NATO allies declared the end of a long and unpopular Afghanistan war is in sight even as they struggled to hold their fighting force together as France's new president announced plans to pull troops out early.
The fate of the war was both the center of the two-day NATO summit that opened on Sunday in Chicago, and a topic no one is celebrating as a mission accomplished. The alliance already has one foot out the Afghanistan door, with the Europeans pinching pennies in a debt crisis and US President Barack Obama with an ear attuned to the politics of an economy-driven presidential election year.
Still, some cautioned against following France's example while others played down stresses in the fighting alliance.
“There will be no rush for the exits,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.”
The military alliance is pledged to remain in Afghanistan into 2014, but will seal plans during the summit to shift foreign forces off the front lines a year faster than once planned.
Afghan forces will take the lead throughout the nation next year, instead of in 2014, despite uneven performance under US and other outside tutelage so far. The shift is in large part a response to plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States, contributors of most of the 130,000 foreign troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency. A majority of Americans now say the war is unwinnable or not worth continuing.
Obama, who was hosting the summit in his hometown and the city where his re-election operation hums, spoke of a post-2014 world when “the Afghan war as we understand it is over.” Until then, though, remaining US and allied troops face the continued likelihood of fierce combat.
“We still have a lot of work to do and there will be great challenges ahead,” Obama said. “The loss of life continues in Afghanistan and there will be hard days ahead.”
Said Gen. John Allen, the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan: “It doesn't mean that we won't be fighting.”
He cautioned that the Taliban are resilient and capable opponents, and added:” Even with the Afghans in the lead, “we fully expect that combat is going to continue.”
In fact, the strategy has shifted many times over the course of more than 10 years of war, and the goal narrowed to objectives focused on the long-term security of the mostly Western nations fighting there. The timetable has also moved, despite the overall commitment to keep foreign forces in Afghanistan into 2014.
Tension over newly elected French President Francois Hollande's pledge to end his country's combat mission two years early infused the meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly cited the credo of the allies in the Afghanistan war, “in together, out together,” and her foreign minister cautioned against a “withdrawal competition” by coalition countries.
The Taliban are urging nations fighting in Afghanistan to follow France's lead and pull their international forces from the war this year.
“We call upon all the other NATO member countries to avoid working for the political interests of American officials and answer the call of your own people by immediately removing all your troops from Afghanistan,” the group said in a statement before the meeting.
Hollande said he was merely being pragmatic in keeping a campaign pledge to pull combat troops this year but this still would “let the alliance continue to work.”
While France's new posture obviously rattled the leaders, Allen betrayed no concern about the coalition's common purpose coming unglued. “The mantra of this particular mission has been in together, out together,” he told reporters. “And I'm not seeing, frankly, many voices being raised that would oppose that.”
Obama said NATO envisions a decade of transformation after 2014, with the United States still contributing money and some residual forces but out of the war itself.
“What this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind the strategy that we've laid out,” Obama said after lengthy talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “Now it's our task to implement it effectively.”
Karzai said his nation is looking forward to the end of war, “so that Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies.”
No other nations have announced plans to follow suit behind France and remove troops early. More such shifts appear likely, however, as each country eyes the clock and its own tight pocketbook. Although the 130,000-member fighting force - dominated by 98,000 US troops- could absorb combat withdrawals by other partners in the Afghan coalition, alliance leaders are struggling to maintain the status quo.
A deal is expected during the summit that would see France bring combat forces out of the sometimes restive province where they are based, but leave training forces or other support in place. That is the model followed by the Netherlands, Canada and probably Australia, which intends to bring most of its 1,550 combat personnel home next year.
In all cases, politicians were heeding political imperatives about a war that has gone on much longer than ever envisioned.
The alliance is also announced progress in its European missile defense system. That will allow it to begin countering some missile threats, though the system is not scheduled to be fully operational until 2022. The Obama administration has touted the progress as sign of alliance solidarity. But it is mainly paid for and operated by the United States.
Presidential politics shadowed the summit. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Obama of overseeing looming defense cuts that he said would undermine NATO's mission, without noting that many Republicans voted for the deal.
“An alliance not undergirded by military strength and US leadership may soon become an alliance in name only,” Romney wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. “At the same time that President Obama has been weakening our military, he has sent the message -- intentionally or not -- that the worth of NATO has diminished in America's eyes.”
Also present at the summit was Pakistan. Tensions between the US and Pakistan have been running high following several incidents, including the US raid in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden and a US airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
Both countries have been seeking to restore normal relations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to discuss efforts to reopen major roads used to supply NATO fighting forces in Afghanistan. White House officials said no deal was in place to reopen the supply lines but they cited “positive” signs in the ongoing discussions. “We believe we're moving in the right trajectory,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
Pakistan closed the roads nearly six months ago in protest of an errant NATO air strike that killed Pakistani soldiers. The two nations are now haggling over the price the alliance will pay, with Pakistan demanding many times more per truck than they were paid a year ago, US officials said.
Obama found himself at the center of a second international summit in as many days, shifting from the rustic presidential retreat in Maryland to the Chicago scene he calls home.
Thousands of demonstrators upset with the war in Afghanistan, climate change and the erosion of union rights marched through downtown Chicago as the leaders met.