When President Barack Obama welcomes NATO leaders to Chicago in 10 days for a high-stakes summit on the war in Afghanistan, there could be a big gap in the alliance's talks on strategy—a hole the size and shape of Pakistan.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen strongly suggested at his monthly press conference on Friday that Pakistan would not be welcome at the May 20-21 gathering unless it reopens key supply routes into Afghanistan.
"We have actually invited a number of countries from the region—neighbors of Afghanistan, Central Asian countries, Russia—because they provide important transit arrangements to the benefit of our operation," he said.
"But as you also know, our transit routes through Pakistan are currently blocked, so we have to continue our dialogue with Pakistan with a view to finding a solution to that because that's really a matter of concern," Rasmussen said.
The secretary-general also echoed past statements from leaders like President Barack Obama that no Afghanistan war strategy can ultimately be successful without Pakistan's help.
"If we are to ensure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan, we also need a positive engagement of Pakistan," he said.
White House officials declined to comment on the record about Rasmussen's comments. But an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Yahoo News that "The U.S. and NATO want to see these lines opened up, and it would be preferable to have Pakistan participating in Chicago."
"But we'll have to see what progress Pakistan can make in the coming days to determine whether they might ultimately be issued an invitation," the official said.
Top Pakistani leaders will meet next Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss reopening those supply lines after a six-month blockade, Agence France-Presse reported. The talks will also focus on whether and how to repair relations with Washington in time for the summit.
"The meetings will discuss whether Pakistan should reopen the NATO supply route or not, and if Islamabad should attend the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago," a Pakistani government official told AFP.
Rasmussen's comments came two weeks after the Pentagon released an Afghanistan war progress report that highlighted "both long-term and acute challenges" of the conflict, and warned that the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies "still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan."
"The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan," according to the report.
The summit in Chicago aims to fine-turn the alliance's strategy in Afghanistan, which calls for shifting the burdens of securing the strife-torn country to local forces and withdrawing NATO's combat troops by the end of 2014. Obama paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan May 1 and signed an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that could have some American troops stay there until 2024 to train local forces and carry out counter-terrorism strikes.
"In Chicago, the international community will express support for this plan and for Afghanistan's future," Obama said in a televised speech from Bagram Air Base. "And I have made it clear to its neighbor—Pakistan—that it can and should be an equal partner in this process in a way that respects Pakistan's sovereignty, interests and democratic institutions."
Obama met with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani March 27 on the sidelines of a summit in Seoul and acknowledged "strains" in relations between Washington and Islamabad.
Pakistan closed routes used to supply NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, after a NATO air strike into Pakistani territory in November killed 24 Pakistani troops. Islamabad wants a formal apology from the United States and has pushed for an end to drone strikes on its soil.
"It is in the interest of Pakistan for a stable, peaceful, prosperous, independent, sovereign Afghanistan," Gilani said as he met with Obama. "We want stability in Afghanistan."
"If there is a stability in Afghanistan it's a stability in Pakistan, and peace for Afghanistan and Pakistan," the prime minister said. "We want to work together with you to have all the peace, prosperity and progress of the whole world."
Speaking to reporters after those talks, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, hinted at the same conditions for Pakistan's presence in Chicago.
"The president and prime minister also agreed that as cooperation on our shared interest increases, the United States would welcome the potential participation of Pakistan in the ISAF summit in Chicago in May," he said.
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