The Washington Times - May 5, 2009, 06:48PM

Despite the ongoing economic crisis and the urgent push by Democrats to pass healthcare reform and global warming legislation this year, the full attention of the White House Wednesday is on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Obama’s meetings with the leaders of both countries at the White House are only the most high profile of a series of meetings over two days that the U.S. government is holding with a wide range of officials in the two governments.

Several cabinet-level officials in the Obama administration will on Thursday host their counterparts in the Afghan and Pakistani governments, to discuss cooperation on issues such as intelligence, control of the Afghan-Pakistan, trade between the two countries, and rebuilding Afghanistan’s agriculture industry, which now relies largely on poppy crops that produce drugs sold by the Taliban to finance their operations.

The cabinet level meetings “are not getting much attention, but they’re awfully important,” said a high-level Obama administration official involved in talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan, who spoke to reporters on the condition he not be identified, under ground rules set by the White House.

The president, in his one-on-one meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and then in a meeting with both of them together, will “put a cap on all this,” said the high-ranking official.

“He’s going to make the obvious general points that have to be said and carry such enormous weight when they’re said by the president of the United States, that these two countries have to work together for their mutual benefit, despite their history, despite their suspicions … that’s just what has to be done,” he said.


Because of the current instability in Pakistan, where Taliban militants continue to threaten the Zardari government, the senior Obama official was forced to make clear that the U.S. still stands with the Pakistani leader.

“We are working very hard to help the Pakistani government in its moment of need. We are not abandoning them,” the official said.”In no way are we distancing ourselves from Zardari.”

He also said that Zardari knew and was “quite comfortable” with U.S. outreach to Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who is seen by many as the likely successor to Zardari if his regime is toppled.

Zardari himself appeared on CNN Tuesday afternoon for an interview with Wolf Blitzer, and was upfront about his desire for more military aid from the U.S. with fewer strings attached.

“I need drones to be part of my arsenal. I need that facility. I need that equipment. I need that to be my police arrangement. I need to own those,” Zardari said, referring to the remotely controlled aircraft that have been used by the U.S. military to target Taliban and al Qaeda fighters along the Afghan/Pakistan border.

“I will request the President of the United States to give it a thought that we own them, then we take out our targets rather than somebody else coming and do it for us,” Zardari said.

To this point, Zardari said, U.S. officials “haven’t disagreed, but they haven’t agreed” on this point.

I asked the senior Obama official about this issue, about whether the U.S. is open to giving the Pakistanis more control over drone strikes.

“That whole area is one which it’s best not to discuss even on background,” is all he would say.

— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times

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