Obama, Pakistan's Zardari to meet amid growing distrust

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Asif Ali Zardari will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington Friday amid rising distrust and frustration on both sides that are rattling the alliance crucial to the America-led battle in Afghanistan and the fight against global terrorism.

The Obama administration, anxious to show progress in Afghanistan and begin reducing U.S. troops this summer, is ready to increase aid to Islamabad, but is pushing Pakistan to step up operations against al Qaida and Afghan insurgents on its side of the frontier.

A Pentagon adviser, who asked not to be further identified to discuss a sensitive issue, said in Washington that the U.S. may intensify strikes on those bases if the Pakistani army doesn't act.

"A continued unwillingness on the part of the Pakistani military to show any emphasis on the disruption of the Taliban or to be perceived as being intransigent to facilitate the targeting of al Qaida will be intolerable moving through this year," he said. "There will be a new standard of self-defense in Afghanistan. It's coming."

But Pakistan is sinking deeper into economic, political and religious turmoil, and the ruling coalition led by Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party staved off collapse this month by canceling tax and fuel price increases that it had assured the International Monetary Fund that it would enact.

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff, has told U.S. officials that he doubts the U.S. has a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, despite repeated U.S. assurances to the contrary. Pakistan is anxious to prevent its nuclear-armed rival, India, from gaining too much influence in Kabul.

Pakistani forces have suffered hundreds of casualties fighting Pakistani extremists based in the border region. But U.S. officials are frustrated by their reluctance to move against Afghan insurgents, with some believing that Pakistan is supporting them to ensure that they serve Islamabad's interests in any Afghan political settlement.

Pakistani officials, for their part, angrily complain that the U.S. doesn't appreciate their sacrifices and interests, and is too slow in providing critical economic support.

The U.S. and Pakistan "are key allies with divergent interests or perceptions, needing each other but for different reasons," said a senior Pakistani official, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's like a bad marriage."

"It seems that every meeting has the same talking points from the two sides. It is a brittle, circular situation," he continued.

There's alarm in the U.S. over Pakistan's internal stability: weak, corrupt governance, power and fuel shortages, deepening poverty and ethnic tensions, increasing radicalization of society, and an army that continues to support jihadist groups.

Those concerns were heightened by widespread celebrations last week of the assassination of Salman Taseer, a progressive politician who called for tolerance and the easing of a blasphemy law that's been used to persecute religious minorities.

"Hopefully, we won't make any more fundamentally wrong decisions (in ties with Pakistan) in the future, but that may not prevent Pakistan from going further down the road to disintegration," Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution, a research organization, said in comments published last week by the Council on Foreign Relations. "I wouldn't predict a comprehensive failure soon, but clearly that's the direction in which Pakistan is moving."

Both sides appear anxious to contain bilateral frictions.

In addition to Oval Office talks with Obama, Zardari is to attend a Kennedy Center commemoration of Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomatic troubleshooter and special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan who died last month.

Zardari's visit follows a stop earlier this week in Islamabad by Vice President Joe Biden, a key architect of U.S. strategy in the region.

Washington worries that civilian leaders aren't tackling Pakistan's economic and security ills with the required urgency and scale.

In a bid to improve ties, the Obama administration has given greater importance to U.S.-Pakistani relations, and is providing Pakistan with $1.5 billion in civilian assistance and $2 billion in military aid annually.

Pakistan, however, complains that the aid is being dispersed too slowly.

"The . . . money is coming in in dribs and drabs," said Abdul Basit, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Washington is pressing Pakistan hard to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, part of its tribal area, which is used as a base by the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group allied to the Taliban. But Pakistan, which has had a long relationship with the Haqqanis, insists that its forces are tied down tackling extremist groups elsewhere.

"We are taking action against militancy. Operations are carried out where ever necessary, but the timing is for Pakistan to decide," Basit said.

Pakistan believes that the Taliban and the Haqqani should be accommodated in any political settlement in Afghanistan, and that they can be separated from al Qaida. The U.S. has set conditions for talks, including their acceptance of the Afghan Constitution and a renunciation of violence that the insurgents cannot meet.

An Islamic insurgency is convulsing Pakistan's northwest and terrorist attacks menace the entire country, with more civilians dying from terrorist strikes last year than in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, governance is sliding. The government has repeatedly failed to raise new taxes, which many Pakistanis refuse to pay. Flooding last year that hit 20 million people has left a recovery cost estimated at $10 billion, money Islamabad doesn't have.

In addition, Washington is struggling to reverse seething anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, fueled in part by the Obama administration's cross-border strikes by missile-firing drones on suspected terrorist bases. Pakistanis blame the U.S. for bringing terrorism to Pakistan by forcing Islamabad to support the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Kayani, the army chief of staff, told Pakistani journalists in November that Pakistan is the "most bullied" ally of the U.S., adding that the "real aim of U.S. strategy is to de-nuclearize Pakistan" by hijacking its estimated 80 to 100 nuclear weapons.

(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Landay reported from Washington.)

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