By Mike Mount
This year's NATO summit in Chicago is the biggest one ever, with some 60 countries expected to be in attendance and a host of issues crammed into two short days of meetings.
It is coming at a time when the alliance is under stress, with pressure to wrap up a war in Afghanistan, member countries with dwindling money reserves trying to help finance Afghanistan as it prepares to stand on its own, and questions on how strong the alliance really is in terms of its capabilities.
While only two days long, the summit will entail a number of complex meetings and discussions that will not unfold in front of TV cameras for all to see.
The meetings will take place in a large, highly secured convention hall outside downtown Chicago. So to help you sift through the bureaucratic talk that will be coming, we here at Security Clearance have put together a handy guide to navigating the NATO summit.
What's the point?
What does NATO really need to get out of this summit? It depends on what side of the ocean you are on. The Europeans will be looking at their pocketbooks and hammering out how they can pool resources and improve their military capabilities as they spend less on their militaries.
But, as the primary leader in the war in Afghanistan, the United States needs to have the alliance come together and hammer out details on what it wants the future of Afghanistan to look like.
The strategic partnership agreement signed by Afghanistan and the United States last month was nothing more than an outline, and U.S. officials have said they will use the summit to start defining what they want this relationship to look like.
As the 2014 deadline for the war in Afghanistan to end draws nearer, the United States and NATO need to use these two days to figure out how a post-NATO Afghanistan will look and how it will be paid for.
2014 and beyond
As U.S. President Barack Obama moves away from a counterinsurgency plan, the United States and NATO believe that the key for Afghanistan's success is to have a strong Afghan military and police force, neither of which is very strong at the moment. In order to build a stronger and more capable force, a good number of trainers will have to continue to work inside Afghanistan. You might be surprised at the number of U.S. troops left in Afghanistan for years to come, depending on the final number of Afghan security forces that will be put into place.
Also, keep an eye out for the number of actual U.S. troops that will be left to hunt Taliban and al Qaeda. That number, too, still has to be decided and will involve negotiations with the Afghan government, which is not keen on keeping actual combat troops within its borders.
The Afghan troop numbers game
As of now the top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, says they are assuming Afghan military and police forces will total 352,000 personnel. Others have suggested around 275,000 or 250,000. The final number may come down to how much it will cost to maintain such a force for the country and how much commitment money the United States will get from its NATO allies and partner countries.
The number of Afghan security forces will also be a factor in the decision on how many U.S. troops will remain in country to train those security forces.
No tote bags, but pledges needed
One of the priorities for the United States will be to start pressuring member countries to kick in for what will be a multibillion-dollar economic plan. The bill could be at least $4 billion per year and the United States could put in about a quarter or as much as a half of that total. About 23 NATO partner nations have also pledged to donate. But while purse strings are being tightened in this world of austerity, the United States would like to see NATO members put in their fair share.
Pakistan ... the problem and solution
Now that it has been invited to the NATO meeting, Pakistan is under pressure to reopen the supply lines into Afghanistan. The first step to watch is if Pakistan will accept the invitation to the conference.
NATO is not really the crowd Pakistan wants to be around because discussions will almost certainly surround the lack of security in Pakistan's western tribal regions, where Taliban and al Qaeda militants hide and feed insurgents and weapons into Afghanistan.
However, look for more details to come out on Pakistan agreeing to more military operations in the border area.
Missile defense, Moscow takes offense
Outside of Afghan talks, the other hot topic will be the continued push to build up missile defense systems around Europe to protect from a ballistic missile attack from Iran, something Russia is vehemently opposed to.
U.S. officials have already said they do not expect a deal with Moscow this year, and Moscow is still pushing for an agreement by NATO that ensures the missile system would not be used against its missiles, something the United States and NATO will not do.
If NATO announces the placement of more systems around Europe, look for a blistering response from Moscow, which is already threatening arming its borders to counter, what it perceives as, a threat to its nuclear missile deterrent.
While NATO has said there will be no Libya-style intervention in Syria because there is no legal authority, expect some conversations about Syria to take place even though it is not officially on the agenda.
Because Turkey is part of NATO, and it has some legitimate concerns along its border with Syria, Turkey could start to put heavy pressure on the alliance to make some kind of move. It is a long shot, but look to see if there are discussions on whether a NATO force could be created to protect safe havens along the Turkey-Syrian border.
The NATO facebook
New French President Francois Hollande: The new socialist leader will be attending his first head-of-state NATO conference just days into his job. Early thoughts, based on what he has said as a candidate, could be that he will remove French troops from Afghanistan earlier than his predecessor was planning - as early as the end of this year, not in 2013.
It is not clear if he will go through with that plan, but it is worth keeping an eye on him to see how he builds his new NATO relationships, or not - especially if he announces while in Chicago that he is pulling his troops early.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari: While it has already been announced by the White House that Obama and Zardari will not meet in the Chicago summit if the Pakistani leader shows up, that does not mean Zardari will be sidelined. He knows that NATO members, especially the United States, will tread lightly in public so as to not irritate the Afghan neighbor, especially if the Pakistani government is still deliberating whether to open the crucial NATO supply lines.
Zardari could also take advantage of the United States stepping on diplomatic eggshells and make some public demands on NATO and the United States. But he has to show up to do that.
Russian President Vladimir Putin: Some analysts believe that Putin is not sincere in his saying he decided not to attend the Chicago summit because he has to assemble a new government, especially as the new French leader will come days after his first day on the job.
The real excuses could be that as the key to al-Assad's ouster, he does not want to face tough issues on Syria, and that he does not have much assistance to offer the West on Iran. He will be leaving that job to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who will be attending in his stead.
But expect the stone-faced but fiery leader to blast NATO from afar on its European missile defense program, which he believes is threatening his country's nuclear deterrent.
U.S. Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan: Allen, who has overseen the transition from counterinsurgency operations to the new train-and-equip strategy in Afghanistan, has also voiced concern about withdrawing troops too quickly over the final two years.
But Allen could be getting a promotion. U.S. officials tell CNN the president is expected to nominate Allen in early 2013 to lead U.S. European Command and to be the supreme allied commander of NATO.
An announcement could be made as early as in Chicago that Allen will be moved from his Kabul post. The move would keep Allen involved in Afghanistan, through NATO, but make room for a commander more suited to the shift to counterterrorism and special operations.
Allen also gets to have some fun. He's scheduled to throw a ceremonial pitch at a Chicago Cubs home game during the summit.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Karzai will leave office in 2014, the same year all U.S. combat forces are due out. He has been a thorn in the side of the United States for years now, but don't expect a victory dance from the United States or NATO when Karzai's time is up.
He undoubtedly will ensure the United States and NATO will not walk all over him in his final two years by leaving his mark on the ongoing strategic partnership agreement negotiations.