NATO sets "irreversible" but risky course to end Afghan war
By Matt Spetalnick and Missy Ryan
CHICAGO (Reuters) - NATO set an "irreversible" course out of Afghanistan on Monday but President Barack Obama admitted the Western alliance's plan to end the deeply unpopular war in 2014 was fraught with peril.
A landmark NATO summit in Chicago endorsed an exit strategy that calls for handing control of Afghanistan to its own security forces by the middle of next year but left questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after allied troops are gone.
The two-day meeting of the 28-nation military bloc marked a major milestone in a war sparked by the September 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.
"We are now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan," Obama told the summit's closing news conference.
"Are there risks involved? Absolutely," Obama conceded, saying the Taliban remained a "robust enemy" and NATO's gains on the ground were fragile. But he insisted the overall strategy, which offered few specifics on the pace of withdrawal, was sound.
Even in NATO's outward show of solidarity, it was clear that differences remained after nearly 11 years of military engagement that has failed to defeat Taliban Islamists.
Alliance leaders acquiesced to new French President Francois Hollande's insistence on sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw France's 3,400 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. Continued...