At Dinner Table, Bush Plays Role of Mediator

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

President Bush welcomed the feuding leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the White House last night for an unusual round of personal diplomacy aimed at forging better relations between two key partners in U.S. efforts to hunt down members of al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists.

Dining on spicy sea bass and pumpkin cake with Bush and his most senior advisers were Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai. The two have been sniping at each other for months over what Karzai considers Pakistan's tolerance of Taliban militants crossing the border to mount armed attacks in Afghanistan.

Musharraf has testily rebutted Karzai's assertions, but U.S. officials are worried that the deteriorating relations between the two men threaten their effort to pacify Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the mountainous region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

"They really get under each other's skin," said one senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the White House dinner before it got started last night.

Administration officials said they hoped at the very least the two men would find less public forums to express their annoyance with each other. Shortly before going into the White House last night, Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden that the dinner was "a chance for us to strategize together, to talk about the need to cooperate."

"These two men are personal friends of mine," Bush said, with Karzai and Musharraf standing by his side, not looking at each other. "They are strong leaders who have a understanding of the world in which we live. They understand that the forces of moderation are being challenged by extremists and radicals."

The dinner lasted about 2 1/2 hours, and the White House offered only a vague indication of what occurred. A White House statement said the three leaders "committed to supporting moderation and defeating extremism through greater intelligence sharing, coordinated action against terrorists, and common efforts to enhance the prosperity of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The three-way summit came as the Bush administration, already grappling with crises over the Iraq war and over Iran's nuclear ambitions, is confronting a resurgent Taliban.

Although toppled five years ago in a U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban now controls swaths of southern Afghanistan and has fought increasingly violent battles with NATO troops patrolling the border regions. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in recent months has swelled to more than 20,000.

Tense relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan date back years. Pakistan was one of three countries to recognize the previous Taliban government that sheltered bin Laden. Pakistan broke with the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the leaders have blamed each other in recent months for insufficient zeal in fighting Islamic militants along the countries' long border.

Answering questions last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Karzai said Taliban leader Mullah Omar is hiding out in the Pakistani provincial capital of Quetta and suggested that Musharraf is not interested in hunting him down.

For his part, Musharraf has suggested that Karzai has bad information and, as he said in an interview on CNN this week, is not telling the truth about circumstances in Afghanistan. "He knows everything, but he's purposely denying -- turning a blind eye, like an ostrich," Musharraf said.

Musharraf has also been using his visit to the United States to promote his new memoirs, which offer provocative statements about his battle with Islamic militants. U.S. officials believe that bin Laden is in Pakistan, but Musharraf speculates that because of the large number of Saudis living in the Konar province of Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda leader is probably hiding there.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company