Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, and President Obama shake hands at… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais,…)
CHICAGO — As thousands of protesters marched in the streets, President Obama welcomed more than 60 world leaders to his heavily guarded hometown for a NATO summit that will start the clock for America and its allies to begin pulling combat troops from Afghanistan.
The two-day summit, the largest in the 63-year history of the military alliance, came as White House officials made it clear they were furious overPakistan's continued refusal to reopen ground routes used to move fuel and other war supplies into Afghanistan, a six-month standoff that the White House had hoped to resolve before Obama arrived in Chicago.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the summit Sunday. But White House officials ruled out a meeting between Obama and Zardari, and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen canceled a meeting with the Pakistani leader, citing scheduling conflicts.
Aides said Defense SecretaryLeon E. Panettaplanned to meet with officials from five Central Asian countries that have provided an alternative, but considerably more expensive, northern land route for NATO supplies since Pakistan closed its roads after U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
After weeks of closed-door negotiations with Zardari's government, U.S. officials did not deny that they are seeking to send the Pakistanis a public message.
"If they're feeling a little bit of pressure this weekend, they should," said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "The U.S. and NATO are ready to move beyond this issue."
During the summit, North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations are expected to ratify a U.S.-backed plan to withdraw most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014 and then provide the government in Kabul with billions of dollars in military aid to battle the Taliban insurgency.
In his opening remarks, Obama said he looked forward to when the war "as we understand it is over." The ambiguous message reflects his determination to end U.S. involvement in an unpopular war as he runs for reelection, even though years of tough fighting probably lie ahead for Afghans.
Mounting economic turmoil around the globe, and the growing sense that 11 years of war is enough, produced powerful undercurrents of tension amid a facade of unity.
The alliance is split on key details about how to prevent Afghanistan from falling under Taliban control once NATO troops leave. There were clear signs of discord over how quickly to pull troops out over the next 2 1/2 years, and growing doubts about whether NATO nations will meet financial pledges in the future.
"We still have a lot of work to do and there will be great challenges ahead," Obama told reporters after meeting for more than an hour with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "The loss of life continues in Afghanistan and there will be hard days ahead."
One of the challenges is from an ally. Pakistan closed its roads to trucks that deliver food, fuel and other nonlethal supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan after the U.S. airstrikes on Nov. 26. Pakistan called the attacks unprovoked and deliberate, but U.S. officials insisted they were an error. The incident capped months of crises that added intense pressures to the long-fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
Pakistan recently demanded that the United States and NATO pay more than $5,000 for each truck entering its territory, a substantial increase over the previous $200 charge. In an interview last week, Panetta all but ruled out paying that much, although U.S. officials are willing to pay a higher rate than before to reopen the supply route from the port of Karachi to the Afghan border.
If Pakistan doesn't reopen the routes, NATO will face additional difficulties and expenses as it seeks to withdraw combat forces and military equipment from Afghanistan.
Inside Chicago's McCormick Place, a cavernous convention center, the summit began with Obama and other leaders seated at a vast circular table. They stood at attention as uniformed service members from the 28 NATO nations solemnly marched in, and a drummer beat cadence. Obama bowed his head as the gathering observed a moment of silence to honor troops killed or injured in NATO operations, and a bugler played taps.
Several thousand antiwar and other demonstrators took to the streets for mostly peaceful protests, chanting "No NATO, no way!" and "Hey hey, ho ho, NATO has got to go!" In the late afternoon, knots of protesters scuffled with police in helmets and black body armor, but officers used billy clubs and shields to push them back.
At least 20 people were reported arrested during the day. But the protests were far smaller and less violent than what many people in Chicago, a city still deeply scarred by memories of bloody confrontations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, had feared.