WRAPUP 2-NATO signals end of Afghan war in sight - for the West
* NATO to pull out most troops by end of 2014
* Obama says will "responsibly" bring war to conclusion
* British official does not rule out post-handover terrorism
* France's Hollande sticks to early withdrawal plan
CHICAGO, May 21 (Reuters) - NATO leaders sealed a landmark agreement on Monday 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 an unpopular, decade-long war.
A NATO summit in Chicago formally committed to a U.S.-backed strategy that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014 but left major questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after the allies are gone.
The two-day meeting of the 28-nation alliance marked a milestone in a war sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks that has spanned three U.S. presidential terms and even outlasted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
President Barack 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.
Alliance leaders acquiesced to new French President Francois Hollande's insistence on sticking to his campaign pledge to withdraw French troops by Dec. 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.
"Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission," Obama told a summit session on Afghanistan. "I am confident ... that we can advance that goal today and responsibly bring this war to an end."
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 statement deemed it an "irreversible" transition to full security responsibility for fledgling Afghan troops, and said NATO's mission in 2014 would shift to a training and advisory role. "This will not be a combat mission," it said.
Doubts remain, however, whether Afghan forces will have the capability to stand up against a still-potent Taliban insurgency that Western forces have failed to defeat in nearly 11 years of fighting.
While Obama insisted Afghanistan should never again be used to plot attacks on other nations, a senior British official said: "It is unrealistic to assume that Afghanistan is going to be completely secure and there is no possibility of a terrorist threat re-emerging."
GETTING HOME SAFELY
With Europe's debt crisis hanging over the summit and many member-governments limited by austerity budgets, Obama was struggling to squeeze out commitments for what had yet to be covered of the $4.1 billion a year needed to fund Afghan security forces.
The funding, which will undergird Afghan's capacity to fight the Taliban, is considered vital to an orderly NATO departure.
NATO diplomats said thinking had moved to the logistical challenge of getting a multinational army that size out of the Afghan mountains and deserts and back home - safely and with their equipment.
They said the aim was to sign a framework agreement with Afghanistan's northern neighbor, Uzbekistan, to allow "reverse transit" of NATO supplies from Afghanistan.
NATO has also been trying to persuade Pakistan to reopen its territory to NATO supplies, which Islamabad has blocked since NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border incident last year..
But a deal was not expected to be clinched by the end of the summit on Monday.
Mehmet Fatih Ceylan, the senior Turkish foreign ministry official responsible for NATO, said Pakistan, long a crucial route for moving supplies into Afghanistan, would be a main way out for Western forces.
"Countries in the region should also help our efforts for taking people back, together with the materials and other equipment," he told Reuters. "It's a big challenge ... and this is a new dimension people are focusing on now - how to take them safe and secure back home."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who was a last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the summit in Obama's home town, showed no signs of budging on the supply routes.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, told Reuters he was confident a deal would eventually be struck, but "whether it's in days or weeks, I don't know."
Friction remains between NATO and Pakistan over Taliban guerrillas who are still finding sanctuary in Pakistan, in spite of Islamabad's professed support for the alliance's mission.
Long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, which has steadily improved its performance but is still fraught with problems, was also a focus of the summit.
The United States is unwilling to foot the entire annual bill to maintain the forces after 2014, which is estimated at $4.1 billion, and has been seeking pledges from allies of $1.3 billion, despite austerity measures brought on by Europe's financial crisis.
Many of the leaders in Chicago came directly from a summit of the Group of Eight wealthy nations that vowed to take all necessary measures to contain the euro-zone contagion.
Afghan funding commitments so far include $100 million annually from Britain, $120 million from Italy, $100 million from Australia and $20 million from Turkey. Zardari told a NATO partners meeting Pakistan would also contribute $20 million.
Seeking re-election in November, Obama has sought to dispel Americans' concerns that shaky allies will leave U.S. troops to fight alone.
Despite pressure from some NATO members to reconsider, Holland vowed to hold to his election pledge to withdraw French troops by the year's end, which helped the Socialist leader win the presidency this month.
Perhaps in return, the Americans are asking for around 200 million euros ($256 million) a year from France for the Afghan armed forces, a French diplomatic source said.
Canada's Globe and Mail said Canada would announce financial assistance for Afghan forces on Monday, but would resist pressure to extend a military training mission. The newspaper said the United States had been pressing Canada to commit $125 million a year for three years after 2014.
Heavy security is in place in Chicago and police clashed on Sunday with thousands of anti-war protesters and arrested dozens.
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