CHICAGO -- President Obama arrived in his hometown of Chicago Saturday night looking to collaborate with European allies at the NATO summit on bringing the war in Afghanistan to a close, but the shadow of the Eurozone economic troubles is sure to blanket the talks.
"As all the leaders here today agreed, growth and jobs must be our top priority," the president said as the G-8 summit wrapped up at Camp David. " A stable, growing European economy is in everybody's best interests -- including America's."
Despite the financial focus in Maryland Friday and Saturday, Afghanistan will still have a place at the forefront of the summit that includes not only NATO members but representatives of 61 different nations along with representatives of the European Union, United Nations and World Bank. The president's focus on Afghanistan will be evident from the time he arrives at McCormick Place, the massive convention center situated on the shore of Lake Michigan. The first event on the president's schedule Sunday is a meeting with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
"Chicago is a critical milestone in the next step towards a responsible ending of this war, towards our achieving, very importantly, our goals in this effort in Afghanistan," National Security Director Tom Donilon said Thursday.
The administration set a deadline of the end of 2014 to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, a move Republicans have criticized as emboldening Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the war torn nation. The White House is ready to move past specific arguments about combat and hopes the NATO summit will focus on a post-war Afghanistan.
"[I]t's ... important for the United States, its partners, and its allies around the world to also focus on the non-security aspects of this -- that is, when you have a drop in security expenditures, which will happen when ISAF finishes its mission at the end of 2014, the goal is to have a sustainable economy going forward," Donilon said. " And that's an important focus for us the next two-and-a-half years."
The president echoed that sentiment on a surprise May Day trip that marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden when he said "there's a light on the horizon" while noting the sacrifice of troops who have fought there for more than a decade. "[B]y the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country," the president said.
Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan has been invited to the summit and President Asif Ali Zardari will attend. A November 2011 NATO airstrike on a checkpoint along the Afghan-Pakistan border killed as many as 24 Pakistani soldiers and threatened NATO supply lines as Pakistan stopped shipments across its border.
Zardari and President Obama aren't expected meet one-on-one in Chicago but aides say they will "see each other." Talks over the fallout from the airstrike have led Pakistan's government to be ready to move on from the incident.
Leaders are also expected to spend considerable time discussing economic security as financial troubles in Greece and other Eurozone nations threaten to wreck Europe's economy and potentially stymie a U.S. economy struggling to come out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
This is the first time a U.S. city other than Washington has hosted a NATO summit and Chicago authorities have spent months preparing for the onslaught of world leaders and the protests they create. While most protests have been peaceful, authorities charged three men with trying to attack sites around the city.
NATO meetings get underway Sunday morning and continue through Monday evening.