CHICAGO - NATO leaders will endorse plans to hand over combat command in Afghanistan by mid-2013 on Monday and seek practical progress in opening routes to bring an international army of more than 130,000 back home from an unpopular, resource-draining war.
The strategy for a gradual exit from Afghanistan is aimed at holding together the multinational force and maintaining security in spite of France's decision to withdraw its troops earlier than scheduled.
At a summit in Chicago, leaders of the 28-nation alliance will endorse 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.
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 the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces in a cross-border incident last year.
Mehmet Fatih Ceylan, the senior Turkish foreign ministry official responsible for NATO, said Pakistan, long a crucial route for getting supplies into Afghanistan, would be a key route out for Western forces.
"Countries in the region should also help our efforts for taking people back, together with the materials and other equipment," he told Reuters. "It's a big challenge ... and this is a new dimension people are focusing on now - how to take them safe and secure back home."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was a last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the summit in U.S. President Barack Obama's hometown. But it remains unclear if he will agree to reopen routes to NATO traffic.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, told Reuters he was confident a deal would eventually be struck, but "whether it's in days or weeks, I don't know."
Zardari is likely to encounter friction in meetings with NATO leaders angered by the fact that Taliban guerrillas have continued to find sanctuary in Pakistan in spite of Islamabad's professed support for the NATO mission.
NATO has also been seeking to secure long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is vital for the alliance's aim of a smooth exit and future Afghan stability.
The U.S. administration is unwilling to foot the entire annual bill to maintain the forces after 2014, which is estimated at $4.1 billion, and has been seeking pledges from allies of $1.3 billion, despite austerity measures brought on by Europe's financial crisis.
The key leaders in Chicago came directly from a summit of the Group of Eight wealthy nations that vowed to take all necessary measures to contain the European debt crisis.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said a number of allies had announced concrete contributions. These have included $100 million annually from Britain, $120 million from Italy, $100 million from Australia and $20 million for Turkey.
While he said the summit was "not a pledging conference" Rasmussen was "optimistic about reaching the overall goal."
"You can't expect exact figures from this summit, but I can tell you we are on the right track," he said, adding that it was the responsibility of others in the international community to contribute.
Seeking re-election in November, Obama has been hoping to show war-weary voters the end is in sight in a conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade, and has sought to dispel the notion that shaky allies will leave U.S. troops to fight alone.
However, Socialist French President Francois Hollande vowed at the summit to stick to his election pledge to withdraw French troops by the year's end -- two years earlier than the NATO timetable.
Perhaps in return, the Americans are asking for around 200 million euros ($256 million) a year from France for the Afghan armed forces, a French diplomatic source said.
Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper said Canada would announce financial assistance for Afghan forces on Monday, but would resist pressure to extend a military training mission. The paper said the United States had been pressing Canada to commit $125 million a year for three years after 2014.
For Western leaders battling severe fiscal pressures, the Afghan war remains an unwelcome reminder of their failure to defeat a stubborn insurgency despite vast expenditure.
Heavy security has been put in place for the Chicago summit and police clashed with anti-war protesters marching by the thousands near the venue.(Reuters)