NATO traces path out of Afghanistan

NATO leaders mapped a path out of the unpopular war in Afghanistan, backing plans to hand Afghans the combat lead from mid-2013 while vowing to stand by them as they seize their own destiny.

In a Chicago summit declaration, US President Barack Obama and his NATO military allies ratified an "irreversible" roadmap to "gradually and responsibly" withdraw 130,000 combat troops by the end of 2014.

But they also ordered military officers to begin planning a post-2014 mission to focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan troops to ensure the government can ward off a stubborn Taliban insurgency.

"As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone," Obama told the gathering of more than 50 world leaders, focused on ending a decade of war that has left over 3,000 coalition soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghans dead.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who attended the talks, sought to reassure nervous allies that the sacrifices made on all sides would not have been vain, maintaining Taliban Islamic militants could not recapture power.

"The Taliban may have the ability to launch attacks, to explode IEDs (improvised explosive devices), to send suicide bombers. But for them to come and take over the country and take it backwards, no," Karzai told CNN.

"Afghanistan has moved forward, and Afghanistan will defend itself. And the progress that we have achieved, the Afghan people will not allow it to be put back or reversed."

But in a sign of growing frustrations with the dragging conflict, France's new President Francois Hollande said his country had done "more than its duty" since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the hardline Taliban leadership.

And a row over re-opening Pakistan supply routes into Afghanistan to NATO convoys also lingered, although Obama and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen seemed optimistic the issue would be resolved.

"We are actually making diligent progress on it," Obama told the final press conference ending the two-day unprecedented summit.

French officials said a calendar for withdrawing French troops by the end of 2012 -- a year early -- would be drawn up within the next 10 days, as Hollande signaled reluctance to stump more cash for Afghan security forces.

The 28 NATO leaders and their 22 partners in the war, as far afield as Australia, Georgia and South Korea, issued a final statement saying Afghans will be in "lead for security nationwide" by mid-2013.

Though NATO troops will gradually shift focus to training and support, alliance officials stressed foreign soldiers would still participate in combat operations when needed until late 2014.

The summit gave Obama a platform to show a war-weary American public that he has global support for plans to end the war ahead of a tough re-election campaign against Republican Mitt Romney in November.

NATO leaders also sought to reassure Karzai that the international community would not abandon his country once the combat troops are gone.

The 50 nations involved in the war endorsed a US plan to provide $4.1 billion in annual security aid to Afghanistan and reduce the size of Afghan forces from a peak of 352,000 to 228,500.

The United States has offered to pay half the bill while the international community is expected to fund the rest. But the summit declaration makes clear that the security aid will not last forever.

The declaration says the Afghan government's share of the bill will increase progressively from $500 million in 2015, "with the aim that it can assume, no later than 2024, full financial responsibility for its own security forces."

Canada agreed to continue funding Afghan forces until 2017, officials said, contributing some $108 million annually for three years beyond 2014.

"Canada will honor its commitment and complete its current training mission but our country will not have any military mission in Afghanistan after March 2014," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.

Obama also met briefly with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, in a bid to try to resolve the issue of access to the supply routes closed in November after a botched US air raid left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.

To ferry troops, food and equipment into Afghanistan, NATO has relied on cargo flights and a more costly northern route network through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Zardari suggested to the summit that his government wanted to resolve the issue, saying officials had been told to "conclude negotiations."

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