CHICAGO — President Barack Obama and leaders around the globe locked in place an Afghanistan exit path Monday that will still keep their troops fighting and dying there for two more years, acknowledging there never will be point at which they can say, "This is all done. This is perfect."
Obama, presiding over a 50-nation war coalition summit in his hometown, summed up the mood of all the nations by saying the Afghanistan that will be left behind will be stable enough for them to depart — good enough after a decade of war— but still loaded with troubles.
The war that began in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will finish at the end of 2014.
"I don't think there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say, 'This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it,'" Obama said as the NATO summit closed. "This is a process, and it's sometimes a messy process."
Obama never spoke of victory.
Afghan forces for the first time will take over the lead of the combat mission by the middle of 2013, a milestone moment in a long, costly transition of control. Even in a backup role, U.S. forces and all the rest will face surprise attacks and bombings until the war's end.
Wary of creating a vacuum in a volatile region, the nations also promised a lasting partnership with Afghanistan, meaning many years of contributing tax dollars, personnel and political capital after the end of their soldiers' combat. The United States has already cut its own deal with Afghanistan along those lines, including a provision that allows U.S. military trainers and special forces to remain in Afghanistan after the war closes.
In an escalating election-year environment, Obama was as at the center of the action in Chicago, beaming and boasting about the city's performance in hosting the event. Noisy protesters loaded the city's streets at times, which Obama called just the kind of free expression NATO defends.
Tensions with Pakistan undermined some of the choreographed unity. Pakistan has not yet agreed to end the closure of key transit routes into Afghanistan — retaliation for American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers months ago — and the issue hung over the summit.
Obama had no official talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, although the two chatted briefly. Obama spoke of progress on the standoff and with Zardari overall, but he added: "I don't want to paper over real challenges there. There's no doubt that there have been tensions."
On Afghanistan, led by Obama, the partners are in essence staying the course. They stuck with a timeline long established and underscored that there will be no second-guessing the decision about when to leave.
Protest lacks unified message
CHICAGO — For activists, the NATO summit in Chicago served as one big stage from which to air a broad range of grievances — not just the war in Afghanistan or other actions of the 63-year-old military alliance.
In their effort to maximize turnout, organizers were quick to welcome a wide variety of interests, including Occupy protesters, immigration groups, the nation's largest nurses union and others.
"The issue with the protests here is that everybody is kind of protesting their own thing. There's not really a solid voice and united message against NATO," protester Trent Carl said.