CHICAGO – The NATO alliance that has fought for a decade in Afghanistan is helping that nation shift toward stability and peace, but there will be "hard days ahead," President Barack Obama said Sunday as alliance leaders insisted the fighting coalition will remain effective despite France's plans to yank combat troops out early.
With a global economic crisis and waning public support for the war as a backdrop, world leaders opened a NATO summit confronted by questions about Afghanistan's post-conflict future: money for security forces, coming elections and more. German officials cautioned against following France's example, but NATO's secretary general and the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan played down stresses in the fighting alliance.
"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."
The NATO summit opened Sunday afternoon, with leaders holding a moment of silence to pay tribute to force killed or injured while serving the alliance.
"Just as we've sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand united in our determination to complete this mission," Obama said.
The end of the war is in sight, Obama said following a lengthy discussion with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the NATO summit. The military alliance is pledged to remain in Afghanistan into 2014, but will seal plans Sunday and Monday 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 U.S. 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.
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."
Obama said NATO partners would discuss "a vision for post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership to Afghanistan continues."
Newly elected French President Francois Hollande has said he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end — a full two years before the timeline agreed to by nations in the U.S.-led NATO coalition.
Hollande's stance was facing some resistance.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle cautioned Sunday in Chicago that "withdrawal competition" among countries with troops in Afghanistan could strengthen the terrorist threat. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood "very firmly" behind the principle of "in together, out together."
Hollande, speaking briefly to French reporters outside a Chicago hotel, insisted he was being "pragmatic" in his new leadership. "I am pragmatic in my effort to let the alliance continue to work for our defense and security, and at the same time make sure that our soldiers can come home from Afghanistan by the end of 2012."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denied there were fresh cracks in the alliance. He suggested a deal will emerge for France to move into a noncombat role but continue to support the international mission.
"There will be no rush for the exits," Rasmussen said. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged."
Pressed about the impact of the French withdrawal, Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, offered no public concern about a spillover effect. "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."
Before the one-hour meeting with Karzai, a senior U.S. official said the prime topic was planning for Afghanistan's 2014 elections, as well as the prospect of a political settlement with the Taliban.
Karzai has said repeatedly he will step down from power when his term ends in 2014, opening the way for new elections. NATO's scheduled end of the war was built around those plans, with foreign forces staying until the 2014 election but exiting the country by 2015.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said before the meeting that Obama and Karzai also were to discuss prospects for a political settlement or peace pact between Karzai's government and the Taliban-led insurgency. The Taliban pulled out of U.S.-led talks in March, but separate talks among Afghan and other contacts continue, the U.S. official said.
The Taliban is 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.
The national security-focused NATO summit caps an extraordinary weekend of international summitry. Obama and the leaders of the world's leading industrial nations convened at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, for two days of talks focused in large part on Europe's economic crisis.
Joining Obama and many of the G-8 leaders in Chicago are the heads of NATO alliance nations and other countries with a stake in the Afghan war.
Prominent among those nations is Pakistan. Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have been running high following several incidents, including the U.S. raid in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden and a U.S. airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
Both countries have been seeking to restore normal relations. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's acceptance of an invitation to attend the NATO summit was seen as an indication that his country would reopen major roads used to supply NATO fighting forces in Afghanistan, a key U.S. demand.
White House officials said that while they believe an agreement on reopening the supply routes will be reached, they do not expect that to happen during the NATO meetings. The two nations are haggling over how much Pakistan will be paid to allow the heavy transport truck to pass through. A senior U.S. official said the two sides are far apart. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
Officials have indicated that Obama and Zardari will not meet one on one until the matter is resolved. Although miffed, Zardari did meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Chicago.
"I do hope that we will see a reopening of the transit routes in the very near future," Rasmussen said. "These negotiations will continue, but I am hopeful that they will be concluded in a positive manner."
AP writers Ben Feller and Desmond Butler contributed to this report.