CHICAGO — As thousands of protesters marched in the streets, President Barack 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 clear they were furious at Pakistan’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 Secretary Leon E. Panetta planned to meet with officials from five countries in Central Asia 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 close out U.S. involvement in an unpopular war as he runs for re-election, even though years of tough fighting probably lies 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 behind 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 ½ 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 officials 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 anti-war 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.
Since approving sending 30,000 additional troops in 2010, Obama has steadily reduced his definition of success in Afghanistan. At a briefing Sunday, White House officials described the U.S. goals as modest and narrow: defeating al-Qaida and preventing the terrorist network from taking root again.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said the aim is not to leave Afghanistan “eradicated of any vestige of the Taliban or any vestiges of some form of violence. It’s leaving behind an Afghanistan that can stand on its own two feet. ... And so that’s the goal we’re planning against and we’re confident that we can achieve it.”
Under the NATO plan, Afghanistan’s army and police will take over the lead combat role in the summer of 2013. Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned, however, that substantial fighting is still likely beyond then, especially against Taliban insurgents, militants from the Pakistan-based Haqqani network and a small number of al-Qaida members in eastern Afghanistan.
“There is a narrative that combat operations for the U.S. stop at milestone 2013,” Allen said. “That is not, in fact, correct. We fully expect that combat is going to continue.”
But the mid-2013 shift may also spur some countries to leave. Nervous European allies may start withdrawing troops well before the end of 2014. France is expected to pull most of its 3,300 troops out by the end of this year, but leave small numbers of military personnel as trainers or in other support roles. Holland and Canada already have sharply reduced their combat roles.
Obama has not said how quickly U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan. The current force of about 90,000 is due to drop to 68,000 by next fall. The pace of later withdrawals is not yet decided, though Obama has said the pullout will be steady.
Officials also have not resolved who will pay for Afghanistan’s long-term development, although they say they are making progress. The Obama administration has offered to pay about half the estimated $4.1 billion per year required for the Afghan national security forces after 2014. Afghanistan has agreed to pay $500 million, while Germany, Britain, Australia and others have made commitments totaling more than $400 million. Other countries have yet to make up the difference.
“We are very, very close to obtaining our full goal,” said Douglas E. Lute, special assistant to the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Though Afghanistan is dominating the session, the alliance also gave final approval to several other initiatives, including plans to buy five unarmed Global Hawk surveillance drones and declaring an interim capability for a basic missile defense system in Europe.
The missile defense system consists of several U.S. guided missile cruisers in the eastern Mediterranean and a sophisticated radar system in Turkey. They provide a limited ability to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles from Iran, officials say.
Rasmussen, the head of NATO, said he was hopeful that Russia, which has strongly objected to the system, would agree to a joint anti-missile effort. But Russian officials have given no sign of changing course and did not attend the summit.
(Chicago Tribune reporter Wailin Wong contributed to this story.)