By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 26, 2009
CIA Director Leon Panetta said yesterday that U.S. aerial attacks against al-Qaeda and other extremist strongholds inside Pakistan would continue, despite concerns about a popular Pakistani backlash.
"Nothing has changed our efforts to go after terrorists, and nothing will change those efforts," Panetta said in response to questions about CIA missile attacks, launched from unmanned Predator aircraft. Although he refused to discuss details of the attacks -- and the CIA will not confirm publicly that it is behind the strikes -- Panetta said that the efforts begun under President George W. Bush to destabilize al-Qaeda and destroy its leadership "have been successful."
"I don't think we can stop just at the effort to try to disrupt them. I think it has to be a continuing effort, because they aren't going to stop," Panetta said in his first news briefing since taking the job. The CIA has launched about three dozen Predator strikes in Pakistan since late last summer, two of them during the Obama administration.
Panetta's comments came as senior Pakistani and Afghan leaders held lengthy talks here with each other and with their U.S. counterparts. Obama administration officials said that the unprecedented consultations were as important as any substantive agreements that may emerge from them.
The talks, quickly arranged during the first overseas trip of special U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke this month, include the foreign and defense ministers of both countries, along with Afghanistan's interior minister and Pakistan's intelligence chief. The Pakistani army chief of staff is also here on a separate visit to his U.S. military counterparts.
In addition to bilateral sessions, the Afghan and Pakistani delegations met jointly yesterday with the National Security Council and attended a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. They will hold another trilateral session today.
"We have two goals," a senior administration official said. One is to receive their input for the Obama administration's ongoing strategy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. "But it's also to hear commitments -- the Pakistanis on taking on terrorists themselves, and the Afghans on cleaning up their government."
"There are not too many brand-new ideas," the official said. "But our expectations of what they have to do are not just based on what we want them to do, but what they say they're going to do. It gives us a different basis for going back to them in the future."
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have long been marked by mutual suspicion. Pakistan believes Afghanistan is too close to India, Islamabad's historical adversary to the east, while Afghanistan suspects that Pakistan has continued its traditional support for the Taliban. In addition to urging a stronger counterterrorism effort from Islamabad and less governmental corruption in Kabul, the administration seeks better cooperation between the two to stop cross-border infiltration by Pakistan-based extremists fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The difference between the Obama and Bush administrations, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said, is that "the present administration is willing to listen. They are very frank. They're saying, 'We do not have a magic formula. . . . Let Pakistan, let the U.S., let Afghanistan -- let's all stick together and find a solution," Qureshi told CNN.
The meetings have not been without conflict. Panetta, who has participated in the sessions, said he had voiced concerns about Pakistan's recently announced truce with local Taliban leaders in that country's Swat Valley region, and noted that similar agreements with militant groups in the past had allowed al-Qaeda to strengthen its base. "They assured me that this is not the same as past agreements," Panetta said. "I remain skeptical."
In a series of interviews yesterday, Qureshi said that Pakistan objected to the Predator strikes and that he has asked the United States to supply his country with drones to carry out its own missile attacks against extremists. Pakistan has also requested other sophisticated weaponry, including Cobra attack helicopters, communications and night-vision equipment. Although the drones are unlikely -- and both U.S. and Pakistani officials say they are privately in agreement on continuation of the CIA strikes -- the administration and Congress are likely to approve more military assistance along with a multibillion-dollar aid package.
Legislation introduced in the Senate last year by Vice President Biden, and soon to be sponsored by his successor as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), ranking Republican, calls for about $1.5 million a year in economic and development assistance for Pakistan over the next five years.
A report released yesterday by the Atlantic Council said that at least double that amount is needed from the United States and the international community if Pakistan is to be brought back "from the brink." Pakistan, it said, "is on a rapid trajectory toward becoming a failing or failed state."
In a report last year, under the leadership of James L. Jones, who is now the national security adviser, the Atlantic Council warned that the West was "not winning in Afghanistan." Those words were repeated yesterday by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his first major foreign policy speech since losing the presidential election to Obama in November. "Let us not shy from the truth," McCain said in an address to the American Enterprise Institute, "but let us not be paralyzed by it either."
McCain chastised "some [who] suggest it is time to scale back our ambitions in Afghanistan -- to give up on nation-building and instead focus narrowly on our counterterrorism objectives, by simply mounting operations aimed at killing or capturing terrorist leaders and destroying their networks."
Obama, while calling for improved governance in Afghanistan, has publicly suggested that the United States adopt the "very limited goal" of ensuring that "Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for launching terrorist attacks" against the United States.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.