The failure to get an agreement unblocking supply routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan cast a shadow over the opening day of the Nato summit in Chicago on Sunday.
US and Pakistan officials have been in talks for some days now, and there were hopes of a deal timed to coincide with the summit, chances of which were dim.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s presence at the summit, in response to a last-minute invitation from Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was intended to help the talks along.
When asked if Obama and Zardari would meet, White House official Ben Rhodes said, “The types of issues that are being worked through — about the reopening of the supply lines — are not the type of issues that get hammered out at the presidential level.”
Zardari met secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Sunday.
Pakistan has long argued for a central role in talks on the future of Afghanistan, and the Chicago summit’s chief agenda was the ongoing drawdown with 2014-end in view.
International forces in Afghanistan have had to use expensive routes through Central Asia after Pakistan shut down its routes over the killing of 24 of its troops by US forces in November.
After months of stalemate, the two sides are said to be close to a deal, which, for the moment, seems stuck on passage fee: Islamabad is insisting on a steep hike.
When asked specifically if Obama and Zardari were not meeting because of the failure to end the blockade, Rhodes said, “We didn’t draw that linkage.”
Obama had two scheduled bilateral meetings: first with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and the second with Nato chief Rasmussen.
Obama and Karzai discussed the drawdown, which is currently underway according to a plan adopted by Nato at the Lisbon summit 2010.
White House officials said in a news briefing that the drawdown is nearing the halfway mark now, with a surge in Afghan troops reaching the pre-determined level of 350,000.
“The early transition areas were the ones more ripe for transition, and we’re getting now into some tough areas,” said White House point person on Afghanistan Doug Lute.
He said the next “six months to 12 months in the transition process” will be crucial.
Obama and Karzai also discussed the political transition. Karzai finishes his second five-year term in 2014, the year US and Nato forces completely hand over the lead to Afghan forces. He is prevented by the constitution from seeking another term, and a smooth transition to the next president will be key to Afghanistan’s future.
Coalition wants end to Afghan war
The summit is slated to formally endorse a US-backed strategy for a gradual exit from Afghanistan, a move aimed at holding together an allied force scrambling to cope with France’s decision to withdraw its troops early.
President Barack Obama and Nato partners want to show their war-weary voters the end is in sight in a conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade while at the same time trying to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
Nato’s plan is to shift full responsibility to Afghan forces by the middle of next year and withdraw most of the alliance’s combat troops by 2014-end.