Pakistan may overshadow Afghanistan in Washington talks

McClatchy NewspapersMay 5, 2009 

WASHINGTON — With nuclear-armed Pakistan increasingly threatened by Islamist militants, President Barack Obama will urge the country's leader on Wednesday to confront the threat head-on, while offering promises of long-term U.S. support, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Obama is simultaneously hosting presidents Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan at the White House, but fear for Pakistan's future has now eclipsed the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and risen to the top of U.S. security concerns.

The administration has called the religious extremists' advances a "mortal threat" to the U.S. and the world. Nevertheless, top administration officials decided at a meeting Saturday to postpone until June 20 a gathering to decide how to implement a U.S. strategy for Pakistan, three U.S. officials told McClatchy, requesting anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.

In the meantime, Obama and his team are urging Zardari to mount a sustained offensive against the Taliban and its allies, who're imposing a brutal form of Islamic rule across the country's northwest.

Religious militants, who aspire to fundamentalist religious rule like the Taliban maintained in Afghanistan for five years until 2001, took advantage of a cease-fire with the government to win control over the scenic Swat valley and have since moved into neighboring districts, some of which are 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad.

The government began a counteroffensive this week, but Obama aides are skeptical that Zardari's government will persist or that Pakistan's armed forces will overcome their deep-seated reluctance to fight fellow Muslims.

Moreover, as McClatchy reported on Monday, the Pakistani government is using heavy-handed military force in Buner district, flattening villages, killing civilians and creating refugees — steps that could further undermine support for the government.

"All they're doing is displacing civilians and hurting people," said a U.S. defense official who asked not to be further identified because he isn't authorized to speak to the media. "It's not going to work."

U.S. officials emphasize nonetheless that Pakistan must take the fight to the Taliban.

Obama's message to Zardari will be "don't hedge your bets. We're prepared to be your partner for the long term," a senior administration official said.

The key "is for them to not take partial steps, but engage heavily," the senior official said.

"We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies," Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for the region, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement."

Zardari, in an interview on CNN, said his government would take on the Taliban, but he offered no specifics and seemed to hold out hope for the cease-fire, which Washington says has failed. "The cease-fire agreement is not holding. But we are going to try and hold them to it," the Pakistani leader said.

The White House focus on Pakistan is a sharp turnabout from just six weeks ago, when Obama announced a new regional strategy heavily focused on Afghanistan. Additional U.S. troops are due to arrive in Afghanistan next month.

"There's been a shift in focus from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Pakistan in recent weeks," a second senior administration official said. It is "not because we are de-emphasizing Afghanistan," he said. "Quite the contrary. We're asking for more money, we're sending troops, we have dramatically upgraded our embassy."

Yet Obama's efforts to press Pakistan into action could backfire on several fronts.

Zardari's fragile civilian government can't afford the perception that it's doing Washington's bidding. The U.S. has limited leverage over Pakistan and has no plans to send troops into the country.

U.S. officials argue that the events in Swat, Buner and elsewhere have been a wake-up call to the Pakistani government, or at least to the army, the country's strongest institution.

"One of the positive features is a Pakistani desire to in fact fight their own war, that it should be their war . . . . There is always their desire not to be seen to be fighting our war, frankly, which is, again I think it's a good situation," one of the senior officials said.

Finally, Pakistan's elite is suspicious that the U.S. will abandon them at the end of the day, as they think it's done in the past.

Many Pakistanis were infuriated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks two weeks ago that the government was "basically abdicating" to the Taliban and allied extremists.

The Obama administration rapidly backed away Tuesday from news reports that it was pushing a "national unity government" in Islamabad between Zardari and the chief opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

U.S. officials insisted that was never the plan. Rather, they said, Washington is urging Zardari and Sharif, bitter rivals, to set aside their differences, at least on the question of Pakistan's security. "They need to find a way to have a bipartisan strategy, if you will," the first senior official said.

By bringing Zardari and Karzai together — along with legions of their aides — Obama hopes to begin overcoming Afghanistan's and Pakistan's deep mutual suspicions and get the countries to confront an extremist threat that spans their border.

After they visit the State Department, Obama will meet the two men separately, and then host a three-way meeting. The president plans to host such sessions approximately every three months, officials said.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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