CHICAGO (AP) - As President Barack Obama and fellow NATO leaders herald the coming end of the deeply unpopular Afghanistan war, they face the grim reality of two more years of fighting ahead and more of their troops sure to die in combat.
The many partners in the fighting coalition will gather Monday in Obama's hometown to reassert their commitment to ending the war in 2014 and solidify another milestone for next year, when Afghan forces take the lead in combat missions while NATO assumes a supporting role.
So far in the two-day NATO conference, the leaders have voiced hope that a decade of war in Afghanistan will give way to a decade of transition to peace and stability, aided by the U.S. and its allies.
But hard realities intrude.
Some NATO countries, most recently France, have sought to end their combat commitments early. The Taliban and its allies have warned that they are waiting to fill the void in Afghanistan after NATO leaves. And with alliance forces - the bulk of which are American - still committed to many more months of fighting, the sacrifices are far from over.
Obama is eager to show election-year leadership on the world stage, and he sought to straddle the line on the war before NATO's formal embrace Monday of a plan to put Afghan forces in control of security next summer and have NATO back them up.
Following a meeting Sunday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said NATO's drawdown plans mean that by 2014, "the Afghan war as we understand it is over." But he acknowledged enormous progress must be made for that vision to become a reality.
"We still have a lot of work to do, and there will be great challenges ahead," Obama said after his lengthy talks with Karzai. "The loss of life continues in Afghanistan."
Obama's words were echoed by other top U.S. officials, who sternly warned that American forces and their allies should still expect to be engaged in battle even after Afghans take the lead.
"After this milestone in 2013 there still will be combat capability, combat authority and an expectation there will be combat," said Retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the top White House national security council official in charge of the war.
Still, NATO leaders have billed the transition to Afghan forces taking the lead as an important benchmark in their plans to wind down the war by the end of 2014. Many of the leaders, Obama chief among them, have a political incentive for trumpeting that drawdown plan, given the growing public frustration with the nearly 11-year-old war.
Sixty six percent of Americans oppose the war, while only 27 percent support the effort, according to an AP-GfK poll released earlier this month.
In France, voters elected President Francois Hollande in part because of a campaign pledge to pull his country's 3,300 troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule. Since taking office, Hollande has said he plans to make good on his promise to bring combat troops home by the end of this year, but will maintain French support for Afghanistan in other ways.
The U.S. and NATO will also maintain a sizeable and lengthy commitment to Afghanistan after combat troops come home at the end of 2014.
Obama, in a surprise trip to Afghanistan earlier this month, signed a deal with Karzai detailing much of the U.S. commitment, including annual financing from Congress and support for development, health and education projects. The U.S. may also leave a residual troop presence in Afghanistan, though any such step would require approval from the Afghans.
At the NATO conference, leaders were also discussing how the international community would finance Afghan security forces after 2014. With none of the NATO countries having the stomach to pursue the war much longer, the only viable option is to leave behind an Afghan army and police force capable of defending the country against the Taliban and its allies.
NATO estimates it will cost about $4.1 billion a year to finance the forces. The Afghan government will pay about $500 million of that and the rest will come from donor countries, many of which are struggling with deficits and the specter of recession.
In a statement issued early Monday, NATO directed a review of the need for continued military support after ground forces depart. The alliance said it would "continue to provide strong and long-term political and practical support" to the government of Afghanistan and would "train, advise and assist" the Afghan military.
"This will not be a combat mission," NATO said.
While the Chicago meeting was not billed as a pledging summit, leaders were discussing where the rest of the contributions would come from. About $1.3 billion is expected to come from NATO members other than the United States. About $1 billion of that has already been pledged, a senior Western official said Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose the figures.
The U.S. and some nations outside the military coalition are expected to make up the $2.3 billion.
The challenge facing Obama and other world leaders will be to convince their own voters that Afghanistan is worth the investment. The war has already claimed the lives of at least 3,000 NATO service members - more than 1,840 of them American - and thousands of Afghans.
"I think it speaks to the level of commitment that even in these tough financial times these leaders are willing to make the political commitment to fund the Afghan security forces," Lute said.
Afghanistan's stability after 2014 will also depend on cooperation from Pakistan. While Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is attending the NATO summit, Obama has no plans to meet him privately, a signal of the tensions between their two countries.
The U.S. and Pakistan remain at odds over Pakistan's closure of key routes used to send supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan closed the supply lines in November following a U.S. airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. While both sides have indicated the issue will be resolved, no deal is expected to be reached during the NATO meetings, casting a shadow over the Afghan talks.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Zardari on Sunday to discuss the situation. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said afterward the two sides were "moving in right trajectory."