NATO leaders sealed a landmark agreement on Monday to hand control of Afghanistan over to its own security forces by the middle of next year, putting the Western alliance on an “irreversible” path out of a deeply unpopular, decade-long war.
A NATO summit in Chicago formally committed to a U.S.-backed strategy that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014 but left major questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after the allies are gone.
President Barack Obama acknowledged NATO’s plan was fraught with risk even as he touted it as a sound approach. The two-day meeting of the 28-nation bloc marked a milestone in a war sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks that has spanned three U.S. presidential terms and even outlasted al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama and NATO partners sought to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in Afghanistan - a conflict that has strained Western budgets as well as patience - while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
Alliance leaders acquiesced to new French President Francois Hollande’s insistence on sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw French troops by Dec. 31, two years ahead of NATO’s timetable. While there was no sign this would send other allies rushing for the exits, leaders could face pressures at home.
“We are now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan,” Obama told the summit’s closing news conference.
But despite a face-to-face encounter with Pakistan’s president, Obama failed to resolve a key dispute overhanging the summit -- Islamabad’s refusal to reopen supply routes to NATO in Afghanistan seen as vital to an orderly withdrawal.
The summit’s final communiqué ratified plans for the NATO-led army to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014.
The statement deemed it an “irreversible” transition to full security responsibility for fledgling Afghan troops, and said NATO’s mission in 2014 would shift to a training and advisory role. “This will not be a combat mission,” it said.
Doubts remain, however, whether Afghan forces will have the capability to stand up against a still-potent Taliban insurgency that Western forces have failed to defeat in nearly 11 years of fighting.
“Are there risks involved?” Absolutely,” Obama conceded to reporters, saying the Taliban remained a “robust enemy” and that NATO’s gains on the ground were still fragile.
While Obama insisted Afghanistan should never again be used to plot attacks on other nations, a senior British official said: “It is unrealistic to assume that Afghanistan is going to be completely secure and there is no possibility of a terrorist threat re-emerging.”
Obama spoke of “diligent progress” but no breakthrough with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on the supply lines issue after they spoke briefly on the sidelines of the summit.
Frustrated NATO officials have also been trying to persuade Pakistan to reopen its territory to NATO supplies, which Islamabad has blocked since NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border incident last year..
With Europe’s debt crisis hanging over the summit and many member-governments limited by austerity budgets, Obama also struggled to pin down final commitments from allies for the $4.1 billion a year needed to support Afghan security forces.
The funding - which will undergird Afghan’s capacity to fight the Taliban and is considered vital to a smooth NATO departure - was not expected to be fully realized at the summit, but alliance officials believe it will eventually be provided.