In Pakistan, Biden pledges long-term American support

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2011

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Vice President Biden insisted Wednesday that the United States will not abandon Pakistan in the aftermath of the Afghanistan war, sternly rejecting the notion as one of several widely held "misconceptions" here about U.S. intentions in the region.

Democracy and stability in Pakistan - where al-Qaeda and a complex stew of other Islamist militant groups have found haven - are in the "vital self-interest" of both countries, Biden said during a one-day, unannounced visit to the Pakistani capital.

"It is the extremists who violate Pakistan's sovereignty and corrupt its good name," Biden said at a news conference with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. The U.S. objective, Biden said, "is to restore and strengthen sovereignty in those areas of your country where extremists have violated it."

Biden arrived Wednesday morning on a trip meant to reemphasize the U.S. commitment to Pakistan and to pressure the country to shore up its floundering economy and more aggressively pursue militants based in its territory. In addition to Gillani, Biden also met with President Asif Ali Zardari and the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

The Obama administration's intensified war effort in neighboring Afghanistan has given new priority to bolstering Pakistan's government, which previously received far less U.S. aid than did the country's powerful military. Congress passed a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid package in 2009, and the two nations have since held "strategic dialogue" sessions to focus on issues such as agriculture and energy.

"The only productive way forward is a long-term, enduring partnership," Biden said Wednesday.

But the relationship is rocky, and both sides voice suspicion of the other's intentions. U.S. officials have been frustrated by Pakistan's reluctance to move against militants based in the northwestern tribal area of North Waziristan, some of whom strike American troops in Afghanistan. U.S. officials contend that Pakistan supports some militant groups, such as the Haqqani network, as a bulwark against Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Pakistani military officials say they will launch an offensive when they are ready. They say that the U.S. military has failed to stop insurgents from crossing into North Waziristan from Afghanistan and that U.S. policy favors India, Pakistan's arch-foe - a belief that some Pakistani nationalists argue reflects U.S. efforts to weaken Pakistan.

Biden rejected that Wednesday as "dead wrong."

"We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan," he said. "We wish your success because it's in our own interest."

Biden's visit, his first to Pakistan since taking office, came amid a string of reminders about the volatility of this nuclear-armed country.

Last week, the liberal governor of Punjab province was assassinated by his police guard, who was then widely hailed as a hero. Days later, Gillani's pro-U.S. government saved its ruling coalition from collapse only by backpedaling on economic reforms, drawing rebukes from U.S. and International Monetary Fund officials.

The threat of Islamist extremists in Pakistan was underscored Wednesday with a suicide bombing at a police station in the northwestern district of Bannu that killed at least 20 people, according to news reports.

Biden called Salman Taseer, the slain governor, a "brave" man for speaking out against Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, which makes it a capital crime to insult the prophet Muhammad.

Zardari, according to his spokesman, pledged to Biden that Pakistan will "defeat extremists and terrorism of all hues" and added that "a handful of extremists and militants would never be able to impose their vicious agenda on the people of Pakistan."

In recent months, the CIA has sharply escalated drone strikes in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt. Most of the strikes in the past year, including one Wednesday, have targeted North Waziristan.

The tactic is secretly allowed by Pakistan but publicly condemned as a violation of national sovereignty. A Zardari spokesman said the president, during his meeting with Biden, reiterated a request for drone technology that would enable Pakistan to carry out strikes on its own.

Biden left late in the day for Baghdad, where he arrived early Thursday. He is expected to meet with senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqiya bloc leader Ayad Allawi.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company