CHICAGO — NATO leaders began a two-day summit here Sunday that will finalize plans to turn control of Afghanistan over to its own security forces by the middle of next year, a milestone on the way to concluding the alliance's combat role by the end of 2014.
The alliance is meeting at a precarious time for the war effort in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders acknowledged the challenges ahead even as they set out the process for ending the international combat role.
NATO members are sharply cutting defense budgets, facing high public opposition to the war, and preparing for months of difficult fighting against the Taliban as the number of U.S. and European troops steadily declines across Afghanistan.
As Chicago police confronted demonstrators whose protest against the war and economic policy was kept well away from the heavily guarded summit, Obama welcomed the 27 other government heads to his "home town" and pledged that the 2014 deadline will mean that "the Afghan war as we understand it is over."
The summit's initial session dealt with non-Afghanistan issues. The alliance agreed to "operationalize" a missile defense system whose component parts are already in place in four European countries. The system, to protect Europe against ballistic missiles potentially launched from Iran and elsewhere, is expected to have limited capability by 2015 and to be fully operational by 2018.
NATO also signed contracts for its own ground surveillance system, agreeing to purchase and deploy five unarmed Global Hawk drones that will give the alliance capabilities that until now have been available only from the U.S. military. The alliance also moved forward on efforts to more equitably share the cost and contributions to defense operations, now shouldered largely by the United States, and avoid expensive overlaps in capabilities.
No leader raised the subject of the ongoing violence in Syria, said Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO.
While "we are very much concerned about the situation of Syria," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, the alliance has "no intention whatsoever to intervene."
Although formal meetings on Afghanistan were not scheduled until today, that issue is clearly the summit focus. While they prepared to declare that Afghan forces will have the lead military role throughout the country by mid 2013 and looked ahead to complete combat withdrawal at the end of the following year, leaders warned of what Obama called "hard days ahead" between now and then.
"I don't want to understate the challenge that we have ahead of us," said Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. "The Taliban is a resilient and capable opponent," and "we fully expect that combat is going to continue" as troops are gradually withdrawn over the next 21/2 years.
Even as the mission evolves to an advisory role, Allen said, NATO will retain "short-term capabilities" to shift back into the fight if necessary, even in those regions that have already been "transitioned" to the Afghans. Allen, who spoke to reporters, will give an update today to an expanded summit meeting that will include all 62 member nations of the coalition in Afghanistan, plus Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Obama held a separate meeting with Karzai early Sunday to discuss the terms of the plan NATO is expected to approve. In public remarks after the 75-minute closed-door session, they mutually acknowledged the sacrifices both nations have made, with Karzai — whose relations with the White House have often been testy — expressing gratitude for "the support that your taxpayers' money has provided us over the past decade and for the difference that it has made to the well being of the Afghan people."
Administration officials said Obama also discussed with Karzai the administration's hope that the Afghan president, whose term ends in 2014, will move forward on electoral reforms toward a smooth political transition to coincide with the final combat troop withdrawal.
Zardari received a last-minute invitation to the summit after U.S. and Pakistani negotiators indicated progress toward an agreement that would reopen border crossings through which NATO supplies reach Afghanistan. Hopes that the deal would be concluded before the summit were not realized, however, as the two sides continue to haggle over new tariff rates Pakistan wants to impose.
Zardari had no separate meeting with Obama but held a lengthy session with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
NATO's 2014 exit plan was agreed to at its last summit, 18 months ago in Lisbon, Portugal. Since then, public antiwar feeling has risen across the alliance, with some members — most recently France's new socialist government — indicating plans to pull combat troops as early as this year.
A majority of the American public has also turned against the war, and Obama has made his plans to leave Afghanistan a part of his campaign message as he seeks re-election.
The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has accused Obama of aligning his Afghan withdrawal strategy to the political calendar, with 23,000 troops — those remaining from a deployment of 33,000 Obama authorized in late 2009 — scheduled to come home by the end of September.
The summit is only the third in NATO's 63-year history to take place in the United States.