CHICAGO, May 20: President Asif Ali Zardari held two key meetings on Sunday — with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — as the United States and its Nato allies began their two-day summit conference in this north-western American city.
The first meeting continued for 25 minutes but the second went on for almost an hour as the United States and Pakistan tried to resolve a dispute that has strained relations between the two countries for more than six months now.
President Karzai consulted US President Barack Obama before his meeting with Mr Zardari.
After his meeting with Mr Karzai, President Obama said the Nato summit in Chicago showed that the world was behind the strategy to help Afghanistan achieve peace and development.
Leaders from more than 50 countries have gathered in Chicago to discuss this strategy, which calls for transferring all security control to Afghanistan in 2014 and to continue providing economic and military assistance to the country after the transition as well.
Speaking alongside President Karzai, the US president said all of this was part of a shared vision that Afghanistan could transition from decades of war to a transformative decade of peace and development.
Mr Karzai said that Afghanistan was looking forward to an end to the war and its transformation, so that it was no longer a burden to the international community.
Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told VOA that Kabul believed Pakistan had a role in the peace process because the Taliban rebels still had sanctuaries in that country.
Unlike Afghanistan, which is receiving promises of help from Nato nations and their allies, Pakistan appeared isolated in this key international conference because of its refusal to reopen Nato supply routes to Afghanistan.
The United States and its Nato allies want Pakistan to reopen the ground routes as soon as possible.
Pakistan closed the routes after the Nov 26 air raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Salala.
Pakistan has agreed in principle to reopen the supply lines but two sides are struggling to decide how much to pay Pakistan for using the route.
A senior US official told reporters in Chicago earlier Sunday that the US had refused to pay the amount Pakistan was demanding. “This sudden jump from $250 to $500 is too steep, we cannot pay that much, not with this economy,” the official said.
There was no media briefing after the Zardari-Karzai or Zardari-Clinton meetings but media circles in Chicago’s McCormick Centre where the summit is held claimed that delegates were working on a compromise formula to resolve this dispute.
“The focus is on finding a solution that is acceptable to both,” a source said. One possibility, according to these sources, is that instead of the United States, Nato apologises to Pakistan over the Salala incident.
Such a move will meet Pakistan’s demand for an apology without embarrassing the United States.
The Obama administration is reluctant to apologise because it believes that an apology to a nation which is so unpopular in the US may hurt President Obama’s re-election bid. “In return for this gesture, Pakistan will reopen the supply routes,” said a source, adding that if the two sides reached an agreement, both moves can be announced on Monday.
Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s said earlier in the day that he hoped the ground routes dispute could soon be resolved further strengthened such speculations.
Speaking at a Chicago policy forum, Mr Rasmussen also said that the alliance realised it could not solve Afghanistan’s problems without involving Pakistan in the solution.
He said he still planned to discuss this matter with President Zardari. The Zardari-Rasmussen meeting, which was scheduled on Sunday, was delayed because the president’s flight was late, Nato spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. A bilateral meeting could still be held between the two men before the summit ends on Monday, she added.
Presidential spokesman, Farhatullah Babar said that Pakistani and Nato officials were working to reschedule the meeting.
While the Secretary General promised that “there will be no rush for the exits” in Afghanistan, newly elected French President Francois Hollande, who is attending the Nato summit, told Mr Obama that he would fulfil his campaign promise to withdraw 3,500 French troops from the war-ravaged country.