CHICAGO - President Barack Obama and NATO allies on Sunday charted an outwardly confident path to a postwar Afghanistan, their talk tempered by a potential split in the coalition and warnings that bloodshed will continue, and perhaps escalate, when allied troops withdraw.
Obama, hosting the summit of NATO leaders in Chicago, worked to signal an election-year balance between getting the U.S. out of an unpopular war as soon as possible while insisting that the U.S. and NATO will stay long enough to assure some sort of stability in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said the alliance is expected Monday to approve a plan in which Afghan national security forces will take the lead in combat operations countrywide in summer 2013, earlier than the expected fall transition.
Gen. John Allen, commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, said recruitment of Afghan security forces is "several months ahead of schedule." He said that would lead to a full Afghan national security force by year-end and a transition to Afghan forces taking the lead role in 2013.
U.S. and NATO combat troops will remain through 2014, in a supporting role but still exposed to possible combat, though the number of troops that will stay remains undecided.
For Obama, the timetable allowed him to boast that the alliance was unified behind a vision of a future after 2014 "in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues."
"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," he said after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the summit. "But we're confident that we are on the right track."
Karzai, seeking to maintain at least some popular support in the U.S. as he seeks post-2014 commitments of cash to pay for his country's army, expressed the "gratitude of the Afghan people for the support that your taxpayers' money has provided us over the past decade."
Afghanistan, he said, "is fully aware of the task ahead and of what Afghanistan needs to do to reach the objectives that we all have of a stable, peaceful and self-reliant Afghanistan."
Despite the talk of unity and confidence, the alliance is working to avoid a faster-than-expected withdrawal. France says it will get its combat troops out by the end of this year.
"Ultimately, we will need to understand exactly what the French decision will mean," Allen said. He said there would be "no degradation of security" and that the French troops could withdraw from combat missions but still help train Afghan forces.
Seeking to exploit a potential split, the Taliban on Sunday noted that Americans have turned against the war and urged NATO countries to abandon Afghanistan ahead of schedule as France vows to do.
"The people of nations allied with America have also shown their opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan," the Taliban said in a prepared statement. "So the NATO member countries who claim to be the elected representatives of its people and consider their government the people's government, by the people, for the people: how will they answer the call of their people in this summit?"
At the same time, Obama's exit strategy hinges on questionable hopes, such as the abilities of the Afghan security forces.
The army suffers from corruption and nepotism. Officers recently interviewed in Afghanistan spoke of potentially crippling tensions between ethnic minorities and Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group. Many soldiers serve only because they can't find civilian jobs, not out of loyalty to the government.
As U.S. and NATO forces pull out, analysts also worry about losing the hard-fought gains of more than decade of war.
Advocates warned that women, for example, face grave risks after the NATO withdrawal if the Taliban returns to power.
"Afghan women have never faced greater danger to the protection and advancement of their human rights; they need and deserve your support," said an open letter to the NATO leaders signed by 46 women, including former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"Their human rights, their safety, their very lives, must not be sacrificed as U.S. Armed Forces withdraw from the country."