Philippe Wojazer / AFP - Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends a working session on Monday on the second day of the NATO Summit in Chicago.
Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET: CHICAGO -- 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.
Leaders gathered at 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.
“Today we have taken further important steps on the road to a stable and secure Afghanistan and to our goal of preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven for terrorists that threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world,” NATO members said in a joint declaration.
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 outlasted al-Qaida 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.
After at least 45 people were arrested over the weekend amid violent clashes at the NATO summit in Chicago. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
Obama acknowledged NATO's plan was fraught with risk even as he touted it as a sound approach.
"We are now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan," Obama told the summit's closing news conference.
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.
NATO diplomats said thinking had moved to the logistical challenge of getting a multinational army that size out of the Afghan mountains and deserts and back home - safely and with their equipment.
They said the aim was to sign a framework agreement with Afghanistan's northern neighbor, Uzbekistan, to allow "reverse transit" of NATO supplies from Afghanistan.
NATO has also been trying to persuade Pakistan to reopen its territory to NATO supplies, which Islamabad has blocked since NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers forces in a cross-border incident last year.
But despite a face-to-face encounter with Pakistan's president, Obama failed to resolve the dispute.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at a joint press conference with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki after touring Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago, said that the two sides "still have a ways to go."
Meanwhile, anti-war protesters staged a peaceful march on the headquarters of U.S. defense contractor Boeing. Between 200 and 300 demonstrators, some throwing paper planes, gathered in a festive atmosphere outside the company's headquarters.
Occupy Chicago, the local chapter of the loose-knit anti-Wall Street Occupy movement, had promised to shut down Boeing's headquarters, which it called "NATO's war machine."
The demonstrators gathered only briefly outside Boeing's building and then moved on.
The demonstration came a day after a protest march Sunday that was one of the city's largest in years, with thousands of people airing grievances about war, climate change, economic inequality and a wide range of other complaints.
Some protesters hurled sticks and bottles at police. Officers responded by swinging their batons. The two sides were locked in a standoff for two hours.
Forty-five protesters were arrested and four officers were hurt, including one who was stabbed in the leg, police said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.
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