Source: The Wall Street Journal
CHICAGO -- NATO leaders Monday signed off on a plan to give Afghan forces the lead in combat operations next year, setting the stage for winding down the war in 2014, as President Barack Obama suggested progress in ending an impasse to reopen supply routes through Pakistan.
The drawdown over the next two and a half years from landlocked Afghanistan will be a massive logistical undertaking, underscoring the importance the US and NATO have placed on quickly reaching a deal with Pakistan to reopen cargo routes.
Obama on Monday said the US has made headway in tense negotiations with Pakistan over the reopening of the vital supply routes, inching toward the end of an impasse that complicated a strategy for ending the decade-long war.
Obama spoke briefly with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in an unscheduled meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit to underline the importance of ending the dispute.
Islamabad closed the supply routes after two dozen Pakistani troops were killed in a Nov. 26 US strike on two border posts and has demanded an apology. The White House has expressed regret but has refused to apologize.
Obama said the two leaders had a "very brief" conversation, but said discussions were making "diligent progress." Senior US and Pakistani officials said after the talks between the two leaders that a deal was likely to be clinched within the week to reopen the crossings to the US and to NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
"I don't want to paper over real challenges," Obama said during a news conference at the end of the summit. "There's no doubt that there have been real tensions between ISAF and Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan over the last several months. I think they are being worked through."
Officials said the deal could be announced soon after Zardari returns to Pakistan to consult with army leaders and his political allies.
In the run-up to the summit in Chicago, Pakistani officials indicated that they were prepared to reopen the border. US officials hoped Zardari's attendance would clear the way for the crossings to open as early as Sunday or Monday.
But negotiations have bogged down over how much the allies will pay Islamabad in transit fees. Pakistan has proposed a markup of as much as 30-fold per cargo container, US officials said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who also met with Zardari in Chicago, said he expected transit routes through Pakistan to reopen in the "very near future." The US has expanded an alternative northern distribution network to bring in supplies but allies with troops in Afghanistan rely more heavily on the border crossings with Pakistan.
Rasmussen said NATO access to transit routes through Pakistan would be particularly important because of the "logistical challenge" of withdrawing troops and military equipment from Afghanistan over the next two and a half years.
Meanwhile, the transition to an Afghan security lead, which NATO allies set in place two years ago at a meeting in Lisbon, "is on track for completion," alliance leaders said Monday.
Senior White House officials say they remain confident Afghan forces will be strong enough to take the lead by mid-2013. They also made clear the US is drawing down in 2014 whether Afghans are ready to take the lead or not.
NATO plans call for giving Afghans the lead in combat operations around mid-2013, part of a shift to a train-and-assist mission before most US and other foreign troops leave by the end of 2014.
Obama has directed the military to draw down to 68,000 troops by September, although he has put off decisions about next steps in the withdrawal until after the November presidential election.