NATO leaders sealed a landmark agreement on Monday to hand control of Afghanistan over to its own security forces by the middle of next year, putting the Western alliance on an "irreversible" path out of an unpopular, decade-long war.
A NATO summit in Chicago formally endorsed a U.S.-backed strategy that calls for a gradual exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014 but left major questions unanswered about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after the allies are gone.
The two-day meeting of the 28-nation alliance marked a milestone in a war sparked by the September 11 attacks that has spanned three U.S. presidential terms and even outlasted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
President Barack Obama and NATO partners sought to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in Afghanistan - a conflict that has strained Western budgets as well as patience - while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
A decision by France's new President Francois Hollande to pull out French troops by the end of December - two years ahead of NATO's timetable - has raised fears that other allies may also think about a rush to the exits.
"Our nations and the world have a vital interest in the success of this mission," Obama told a summit session on Afghanistan. "I am confident ... that we can advance that goal today and responsibly bring this war to an end."
Alliance leaders, in a final communiqué, ratified plans for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014.
The statement deemed it an "irreversible" transition to full security responsibility for fledgling Afghan troops, and said NATO's mission in 2014 would shift to a training and advisory role. "This will not be a combat mission," it said.
Doubts remain, however, whether Afghan forces will have the capability to stand up against a still-potent Taliban insurgency that Western forces have failed to defeat in nearly 11 years of fighting.
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