President Barack Obama and NATO allies declared Sunday that the end of the long and unpopular Afghanistan war is in sight even as they struggled to hold their fighting force together in the face of dwindling patience and shaky unity.
From his hometown and the city where his re-election operation hums, Obama spoke of a post-2014 world when "the Afghan war as we understand it is over." Until then, though, remaining U.S. and allied troops face the continued likelihood of fierce combat.
Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, offered a stern warning Sunday that the plan to give Afghan forces the lead in fighting next summer won't take coalition troops out of harm's way. "It doesn't mean that we won't be fighting," Allen said. "It doesn't mean that there won't be combat."
The fate of the war is both the center of this summit and a topic no one is celebrating as a mission accomplished. The alliance already has one foot out the Afghanistan door, Obama has his ear attuned to the politics of an economy-driven presidential election year and other allies are pinching pennies in a European debt crisis.
As NATO powers and other nations contributing to the war effort gathered, the alliance's top officer, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asserted that "there will be no rush for the exits" in Afghanistan. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged," he said.
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.
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 warned of hard days ahead. Still, he 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. The alliance was sealing plans on Sunday and Monday to shift foreign forces off the front lines next year to put Afghan troops up front.
"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."
The shift to Afghan forces, despite their uneven performance under U.S. and other outside tutelage so far, is in large part a response to plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States, contributors of most of international troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency.
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 U.S. 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.
A majority of Americans now say the war is unwinnable or not worth continuing. Only 27 percent of Americans say they back the effort while 66 percent oppose the war, a new low, according to an AP-GfK poll released earlier this month.
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 U.S. 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."
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.
Some are calling for the dissolution of the 63-year-old NATO military alliance. Others carried signs that read: "War(equals)Debt" and "NATO, Go Home."
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."
With all the talk of the war winding down, Allen's comments served as a sobering reminder that the transition to Afghan leadership in the fighting does not drop the curtain on combat for the coalition.
"I don't want to understate the challenge that we have ahead of us," he said. "The Taliban is still a resilient and capable opponent." Even with the Afghans in the lead, "we fully expect that combat is going to continue."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday 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, U.S. 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.
Opening the discussions Sunday, Obama declared: "Just as we've sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand together united in our determination to complete this mission."
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