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Obama and NATO face uncertainty instead of closure in Afghanistan

When President Obama and other leaders belonging to the NATO coalition meet this week in Newport, Wales, they'll have plenty on their plate to discuss, between Russia's hostility toward Ukraine and the growing threat from ISIS. Before tackling those subjects, however, they'll have to address the unexpectedly complicated situation in Afghanistan.

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After 13 years of war in Afghanistan, NATO allies expected that this week's summit would mark the smooth withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. NATO countries are expected to keep troops there past this year with the mission of training and advising Afghan security forces. Now, however, with the results of Afghanistan's presidential elections unclear, it's unclear what role the U.S. and NATO will play there.

"When the summit was announced a year ago, everyone thought this would be a meeting in which NATO... would celebrate the end of the mission," Ivo Daalder, former U.S. permanent representative to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told reporters Wednesday. "The developments in Afghanistan have put a monkey wrench in that part of the conversation."

The United States and its allies have been waiting for months for Afghan leadership to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would provide the legal framework for the U.S. to keep troops in Afghanistan past this year -- critically, that would include immunity for troops. However, outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the agreement. The two candidates competing to replace Karzai, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have agreed to sign it, but both are contesting the election results.

Without a signed agreement protecting U.S. troops, the U.S. would pull all troops out of Afghanistan, and NATO allies would follow.

"I think there's a lot of nervousness... particularly on the military side, in terms of the timelines," Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told reporters last week. "If there's not a BSA for the U.S. -- and ergo, not a BSA for NATO with Afghanistan -- that there would have to be a very stressful timeline to pull out troops."

Yet with no political agreement in sight, no head of state from Afghanistan will be present at the NATO summit.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Kabul last week that the Pentagon would let U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan even if the political stalemate is drawn out "a little further than we hoped it would."

Hicks that "we're playing a little bit of a game of chicken here."

"I do think... we are being respectful, perhaps, is the way to put it, to the Afghan political process," she added.

Under all of this uncertainty, the U.S. this week is seeking to secure the financial and troop commitments needed from NATO countries to maintain the advising and training mission in Afghanistan.

"The main effort there is really, number one, the resources, and two, getting the warm bodies ready," Charles Kupchan, senior director for Europe at the National Security Council, told reporters over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the growing threat of Islamic extremists in Iraq is expected to loom over the Afghanistan discussions. Extremists gained a foothold in Iraq after the United States withdrew from there in 2011, and already, the Taliban is attempting to exploit the political weaknesses in Afghanistan.

Hicks said it's unclear whether that will "change the calculus with regard to the timeline commitment in Afghanistan."

"The United States and certainly NATO allies, as best we can tell, are holding the line in terms of their decisions to ramp down on a timetable," she said. "But there is also time... for a change of position on that, should the Afghan political process stall."

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