CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama and leaders around the globe locked down an exit path from the war in Afghanistan, affirming yesterday that they will close the largely stalemated conflict at the end of 2014, a strategy that means their troops will still be fighting and dying for another two-plus years.
Gathered in Obama's hometown, the sprawling coalition of 50 NATO members and allies declared an "irreversible transition" that will put Afghan forces in the lead of the combat mission by the middle of next year.
Even in a backup role, though, the U.S. forces and all the rest will still face combat and attacks until the war's end.
In essence, the partners, led by Obama, are staying the course, sticking with a timeline long established and underscoring that there will be no second-guessing the decision to leave.
Since 2010, they have been planning to finish the war at the end of 2014, even as moves by nations such as France to pull combat troops out early have tested the strength of the coalition. The shift to have Afghan forces take the lead of the combat mission next year has also been expected. Leaders presented it as a significant turning point in the war.
It will be "the moment when throughout Afghanistan people can look out and see their own troops and police stepping up to the challenge," said the NATO chief, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
What the world is poised to leave behind is an Afghanistan still riddled with poverty, corruption and political instability. Yet, out of money and patience, the U.S.-led partnership said it is confident Afghanistan will be stable and prepared enough to at least be able to protect itself -- and, in turn, prevent its territory from becoming a launchpad for international terrorism.
It is time, Obama said, to "responsibly bring this war to an end." British Prime Minister David Cameron said the leaders were "making a decisive and enduring commitment to the long-term future of Afghanistan. The message to the Afghan people is that we will not desert them. And the message to the insurgency is equally clear: You cannot win on the battlefield. You should stop fighting and start talking."
Obama chatted only briefly with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Deep conflicts remain over Pakistan's closure of key transit routes that NATO needs to support troops in Afghanistan -- and to get those troops out.