CHICAGO--The "positive engagement" of Pakistan is critical to "solve the problems in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Saturday; he also said negotiations should be held with Taliban leaders if certain preconditions were met.
Rasmussen spoke the day before the Chicago NATO Summit, at a "Young Atlanticist Summit" conference session hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Atlantic Council at the Hotel Sax in Marina City.
Pakistan was invited to the NATO Summit at the last minute, after agreeing to re-open roads for Afghanistan-bound supply trucks closed last November following a NATO airstrike killing about two dozen Pakistani soldiers. One unresolved matter: Pakistan wants to charge $5,000 per truck for access to the transit route.
Rasmussen said he was meeting with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday afternoon.
During a question-and-answer session, Rasmussen was asked by an Afghan man to use one word to describe the enemy in Afghanistan.
"I think terrorists in general are enemies," Rasmussen said, "but when speaking about Afghanistan, the Taliban is the enemy of Afghanistan. We will help the Afghan people to defend themselves against that enemy."
NATO and Afghanistan troops cannot pursue Taliban and al-Qaeda militants who operate out of Pakistan, establishing sanctuaries there because of the war in Afghanistan.
The U.S., Afghanistan and NATO allies are concerned about the Pakistan government inability to shut down those sanctuaries and Rasmussen spoke to that point.
"We can't solve the problems in Afghanistan without a positive engagement of Pakistan. We have to solve these problems. We have invited President Zardari to attend the Summit. I expect to have a meeting with him this afternoon," Rasmussen said.
A threshold question is over negotiating with the Taliban; Rasmussen urged a try.
"I don't know whether the Taliban leadership is prepared to negotiate a solution, maybe not, I don't know, but I think we should give it a try, providing certain conditions" are being met, Rasmussen said.
He said any "reconciliation process must be led by the Afghanis themselves, so the Afghani government must be in the drivers seat.
"Secondly, groups and individuals involved in that reconciliation process must abide by the Afghan Constitution and respect human rights including women's rights and certainly they must cut links to terrorist groups.
"If these conditions are fulfilled, why not give it a try. But my point is the best way to facilitate a political process is to keep up the military pressure so that Taliban realizes that they have no chance whatsoever to win militarily."
President Barack Obama and GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney are divided over U.S. -Taliban engagement. The Obama White House has been in direct talks with the Taliban--moves Romney opposes.
Obama outlined the U.S. preconditions for negotiations with the Taliban in his May 1 address from the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, following the signing of an Afghan-U.S. Strategic Partnership Agreement.
"We're pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban," Obama said.
" We've made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban -- from foot soldiers to leaders -- have indicated an interest in reconciliation. The path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces, backed by the United States and our allies."
FOOTNOTE: Rasmussen told the group he has two grandchildren growing up in Springfield. Mayor Rahm Emanuel--who addressed the conference in a closed door session--said beforehand that Rasmussen told him he ran five miles along the lakefront and called the Chicago skyline--spectacular.