| (Top) Obama and Zardari at the Nato summit in Chicago. (Reuters, AFP)
Chicago, May 21: President Obama was struggling to balance America’s relationship with two crucial but difficult allies yesterday, after a deal to reopen supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan fell apart just as 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, Obama remained at loggerheads with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, refusing even to meet him without an agreement on the supply routes, which officials in both countries acknowledged would not be coming soon.
Zardari, who flew to Chicago with hopes of lifting his stature with an Obama meeting, was preparing to leave empty-handed as the two countries continued to feel the repercussions of a fatal American airstrike last November, for which Obama has offered condolences but no apology.
Zardari did, however, meet 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 US has repeatedly infringed on their sovereignty with drone strikes and other activities.
“This whole breakdown in the relationship between the US 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, 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 yesterday 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.
Obama and his other tenuous ally in the region, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, huddled together yesterday morning to grapple with stalled reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
It was a measure of just how bad things have got between the US and Pakistan that, by contrast, Obama’s relationship with Karzai — which has been rocky ever since 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 yesterday.
The two men, fresh off Obama’s unannounced trip to Kabul this month to sign a strategic partnership agreement with 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 Karzai berated American troops, threatened to join the Taliban and chastised the American-led Nato mission.
There was none of that yesterday. During their session, the two men joked about limits in both of their countries that would prevent them from serving more than two terms; Obama trotted out his familiar “look at all the grey 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,” Obama said after the meeting, standing next to Karzai. “He recognises the enormous sacrifices American troops have made.” Obama quickly added: “We recognise the hardships that Afghans have been through during these many many years of war.”
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 Karzai a level of reassurance that the US and Nato will not abandon Afghanistan once combat troops leave.