(AP) CHICAGO - President Barack Obama warned of "hard days" ahead in Afghanistan as world leaders Sunday opened a NATO summit confronted by questions about the country's post-conflict future.
Meeting in Mr. Obama's home city of Chicago, the leaders discussed their next steps in Afghanistan: preparing for elections and finding money to support Afghan security forces at a time when member nations are dealing with tight budgets and waning public support for the war.
They insisted the fighting coalition will remain effective despite the plans of newly elected French President Francois Hollande to yank combat troops out early.
"There will be no rush for the exits," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged."
Rasmussen denied there were fresh cracks in the alliance. He suggested a deal will emerge for France to move into a noncombat role but continue to support the international mission.
After meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, President Obama said that the end of the war is in sight. The military alliance is pledged to remain in Afghanistan into 2014, but will seal plans Sunday and Monday to shift foreign forces off the front lines a year faster than once planned.
"We still have a lot of work to do and there will be great challenges ahead," Mr. Obama said. "The loss of life continues in Afghanistan and there will be hard days ahead."
Afghan forces will take the lead throughout the nation next year, instead of in 2014, despite uneven performance under U.S. and other outside tutelage so far. The shift is in large part a response to plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States, contributors of most of the 130,000 foreign troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency. A majority of Americans now say the war is unwinnable or not worth continuing.
Karzai said his nation is looking forward to the end of war, "so that Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies."
Hollande, the new French president, has said he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end - a full two years before the timeline agreed to by nations in the U.S.-led NATO coalition.
Before the one-hour meeting with Karzai, a senior U.S. official said President Obama would focus on planning for Afghanistan's 2014 elections, as well as the prospect of a political settlement with the Taliban.
Karzai has said repeatedly he will step down from power when his term ends in 2014, opening the way for new elections. NATO's scheduled end of the war was built around those plans, with foreign forces staying until the 2014 election but exiting the country by 2015.
Past Afghan elections were riddled with irregularities, and the U.S. applied heavy pressure to Karzai to schedule a second round of voting during the last presidential contest in 2009. The runoff was never held because Karzai's challenger pulled out, protesting what he said was an impossible level of corruption.