NATO formally announced a new timeline for the winding down of troops in Afghanistan, agreeing to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghans by the summer of 2013, with the withdrawal of most troops timed for the end of 2014. This is a similar timeline to the exit of troops from Iraq, with a transfer of responsibility for security preceding the eventual exit. However, unlike in Iraq, the US signed a long-term agreement with Afghanistan that covers an indefinite period well beyond 2014. But they’re certainly putting a lot into this agreement being a means to end the war.

In a declaration at the summit meeting of the 28-member alliance, the leaders insisted that the transition was “irreversible.”

“We are gradually and responsibly drawing down our forces” to complete the Afghanistan mission by December 2014, when the rest of the American-led NATO troops in Afghanistan are supposed to come home, the declaration says.

However, the agreement is as much an indication to current Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the international community will not abandon him and withdraw support after 2011. That’s good news for Karzai, who may be deposed without international support. But it’s not exactly a situation that returns national sovereignty to the Afghan people. Obama and Karzai offered a united front in remarks at the NATO summit in Chicago, which has been marked by protests.

This is seen as a win for President Obama to get NATO on his timetable for Afghanistan. However, he was not as successful in securing an agreement with Pakistan on supply lines through Afghanistan, which were suspended last year. Obama wouldn’t even meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari without an agreement on the supply lines, which did not materialize, despite high hopes from NATO leadership.

In his remarks, Karzai said that Afghanistan “will be largely defending itself and providing for itself” by 2024, which is probably in itself an optimistic figure. We have set up a security force in Afghanistan, the cost of which is greater than the GDP of the country several times over. It will be many years before the burden of Afghanistan is off the backs of the US taxpayer, to say nothing of the military.

David Sanger had a long article this weekend about the President’s changing opinion of the Afghanistan war. But it’s unclear to me whether anything has changed at all. He got the long-term agreement in Afghanistan he sought in Iraq, and with it the ability to use the country as a launching pad for attacks by special operatives or drones throughout the region. That’s what was meant by “going after Al Qaeda,” and it will continue, regardless of Al Qaeda’s actual prominence.

UPDATE: Here’s the White House’s fact sheet on NATO’s “enduring” post-2014 presence in Afghanistan. It includes a mission to “train, advise, and assist Afghan forces,” as well as the elements of the US-Afghan strategic partnership, which is mirrored by other NATO member countries. “Afghanistan also is negotiating a long-term partnership agreement with the European Union,” according to the document. If the idea that America was “leaving” Iraq left you dubious, you should definitely feel that about Afghanistan.