By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
President Obama declared yesterday that "the security of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States are linked" after meeting with the presidents of those countries, saying his strategy to combat rising extremism through increased development aid and military support reflects that "fundamental truth."
"Now there's much to be done," Obama said at the White House, flanked by Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Vice President Biden. "Along the border where insurgents often move freely, we must work together with a renewed sense of partnership to share intelligence, and to coordinate our efforts to isolate, target and take out our common enemy. But we must also meet the threat of extremism with a positive program of growth and opportunity."
The rare trilateral meeting underscored Obama's view that the rising instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a single problem, bound by geography, weak central governments and a cross-border insurgency. In his remarks, Obama warned that "there will be more violence and there will be setbacks," but promised that U.S. commitment to the region "will not waver."
Karzai and Zardari arrived in Washington amid growing concern within the Obama administration that neither leader may be up to the task of turning back the Taliban, the armed Islamist movement that is making inroads in both countries. Congress is considering an $83 billion supplemental war spending request that includes billions of dollars in military and development aid for the two governments.
But the release of a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross concluding that recent U.S. airstrikes have killed dozens of Afghan civilians shadowed the meeting. Obama began his private talk with Karzai by offering condolences over the deaths and promised an investigation. Such strikes over the years have severely undermined support for U.S. counterinsurgency programs as well as the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
The administration is particularly concerned about nuclear-armed Pakistan. Zardari's government recently forged a cease-fire agreement with the Taliban in the strategically important Swat Valley. The extremist group then used the region as a staging area to enter Buner district, which is 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
In recent days, Zardari has said that the Pakistani military has retaken the district, though U.S. officials have not confirmed the assertion. The Pakistani military is preparing to move into the Swat Valley, sending thousands of people in the area fleeing in advance of the offensive.
After a day of meetings at the State Department and the White House, administration officials affirmed Obama's support for "the democratically elected governments" of the two countries, although they avoided personally endorsing either man. Karzai faces reelection in August, and Zardari is deeply unpopular at home.
In congressional testimony last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Pakistani government was "abdicating" its authority to the Taliban. But Clinton told reporters at the White House after her meetings that she was "quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking."
"Whatever the motive behind [the Swat truce] might have been, the reality on the ground soon proved otherwise -- that one had to confront the increasing influence and geographic spread of the Taliban," Clinton said.
The two days of meetings are designed to better coordinate the administration's military and development plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan by bringing together the leaders of agencies in each country responsible for intelligence, agriculture, law enforcement, diplomacy and defense, among others.
Clinton began the day by visiting Zardari and his son, Bilawal, at the Willard hotel. Clinton was close friends with Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's wife and a former prime minister who was killed in December 2007 while campaigning.
Later, Clinton met with Zardari and Karzai at the State Department, then in a larger group that brought together Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Central Command chief Gen. David H. Petraeus and others with their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. The heads of those agencies are scheduled to meet today in smaller groups to produce what Clinton called "work plans" with "specific" goals in areas such as judicial reform, agricultural development, security and economic development. She said the administration is also helping the two leaders reach an agreement that has languished for decades to establish trade and customs procedures along their border.
"Both presidents spoke very movingly about the threat and dangers of terrorism," Clinton said. "I think that they are committed to this conflict being resolved and their being able to produce more peace and security."
National Security Adviser James L. Jones said Obama asked each leader to confront corruption and work on projects that directly improve the lives of people, such as schools and health clinics. In the case of Afghanistan, where an additional 21,000 U.S. troops are being deployed to stabilize the south, Jones said Obama stressed "the fact that the upcoming elections . . . should be as fair and open as possible."
To Zardari, Jones said, Obama outlined how he intended to help Pakistan's development efforts. Obama is pushing a five-year, $7.5 billion economic assistance package for Pakistan, and last month the administration arranged an international donors' conference in Tokyo that generated $5.5 billion in pledges.
"We must do more than stand against those who would destroy Pakistan," Obama said. "We must stand with those who want to build Pakistan."