By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; A04
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Like an anxious matchmaker nudging a nervous couple together, the Obama administration has persuaded Afghanistan and Pakistan to take their first tangible step toward bilateral cooperation -- a trade agreement that will facilitate the ground shipment of goods between and through the two countries.
The accord has been under negotiation for years; Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari promised President Obama more than a year ago that it would be completed by the end of 2009. During marathon talks between the two sides that began last week, U.S. officials helped forge a deal in time to announce it Sunday night, just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived for a two-day visit.
On Monday, Clinton and the Pakistanis will unveil their own bilateral agreement pledging an initial $500 million in new U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan. The aid, primarily for water and energy projects, is part of a $7.5 billion, five-year development package approved by Congress last fall.
The trade and aid agreements are part of the administration's ongoing efforts to facilitate Obama's Afghanistan war strategy. It hopes that a long-term investment here, along with repeated visits from senior officials, will persuade Pakistan to more solidly align its interests with those of the United States.
Most immediately, the Obama administration would like the Pakistani military to take more aggressive action against Taliban groups that use Pakistan as their headquarters and base of operations for attacks in Afghanistan. The groups, including the Haqqani network based in the Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border and the Quetta Shura based in the southern province of Baluchistan, have historically close ties with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
After the Times Square bombing attempt in May, U.S. intelligence concluded that confessed bomber Faisal Shahzad had been trained and directed by the Pakistani Taliban, a domestic extremist group allied with those active in Afghanistan. Administration officials warned Pakistan that a successful attack in U.S. territory emanating from Pakistan would have a "devastating impact on our relationship," Clinton said in an interview with the BBC on Sunday. "I worry about it all the time, and so do the Pakistanis," she said.
Islamabad is at least as important as Kabul, Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Sunday. Pakistan is "one of the most critical countries in the world," he said.
Historical adversaries Pakistan and India have long competed for influence in Afghanistan, and the administration has tried to juggle its relations with the three while encouraging resolution of differences among them. Over the past year, it has pushed for dialogue between Islamabad and Kabul as part of its war effort. The new trade accord, an expansion of a limited agreement signed in 1965 and the subject of sporadic and unsuccessful negotiations since then, will boost Afghan exports by regularizing customs and transit permit arrangements, giving Afghanistan easier access to Pakistani seaports and allowing Pakistan greater access to Central Asia.
Afghan trucks, which have had to offload goods onto Pakistani vehicles on their joint border, will be able to deliver goods directly to Pakistani destinations and ports, and to travel across Pakistan to the Indian border, where the items will be offloaded onto Indian trucks. Full cross-border transit has been put off until Pakistan and India resolve their own differences.
Administration officials have been divided on other aspects of Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation, including the prospect that Karzai, with Pakistani encouragement, might move too quickly to cede political power to the Taliban that they have not won on the battlefield.
Both governments have grown leery of the strength of the U.S. commitment, with concerns about waning popular and political support for the war in the United States and Obama's pledge to begin troop withdrawals in July 2011.
Clinton will travel from Islamabad to Kabul to attend a conference where Karzai is expected to announce concrete plans for reintegration of low-level Taliban fighters, anti-corruption measures, a new community defense program and other initiatives that the international community has agreed to fund.
The trip to Pakistan is Clinton's second as secretary of state, following a visit in October marked by hostile questioning from student, media and civil society groups.
After meetings Sunday night with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and Zardari, Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Monday will convene the second session of a bilateral "strategic dialogue" begun in Washington in the spring. Since the initial session, representatives of the two governments have drawn up lists of agreed projects, with the United States seeking programs that will be visible to the greatest number of Pakistanis.
"We think you're going to find a different situation here" in terms of anti-American feeling compared with Clinton's last visit, Holbrooke said. "The fact that we are delivering is producing change in Pakistani attitudes, first within the government and gradually, more slowly, within public opinion." Recent polls have indicated only a slight improvement in Pakistani opinion toward the United States.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said in Islamabad on Sunday that his government had cleared a backlog of 450 visa requests for U.S. officials, a third of them for military officials. The backlog has long been an irritant in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Haqqani said Zardari had given Clinton a letter for Obama, inviting the president and his wife to Pakistan. Obama has scheduled a visit to India in November.