President Obama speaks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center, and… (Pete Souza / The White House,…)
CHICAGO — When the White House sent a last-minute invitation for Asif Ali Zardari to attend the two-day NATO summit, they were taking a highly public gamble. Would sharing the spotlight with President Obama and other global leaders induce the Pakistani president to allow vital supplies to reach alliance troops fighting in Afghanistan?
But long before the summit ended Monday, the answer was clear: No deal.
Zardari's refusal to reopen the supply routes left a diplomatic blot on a summit that NATO sought to cast as the beginning of the end of the conflict in Afghanistan. The Chicago gathering did produce a formal agreement by the alliance to hand over lead responsibility for security to Afghan forces by mid-2013, and pull out nearly all U.S. and other NATO troops by the end of 2014 even if the Taliban-led insurgency remains undiminished.
U.S. officials insist ample fuel and other supplies are being delivered via much longer and more expensive land routes in Russia and other nations north of Afghanistan. But the Pentagon says reopening the land route in Pakistan will be essential to hauling vast stores of military equipment and vehicles out of Afghanistan during the withdrawal.
Obama's irritation at the impasse was clear Monday when he addressed more than 50 world leaders and publicly thanked Russia and Central Asian nations "that continue to provide critical transit" of war supplies into Afghanistan. Zardari sat only a few feet away, but Obama pointedly did not mention Pakistan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 25, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
NATO summit: An article in Section A on May 22 about the NATO summit said the White House had sent a last-minute invitation to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to attend the May 20-21 meeting in Chicago. As the article subsequently noted, NATO said it had sent the invitation, not the White House.
Later at a news conference that closed the two-day summit, Obama did not try to downplay the strains in a relationship that has spiraled from crisis to crisis since U.S. Navy SEALs secretly flew into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden last May. Nor did Obama suggest, as his aides had done earlier, that a quick resolution was likely.
"I don't want to paper over real challenges there," Obama said. "There's no doubt that there have been tensions between [the NATO military coalition] and Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan over the last several months."
Pakistan closed the main NATO supply route after U.S. airstrikes hit two border posts Nov. 26 and killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad has demanded an unconditional apology, and more than $5,000 per truck, up from about $250 in the past, to let supplies flow again. The Obama administration has refused to apologize, saying both sides committed mistakes, and it says the new truck toll is far too expensive.
The White House was careful not to let Zardari appear completely snubbed Monday, worried that could worsen tensions. Obama had ruled out a formal meeting with Zardari when it was clear no deal was forthcoming, but aides ensured that the Pakistani leader managed to bump into Obama twice Monday, once for a brief one-on-one chat and later with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The White House quickly told the media of the encounter and tweeted a photo of the three leaders in conversation.
Obama indicated that the discussion was far from substantive, however, describing it as "very brief as we were walking into the summit."
Obama also offered a glimpse of how his thinking has evolved on the use of military force during his three years in office, reflecting on an issue that officials have said increasingly has been on his mind: the tensions that develop when U.S. troops are deployed in distant wars for years on end.
"Frankly, the large footprint that we have in Afghanistan over time can be counterproductive," Obama said. "We've been there 10 years. And I think, you know, no matter how much good we're doing and how outstanding our troops and our civilians and diplomats are doing on the ground, 10 years in a country that's very different, that's a strain. Not only on our folks, but also on that country."
Obama dismissed the notion that the U.S. may be planning for a "premature withdrawal" in Afghanistan, but he also committed to the 2014 timetable regardless of whether the Taliban-led insurgency is defeated.
Signaling the shrunken ambitions for the mission, Obama said sometimes you just have to pick a time and leave.
"I don't think that there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say: 'This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it. And now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home,' " he said. "There's a process. And it's sometimes a messy process. Just as it was in Iraq."
Obama indicated that he was so wary of major troop commitments that he had applied clear limits for U.S. special operations and other military units battling groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and other places. The goal, Obama said, is to "stay focused on the counter-terrorism issue, to not overextend ourselves."