by next summer, paving the way for withdrawal of foreign combat troops by 2014.

NPR's Scott Horsley is in Chicago for the NATO summit and he joins us now. And Scott, I want to ask you about the Afghan talks, but first, some politics intruded on the post-NATO news conference, I hear. The president was asked about some tough political attacks in his re-election campaign that they've been lobbing at Mitt Romney.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right, Audie. Since last week, the Obama campaign has been waging a coordinated attack on Romney's record with his investment firm, Bain Capital. That effort includes videos of workers who've lost their jobs at companies that Bain invested in, even as Romney and his investment partners made millions. Now, Romney has labeled this character assassination. And even some of the president's own allies have said the attacks go too far. But when he was asked about this today, Mr. Obama did not back down. He said the job of president involves a lot more than just maximizing profit. And he says, since Romney has cited his business background as his main qualification for the White House, Mr. Obama argues the examination of that record is fair game.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about, is what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed. And that means I've got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I'm thinking about folks who have been much more successful.

HORSLEY: So, don't look for any let-up in the messaging from the Obama campaign about Bain Capital. In fact, they've already announced plans for another news conference tomorrow.

CORNISH: All right. Getting back to foreign policy and back to NATO, what's the significance of this new 2013 milestone that the president announced today? And would that step back mean less danger for U.S. troops once Afghan forces are in the lead?

HORSLEY: Well, as you said at the outset, this is a roadmap for ending the war. And to get to that point in 2014 when the U.S. and other foreign combat troops can withdraw, Afghan forces need to take more and more responsibility for their own country's security. Mr. Obama said that's good for US troops, he also said it's good for the people of Afghanistan, some of whom have gotten tired of having so many foreign forces in their country after a decade of war. That said, Mr. Obama said the transition to Afghan leadership is not necessarily going to be an easy one, and U.S. forces may still find themselves in harm's way.

OBAMA: I don't think that there's 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, you know, wrap up all our equipment and go home. There's a process and it's sometimes a messy process.

HORSLEY: But, Mr. Obama says Afghan forces will never be ready to secure their own country if they're not tested with that responsibility.

CORNISH: At the same time, Scott, there's mounting political pressure, not only in the U.S., but from certain quarters in Europe, about speeding the withdrawal of combat forces.

HORSLEY: That's right. You know, the war has been going on for more than a decade and the countries involved are losing patience, some of them. We've talked a lot in the last week about France, where the new President Hollande ran on a platform of withdrawing his country's combat troops by the end of this year. President Hollande reiterated his plans to do that, but he does say France could continue to help the Afghan effort in other ways.

And, you know, that war fatigue is not limited to France. Polls in this country show large majorities want the troops brought home as quickly as possible. Even among Republicans, there are now more people saying we should bring the troops home quickly than saying we should stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to secure that country. So that's the political backdrop that NATO leaders have, in some ways, been reacting to.

CORNISH: And finally, what is NATO saying about what happens after 2014?

HORSLEY: Right, 2014 is when the combat mission ends, but they stress that's not when NATO's investment in Afghanistan, its interest in Afghanistan will end. They have pledged to continue to stay involved with that country. And that includes helping to pay for those Afghan security forces. The price tag for equipping and outfitting the Afghan security forces after 2014 is expected to be north of $4 billion a year. Most of that money will come from the U.S. and from other allies, only about half a billion is expected to come from the Afghans themselves.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley in Chicago, where the NATO summit wrapped up today. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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