By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
The Obama administration "unambiguously" supports Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, even as it puts "the most heavy possible pressure" on his government to fight extremists in the country, Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Congress yesterday.
"We do not think Pakistan is a failed state," Holbrooke testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But, he added, "we think it's a state under extreme test from the enemies who are also our enemies."
Holbrooke spoke as Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed publicly and privately yesterday for increased U.S. aid and understanding. The two leaders are in Washington this week for a two-day summit, during which they will meet separately and together with President Obama.
When the three sit down today, Obama will tell Zardari and Karzai that they "have to work together, despite their issues and their history. That's just what has to be done," said one of two senior administration officials who briefed reporters at the White House about the visits on the condition of anonymity.
The administration is anxious for Pakistan and Afghanistan, often less than friendly neighbors, to cooperate more on preventing extremists from crossing their joint border. But it has serious, separate issues with each government.
In Pakistan, Zardari and the military have balked at undertaking an all-out offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries along the country's mountainous western border, from which attacks are launched on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani troops and aircraft have attacked Taliban fighters occupying territory within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital, in recent days [Story, A6], but U.S. officials have worried that the military will ultimately be unable or unwilling to hold recaptured areas and establish government control.
On CNN yesterday, Zardari dismissed the seriousness of the threat to his government. "My government is not going to fall because this one mountain is taken by one group or the other," he said.
Holbrooke and other officials were at pains yesterday to voice strong support for Zardari as the administration sought to strike a balance between shoring up his government and pressuring it. The administration wants Zardari to stop bickering with his domestic political opponents, to pay more attention to governance and to display more counterinsurgency zeal.
"We are working very hard to help the Pakistani government in its moment of need," the senior administration official said. "We are not abandoning it, nor are we distancing ourself from Asif Ali Zardari."
The administration has asked Congress to quickly approve hundreds of millions of dollars for economic and military assistance for Pakistan this year.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke at length Sunday with Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, urging him to continue the anti-Taliban offensive in the areas northwest of Islamabad.
"Their expectation is to consolidate [their gains] in the next 48 hours or so," a second administration official said of the Pakistan military. Beyond that, the official said, "we will watch intently in the weeks ahead and months ahead" to assess whether the government is able to move into extremist-held areas.
Zardari and his government have grown irritated with U.S. criticism, and have questioned the slowness of American assistance. Asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer whether he was concerned about the level of U.S. support, Zardari said, "I am thankful for the support that I got and thankful to the people of America to give their tax dollars to us. But I need more support."
Officials offered less enthusiastic backing for Karzai in Afghanistan and have left the door open for a competitor in elections scheduled for August. But they acknowledge that the emergence of new political leadership is unlikely.