May 21, 2012 11:58 AM
CHICAGO (AP) -- President Barack Obama and NATO leaders expressed confidence in Afghanistan's ability to take the lead for its own security next year, as nations with a stake in the deeply unpopular war huddled Monday for talks aimed at paving the way for its end.
The alliance leaders, meeting in Obama's hometown, solidified plans for an "irreversible transition" in which Afghan security forces take control next summer with NATO sliding into a support role and ultimately withdrawing by the end of 2014.
Obama said the transition was "the next milestone" in NATO's plans for bringing the nearly 11-year long war to a close.
"This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014 when the ISAF mission will end," Obama said as he opened a meeting of NATO leaders and partner countries who have participated in the war.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghans were already leading security operations in half the country and were on pace to meet next year's targets.
"Transition means the people of Afghanistan increasingly see their own army and police in their towns and villages providing their security," Rasmussen said. "This is an important sign of progress towards our shared goal: an Afghanistan governed and secured by Afghans for Afghans."
NATO leaders were joined by representatives of other nations that have a stake in the war, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Zardari's presence has cast a shadow over the summit. The U.S. and Pakistan remain at odds over Pakistan's closure of key routes used to send supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan closed the supply lines in November following a U.S. airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. While both sides have indicated the issue will be resolved, no deal is expected to be reached during the NATO meetings.
Obama thanked other nations in Central Asia and Russia for their role in providing "critical transit" for supplies, but pointedly made no mention of Pakistan.
As NATO leaders herald the Afghan war's end, they face the grim reality of two more years of fighting ahead and more of their troops sure to die in combat.
Some NATO countries, most recently France, have also sought to end their combat commitments early. The Taliban and its allies have warned that they are waiting to fill the void in Afghanistan after NATO leaves.
Obama, eager to show election-year leadership on the world stage, has sought to straddle the line on the war during the two-day NATO summit.
Following a meeting with Karzai Sunday, Obama said NATO's drawdown plans mean that by 2014, "the Afghan war as we understand it is over."
But he acknowledged enormous progress must be made for that vision to become a reality.
"We still have a lot of work to do, and there will be great challenges ahead," Obama said after his lengthy talks with Karzai. "The loss of life continues in Afghanistan."
Obama's words were echoed by other top U.S. officials, who sternly warned that American forces and their allies should still expect to be engaged in battle even after Afghans take the lead.
"After this milestone in 2013 there still will be combat capability, combat authority and an expectation there will be combat," said retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the top White House national security council official in charge of the war.
Many alliance leaders, Obama chief among them, have a political incentive for trumpeting that drawdown plan, given the growing public frustration with the nearly 11-year-old war.
Sixty six percent of Americans oppose the war, while only 27 percent support the effort, according to an AP-GfK poll released earlier this month.
In France, voters elected President Francois Hollande in part because of a campaign pledge to pull his country's 3,300 troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule. Since taking office, Hollande has said he plans to make good on his promise to bring combat troops home by the end of this year, but will maintain French support for Afghanistan in other ways.
The U.S. and NATO will also maintain a sizeable and lengthy commitment to Afghanistan after combat troops come home at the end of 2014.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee who visits Afghanistan often, said that by 2014 Afghan forces, with the backing of international trainers and logistical support, "will be able to provide stability."
Speaking Monday on CBS's "This Morning," Reed said that Afghan leaders and the international community need to seek a political settlement "but the security forces will provide the foundation for the stability that is absolutely necessary as our troops withdraw."
Obama, in a surprise trip to Afghanistan earlier this month, signed a deal with Karzai detailing much of the U.S. commitment, including annual financing from Congress and support for development, health and education projects. The U.S. may also leave a residual troop presence in Afghanistan, though any such step would require approval from the Afghans.
At the NATO conference, leaders were also discussing how the international community would finance Afghan security forces after 2014. With none of the NATO countries having the stomach to pursue the war much longer, the only viable option is to leave behind an Afghan army and police force capable of defending the country against the Taliban and its allies.
NATO estimates it will cost about $4.1 billion a year to finance the forces. The Afghan government will pay about $500 million of that and the rest will come from donor countries, many of which are struggling with deficits and the specter of recession.
In a statement issued early Monday, NATO directed a review of the need for continued military support after ground forces depart. The alliance said it would "continue to provide strong and long-term political and practical support" to the government of Afghanistan and would "train, advise and assist" the Afghan military.
"This will not be a combat mission," NATO said.
While the Chicago meeting was not billed as a pledging summit, leaders were discussing where the rest of the contributions would come from. About $1.3 billion is expected to come from NATO members other than the United States. About $1 billion of that has already been pledged, a senior Western official said Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose the figures.
The U.S. and some nations outside the military coalition are expected to make up the $2.3 billion.
The challenge facing Obama and other world leaders will be to convince their own voters that Afghanistan is worth the investment. The war has already claimed the lives of at least 3,000 NATO service members - more than 1,840 of them American - and thousands of Afghans.
"I think it speaks to the level of commitment that even in these tough financial times these leaders are willing to make the political commitment to fund the Afghan security forces," Lute said.