Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation have sealed a landmark agreement 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 the decade-long war.
The alliances' summit in Chicago formally committed to a US-backed strategy on Monday that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014, after which the NATO mission would assume only training and advisory roles.
"As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone," Barack Obama, the US president, said in his concluding remarks.
"We are now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan," he said.
The US president, however, acknowledged NATO's plan was fraught with risk even as he touted it as a sound approach.
"Are there risks involved? Absolutely," Obama conceded, saying the Taliban remained a "robust enemy" and NATO's gains on the ground were fragile.
"As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone."
- Barack Obama, the US president
The two-day summit was attended by leaders of 50 countries, including 28 NATO countries, as well as President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president.
Alliance leaders acquiesced to new French President Francois Hollande's insistence on sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw French troops by December 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.
The issue of Pakistan's refusal to reopen supply routes to NATO after 24 of its troops were killed in a US air raid was not resolved.
But Obama and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen seemed optimistic the issue would be resolved.
"We are actually making diligent progress on it," Obama said.
The summit's final communique 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 NATO's secretary-general said that the international allies remained committed to a secure and democratic Afghanistan. To that end, he said, there would be a NATO-led presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to advise, train and assist Afghan forces.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, announced last week that his forces were ready to take over security in several new provinces, putting them in charge of protecting 75 per cent of Afghanistan's population.
"By mid-2013, when the fifth and final tranche of provinces starts transition, we will have reached an important milestone in our Lisbon roadmap, and the ANSF will be in the lead for security nationwide," the declaration said, referring to a 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon.
"At that milestone, as ISAF shifts from focusing primarily on combat increasingly to the provision of training, advice and assistance to the ANSF, ISAF will be able to ensure that the Afghans have the support they need as they adjust to their new increased responsibility," it said.
"NATO is ready to work towards establishing, at the request of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a new post-2014 mission of a different nature in Afghanistan, to train, advise and assist the ANSF, including the Afghan Special Operations Forces."
It was presumed that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's attendance of the summit was a sign that the country would lift the blockade.
But at the conference, Obama thanked other nations in Central Asia and Russia for their role in providing "critical transit'' for supplies, without making any mention of Pakistan.
Al Jazeera's Patty Culhane, reporting from Chicago, said that "US officials have gone out of their way to snub Pakistan" by seeking alternate routes.
"Basically, they [the US and NATO] are saying now that they don't think the deal will be worked out anytime soon," she said.
"So, they are working with countries to the north of Afghanistan to figure out a Plan B, a very public slap at Pakistan by the US president and the NATO secretary-general."
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|Timothy V. Gatto|