Supply Lines Cast Shadow at NATO Meeting on Afghan War
HELENE COOPER and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
CHICAGO — President Obama was struggling to balance the United States’ relationship with two crucial but difficult allies on Sunday, after a deal to reopen supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan fell apart just as Mr. Obama began talks on ending the NATO alliance’s combat role in the Afghan war.
As a two-day NATO summit meeting opened in Chicago, Mr. Obama remained at loggerheads with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, refusing even to meet with him without an agreement on the supply routes, which officials in both countries acknowledged would not be coming soon.
Mr. Zardari, who flew to Chicago with hopes of lifting his stature with a meeting with Mr. Obama, was preparing to leave empty-handed as the two countries continued to feel the repercussions of a fatal American airstrike last November, for which Mr. Obama has offered condolences but no apology. Mr. Zardari did, however, meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss the supply routes.
Pakistan closed the routes into Afghanistan after the strike, heightening tensions with Pakistani officials who say that the United States has repeatedly infringed on their sovereignty with drone strikes and other activities.
“This whole breakdown in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has come down to a fixation of this apology issue,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Pakistan. The combination of no apology and no meeting, Mr. Nasr said, “will send a powerfully humiliating message back to Pakistan.”
American officials hope the summit of the 28-member alliance will set in motion an orderly conclusion of the decade-long war in Afghanistan, a huge undertaking. NATO aims to give Afghan forces the lead in combat operations next year to pave the way for the departure of NATO troops by the end of 2014. The NATO summit will also focus on financing Afghan forces for the next several years.
In a sign of the tensions surrounding Afghanistan, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Chicago on Sunday in opposition to the war and to NATO. The police clashed with some demonstrators who refused to disperse after a march down Michigan Avenue to McCormick Place, where world leaders were meeting.
Mr. Obama and his other tenuous ally in the region, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, huddled together Sunday morning to grapple with stalled reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
It was a measure of just how bad things have gotten between the United States and Pakistan that, by contrast, Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Karzai — which has been rocky ever since Mr. Obama came into office vowing to end what he viewed as former President George W. Bush’s coddling of the mercurial Afghan leader — looked calm and stable on Sunday.
The two men, fresh off Mr. Obama’s unannounced trip to Kabul this month to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Mr. Karzai that set the terms for relations after the departure of American troops in 2014, presented a united front before reporters after a one-hour meeting on the outskirts of the NATO summit. It was a sharp contrast with the past, when Mr. Karzai berated American troops, threatened to join the Taliban and chastised the American-led NATO mission.
There was none of that on Sunday. During their session, the two men joked about limits in both of their countries that would prevent them from serving more than two terms; Mr. Obama trotted out his familiar “look at all the gray hair I have now” line that he likes using to describe how tough his term has been.
“I want to express my appreciation for the hard work that President Karzai has done,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting, standing next to Mr. Karzai. “He recognizes the enormous sacrifices American troops have made.”
Mr. Obama quickly added: “We recognize the hardships that Afghans have been through during these many many years of war.”
Mr. Karzai, for his part, said he would work to make sure that Afghanistan is not a “burden on the shoulders of our friends” in the international community.
“For all the twists and turns in this relationship, we now very much want to get to very much the same place,” one Obama administration official said. He credited the strategic partnership agreement, which he says has given Mr. Karzai a level of reassurance that the United States and NATO will not abandon Afghanistan once combat troops leave the country. “The discussion today was very much about what do we have to do over the next two years to close out our piece of the war.”
On the Pakistani front, however, things seem to deteriorate.
American and Pakistani officials expressed optimism last week that an agreement on re-establishing supply routes was imminent. Negotiators were narrowing their differences after three weeks of intense deliberations, they said, and it was hoped that an invitation for Pakistan to attend the summit would engender the good will needed to close the gap between the two sides.
The invitation was accepted, and Mr. Zardari arrived in Chicago on Saturday. But a deal on the supply lines remained elusive, and Mr. Obama would not meet with Mr. Zardari without it, American officials said.
The supply lines, through which about 40 percent of NATO’s nonlethal supplies had passed, were closed in late November after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in American airstrikes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deaths capped a year of crises between the United States and Pakistan that put immense strain on the two countries’ already fragile relationship.
The failure to strike a deal on the supply routes ahead of the summit injects new tension into the relationship. “When NATO extended the invitation, we thought it would move the Pakistanis off the dime,” a senior American official said. Without the deal, “it’s going to be really uncomfortable” for Mr. Zardari at the summit, which runs through Monday, said the official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the talks.
American officials said the main sticking point was the amount NATO would pay for each truck carrying supplies from Karachi, on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, to the Afghan border. Before the closing, the payment per truck was about $250. Pakistan is now asking for “upward of $5,000” for each truck, another American official said.
Mr. Obama called off a planned visit to Pakistan last year after the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden. That Bin Laden had been living there confirmed what American officials had long suspected: Despite Pakistani protests to the contrary, the man behind the Sept. 11 attacks had been hiding in the country for years.
Mr. Obama did telephone Mr. Zardari a few hours after the raid to inform him that Navy Seals had done an incursion into Pakistani territory to kill Bin Laden, and during that conversation Mr. Zardari “spoke with emotion about the fact that these people were associated with the killing of his wife,” Benazir Bhutto, the senior official said.
The NATO summit formally opened on Sunday, with leaders listening to taps to honor the soldiers killed in the Afghan conflict.
In remarks at the opening session, Mr. Obama said the end of the war was in sight. Officials hope to announce on Monday that by the middle of 2013, American soldiers will no longer be in the lead in any combat operations around the country, and Afghanistan’s own national security forces will assume control.
It remains unclear just how smooth that transition will go, as Afghan forces have not demonstrated a lasting ability to secure the country. But after more than a decade of war, there is combat fatigue in the NATO countries.
Mr. Obama, who has pushed to bring troops home, has been at odds with his own military commanders over the pace of the American withdrawal. Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Gen. John Allen, the top United States military commander in Afghanistan, said that American troops will still be involved in combat next year even after the United States shifts to a support role.