An Afghan National Army soldier carries his rockets while on patrol in Logar province, east Afghanistan, Thursday, May 17, 2012. NATO sits down May 20, 2012 in Chicago to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of international forces and the hand over of Afghanistan's security to the Afghan National Army. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
CHICAGO (AP) — President Barack Obama and leaders around the globe locked down an exit path from the war in Afghanistan, affirming Monday that they will close the largely stalemated conflict at the end of 2014, a strategy that means their troops will still be fighting and dying for another two-plus years.
Gathered in Obama's hometown, the sprawling coalition of 50 NATO members and allies declared an "irreversible transition" that will put Afghan forces in the lead of the combat mission by the middle of next year.
Even in a backup role, though, the U.S. forces and all the rest will still face combat and attacks until the war's end.
In essence, the partners, led by Obama, are staying the course, sticking with a timeline long established and underscoring that there will be no second-guessing the decision to leave.
Since 2010, they have been planning to finish the war at the end of 2014, even as moves by nations such as France to pull combat troops out early has tested the strength of the coalition. The shift to have Afghan forces take the lead of the combat mission next year has also been expected. Leaders presented it as a significant turning point in the war.
It will be "the moment when throughout Afghanistan people can look out and see their own troops and police stepping up to the challenge," said the NATO chief, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
What the world is poised to leave behind is an Afghanistan still riddled with poverty, corruption and political instability. Yet, out of money and patience, the U.S.-led partnership said it is confident Afghanistan will be stable and prepared enough to at least be able to protect itself — and, in turn, prevent its territory from becoming a launching pad for international terrorism.
It is time, Obama said, to "responsibly bring this war to an end."
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the leaders were "making a decisive and enduring commitment to the long-term future of Afghanistan. The message to the Afghan people is that we will not desert them. And the message to the insurgency is equally clear: You cannot win on the battlefield. You should stop fighting and start talking."
The political stakes are high for the U.S. president, who will go before voters in November with tens of thousands more troops in Afghanistan than when we took office. His emphasis will remain that he is methodically winding down the war, after closing out the one in Iraq; U.S. voters desperate for better economic times have long stopped approving of the war mission.
Wary of creating a vacuum in a volatile region, the nations promised a lasting partnership with Afghanistan, meaning money, people and political capital. The United States has already cut its own deal with Afghanistan in support of that goal, including a provision that allows U.S. military trainers and special forces to remain in Afghanistan even after the war ends.
NATO said it will keep providing "long-term political and practical support" to Afghanistan after 2014, but added: "This will not be a combat mission."
The war dominated the summit, with the uneasy presence and ongoing tension with Pakistan eroding some of the choreographed unity.
Obama had no official talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, although the two chatted briefly along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Deep conflicts remained over Pakistan's closure of key transit routes that NATO needs to support troops in Afghanistan — and to get those troops out.
Despite the size of the coalition, the war remains a United States-dominated effort.
The U.S. has 90,000 of the 130,000 foreign forces in the war. Obama has pledged to shrink that to 68,000 by the end of September but has offered no details on the withdrawal pace after that, other than to say it will be gradual. There were just over 32,000 U.S. troops there when he took office in 2009.
The fighting alliance called negotiation the key to ending the insurgency in Afghanistan, but avoided mentioning the Taliban by name. The insurgents walked away from U.S.-led talks in March, and urged the NATO nations to follow the lead of France in pledging to remove combat forces ahead of schedule.
The alliance agreed on a fundraising goal to underwrite the Afghan armed forces after the international fighting forces depart. The force of about 230,000 would cost about $4.1 billion annually — the bulk of it paid by the United States and countries that have not been part of the fighting force. U.S. and British officials said during the summit that pledges total about $1 billion a year so far and that fund-raising is on track to make up the rest.
Demonstrators launched another round of protests Monday in the final hours of the summit, and their gatherings were notably smaller than the weekend protests that drew thousands into the Chicago streets.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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