Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
CHICAGO — As President Barack Obama and fellow NATO leaders herald the coming end of the deeply unpopular Afghanistan war, they face the grim reality of two more years of fighting ahead and more of their troops sure to die in combat.
The many partners in the fighting coalition were gathering Monday in Obama's hometown to reassert their commitment to ending the war in 2014 and solidify another milestone for next year, when Afghan forces take the lead in combat missions while NATO assumes a supporting role.
Chicago braced for more demonstrations Monday, with protesters vowing to march to the Boeing Corp. headquarters a day after police clashed with a group of demonstrators at the end of a march protesting the NATO summit. Many downtown businesses have told their employees to stay home during the second and final day of the summit.
So far in the two-day NATO conference, the leaders have voiced hope that a decade of war in Afghanistan will give way to a decade of transition to peace and stability, aided by the U.S. and its allies.
But hard realities intrude.
Some NATO countries, most recently France, have sought to end their combat commitments early. The Taliban and its allies have warned that they are waiting to fill the void in Afghanistan after NATO leaves. And with alliance forces — the bulk of which are American — still committed to many more months of fighting, the sacrifices are far from over.
Obama is eager to show election-year leadership on the world stage, and he sought to straddle the line on the war before NATO's formal embrace Monday of a plan to put Afghan forces in control of security next summer and have NATO back them up.
Following a meeting Sunday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said NATO's drawdown plans mean that by 2014, "the Afghan war as we understand it is over."
But he acknowledged enormous progress must be made for that vision to become a reality.
"We still have a lot of work to do, and there will be great challenges ahead," Obama said after his lengthy talks with Karzai. "The loss of life continues in Afghanistan."
Obama's words were echoed by other top U.S. officials, who sternly warned that American forces and their allies should still expect to be engaged in battle even after Afghans take the lead.
"After this milestone in 2013 there still will be combat capability, combat authority and an expectation there will be combat," said retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the top White House national security council official in charge of the war.
Still, NATO leaders have billed the transition to Afghan forces taking the lead as an important benchmark in their plans to wind down the war by the end of 2014. Many of the leaders, Obama chief among them, have a political incentive for trumpeting that drawdown plan, given the growing public frustration with the nearly 11-year-old war.
Sixty six percent of Americans oppose the war, while only 27 percent support the effort, according to an AP-GfK poll released earlier this month.
In France, voters elected President Francois Hollande in part because of a campaign pledge to pull his country's 3,300 troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule. Since taking office, Hollande has said he plans to make good on his promise to bring combat troops home by the end of this year, but will maintain French support for Afghanistan in other ways.
The U.S. and NATO will also maintain a sizeable and lengthy commitment to Afghanistan after combat troops come home at the end of 2014.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee who visits Afghanistan often, said that by 2014 Afghan forces, with the backing of international trainers and logistical support, "will be able to provide stability."
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