NATO leaders met in Chicago on Sunday to seek a way out of a wavering commitment in Afghanistan, amid the backdrop of a city brimming with protesters, a foiled alleged terrorist plot, a bombing that killed two NATO soldiers, and President Barack Obama's own misgivings about the military action in Afghanistan laid bare in a lengthy New York Times report.
Obama hosted the summit in his hometown and political base, as leaders of the Western military alliance gathered to map out their next steps in Afghanistan, which has proven a decade-long stalemate with steadily dwindling public support.
Wavering International Commitment, Two Soldiers Dead
Obama is expected to propose pulling most of NATO's 130,000 forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, handing the country over to a still-green Afghan security apparatus.
But a unity of purpose may be difficult to achieve, according to Reuters, as NATO leaders seem to each have their own timeline for withdrawal -- typically sooner rather than later.
Francois Hollande, France's new elected president, promised during his first visit to Washington to pull his nation's combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
This decision is an act of sovereignty and must be done in good coordination with our allies and partners, said Hollande.
Seeking to paper over differences, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed confidence that the alliance would maintain solidarity within our coalition despite France's decision, Reuters reported.
There will be no rush for the exits, Rasmussen told reporters. We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end.
But signaling tensions over the issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghanistan together.
An attack in Afghanistan Sunday set a tone for the hearings, as two NATO soldiers and two children were killed by a suicide bomber targeting a NATO convoy in Tirin Kit. The two deaths bring the total of NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in 2012 to 156, according to the Associated Press.
The attack marks just one skirmish in the Taliban's spring offensive, which the militant group ramps up every year as the winter wanes and temperatures rise. Taliban insurgents launched a rocket attack on a NATO base on Friday, killing two soldiers and wounding six. A suicide bomber struck a day later at a meeting of Afghan police and civilians.
The discussion of NATO's commitment to Afghanistan will take place in the presence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and last-minute invitee President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, which has provided a home base for militants, Taliban or otherwise, attacking NATO forces within Afghanistan.
Karzai met with Obama in a one-on-one during the summit, where the two leaders discussed a path forward for the struggling nation after 2014.
The loss of life continues. There will be hard days ahead, Obama said after the meeting, according to MSNBC. But we're confident that we're on the right track and what this NATO summit reflects is that world is behind strategy we've laid out.
Karzai echoed past commitments to aid in transitioning peace-keeping and security duties to his nation's own forces, to reach the point where Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and other allies.
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, he added.
Zardari's attendance may garner some flak, with NATO leaders pushing for Pakistan to reopen routes critical to supplying NATO forces closed after a U.S. aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
The summit is also expected to produce an update on a still-budding pan-European missile defense system, currently at interim capability.
Of Protests and Molotov Cocktails
The push to leave matched the sentiments of protesters gathering in the morning hours, planning to march from a downtown Chicago park to the NATO summit's venue at lakeside convention center.
They have these secret, undemocratic meetings, and if we aren't in the streets, we don't have a way to voice our opinion, 39-year-old protestor Meredith Aby told the Chicago Tribune. We have the opportunity here in Chicago to say no to the war in Afghanistan in person.
The protest is organized by the Coalition Against NATO-G8, which hopes as many as 10,000 people will gather to protest the war, according to Reuters.
By early Sunday afternoon, thousands of protesters, some dressed as clowns and others bearing anti-war signs, gathered on Sunday in a lakefront park in the biggest test yet for Chicago police, Reuters reported.
Previous protests in the run-up to the summit Sunday and Monday have been lively but peaceful, resulting in fewer than two dozen arrests over the past six days, according to the Chicago Police Department.
I think we're going to be able to handle it, Police Chief Garry McCarthy told reporters, adding the numbers of demonstrators this week were fewer than many had expected.
But the arrest of five men Wednesday allegedly plotting to fire bomb Obama's campaign headquarters and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home has raised the level of concern surrounding the summit.
Brian Church, Jared Chase, Brent Vincent Betterly, Mark Neiweem and Sebastian Senakiewicz were charged with criminal acts relating to terrorism, conspiracy to commit terrorism and possession of explosives, after police found the first three loading a batch of Molotov cocktails in the back of a truck.
Church, Chase and Betterly reportedly came to Chicago for the weekend to protest the summit. Police assert they began devising plans to use the cocktails, explosive fluids in a glass bottle then lit aflame and thrown, on the politicos' bases, as well as various businesses and police stations around the city.
Senakiewicz was charged with falsely making a terrorist threat, with prosecutors alleging the Polish immigrant bragged repeatedly of his ability to blow up a bridge in downtown Chicago, according to the AP. Prosecutors did not find explosives.
Neiweem stands accused of planning to build a pipe bomb, writing out a recipe for the device that included model rocket engines, leading to charges of attempted possession of explosives and incendiary devices.
The quintet is represented by attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild, which dismissed the charges as propaganda to create climate of fear and to create this public perception that protesters are violent.
The defense lawyers argue the arrests were a case of entrapment, with plans for the firebombing coming from undercover law enforcement officers or informants, who also provided the materials to make the Molotov cocktails.
From what we've learned, we believe it is a setup - entrapment to the highest degree - and it is sensationalism by the police and the state to discredit the protesters who have come here to nonviolently protest, said Michael Deutsch, one of the defense lawyers, according to the New York Times.
The computer hacking group Anonymous said it had brought down the website for Chicago's police department and another city website to protest the summit. Officials said they were working on the situation.
A group of Iraq war veterans have pledged to toss their medals over the security fence surrounding the summit site in a symbolic protest. Matt Howard, a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, said 50 veterans planned to throw away their medals.
Vietnam War veteran Ron McSheffery, 61, said, I'm in total support of stopping NATO and stopping the slaughter of innocent civilians. If we took the money we spent on bombs and put it into green energy, we wouldn't need to keep the sea lanes open for oil transport.
McCarthy, the police chief, said at the beginning of the week that his goal was to extract those protesters who were provocative and let others demonstrate peacefully.
They're dealing with individuals that are showing signs of aggression. But they're allowing people expressing their opposition to policies to do so, said Arnette Heintze, a former Secret Service agent who is now CEO of Hillard Heintze, a security firm that advised the NATO host committee.