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NATO leaders who began meeting in Chicago yesterday say they're determined to end the war in Afghanistan in a responsible way. That means keeping combat forces in the country through 2014, even though some member countries, like France, plan to bring their troops home sooner. U.S. officials say they're working to, as they put it, accelerate the training of Afghanistan's own security forces, which are expected to take the lead in all combat operations by the summer of next year.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: NATO commanders say the mantra of the Afghan alliance has been in together, out together. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says that hasn't changed, despite mounting impatience with the decade-long war.
SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: There will be no rush for the exits. Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.
HORSLEY: But if there's no rush for the Afghan exits, there is now at least a stately march in that direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILITARY DRUMS)
HORSLEY: An international color guard greeted the NATO leaders as they assembled in Chicago. The timetable for ending the war is still 2014. But leaders are also focused now on an intermediate goal next summer. That's when Afghan forces are supposed to take the lead in combat operations throughout the country.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes calls it Milestone 2013.
DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR BEN RHODES: What we're charting in Chicago is how we get from here to the end of the war. A critical step on the way to that process is us being in a support role across the country and having a mission that's far more about training, advising and equipping Afghan security forces who are in the lead than us being in the lead for combat operations.
HORSLEY: Not all NATO partners plan to wait that long. The new French president, Francois Hollande, made a campaign promise to withdraw French combat troops by the end of this year. NATO Secretary Rasmussen says there are other ways France can help.
RASMUSSEN: I'm not surprised that the newly elected President Hollande wants to keep his pledges. I think that's rule number one for a politician, to keep your promises.
HORSLEY: Public support for the war in this country has also fallen, putting pressure on politicians. According to a Pew Research poll last month, most Americans want to see troops withdrawn as quickly as possible. President Obama has ordered the last of the surge troops pulled from Afghanistan by late September of this year.
General John Allen, who commands international forces in Afghanistan, endorsed that timeline yesterday.
GENERAL JOHN ALLEN: That's not intended to be a bumper sticker, but I mean it sincerely. There's no daylight between the commander on the ground in Afghanistan and the commander-in-chief. And I think we're in an excellent strategic conversation right now about the way ahead.
HORSLEY: Allen cautioned, though, even after Afghan forces take the lead nationwide, combat will continue, and American troops could still be in harm's way. Mr. Obama acknowledged as much in a meeting yesterday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Both of us recognize that we still have a lot of work to do, and there will be great challenges ahead. The loss of life continues in Afghanistan. There will be hard days ahead. But we're confident that we are on the right track, and what this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind the strategy that we've laid out.
HORSLEY: In addition to Afghanistan, leaders are also discussing NATO itself and how the alliance can meet its security needs in the future, despite government belt-tightening in the present.
Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney criticized Mr. Obama in a Chicago newspaper editorial for what he sees as excessive cuts in U.S. military spending. Mr. Obama says when military budgets are tight, it's all the more important to spend wisely.
OBAMA: In these difficult economic times, we can work together and pool our resources. NATO is a force multiplier, and the initiatives we will endorse today will allow each of our nations to accomplish what none of us could achieve alone.
HORSLEY: NATO agreed to buy its own surveillance drones so it's not so dependent on the U.S., and to cooperate on a missile defense system for Europe.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.