CHICAGO — President Barack Obama promised Monday to end the Afghan war “responsibly” as he and other NATO leaders prepared to give formal approval to a plan to shift international forces from a combat to a support role next year.
On the final day of the two-day NATO summit, Obama said stabilizing Afghanistan was a vital mission, but he reiterated that the goal of the gathering was to put the U.S. and its allies on a path to terminate their direct involvement in the unpopular conflict even though years of fighting by the Afghans still remain.
“Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission and I’m confident ... that we can advance that goal and responsibly bring this war to an end,” Obama said.
As Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari looked around the circular table, Obama pointedly thanked countries to Afghanistan’s north that have permitted expanded shipments of war supplies since Pakistan closed off its ground routes to NATO truck convoys six months ago.
Pakistan has refused to let NATO use its territory to deliver non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan since U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in error last Nov. 26. Zardari's government has demanded an unconditional apology from the Obama administration and a steep increase to more than $5,000 per truck in fees before it will agree to reopen the supply routes. U.S. officials have expressed regret, but refused to apologize, saying both sides were at fault.
The continued standoff with Pakistan has infuriated U.S. officials, who had hoped to have the dispute resolved before the Chicago summit. White House officials ruled out a meeting between Obama and Zardari during the summit.
Before the Monday talks began, Obama mingled casually among officers and officials.
“I was just hearing from a few NATO members that they had fun on the town last night," he said. "Hopefully no stories in the press."
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, said that after withdrawing their troops from combat over the next 2 1/2 years, NATO allies would “pay their share” of the $4.1-billion estimated annual cost for the Afghan army and police.
“As Afghan forces stand up, our forces will stand back into a supporting role, concentrating on training, advising and assisting our Afghan partners,” he said.
NATO was expected to announce it had reached consensus on putting Afghan forces in the lead across the country in the middle of next year, with the U.S. and other allies to shift increasingly into a support and advisory role through the end of 2014.
Obama said there would still be a need to provide military advisers and financial support after 2014, but he provided no details about specific contributions planned by the U.S.
The U.S. is expected to keep a small number of military personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, including special operations teams to continue missions against militants, but Obama also did not mention those plans.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: President Obama walks off stage Sunday after posing for a photo with other NATO leaders in Chicago. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press