CHICAGO - Nato leaders gathered in Chicago on Sunday for a summit to chart a path out of Kabul and Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen vowed the alliance would not rush out of Afghanistan despite France’s decision to speed up its withdrawal.

President Barack Obama who is hosting the 2-day summit in his hometown, Chicago, said after a meeting with President Karzai on Sunday the alliance is helping Afghanistan shift toward stability and peace, but warned of ‘hard days ahead’.

A last-minute addition to the list of leaders at the carefully choreographed meeting was President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan – the country understood to be an essential key to unlock this one of trickiest problems of world. But Zardari braced for friction in interactions with Nato leaders after a high US official said Pak-US talks on the central issue of reopening supply routes for the alliance forces in Afghanistan have faltered over Islamabad’s ‘unacceptable’ demand to charge steep fees for trucks crossing the border.

With a global economic crisis and waning public support for the war in the backdrop, the world leaders opened the summit confronted by questions about Afghanistan’s post-conflict future: money for security forces, coming elections and more.

However, they pledged roughly $1 billion to help bankroll Afghan security forces once most Nato troops withdraw by the end of 2014, on top of funds promised by the US, a Western official said. The financial commitments in the ‘billion dollar range’ represent ‘major progress’ towards a goal of $1.3 billion from nations in the Nato-led coalition in Afghanistan, he told AFP.

The Nato leaders were also papering over the crack in the fighting alliance with the planned French withdrawal, insisting the fighting coalition will remain effective despite France’s plans to yank combat troops out early. The military alliance has pledged to remain in Afghanistan into 2014, but it was trying to seal plans Sunday and Monday to shift foreign forces off the front lines a year faster than once planned.

Pakistan is demanding $5,000 levies per truck, much higher than the $250 it was collecting on average before the routes were closed in November when it shut the routes in protest against killing of 24 of its soldiers at Salala checkpost by US-led Isaf aircraft.

Pakistan has failed to present a coherent, consistent position in the negotiations, a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP. He said ‘to some extent it’s something the Pakistanis will have to work out themselves’. “Inside the Pakistani government, they need a consolidated proposal for what to put on the table.”

The first shock to Pakistan came when talks between Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and President Zardari were cancelled Saturday, though both Nato and Pakistani officials insisted that last-minute delay in the planned meeting in Chicago was due to the late arrival of Zardari’s flight from London.

“This cancelation is due to a scheduling problem,” said Nato spokeswoman Carmen Romero. Zardari’s plane was delayed which meant the talks with the Nato secretary general could not go ahead as planned, she said. Presidential Spokesman Farhatullah Babar also insisted the Pakistani leader’s delayed arrival had squeezed the bilateral talks off the agenda. A meeting with Rasmussen ‘will be scheduled later if possible’, he added, saying the negotiations on the supply route were ‘going well’. The spokesman also said President Zardari would demand one billion dollars in the Chicago Summit and the reimbursement via Coalition Support Fund ‘that is Pakistan’s right’. The president would present Pakistan’s view regarding war on terror and its dire consequences on national economy, he said. “We are with international community in fight against this menace but it cannot be won by military means only. Poverty and unemployment are two big reasons of extremism.”

But the cancellation of Zardari-Rasmussen meeting came after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta too told the Los Angeles Times in an interview before arriving in Chicago that he thought Islamabad was demanding too high a price to reopen the supply routes into Afghanistan closed after US air strikes in November. “Considering the financial challenges that we’re facing, that’s not likely,” Panetta said.

US officials were reported as saying that with no deal, President Barack Obama would not meet with Zardari. The two leaders were to possibly meet in a trilateral meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the issue of political reconciliation in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s support in reaching a deal with the Taliban is seen as critical in ending the war in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is however expected to meet Zardari in Chicago, they said.

Just a day before, Zardari’s arrival, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House was hoping the issue would soon be resolved. Briefing journalists travelling to Chicago on Air Force One with President Barack Obama on Saturday, Rhodes said: “Based on the statements they’ve made, the negotiations going on, we believe it’s going to be accomplished. “We’re not anticipating necessarily closing out those negotiations this weekend.”

Despite all the oddities, western allies deem Islamabad’s support vital to defeat the insurgents. “We can’t solve the problems in Afghanistan without the positive engagement of Pakistan,” Rasmussen told a policy forum here earlier Saturday.

In addition to the shared fiscal stress, the talks may be characterised by undercurrents of dissent between leaders in Washington, Brussels and other nations, like France, who are more eager to go home.

The newly-elected French President Francois Hollande said he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year’s end — a full two years before the timeline agreed to by nations in the US-led Nato coalition.

But the Nato secretary general Sunday told reporters before the start of the summit that the coalition partners would not rush out of Afghanistan despite France’s decision to speed up its withdrawal. “There will be no rush for the exits. We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen sought to downplay Hollande’s decision to withdraw some 3,500 combat troops, saying he was ‘not surprised’ by it and noting that the new French leader has offered to continue supporting Afghanistan in a different way. The Hollande plan, he insisted, is actually ‘very much in accordance’ with Nato’s plan to gradually hand over security control to Afghan forces with the goal of ending the foreign combat mission by December 31, 2014. “All that will take place in a coordinated manner and based on consultations within our aliance,” Rasmussen said. “I feel confident that we will maintain solidarity within our coalition.”

The end of the war is in sight, Obama said following his meeting with Karzai on the sidelines of the summit. Karzai also said his nation is looking forward to the end of war, “so that Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies.”

Afghan forces will take the lead throughout the nation next year, instead of in 2014, despite uneven performance under US and other outside tutelage so far. The shift is in large part a response to plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States, contributors of most of the 130,000 foreign troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency. A majority of Americans now say the war is unwinnable or not worth continuing.

Obama said: “We still have a lot of work to do and there will be great challenges ahead... The loss of life continues in Afghanistan and there will be hard days ahead.” The US president said Nato partners would discuss “a vision for post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership to Afghanistan continues.”

Before the one-hour meeting with Karzai, a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said before the meeting that Obama and Karzai also were to discuss prospects for a political settlement or peace pact between Karzai’s government and the Taliban, who are urging nations fighting in Afghanistan to follow France’s lead and pull their international forces from the war this year.

‘No rush to exit’ Kabul: Nato chief