* 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
By Alister Bull and Adrian Croft
CHICAGO, May 21 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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