Bush Brings Afghanistan, Pakistan to the Table

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Bush make a media appearance at the White House. Bush is hosting a dinner for Karzai and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Bush make a media appearance at the White House. Bush is hosting a dinner for Karzai and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

President Bush met yesterday with Afghanistan President Harmid Karzai and last Friday with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Tonight, joined by Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he will bring both men into the old family dining room of the White House for a private chat. "It will be interesting for me to watch the body language of these two leaders to determine how tense things are," Bush told reporters.

Bush said he was "kind of teasing" about watching the body language, but the intimate dinner has all the earmarks of a peace conference. Karzai and Musharraf have been sniping at each other from long-distance for months, and Rice was dispatched to Kabul and Islamabad last June to try to ease tensions.

The meeting comes as chaos is increasing in southern Afghanistan, as the Taliban grows bolder and the Afghan government's grip on power weakens. Meanwhile, Musharraf recently signed a deal with tribal chiefs that many experts believe turned over much of the area along Afghanistan's border to the control of Pakistani-based Taliban forces.

"Our interests coincide," Bush said yesterday, saying both Karzai and Musharraf want Osama bin Laden captured. "There is an understanding that by working together it is more likely that all of us can achieve common objectives, which are stable societies that are hopeful societies, that prevent extremists from stopping progress and denying people a hopeful world."

Administration officials noted that this is the second meeting Bush has brokered between the two men, and it was an effort to build a common strategy between two countries that have been at odds for decades. "When the three leaders sit down, they will not be talking about the short-term tactics," said an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the meeting had not taken place. "They are talking about the long-term situation that helps those two countries put their relations on a sound footing."

Carlos Pascual, vice president at the Brookings Institution and former coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization at the State Department, said the dinner is necessary for setting the foundation for greater cooperation on their borders. He said both the Taliban and drug lords now move at will across the border, which is potentially destabilizing to both countries.

"This summit is an American effort to try to make Karzai and Musharraf recognize each other's problems," said Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University and a former Pakistani government official and journalist. "I think what Bush hopes to achieve -- he wants to look Musharraf in the eye once again, and he wants to look Karzai in the eye -- and he wants them to make promises to one another."

But Haqqani said such personal diplomacy "can only succeed if it is followed by detailed and meticulous intelligence work and diligent diplomacy at a lower level," adding: "It's not like sitting down with two quarrelling kids and saying let's forget about it and move on. . . . Both sides have historic agendas, problems and issues."

All three presidents have faced difficulties and disappointments in their fight against the Taliban this year.

The United States has turned over the southern part of Afghanistan to NATO forces. But NATO forces have come under unexpected attack from Taliban forces, potentially delaying a reduction of U.S. troops.

Meanwhile, U.S. aid to Afghanistan has gotten crunched as it has become more difficult to fund through emergency appropriations. In the fiscal year ending this month, the administration requested $3.3 billion for Afghan reconstruction and the buildup of security forces (including a supplemental request), down from $4.35 billion in fiscal 2005. For 2007, the administration has requested $1.1 billion, though some experts feel the current crisis will require yet another emergency spending bill.

Karzai is straining to hold his country together but is losing popular support because of increasing violence, corruption, drug trafficking and an inability to demonstrate tangible progress since the fall of the Taliban. He has complained that he is being undercut by Islamabad's failure to rein in jihadists operating out of Pakistan, a charge Musharraf disputes.

"My fear is that Afghanistan is beginning to look like Iraq -- we're seeing the beginning Iraqification of Afghanistan," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior State Department official in Bush's first term.

Musharraf's peace deal with tribal chiefs comes as elections are scheduled for next year in Pakistan -- and after three assassination attempts against him. The fight against the Taliban has resulted in high casualties among the Pakistani military and is unpopular among Pakistanis.

There are signs that Musharraf -- who seized power in a bloodless coup nearly seven years ago -- is maneuvering to extend his presidential term. U.S. officials have been wary about pressing Musharraf too hard, seeking to balance demands for action against extremist groups with tangible U.S. rewards, such as sales of F-16 fighter jets.

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