Emphasis on Al Qaeda at Three-Way Talks

Posted in United States , Afghanistan , Pakistan | 08-May-09 | Author: Helene Cooper| Source: New York Times (registration required)

President Obama met with Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, left, and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan at the White House in an effort to improve ties between their countries.

WASHINGTON - Confronting a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama said Wednesday that the United States was deeply committed to helping the two countries defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist partners, and in helping democracy endure and flourish.

"No matter what happens, we will not be deterred," Mr. Obama said during an appearance in the White House grand foyer after meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. "Every day we see evidence of the future that Al Qaeda and its allies offer. It's a future filled with violence and despair."

Mr. Obama's remarks came as the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians in western Afghanistan, from what Afghan officials and villagers said were American airstrikes, served as a reminder that deep problems in the region extended beyond Pakistan, the most recent American focus.

The three-way meeting with Mr. Zardari and Mr. Karzai was intended by the White House, in part, to press both men to do more to crack down on the rising threat from the Taliban and Al Qaeda in both countries. "We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their ability to operate in either country in the future," Mr. Obama said.

The two visiting leaders were in talks all day with administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser; and Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. American officials want Mr. Zardari and the Pakistani Army to move troops, including the country's 11th Infantry Division, from Lahore and the eastern part of the country, where the army has been preoccupied with India, toward the western border, where the government is battling Taliban insurgents.

Pakistani officials told their American counterparts this week that they were moving large numbers of troops toward the border with Afghanistan, which American officials described as encouraging.

But it remains a question whether these troop movements are real or token, and some of Mr. Obama's senior aides caution that Pakistan's military is ill suited to carry out the kind of counterinsurgency operations needed to end the Taliban fighters' control of Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, and to keep them from infiltrating again or shifting to another region.

"They're fundamentally not organized, trained or equipped for what they've been asked to do," said a senior administration official who is closely following the Pakistani military operations in Swat, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending the visiting Pakistani leaders. "They will displace the Taliban for a while. But there will also be a lot of displaced persons and a lot of collateral damage. And they won't be able to sustain those effects or extend the gains geographically."

None of this was said publicly on Wednesday, as American officials, from Mr. Obama on down, sought to strike an optimistic tone in the presence of Mr. Zardari and Mr. Karzai.

The focus, the American officials told reporters, was on ways that Afghanistan and Pakistan, both unstable and strategically vital, could work with each other and with the United States to fight the militants who plague both countries.

"Our strategy reflects a fundamental truth," Mr. Obama said. "The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States are linked."

Mrs. Clinton made much the same point at an earlier briefing, suggesting that it would not be incorrect to think of Pakistan and Afghanistan as "conjoined twins" as the United States tries to help each tame the forces that spawn terrorism and violence.

"The confidence-building that is necessary for this relationship to turn into tangible cooperation is moving forward," Mrs. Clinton said. "And I think today's series of meetings is another step along that road."

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton described the three-way talks as focusing not just on military and diplomatic moves, but also on attempts to shore up the pillars of society in Afghanistan and Pakistan - by "developing alternatives to the drug trade" in Afghanistan, as Mr. Obama put it in alluding to the traditional poppy-and-opium trade, and by fostering grass-roots democracy in both countries.

They also announced that Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed Wednesday to conclude by the end of the year a trade pact that has been under discussion for more than four decades, one meant to increase commerce between the countries, which have long regarded each other with mutual suspicion.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Holbrooke held an unscheduled meeting early Wednesday with Mr. Zardari, huddling for an hour with him at his hotel, the Willard. Pakistani officials said they discussed steps that the administration wanted the government to take in dealing with the Taliban insurgency.

Appearing late in the White House briefing room, Mrs. Clinton told reporters that the Willard visit had also been "personal," saying that she got to meet Mr. Zardari's son, Bilal Bhutto Zardari, who is 20, for the first time in 10 years.

The elder Mr. Zardari, for his part, alluded several times during his visit to the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was shot and killed after a rally in Rawalpindi in 2007. "Democracy will avenge the death of my wife and the thousands of Pakistani citizens around the world," he said during an appearance at the State Department.

Mr. Zardari still has work to do to convince Congress of his government's ability to beat back the Taliban insurgency. A 90-minute meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday did not help his cause: members said they were confused and disappointed by Mr. Zardari's presentation.

"He did not present a coherent strategy for the defeat of the insurgency," said Representative Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat who is the committee's chairman. "I had a sense of what they are doing today. I did not have a sense of what they plan to do tomorrow."

The lack of detail, Mr. Berman said, underscores why Congress needs to attach tough conditions in authorizing any further military aid to Pakistan. Mr. Zardari made a forceful plea for assistance, Mr. Berman said, at one point referring to the government bailout of American International Group.

"I pointed out that the conditions on A.I.G. are a lot stronger than the conditionality in our bill," he said.

Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler contributed reporting.