By Michael Abramowitz and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 23, 2006
President Bush yesterday launched a new round of personal diplomacy aimed at patching up the tense relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban insurgency is posing new challenges for an administration already struggling to pacify Iraq.
Bush met at the White House with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who assured the U.S. president of his desire to root out the Taliban and other extremists. The visit came amid controversy over Musharraf's claims in a forthcoming memoir that the Bush administration threatened to bomb Pakistan "to the Stone Age" if it failed to cooperate with the United States against al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has complained repeatedly about Pakistan offering a haven to Taliban militants conducting armed attacks inside his country.
And in a twist from Bush's normal practice, the three leaders are then planning to dine together at the White House on Wednesday, part of what White House aides described yesterday as an effort to build a better long-term relationship between two key allies in the U.S. battle against al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups.
Outside experts also saw the meetings as part of heightened administration concern over rising violence in Afghanistan and the increasing sway of the Taliban over swaths of the country only five years after they were rousted from power by a U.S.-led invasion. The number of U.S. troops there has swelled in recent years to 20,000, most of them stationed along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan. An additional 20,000 NATO troops are battling the Taliban in the south.
White House aides said a chunk of yesterday's hour-long meeting was devoted to Musharraf explaining to Bush the recent pact he reached with Islamic militants in Pakistan's border region. The pact requires foreign militants to leave the tribal area of North Waziristan or take up a peaceable life, and it forbids imposing draconian religious edicts. But it has been greeted skeptically by many human rights activists and regional experts as a concession to Islamic extremists that will be impossible to enforce.
Appearing with Bush at an East Room news conference after their session, Musharraf said he assured the U.S. president that the pact was intended to rein in extremist violence. "There will be no al-Qaeda activity in our tribal [area] or across the border in Afghanistan," Musharraf said. "There will be no Taliban activity. . . . There will be no Talibanization."
Bush said he was satisfied with those assurances. "When the president looks me in the eye and says the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people, and that there won't be a Taliban and won't be al-Qaeda, I believe him," he said.
Both presidents were asked about Musharraf's claim -- to be aired Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes" -- that former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage had issued a "Stone Age" bombing threat in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush said he was "taken aback by the harshness of the words" attributed to Armitage but had no knowledge of such a threat. He said the first he heard of it was in the newspaper Friday.
Armitage categorically denied it. "I've never made a threat in my life that I couldn't back up," he told CNN, "and since I wasn't authorized to say such a thing and hence couldn't back up that threat, I never said it." Asked separately to comment on the report, Armitage's then-boss, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, said there was "no such bombing threat."
The CBS interview is part of Musharraf's own promotion for U.S. publication of his memoirs next week. Musharraf said at the news conference that he could reveal no more because he was "honor-bound" to his publisher, Simon & Schuster, to keep the book under wraps until next week -- an assertion that seemed to amuse President Bush.
As he shook hands with Musharraf after the news conference, Bush smiled and told reporters, "Buy the book."
In the "60 Minutes" interview, Musharraf said that Armitage made the threat to Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, Pakistan's intelligence chief, the day after the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaeda. Pakistan was one of only three nations that maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda members were known to move freely in the mountainous border area between the two countries.
As was publicly reported shortly after their meeting, Armitage told Mahmood that Pakistan would have to choose sides between the Taliban and the United States, which wanted it to cut all ties with the Afghans and cooperate with planned retaliation for the attacks. Armitage described it yesterday as "a very straightforward conversation" held in his State Department office. "I told him that for Americans this was black or white, that Pakistan was either with us fully or not. It wasn't a matter of being able to negotiate it."
Musharraf's promise yesterday of greater cooperation in fighting the Taliban drew mixed reaction from outside experts on the region, who noted that militia commanders continue to operate in the Pakistani provincial capital Quetta -- with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government. "The problem is Musharraf is proving to be an incredibly grudging ally," said Robert Templer, director of the Asia program for the International Crisis Group, which closely monitors events in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "He has received a lot of U.S. aid, and he is simply not delivering on the really critical security issues."
But Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, said he thinks the administration is on the right track in prodding the two South Asian leaders. "Both Musharraf and Karzai need to recognize . . that they are on the same side of the battle and need to stop sniping at one another," he said. But he voiced concern that "we are in danger of losing Afghanistan a second time," urging greater U.S. and allied attention to the problems.