It is also complicated by an unresolved dispute with Pakistan, which has refused to reopen ground routes vital to a swift departure of international forces in the months ahead. Obama acknowledged “real challenges” with the Islamabad government.
But the plan marks a clear turn for international forces into the final stretch of a war that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Afghanistan is the second of two wars that Obama inherited on taking office, and his ability to bring it to a close as public opposition rises across party lines provides a boost to his campaign prospects.
“We leave Chicago with a clear road map,” he said at a news conference concluding the two-day summit. “This alliance is committed to bringing the war in Afghanistan to a responsible end.”
Obama spoke hours after NATO leaders agreed on a framework for gradual departure that calls for Afghan security forces to take the lead in combat operations across the country by the middle of next year, with coalition troops playing a supporting role until their pullout wraps up by the end of 2014.
Each nation will determine its own pace of withdrawal, coordinated with coalition planners. About 132,000 international troops are in Afghanistan today, two-thirds of them American.
An international military training and support mission will replace the combat operations after 2014. But the long-term presence, which will entail financial support for the Afghan National Security Forces, will cost billions of dollars a year, long after the last foreign service member leaves the country. The pledges will probably be hard to come by in what NATO officials here described as the alliance’s “age of austerity.”
The summit came at a delicate moment for the Afghanistan effort and for Obama’s plan to end the war.
But Obama departs the summit with his exit strategy validated and an end date for the U.S. involvement in the war, a political asset he can now feature even more prominently. The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has criticized Obama for devising a withdrawal from Afghanistan that he says is motivated by campaign politics.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be an optimal point where we say, ‘This is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it, and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home,’ ” Obama said. “This is a process, and it’s sometimes a messy process, just as it was in Iraq.”
Throughout the summit, U.S. officials underscored the challenges ahead, warning that just because there is a calendar for the transition does not mean that a war that has killed almost 2,000 American troops is over.