Obama refuses bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, who wants demands met before roads reopen
A rift between the US and Pakistan appears to be widening at the Nato summit in Chicago – a dangerous development that could undermine Barack Obama's hopes for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The US has said repeatedly that Pakistan holds the key to the future of the region but relations between Obama and President Asif Ali Zardari have deteriorated in a standoff over supply routes to Afghanistan.
Pakistan closed the routes after a US air strike killed two dozen Pakistani troops in November.
Obama is refusing to see Zardari, possibly because he arrived in Chicago without a deal in his pocket on reopening the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to US transport. A White House spokesman said no bilateral meeting between Obama and Zardari at the Nato summit was scheduled.
Instead Pakistan is making a series of demands in return for reopening the supply routes, including a review of the US policy of drone attacks against targets inside Pakistan and a public apology for the killing of its troops.
Zardari was invited late to the two-day Nato summit, which will be dominated on Monday by discussion of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan by 2014 and the retention of a modest armed presence in the county for a decade after that.
The Obama administration had high hopes that Zardari would arrive in Chicago prepared to announce the opening of supply routes essential to Nato. Zardari, in talks with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made a series of demands, offering to reopen the supply routes only if the US was prepared to pay a higher charge for each vehicle using it, doubling the tariff from $250 to $500 per vehicle. Zardari also demanded a public apology for the killings.
The fact that Zardari had to settle for a meeting with Clinton rather than the president is in itself a snub.
General John Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at a briefing: "There have been some very positive indications of late with the government in Islamabad about an interest in entering into negotiations, which I think you're all aware of, to open the ground line of communications. I can't tell you when that will occur – obviously sooner is better than later."
A Pakistan presidential spokesman said Zardari told Clinton he wanted "to find a permanent solution to the drone issue as it not only violated our sovereignty but also inflamed public sentiments due to innocent civilian casualties". The US is using drone attacks on suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members.
The Obama administration is angry over the demand for increased payments given the level of aid America is already giving to Pakistan. US officials frequently portray Pakistan as pivotal to a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan conflict.
The Nato summit is on course to agree details of a phased withddrawal of the 130,000 international troops over the next two and a half years and to announce millions in dollars to maintain Afghan forces after 2014.
Pakistan has a crucial role in Afghanistan because of its close ties to the Taliban and other insurgent groups challenging the Afghanistan government.
Pakistan will regard it as a humiliation that Obama refused to grant Zardari a bilateral meeting, particularly as he met President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in Chicago on Sunday an hour before the Nato summit opened.
The Obama administration has expressed regret over the killing of the Pakistan troops but is reluctant to issue an apology, concerned this will be portrayed by Republicans as a sign of weakness.
The Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said on Sunday that Nato realised it could not solve Afghanistan's problems without including Pakistan in the solution. He expressed hope the supply route issue would be resolved soon.
With the route through Pakistan closed, Nato has had to use supply routes to the north of Afghanistan, which are slower and more costly.
The White House national security spokesman, Ben Rhodes, asked at a press conference if Zardari had gone to Chicago under the misconception he would see Obama, replied that Obama's schedule was busy. He said issues such as the reopening of supply lines were not normally dealt with at presidential level. Rhodes said: "The invitation to attend this summit was extended by Nato of course. We obviously supported that. It's important for Pakistan to be here because as we contemplate the future of the region, they are obviously going to be a part of that picture.
"What I would say is, frankly, 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. These are things that working-level negotiating teams sit down and address."
Rhodes did not anticipate a bilateral meeting between Zardari and Obama.