Obama snubs Pakistan head over supply routes

  • Article by: ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 21, 2012 - 5:36 PM
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President Barack Obama gestures during his news conference at the NATO Summit in Chicago, Monday.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

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CHICAGO  — In an unmistakable snub, President Barack Obama left Pakistan off a list of nations he thanked Monday for help getting war supplies into Afghanistan.

The prolonged slump in U.S. relations with Pakistan clouded a NATO summit where nations were eyeing the exits in the decade-long war and raised questions not only about cooperating to eliminate al-Qaida sanctuaries but other important issues like the security of Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan is not a NATO member but was invited to the summit Sunday and Monday because of its influence in next-door Afghanistan and its role until last year as the major supply route to landlocked NATO forces there. Pakistan closed those routes after a U.S. attack on the Pakistani side of the border killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.

The last-minute invitation from NATO to join the Chicago talks was a sign of hope that the rift had healed.

But it hasn't. And Obama's rebuff to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari made that clear on Monday.

Zardari came to Obama's home town expecting a separate meeting with the U.S. leader like the one accorded to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But without a final deal to reopen the supply lines, no such meeting was to occur. Already miffed, Zardari had to sit by as Obama opened Monday's session with public thanks to the nations north of Afghanistan who allowed expanded supply shipments across their territory to compensate for the closed Pakistani border gates.

"I want to welcome the presence of President Karzai, as well as officials from central Asia and Russia — nations that have an important perspective and that continue to provide critical transit for ISAF supplies," Obama said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force that is fighting the war.

The border crossing dispute is stuck over how much the U.S. will pay Pakistan to allow trucks to transit its territory. Before the airstrike, the U.S. paid about $250 per truck. Now, two U.S. officials said, Pakistan wants $5,000 a truck and an apology for the deaths in the airstrike.

The Obama administration has said it was willing to pay as much as $500 per vehicle and has expressed condolences and regret, but no apology. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were being conducted in private.

The prospects for reaching a deal were unclear, even as the stakes grow larger.

Obama, Karzai and Zardari had a brief conversation together following that meeting. Asked about it at a news conference, Obama said he emphasized to Zardari that "Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan, and it is in our national interests that to see a Pakistan that is democratic, that is prosperous and that is stable." He said "diligent progress" is being made on the border crossing dispute.

"I don't want to paper over real challenges there. There is no doubt there have been real tensions between (international forces in Afghanistan) and Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan, over the last several months," Obama said, adding, "I think they are being worked through."

Zardari also met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday and made a beeline across a meeting hall to grasp her hand again on Monday morning. The State Department said Clinton and Zardari "discussed the importance of reopening the NATO supply lines," and of cooperating to fight terrorist threats.

The U.S. and Pakistan have a history of troubled relations that started well before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The road has grown only rockier since then. Despite giving Pakistan billions of dollars in aid over the past decade, anti-Americanism is widespread in Pakistan. And after years of sometimes meaningful cooperation in hunting down al-Qaida figures, Pakistan is still seen by many U.S. officials as double-dealing and unreliable.

The transit route issue was a distraction and an embarrassment for the United States at the summit, and Obama's arm's length treatment of Zardari made it look even worse for the Pakistani president.

The quarrel over supply routes is intertwined with several other disputes, including Pakistan's opposition to U.S. drone strikes against terrorist targets inside its borders.

In addition to closing the border crossings in response to the November attack, Pakistan ordered the U.S. to vacate Shamsi air base, which the U.S. was using to launch drone strikes at al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

The top allied commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, has tried to cast the supply route problem in the best possible light, while acknowledging that he'd like to see the border crossings reopened as soon as possible. Allen said Sunday that by some measure, war stocks are higher now than when the crossings were closed.

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