Looking to a day when "the Afghan war as we understand it is over," President Barack Obama met Sunday with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to discuss NATO's withdrawal from that strife-torn country by the end of 2014.
Obama, who has put the draw-down of combat troops at the heart of his foreign policy, declared that "the world is behind the strategy" of giving Afghans control over their own security, but stressed that "now it's our task to implement if effectively."
Karzai, who aims to secure billions of dollars in long-term aid for his country's military and economy, said he looked forward to a day when "Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulders of of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies."
"I'm bringing to you and to the people of the United States the gratitude of the Afghan people for the support that your taxpayers' money has provided Afghanistan over the past decade and for the difference that it has made to the well-being of the Afghan people," he told Obama.
The two leaders met on the sidelines of a high-stakes NATO summit consumed by the question of the alliance's withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and its role beyond that date. Obama has made it known he wants leaders gathered here to sign off on a plan to hand over combat duties to Afghan forces in 2013.
"There will be no rush for the exits," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters as the summit opened, saying the alliance's plan was sound and vowing to "see it through to a successful end."
Beyond the tight security cordon around the summit, in the streets of Obama's adoptive hometown, protestors denounced the gathering for a second straight day. "I would expect that such demonstrations would take place in a peaceful manner," said Rasmussen.
Obama also wanted NATO leaders to flesh out their own commitments to Afghanistan — both in terms of troops and money — until 2014 and beyond. Specific dollar amounts are not expected in Chicago, but a July donors conference in Tokyo should spell those out. The price tag for Afghan forces after 2014 is estimated to be $4.1 billion per year. Afghanistan is expected to pay $500 million of that. Karzai has said his country will need at least $10 billion per year in overall aid through 2025.
Obama looked ahead to a future "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" and evoked "a shared vision that we have in which Afghanistan is able to transition from decades of war to a transformational decade of peace and stability and development."
Obama underlined "the enormous sacrifices that have been made by the American people, most profoundly by American troops, as well as the troops of our other coalition partners" and said Americans "recognize the hardship that the Afghan people have been through."
"The loss of life continues in Afghanistan. There will be hard days ahead. But we're confident that we're on the right track," he said.
"Afghanistan 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. In the meantime, until then, thank you for your support," Karzai said.