Leaders talk up united front despite division in the ranks over timetable

Revised deadline from new French regime does not mean 'rush for exits', says Secretary General

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The Independent Online

Nato leaders gathered for a summit in Chicago will today insist plans remain on track to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan in controlled phases by the end of 2014, after a transition period that will see responsibility for national security handed over to an Afghan national force.

In a final communiqué the leaders will declare a unified front against a background of popular weariness with the more than 10-year-old war. They will also insist that the planning is coming at a time of important progress including ongoing reconciliation talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

"There will be no rush for the exits," Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday as he and President Obama welcomed leaders of more than 50 nations to the summit, including those from the 28 Alliance nations. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remains unchanged."

The united front disguised tensions, including how to handle the campaign pledge of French President François Hollande to bring French soldiers home by the end of this year. British sources said they hoped he could be persuaded to extend the deadline. Mr Rasmussen played down any early French withdrawal. "It's not a contradiction of our strategy, it's a part of our strategy," he said. There are fears that human rights, especially those of women and minorities, will be sacrificed for a face-saving deal with hardline Islamists.

"We know that there are people who are trying to undermine this [peace] process because if there is end to the war then they will lose the influence they have in Afghanistan. But the talks must continue and this big meeting in Chicago will work out a plan for the future and this future must not include this type of violence," Salhauddin Rabbani, the son of the murdered former head of the Afghan government's negotiators, Burhanuddin Rabbani, told The Independent.

The Taliban has openly threatened to kill members of the Peace Council as part of a "spring offensive".

David Cameron said Nato needed to be ready for its own version of austerity as budgets dwindled, saying it should cut back on institutional structures and explore more cooperation between the militaries of member nations. He denied the Alliance has problems financing the Afghan mission – seen at roughly $4bn (£2.5bn) a year, with the US covering half. "I am confident the targets set by the Americans will be met," he said, adding that Britain had already pledged £100m.

At a press conference with President Hamid Karzai last night, Mr Obama said: "Both of us recognise that we still have a lot of work to do. The loss of life continues in Afghanistan. There will be hard days ahead, but we're confident that we're on the right track," Mr Obama said. He was also to chair a meeting with Mr Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on reconciliation with the Taliban. US officials said Pakistan was resisting requests to re-open supply lines between Pakistan and Nato operations in Afghanistan.